Sunday Morning Meditation – Game of Zones

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt September 28, 2014
The boundaries of the Medlock Area Neighborhood Association, obtained via

The boundaries of the Medlock Area Neighborhood Association, obtained via

This post has been updated. 

There’s a phenomenon in the Legislature known as DeKalb and Fulton fatigue.

Our legislative delegation knows it well.

Incorporation of new cities in our region to eats up inordinate amounts of time down at the capitol during the session. Representatives from other parts of the state have important issues pertaining to their districts that they’d like to discuss, too. But year-in and year-out our region’s political squabbles take center stage.

Two years ago it was a debate over whether to incorporate Brookhaven. Now it’s a debate over whether to incorporate one or more north DeKalb cities: Briarcliff, Lakeside, Tucker or some combination of the three. This could be the cityhood debate to end them all, with every community ending up in a city when it’s all said and done.

Dissatisfaction with DeKalb County government, which has been a raging dumpster fire for the last few years, gives the issue a greater sense of urgency. This year the political fatigue has filtered down to the local level. The decisions our leaders make in the upcoming session will be life-changing for residents here, affecting everything from local tax rates to schools.

Avondale and Decatur are rushing to annex whatever property they can before it’s gobbled up by the map of a new city. The surrounding neighborhoods like Medlock and Forrest Park are being told they have to choose what city they’d like to be a part of because they will end up in a city one way or another.

The cities have to decide on their annexation maps by Nov. 15, a fact I was reminded of recently by Mayor Jim Baskett.

“You’ve got to talk not just ideally what is in place, but what’s realistic and pragmatic,” Baskett said, regarding the city’s recent discussions with neighborhoods. “The fact of the matter is that Forrest Hills has been part of the annexation discussion in Avondale for some time. It has not been in the annexation discussion in Decatur, for reasons those people are all aware of. They have no commercial property of any real significance and they would add greatly to the burden of our schools. That’s the realistic thing that they face. They’ve got on the one hand a city that’s courting them and on the other hand a city that’s telling them that’s not in our plan. So what is the realistic thing for them to be working on?”

Baskett said the decision falls to the residents of each neighborhood. He said that the city of Decatur hasn’t been actively discouraging people from using the petitioning process and people are aware of their options. As an example, he said he’s been told the Clairmont Heights neighborhood is currently pursuing a petition to annex into the city. He said he also recently met with the leadership of the Druid Hills neighborhood.

“We had a meeting and we told them exactly the same thing we told Medlock, as far as I know the same thing we’ve told everybody,” Baskett said. “Here is our map. We are bound right now by time constraints to look hard at this map. The people in Druid Hills have a very serious decision to make that will be one that’s long term and irreversible and they need to consider it carefully, but that’s not for us to decide for Druid Hills, and the people from Druid Hills walked away quite happy. Some of the people from Medlock did not. It was the same exact message, but Medlock has been a little more frustrated in this whole discussion because they’ve been jerked around so much.”

Baskett said said existing cities are in a bind, too.

“I just wish everybody could kind of know that this is a frustrating proposition for everybody,” he said. “All of the cities in DeKalb County are having problems with this right now, because of the uncertainties and because … these cities that are wanting to form, look at the problem they’ve got. They’ve got to either come up with a plan that’s not in conflict and shows an agreeable map, or the Legislature has said that they’ll sit down and do it for them.  … So the situation has gotten really kind of frustrating on all fronts.”

Lynn Ganim, acting president of the Medlock Park Neighborhood Association, said much of the frustration from Medlock residents stems from issues not in their control. The original Briarcliff maps included Medlock, but Lakeside doesn’t want them, Ganim said. Decatur says their neighborhood’s 1,300 homes would put too much strain on the city school system. But the Decatur plan also seeks commercial areas that would make Medlock attractive to another city.

Annexation into Atlanta will hinge on whatever steps Druid Hills and Clairmont Heights ultimately decide to take, Ganim said.

“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Ganim told me “So we’re trying not to get caught with something we’re not prepared for.”

Mary Kay Woodworth of LakesideYES said it’s incorrect for Medlock Park to say Lakeside is not interested in adding them to the map of that new city.

“LakesideYES encourages these communities to poll/petition/survey their residents in order to determine the desires of their community,” Woodworth said. “If this internal polling does indicate a strong desire to be included in a new city, we believe that would be the time to meet with you and begin a serious conversation with the community, legislators, consider financial viability and determine boundaries. Obviously, this effort must begin immediately.”

In Avondale, it’s the city’s residents who were apparently unprepared for the news that the city’s mayor has talked with the Forrest Hills neighborhood and homes along Katie Kerr about annexation. Mayor Ed Rieker and Commissioner Lindsay Forlines also convinced state Rep. Karla Drenner to file a bill that would’ve put the matter up for a vote. Drenner thought the bill had widespread support, only learning afterward that not everyone was on board.

