Email offers autopsy and analysis of LaVista Hills election

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt December 22, 2015
An Election Results Map prepared for LaVista Hills YES! Click to enlarge.

An Election Results Map prepared for LaVista Hills YES! Click to enlarge.

The LaVista Hills YES! campaign says opposition from several neighborhoods in the southern part of the map for the proposed city was one of the key reasons the cityhood referendum failed on Nov. 3.

Campaign members also want input from supporters about whether to try forming a new DeKalb County city again.

The analysis of the Nov. 3 referendum came in the form of an email sent to supporters this week. It offers an analysis of the vote itself, the campaign leading up to it and gives a few suggestions about how to move forward.

“As the year draws to a close, now is a good time to deliberate about what went off track, about where we messed up and what we did right,” the email says.

LaVista Hills was defeated by 139 votes. While there is an ongoing investigation by the Secretary of State into alleged voting irregularities, the speed of the investigation as well as the statements by LaVista Hills supporters suggest that a re-vote is not a likely outcome.

The email notes that LaVista Hills “lost in every precinct in the southern part of our footprint with the exception of three precincts in the Briarcliff Road, LaVista Road area.”

“The election was effectively lost by landslide ‘no’ votes in six precincts: Margaret Harris (the school located behind Target), Briarcliff (Baptist Church), Clairmont Rd., Shamrock, Valley Brook, and Rehoboth,” the email says. “These precincts, together, cast 70 percent of their votes against cityhood.”

The origins of the LaVista Hills bill were a challenge, the email says.

“(LaVista Hills) had a difficult path: the bill and map had to be authored by Republicans and passed by a Republican state legislature for an area that is largely Democratic (57 percent voted for Pres. Obama in the 2012 election) and is represented by Democratic officials,” the email says. “All recent city initiatives have been seen as partisan and often racially motivated. The ‘playbook’ for winning cityhood for Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, and Brookhaven, did not work for LaVista Hills.”

The email sheds some light on why LaVista Hills Alliance became a separate and distinct group from LaVista Hills YES.

“The split away of the LaVista Hills Alliance from LaVista Hills YES! was largely over tactics, message, and a top-down approach versus a more inclusive broader approach,” it says.

Questions about the financial feasibility study – an analysis determining if the city would generate enough money to pay for services – hurt the campaign, the email says.

“The feasibility study by UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute also became a controversy and a liability as the property tax millage rate used in the study was different than the maximum millage cap contained in the House bill creating the city charter,” the email says. “That inconsistency gave opponents an opening to claim taxes would go up.”

The email asks for opinions about possible options for moving forward, including:

– Giving up

– Trying again with the same map or a different map

– Using the original Briarcliff map that was in play before Briarcliff and Lakeside combined their maps into the proposed city of LaVista Hills

– Advocating for annexation of unincorporated neighborhoods into existing cities

– Switching gears to become a group focused on reforming DeKalb County government

Here’s the full email from LaVista Hills YES:

We want to thank you for your support throughout our campaign. Your time and energy, as well as financial contributions, carried us very close to victory. It has been six weeks since the referendum for the city of LaVista Hills on November 3, time for some of the dust to settle and a chance to get over the raw emotions. As the year draws to a close, now is a good time to deliberate about what went off track, about where we messed up and what we did right. Most important, we wanted to ask you supporters of LaVista Hills for your views about what you want to do going forward as a community.

The LaVista Hills Referendum

The referendum failed by the narrowest of margins: 139 votes according to the final vote statement which, itself, had to be revised and reissued by the DeKalb election office due to errors they admittedly made in the first “final” statement.

LaVista Hills Question – SPECIAL

[source: DeKalb Official Statement of Votes Cast, 11/9/15 pg. 74]

Reg. Voters  Total Votes  YES NO
Total 34577 13733 6797 49.49% 6936 50.51%

 

One observation: despite the intense campaign and two years worth of town hall meetings, 60% of the registered voters in our precincts did not bother to vote, though observers of current U.S. elections would say a 40% turnout is pretty good.

Here is an Election Results Map.  It was prepared for LaVista Hills Yes! at the request of Herman Lorenz by the consulting firm, InterDev.  In summary LVH lost in every precinct in the southern part of our footprint with the notable exception of the three precincts in the Briarcliff Rd. / LaVista Rd. area. The election was effectively lost by landslide “no” votes in six precincts: Margaret Harris (the school located behind Target), Briarcliff (Baptist Church), Clairmont Rd., Shamrock, Valley Brook, and Rehoboth. These precincts, together, cast 70% of their votes against cityhood.

Why did the opposition to cityhood concentrate in a few neighborhoods of the southeast and southwest of LaVista Hills? Don Broussard offered a possible explanation that the southwest precincts of Margaret Harris and Briarcliff may have felt annexation into Brookhaven was a viable alternative though no such offer exists nor is one likely, in our opinion. In the case of Shamrock and Valley Brook, there was a desire openly stated by some to remain with Druid Hills High School and join an anticipated annexation into the city of Atlanta — also highly unlikely in our view. Another observation: though school attendance would have been unaffected by creation of LaVista Hills, all of the “no” precincts had until the last 5 years been, in part or in whole, within the Druid Hills High attendance zone and not in the Lakeside High zone (including Sagamore Hills and Leafmore Hills which had been split between the two high schools). Why would this have mattered? Were there other reasons such as party, income, or voter age that might explain the concentrated opposition? Are those areas different in composition from the rest of LaVista Hills’ neighborhoods? Give us your theories.

