Dear Decaturish: Solving DeKalb’s problems

Posted by March 17, 2015
DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

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Dear Decaturish,

Here is the unvarnished truth: for the last 30 years, DeKalb’s polity has been a house of cards; always tenuous, wobbling back and forth between scandal and crisis, straining from inefficient design, seemingly ready to collapse at any moment and incapable, of strengthening itself.

We have a weak CEO by design. We have always lacked a governing coalition that transcends the obvious divides, and we have weak county parties that lack the ability to build farm teams or vet candidates for higher county office.

These are the underlying reasons we have corruption and scandal, dysfunction and voter apathy and why we are lagging so far behind Fulton, Cobb, and Gwinnett in political development. It’s why we wind up with leaders like Vernon Jones. It is why it is so difficult to find a shared political vocabulary even though most of us are pretty much on the same page.

We need to solve our legion of problems. The criticisms of government are largely legitimate. We all want demonstrable, monumental change. But the way you change the status quo is through elections and reform. You don’t solve problems by yelling “fire” and rushing for the exits. You calmly and methodically put the fire out and save the building and the people.

That’s not what is happening today.

For the last several years those wanting to get as far away from the DeKalb School System as possible have shown remarkable unwillingness to navigate the black/white divide, an abject rejection of incremental approaches, and a stubborn reluctance to allow others to broker any kind of deal that would move the whole of the county in a new direction. Together.

Losing Druid Hills and LaVista Hills will mean we will have a weaker CEO and a completely polarized County Commission that will be forced to beg, borrow, and steal from dwindling pension funds just to make budgets. It is going to mean higher taxes for everyone.

We will have a school board far worse than we have today. The board will have a terrible time recruiting and keeping exceptional educators because they will once again return to the complete dysfunction they are known for, and they will not be able to compensate at a competitive level. They will be even less willing to talk about decentralization and autonomy than they are today.

The DeKalb Delegation clearly understood the implications of all of this and that is why, in their rightful authority, they chose not to move the Atlanta annexation effort forward. That should have been the end of it.

Stymied, Together in Atlanta (TIA) is now attempting to get its way by using a very dangerous precedent of asking the “Atlanta” Delegation to create the ballot question for our consideration. The Atlanta bill actually orders the DeKalb Board of Elections to hold an election the DeKalb Delegation said no to. Unfathomable.

State Representative Pat Gardner is now sponsoring the Together in Atlanta’s annexation bill, while claiming it is local legislation. Local to whom? Representative Gardner does not represent a single DeKalb resident and is unaccountable to the DeKalb electorate.

The DeKalb Delegation has spoken on this matter. That should be the end of it. Annexation legislation is supposed to originate with a county delegation not a city delegation, particularly if the city is the one seeking to grow. It an important hedge against attempts by a city to grab all unincorporated space in their home county. It’s even more important when a city wants to expand into a second county.

Allowing the Atlanta legislation to proceed would set a precedent that would allow any city anywhere in the state to annex commercial property in an adjoining county at will. What’s to prevent a Gwinnett legislator from creating a bill that would allow Lawrenceville to annex part of DeKalb for its landfill?

Why couldn’t a state representative from North Fulton drop legislation requiring that the City of Dunwoody vote on leaving DeKalb and joining Fulton? What is to prevent the Rockdale delegation from sponsoring a bill allowing Conyers to annex Stonecrest Mall? Is any of this farfetched if either Atlanta or Fulton can order DeKalb to hold an election?

This is a terrible piece of legislative snake oil offered at the precise moment that successful bids for annexations and cityhood would devastate what is left of DeKalb. The very worst thing that could happen to DeKalb is to eviscerate the legislative prerogatives of our House Delegation and the County Commission in this way.

If Atlanta takes this up it would be like backing up a cement truck to fill the hole we have admittedly dug for ourselves. We can’t let this happen.

This TIA crowd with just a slighted flick of their finger threatens to destroy what was already a very fragile house of cards and leave the racial, economic, and political mess it created to others. Not because their schools are bad, but because the School Board would not accede to their demands. Interim CEO Lee May should be applauded for finding his spine in the last few days. I just hope it stiffens in the next day or so.

Our problems can only be fixed through a Charter Commission and forging a new durable coalition which can improve the School Board. Yes it is hard work, but it will be impossible to point the county in a new direction if we allow these machinations to proceed and these people to lead us to our grave.

-Steve Perkins

Perkins is the most recent First Vice Chair of The DeKalb Democratic Party and has also served on Georgia’s Democratic Party Executive Committee. He now leads a non-partisan effort.