Some of the other commissioners had no idea what was going on. Commissioner Randy Beebe said, “I saw what was a conceptual drawing of all the annexations in DeKalb County, probably about the November-December 2013 timeframe. It was probably my job to know but I didn’t know anything about Drenner being presented a plan and asked to file it.”

That issue will be revisited during an Oct. 1 work session, one of many meetings being held in our area about this contentious, complicated and tiresome issue.

We’re being hurried along due to a deadline that’s seemingly arbitrary. Our lack of information and inability of different neighborhoods to coordinate will mean that these decisions will be more like bets. Some communities will win. Some will lose.

But this isn’t a game. No one’s future should be left to chance or the whims of a specific group of people.

None of our elected representatives in city governments have questioned the fundamental nature of this situation. Why is the whole county being forced to flip a coin because one particular group of people is unhappy with county government?

Nobody blames people in north DeKalb for not liking the way DeKalb County does business. Most of their neighbors agree, but the cityhood movement is creating chaos for them. The cityhood question is pitting communities against each other in the name of creating yet another subdivision of government in our county.

Why can’t this wait? Is DeKalb’s situation so unbearable that the Legislature has to act now? County government is as bad as it’s ever been and it’s hard to imagine it getting worse. There’s also an outside chance that county government will actually get better. There may be more indictments on the way that could rid us of a few more corrupt politicians. The Legislature also has influence over how the county’s government operates. Our delegation can implement reforms that would address at least some of the concerns.

No one doubts that these groups are determined to create a new city. People in the areas of Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker deserve a say in what happens to them. Their neighbors would like to have a say in what happens to them, too. Would it be too much to ask if these cityhood movements could give their neighbors some time to think about what their options are instead of bum rushing them into making an ill-informed decision?

The metro Atlanta region has always struggled to tackle issues from a regional perspective. Even a proposal to implement a sales tax to pay for transportation improvements failed in 2012 because counties in our area see themselves as competitors and not partners.

It’s sad that we can’t even come to a mutual agreement about municipal boundaries because communities within our county are being forced to treat other the same way.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • angel

    From my perspective (Non Annexed Community/DHMS/DHHS–my child goes to Fernbank) several things are at play here. One is obviously the Druid Hills Charter Cluster fiasco. The community at large wants this cluster. They were committed to the cluster, followed procedure and the BOE has done everything they can to make it clear they do not care what the community wants, what is in the students best interest. Once the cluster failed last year people started scattering. So many families have moved out of Fernbank and into Decatur (if not OTP). So many teachers have left. They feel uneasy about the current political environment. We’re told that if you step up, get involved and work for it, you can make change in your community. In Dekalb that is not true.Dekalb BOE refuses to work with citizens, because they are constantly pushing their own agenda of “One Size Fits All,” which does not resonate with the reality of education. People are tired and they want out.

    The Druid Hills community is filled with academics and problem solvers. They will not stop until they can get away from a BOE they have zero control over. I don’t blame them. As a member of No Man’s Land (possibly in some of the cities, not in Atlanta and at risk of losing our high school) I feel utterly out of control. It makes me sick and causes me to lose sleep. My kid’s friends and wonderful, involved families are dropping like flies. I have one kid with a pretty intense case of anxiety. I can’t even begin to think of what we should do. Move? Can we afford it? And where? I don’t want to live OTP. I want to live here. I want my kids to walk to school, which is WHY I chose this neighborhood.

    And the urgency? Well, I just said it. People (parents) do not want to get left in the lurch. The way I see it, if Atlanta takes my high school, god knows what Dekalb will do. I foresee massive redistricting (which may be what they want anyway) and that is just terrifying. Why? Well, right now we run around from school, to work, to activities and it’s quite the juggling act. But we manage. Who wants to alter all that because you didn’t take control of your life and let others do it for you?

    It’s all a hot mess and I hate it. Everyone does. It pits neighbors against one another while ultimately everyone is just trying to do the right thing. Dekalb has done nothing to calm the tensions and ease the uncertainty, and that is the biggest problem of all. They’re too busy in court, testifying against scandals, covering for co-workers, stirring the pot, and bilking the system.

    Maybe if the powers that be spent a little more time working for the community instead of working for themselves we wouldn’t be in this spot.

  • YerLifeguard

    “Is DeKalb’s situation so unbearable that the Legislature has to act now? County government is as bad as it’s ever been and it’s hard to imagine it getting worse. There’s also an outside chance that county government will actually get better.” This is what I thought about the past DeKalb BOE, but weekly they seemed to get worse and worse. It was impressive how many ways they found to scrape the bottom of the barrell, so to speak. The citizens did have to ask the Governor to step in. It’s just another blow that residents of DeKalb are facing. It’s disheartening that the community that we choose to live in and raise our families in is falling apart around us. The “outside chance that county government will actually get better” isn’t something that I feel particularly hopeful about.

