Sunday Morning Meditation – Game of Zones
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.