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  • Whodean

    Typical Dekalb Democrat apologist

    • RAJ

      See County Commission today passing resolution(in executive session no less)saying Elaine Boyer’s actions reflect badly on DeKalb County. Go figure?

    • Steve Perkins

      LOL the Dekalb Democratic Party is a shell of what it could and should be. I am not apologizing for it. I think it is politcally worthless.

      • whodean

        And yet it runs the county (poorly) and attempts to obstruct Parts of the country from improving its lot, and you seem to agree

        • whodean


          • Steve Perkins

            That actually is a misnomer. Democrats most assuredly run the
            county. but they totally ignore an impotent and dysfuctional county
            party. The party used to b e powerful back in the early eightis
            because if was the nexus for the legal community wanting to curry
            favor with Judges, who prior to the 1983 state constitiution we
            elected on a partisan basis as were mayors and Borads of Education.
            The lawyers networked through the part and established their own
            pecking order and jockeyed for position via the party for when
            judicial vacancy occurred. But when we took partisanship out of
            those races the whole reason for showing up at county party meetings
            suddenly vanished and did the money and so did the pecking order.

            am very definitely of two minds when it comes to nonpartisan races
            for most county offices. One one side ath that level I am not
            sure having a D or R behind your name make all that much
            difference. but I also understand that there is a legitimate
            argument about too much down ballot partisanship,

            problem is that because that nexus of intelligent, politically
            engaged people went away we suddenly found ourselves with no way
            to build coalition between the north and south of the county and as a
            very practical matter. the parties… both of them became an
            anachronism and they stopped doing any sort of vetting for up
            ballot and down ballot races. Back then the party was a powerful
            institutional force against the corrupt and the crazy, and it never
            made an adjustment to a new world It is completely ignored,
            In fact I suspect there ore some elected official who could not even
            name the county chair.

            I would argue that
            the demise of the parties is a chief reason we are where we are
            today. Wild wild west where anyone can run and nobody cares. But I
            am not convinced that moving back to Partisanship in down ballot
            races is a good thing either even if there was not a constitutional

  • DHH

    Steve, I understand your points and think much of this is true. The unstated premise here is that the county government structure is worth keeping. I think that it is perfectly reasonable for Atlanta, the city, to improve at the expense of Dekalb, the county.

    You effectively want the TIA territory held hostage outside of a city, essentially forever. What I don’t see happening is a large group of disenfranchised citizens in the TIA areas looking to get engaged in the civic process if they are shut out of even being able to determine their own fate.

    It’s a catch 22: you either let them vote and hope they choose to stay or handcuff them to Dekalb and know you have lost their support.

    • Steve Perkins

      Actually I am not convinced the current structure is worth. keeping. I think the Commission and the BOE need to be enlarged so that we can have better representation. I favor 9 commissioner, no super super districts. I favor 7 BOE district no super districts and aligned with the attendance zones. And I am not convinced we need a CEO. it took a very painful 4 year chartering process to put that in place.. but it was done at a time when Dekalb we exploding in size and no one was sure if the 5 commissioner model or at least those who occupied the slots were up to the task of managing all the growth, I think it it time to rethink it,

  • Hans

    I appreciate the perspective, and I agree with the author that the only way for DeKalb to fix its mess is if we all pull the cart together. But I think Mr. Perkins unfairly demonizes the TIA crowd – their frustration is legitimate, as his letter more or less acknowledges with the description of DeKalb’s dysfunction.

    So I ask the author: how long do you recommend the TIA crowd remain frustrated? Is perhaps 30 years not enough? I suspect this would be a very different conversation if there was even a single credible option to improve the county on the table. Unfortunately that does not seem to be the case.

    Mr. May has an impossible job, and I don’t envy him it. He has done well with the hand he has been dealt. Mr. Perkins, you are in leadership position within one of the parties of DeKalb that you admit is weak and ‘lack(s) the ability to build farm teams’ to cultivate talent. Fix that. Demonstrate to all of us that there are alternatives. We *beg* you.

    In the meantime, we should not attempt to convince ourselves that TIA is acting unconscionably, without regard to impact. From where I sit they have a legitimate set of concerns and are acting out of frustrated self-interest. Perhaps if we offered them viable solutions to those concerns we would not all be in this position.

    • Steve Perkins

      The Table where we can have that discussion about reforming the county has not existed and people have not asked for it.

      I actually think annexations and talking about new cities and getting solutions to the ballot is not a bad thing.. But I want to see them roundly defeated. as well. Why? Because we have to have that moment where we look around the room and say “Ok.. Well… now what..? How do we make County government work for us? How do we go about insuring that we put people into office who are not crazy or corrupt but responsive and smart and have our local interests on top of their agenda everyday.