  • Also in no man’s land

    After reading Angel’s and Lifeguard’s posts, there is little left to say. I agree with all they have said. I particularly feel the combination of despair and anxiety they refer to.

    I have never thought of my neighborhood as a specific place with specific boundaries, but this mishugas is balkanizing us. We have schools, shopping, streets, parks, and neighbors in common. We have the same concerns. We communicate with each other online. NONE of these things has borders.

    Now, we are dividing up, sometimes within specific subdivision boundaries, caught in a drive to “get mine, and devil take the hindmost”!

  • abmagic

    Dan, interesting article that I think adequately captures the frustrations many feel. Will be interesting to see what happens on Tucker’s Eastern quadrant, where you now have many commercial owners actively lobbying to be drawn out of the proposed map and into a Stone Mountain annexation map, and the complexities that would cause for the Smoke Rise community.

    Tucker 2015 folks have stated they don’t need to amend either area because the commercial owners can’t vote and even if 100% of Smoke Rise voted no a Tucker referendum would still pass. Seems like a very clear land/tax base grab with no concern over community making (or preserving). Only now, 18 months in, are they actually approaching home owners in the area. And the legislature, with their appropriate frustration, has ceded map drawing literally to 3 people (one from COBI, one from Lakeside and one from Tucker) with NO deference or seat at the table from existing cities (at least small cities like Stone Mountain, Clarkston and Chamblee). Because of the power they have been given, they can take arrogant stance until told otherwise. It’s sickening.

    What will be interesting is the new “All cities must provide police service” and how that will influence the Tucker 2015 initiative. While no one has explicitly stated a new feasibility study will be required, it seems like it will be hard to produce one in 6 weeks when the boundaries haven’t even been decided on.

  • Tom

    Dan–Your coverage about boundary issues is appreciated. As to the level of information available to the people of “North DeKalb” (lack of a name is a problem of course). Our voters at this point would be about the same as there was in Brookhaven–and they formed a city with a very shaky “mandate” as a result (less than 15% of eligible voters pulled a “yes” lever. Our info (and theirs) are limited to talking points (assumptions and hopes) and no documented history of grievances with DeKalb County (Dunwoody had that at least). What is needed is a lot of news coverage about and analysis of how new cities work–we now have that data available. No public information source beyond advocacy groups is a definite electoral problem. No definiton of community is even more basic. However, its a mistake to confuse a lack of education (and interest really) here with a notion that the voters would aren’t any better informed in this “zone” than in previous city formations.

  • Tom

    what is the “all new cities must have their own police force” mandate? Who has said that?

  • Frankly

    I find it disturbing that advocates for cityhood are saying that taxes will be less. That certainly is not the case for existing cities that I know about, and it is not true for Brookhaven where I hear some have a serious case of buyers remorse. I ask what people want that they are not getting, and the answers are pretty thin other than school issues. Yes, DeKalb is embarrassing, but adding another layer of government and taxation is not the only choice.

    • Whodean

      Taxes in Brookhaven are slightly lower while governance is MUCH better. The rest of the country deserves better than what Dekalb is providing too

  • DHer

    Well done Decaturish. The problem starts with a flawed state process for founding cities. Pay the Carl Vinson Institue $30,000 for a study. Find a state rep to sponsor. Draw boundaries that include a majority of conservative, disaffected whites and sufficent commercial properties to pay the bills. Done.

    The second key was the GOP’s willingness to ignore “local legislation” and allow representatives from Hihara and the rest of the Georgia to override the judgement of the local county to determine the county’s future.

    The very real danger is that the cityhood and annexation process could create a “failed state” in the middle of metro Atlanta that is financially bankrupt and can’t support police, parks, planning and paving. There is some hope that some real data will emerge in the next few weeks on the financial impact of cityhood and annexation. Let’s hope so. And let’s hope the General Assembly takes a deep breath.

  • dvb

    Re: “People in the areas of Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker deserve a say in what happens to them.” That’s true, but so do the people in the two areas of unincorporated Stone Mountain – the Smoke Rise and Stone Mountain Middle school districts – which were placed in the proposed Tucker map without these communities being able to advise, let alone consent. If Tucker were actually trying to incorporate Tucker, there would be far less of an issue. Tucker is doing to Stone Mountain what they’re claiming Lakeside did to Tucker.

    In the areas faced with incorporation, what we’re seeing are virtually all-white, self-appointed, surprisingly well heeled “civic groups” drawing new, starkly divisive racial boundary lines. What we AREN’T seeing is any indication that these cityhood advocates (who would presumably seek office in the new govts) would perform better in any way than the officials we already have in the county government.

    Re: “There’s also an outside chance that county government will actually get better.” No, there’s a very good chance. This work is vital, there’s really no alternative. There are now many citizens actively working to rebuild DeKalb government. Kathie Gannon’s Blueprint effort, and Lee May’s task force, though flawed, are making genuine progress at trying to find ways we can fix what we’ve already got. If this is news to you, why not get involved and find out for yourself?

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