Dear Decaturish: Solving DeKalb’s problems

Posted by Decaturish.com 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. SaveDekalb.com

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