      I think we need a Charter Reform Commission as large as the one that took us down the path we have been on for the the last three decades.

      there are a set of ideas on the website,

      And to be clear again. I am no longer a member or an officer of the DeKalb Democratic Party. If you have ever attended a single meeting you would know why. Ha,

  • Ann Thompson

    HokieJAC, annexation is local legislation and not bound to crossover rules.

    I live in DeKalb but far away from TiA map and yet, I am in full support of this effort. There is a power structure in DeKalb that is not going away. They keep patting each other on the backs and replacing themselves with more of themselves. It is too deep and too corrupt to be fixed, so it is going to have to be dismantled and rebuilt. In order for things to improve, we would need to have someone come in and restructure away the CEO job, replace most of the top administrators in the county and school government, do another board of education replacement, and that still might not get rid of them all. DeKalb is going to self-destruct on its own if we keep waiting for one person at a time replacements. There are no signs that DeKalb is on the move in the right direction. Nothing new is happening in the way of true reform or true acknowledgement of the problems at hand.

    • Steve Perkins


      I think your analysis is pretty accurate. unfortunately and lets be clear about this New cities do not solve the county’s many problem. I think we need major reforms I just think it is far less likely to happen if new cities are formed. Sen Millar Keeps saying that new cities are the way to reform the county but he can’t anyone how.

      I think reform is more important than cities, and reform can not happen if the northern half is politically walled off from the bottom half. There are chasm of race and economic vitality and education and trust which have to be bridged to drive the reforms we need, I think total municipalization could be part of a charter reform package but it has to be done smartly rather than through competing land grabs to shore up tax base. I fear we are are creating unequal tax jurisdictions rather than turning communities into cities for the right reason,

  • m2ap

    Annexation does not have to pass by crossover. Different rules. So they are still in play.

    • Steve Perkins

      that is correct, I think there is a question if this is actual local legislation when taken up by someone other than DeKalb’s delegation but for the moment it is considered local legislation and it need to be pushed to the Senate by the 38th legislative day.

  • Guest

    Like others, I agree with much of what the author says, minus the needless attack on those who are seeking to make a choice and have their voices, that have long gone unheard in DeKalb, heard at the ballot box. However, readers should know that while the author is opining about the last “30 years” in DeKalb and admonishing others about what they should or should not be doing in their efforts to improve their civic and personal state of affairs, the author only moved to DeKalb five years ago, in 2010. For those of us who have been engaged, and trying, trying, trying to bring about a more responsive, ethical government in DeKalb for 20+ years, his letter rings more than a little holier-than-thou.

    • Steve Perkins

      I am a 1980 Graduate of Decatur High School.And i have lived in DeKalb for a total of 24 years. I cut my political teeth working on the campaigns of Manuel Maloof, Chuck Seeliger and Bob Wilson in 1980. For those who were around back then it was an extraordinary and pivotal election in which much of the old guard political culture was thrown out of office. I did live for a while in Los Angeles and Northern Virginia but that only served to provide a rich education in multicultural political coalition management. I moved back home in 2010 and immediately engaged in local politics,

      Within just three years I was a local party officer and was serving as the Bylaws Chair of the state party. in 2012 I received the most votes in a statewide election to be an At-large delegate to the National Convention. I understand a thing or two about building and sustaining coalition,

      But to be honest it is rather hard to have a Holier than thou attitude when your are disposed to be a hell raiser. I understand the frustration and the impulse of both LVH and TIA and I largely agree, I just think that the proposes solution are politically naive and destined to fail And more importantly I believe if either effort were successful it is going to make it nearly impossible to fix our problems and will likely make thing worse

  • Amy Parker

    LaVista Hills is not “leaving” DeKalb County. The TIA folks are the ones wanting to “leave”. That whole area was included in the Briarcliff footprint, but Emory University decided it did not want to be in a “new city”, so they forced Druid Hills to be cut out of the proposed city. LaVista Hills would welcome Emory and Druid Hills and Medlock and Clairmont Heights and all of the other currently “orphaned islands” with open arms.

    Mr. Perkins did not mention Tucker’s cityhood efforts, nor those of Stonecrest or Greenhaven. Apparently those citizens don’t count in his plans.

    • Bernie

      Good points, Amy. Maybe Steve can tell us why he doesn’t mention Stonecrest or Greenhaven? Those are bona fide, grassroots, predominantly African-American efforts which if successful will create cities for half of the County. Is he too busy to study them, or are they too inconvenient for his argument?