The Campaign

When an election is lost by only 1% of the vote, fault can be found just about everywhere and blame can be shared by just about everyone. Many mistakes were made and many things could have been done better. On the other hand, we know that our, and your, efforts raised important issues, helped to spur reform in DeKalb County, and brought thousands of “yes” voters to the polls. LVH had a difficult path: the bill and map had to be authored by Republicans and passed by a Republican state legislature — for an area that is largely Democratic (57% voted for Pres. Obama in the 2012 election) and is represented by Democratic officials. All recent city initiatives have been seen as partisan and often racially motivated. The “playbook” for winning cityhood for Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, and Brookhaven, did not work for LaVista Hills. The split away of the LaVista Hills Alliance from LaVista Hills Yes! was largely over tactics, message, and a top-down approach versus a more inclusive broader approach. Fund raising became a controversy. Town hall meetings with the opposition group, DeKalb Strong, gave that group visibility and legitimacy they did not originally have. The feasibility study by UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute also became a controversy and a liability as the property tax millage rate used in the study was different than the maximum millage cap contained in the House bill creating the city charter. That inconsistency gave opponents an opening to claim taxes would go up. DeKalb Strong and other unknown groups (who have not yet filed financial disclosures) were able to spend tens of thousands of dollars on mailings and robocalls in the final week of the campaign claiming “taxes would rise 20%”.  Had voters been told this would be a worst case $80 annual increase on the city portion of the bill and not an $800 increase on the entire tax bill, it would not have created the fear that it did.

The Future

“What do we do now?” Robert Redford’s character famously asks after winning a U.S. Senate seat in “The Candidate”. After losing so very narrowly, we need to ask the same question. In an article / op-ed in the AJC in November, a number of letter writers suggested LaVista Hills should not contest the election, should not try a referendum again because a divided city would just not work. They have a point — but it is essentially an inconsistent and contradictory one. Their inference is that had LVH won, only by a narrow margin, it would not have been a legitimate or viable city — yet somehow, a 1% defeat is completely legitimate and settles the issue for all time. Obviously we disagree with that. One thing for sure: The extent of the problems with DeKalb County does not appear to be changing or reforming as recent news continues to reveal slush funds for county commissioners at the Chamber of Commerce, and other misdeeds. Here is a list of the most likely alternatives. Are there others?

  • Should we just quit and hang it up?

Should we fold up the website and Facebook page and close the bank account? The General Assembly convenes in about four weeks. Could another city bill even be crafted in the next couple of months? Why should we go through this again? Defeating LaVista Hills has not and will not prevent DeKalb property taxes from going up. DeKalb County government is still a train wreck: Stan Watson, Sharon Barnes Sutton, and Lee May still run things and investigations continue, and Vernon Jones says he’s considering running for CEO again. We now know what the other side’s arguments against city hood are  — and we ought to be able to rebut them more effectively. An accurate feasibility study could be prepared — but would take 3 months and another $30,000.

  • Should we try again with the same LaVista Hills map or some other map?

What would have changed among the voters? Given the precinct voting map, could we convert “no” votes in the neighborhoods where there was such intense opposition? Should those areas simply be dropped? If they were dropped, would that leave enough commercial property for a viable city? (See proposed City of Briarcliff Zoning map) On the other hand, DeKalb government scandals and exposés continue on a regular basis. Will citizens continue to tolerate this — or just vote with their feet and eventually leave? Stonecrest and Greenhaven both have bills in the hopper to be presented this year. That will further define our island.

  • Could we go back to the Briarcliff map?

If the annexation of Druid Hills / Emory into Atlanta does not happen, would those voters be more open to joining a new city in DeKalb? Would Emory University again oppose inclusion in such a city?  The city of Decatur has consistently declared they have no interest in annexing Druid Hills or any other areas — other than the shopping centers clustered at North Decatur Road and Clairmont. If Druid Hills High remains in the DeKalb school system, why would the Druid Hills neighborhood want to go it alone and remain an unincorporated island?

  • Should we advocate annexations for our area neighborhoods?

Annexations have been publicly discussed, and in some cases, bills have been drawn up for referenda (HB 586 by Rep. Pat Gardner of Atlanta for Briar Vista / Druid Hills / Emory / Medlock). Brookhaven almost surely is interested in coming across I-85 further to get Target and Chick-Fil-A and might take in some areas along Briarcliff Road. Perhaps Chamblee could be convinced to come across I-85 and take Briarcliff Woods, Echo Lake and Hawthorne. Tucker surely covets Northlake Mall and the commercial development that was in our map.  But none of the nearby cities is likely to annex residential neighborhoods. Therefore, it is hard to see all of the LaVista Hills neighborhoods being annexed cleanly into existing cities without leaving some unincorporated islands.

  • Should we convert to a good government reform group and focus on DeKalb County?

This alternative would focus on lobbying for (more) changes in DeKalb ethics and better management, and perhaps even endorse reform candidates or advocate for recalls. Is there any chance this would be effective?  Would you want to participate?

The fact is at present our LaVista Hills / Briarcliff neighborhoods remain an unincorporated island with little identity in the metro Atlanta area where we are surrounded by growing, healthy, cities that do have growing identities. We think our area will regret the outcome of the LVH referendum in the coming months — if they have not already.

PLEASE send us an email with your thoughts and advice. We will keep your reply confidential if you so request. We will report back to you via email with the results. Thank you again for all of the support and hard work you expended toward LaVista Hills for the good of our community and a better day for DeKalb County.

LaVista Hills Yes! Inc.

Allen Venet, Amy Parker, Herman Lorenz, Don Broussard

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

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