      • Steve Perkins

        Well.first of all there is no legislation pending for the creation of those cities, secondly there creation would not have the same effect on racial politics. at the county level, third, I think there is an argument that they need to create their own destiny in terms of economic development if the county is doing nothing to get them out of the whole they are in for years. But I am not convinced that municipalization is the best modality to push economic development anyway. I am not opposed cities. They just need to be done for the right reason and they need to solve problems.

        Having bad actors in county government is not a sufficient reason to balkanize the county in my view because it is not going to change county government. Instead of new cities, we need new coalition to drive the bums out and get smart people elected.

        • whodean

          Any time someone inserts “racial politics” into this particular conversation you can stop listening… They are attempting to rationalize their BS.

        • Joel Thibodeaux

          SB 208 is the Senate bill for Stonecrest, which has been filed as local legislation, and is therefore not dead. HB 539, the Stonecrest house bill, wasn’t granted a Governmental Affairs hearing. I’m unsure about the status of the Greenhaven bills (HB 613 & SB 231).

          Question…if municipalization isn’t the the answer, then what is. Being disenfranchised on the BOC for 20 months means Stonecrest has no government at the Maloof building. How do you deal with a government that won’t even act to ensure your representation in its legislative arm?

          • Steve Perkins

            I have no idea why there has not been an election… I told the CEO 10 months ago to call an election and get out of the appointment process. My guess is he has not decided if he is going to run for CEO or not and wants to go back to that role.. which means he does not want a competitor/incumbent. but that is not fair to you.. I know he has attempt to appoint someone but it winds up being blocked.

            Stonecrest is in a coma from what i have heard

          • Bernie

            Steve, Stonecrest and Greenhaven each have pending bills in both the House and the Senate, and both cityhood efforts are very much alive. The”someone” who told you Stonecrest is comatose is badly misinformed. Before repeating rumors you might try checking your facts by talking with the Grenhaven and Stonecrest leaders, Jason Lary of Stonecrest and Dr. Kathryn Rice of Greenhaven.

          • Hugh Bean

            Things may have changed — I doubt it — but certainly when this article was written an assessment of “comatose” was accurate. And Jason and Kathryn weren’t (and aren’t) the people to ask whether or not the bills are likely to succeed. I think the people responsible for getting these bills through the legislature were the ones whose judgment Steve had in mind. And Steve was not at all misinformed.

            Defensive much?

          • Steve Perkins

            Personally I think we need Neighborhood planning units and a Commission of about 15 members, and get rid of the Super Districts. I am not opposed to municipization.. but I do thinw it need to be done smartly with the recognition that if all the land is gobbled up than ultimately either Taxes or buildings or going to have to be taller to satisfy obligations and essential services.I don’t think most pelople in themoiddle of the county are thinking about anything other than getting on the ballot. and that makes for really big problems when you can’t annex and you need more business or more people

    • Marty

      Then why doesn’t LVH include Medlock, and other orphaned cities in their map?

  • DH

    Mr. Perkins writes, “Allowing the Atlanta legislation to proceed would set a precedent that would allow any city anywhere in the state to annex commercial property in an adjoining county at will.” Uh…this is not true. Legislators can’t force areas to be annexed unless the people in that area vote for it. Also, part of Druid Hills is in the city of Atlanta which makes the annexation issue a local matter for the Atlanta delegation.

    • Steve Perkins

      If there are no people in the area being annexed there is no vote. Think about Brookhaven’s annexation of CHOA and part of Executive Park, There was not vote there, Same thing is true about much of Decatur;s annexation plan. The danger would be that there would be nothing to preclude a city expanding its reach into another county if there is not people who would vote on it.

      My point is the legislative delegation of the county in which the territory is targeted has to have the ability to approve the incorporation plan before it is presented to the people. But that does not mean I believe the DeKalb Delegation should block a path into Atlanta permanently. but I do think there is a need to protect Druid Hills from acting reactively without the exploration of alternatives to either a Charter Cluster or the current design of County government, I don’t think those discussions have taken place.

      They should. I also think that the same discussion about regional autonomy ought to be taking place in Dunwoody and Lithonia and Tucker at the same time, I think the threat of annexation is immensely powerful. in such a discussion,

      I think Druid Hills is an exceptional community, But I also think that for four members of the School Board and perhaps for the rest of the county as well there was/is a perception of exceptionalism bordering on elitism that worked against the Charter Cluster from the start, That perception only gets changed if we get rid of the four members or we find ways to cluster the rest of the county,

      We speak to this on the website.

  • Ned

    Secession: the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state.
    That’s exactly what TIA wants to do

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