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Pro and anti-cityhood groups decry county corruption, disagree on solution

Annexation and new cities Avondale Estates Decatur Metro ATL

Pro and anti-cityhood groups decry county corruption, disagree on solution

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.
DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

Opponents of creating news cities and proponents of creating a new city of LaVista Hills have each issued blistering statements about corruption in DeKalb County.

But while the two groups agree that the county government is in dire need of reform, they disagree about whether a new city is part of the solution.

DeKalb Strong and LaVista Hills YES each issued statements about two recent news events: A hastily approved deal to spend public money on soccer fields and a scathing letter by an independent investigator calling DeKalb’s government “rotten to the core.”

Both statements condemned the decision to block public comment before the soccer deal was approved in a 4-3 vote. Both statements also referenced the summary report published by former attorney general Mike Bowers who was hired to investigate corruption in DeKalb. While LaVista Hills YES held up Bowers’ letter as proof that residents in the proposed 65,000-person city would be better off governing themselves, DeKalb Strong blasted the county’s handling of the investigation.

“If anyone in the LaVista Hills area is still not sure whether they support forming a city, these events clearly demonstrate the need for us to have our own government that operates more efficiently and effectively,” LaVista Hills YES! Chair Allen Venet said in the letter, adding that he is not claiming any government is “immune from corruption.”

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“We’ve worked with you,” DeKalb Strong wrote to CEO Lee May. “We’ve attempted to support you. We’ve even at times defended you. All of the misdeeds above are reminiscent of a time recently passed when citizens were disengaged and county government was rather free to misbehave. That freedom no longer exists. Citizens are watching. Media is watching. The board and the supporters of DeKalb Strong are watching. County government WILL be held accountable. Please give us evidence that you’re going to make genuine effort to change the conduct of county government.”

DeKalb Strong President Marjorie Snook told Decaturish that the steady drip of negative publicity for DeKalb is making it easier for cityhood groups to sell their message to voters. But she said the creation of new cities is not a panacea for DeKalb’s troubles.

“It makes it easier because they’re leading people to believe they will get a separate government independent of DeKalb County by forming a new city, but that’s not what a new city does,” Snook said. “Residents will still get most of their services from DeKalb. The county still handles tax assessments. The county police force you’re going to call if something serious happens. When we have a pothole in the road, the water system underneath the road is just as often as not the culprit causing the pothole.

“Yes, they’re using it because they’re trying to tap into voter frustration, which is frustration we feel. We agree with them the situation with DeKalb County is unacceptable. They’ve tried to portray us as pro-county. We’ve never been pro-county. We are pro good governance.”

Venet said his group feels cityhood is not going to solve all of the problems with DeKalb’s government, but new cities are a part of the solution.

“We all understand the county will continue to be there and will continue to provide county-wide services,” Venet said. “Our real focus is creation of a city is part of the solution. Right now we have a county that is doing too much and doing it poorly. If the unincorporated parts of the county become cities, shifting some of the governmental services to cities, then we have a county government that has less to focus on.”

He added, “The other, I suppose, one thing Marjorie and I certainly agree: We all want a better DeKalb County. It’s a question of whether cityhood helps that effort or hinders that effort. We think it helps that effort and we respect their different opinion.”

Here are the two statements from LaVista Hills YES and DeKalb Strong:

Confirmation of Corruption within DeKalb County & Soccer Complex
Decision Supports Value of Cityhood Movement:  LaVista Hills YES!

August 6, 2015 ― Featured front and center on the cover page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution(AJC) today is an article titled “Investigators: DeKalb is ‘rotten to the core’.” The article describes the content of a letter written by investigators hired to identify corruption within the county government, in which the letter’s authors stated that DeKalb County is “rotten to the core.”

The AJC article reported that investigators hired to “root out corruption”, including former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, wrote that they discovered unethical behaviors, such as spending taxpayer money for personal purposes, taking bribes and racketeering. The letter, which will be followed by a more detailed report in three weeks according to the AJC, follows the recent conviction of former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis for perjury and attempted extortion, for which he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

“If anyone in the LaVista Hills area is still not sure whether they support forming a city, these events clearly demonstrate the need for us to have our own government that operates more efficiently and effectively,” says LaVista Hills YES! Chair Allen Venet. He adds that LaVista Hills YES! is not claiming that any size government is immune from corruption.

Noting a string of other DeKalb county officials listed in today’s AJC article who have been convicted of crimes – including former DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer and former school Superintendent Crawford Lewis, among others – Venet said: “It’s a matter of comparing the persistent level of corruption in DeKalb with the excellent track record of cities old and new across metro-Atlanta that have demonstrated a high level of efficient and responsible government, something DeKalb County is desperately lacking.”

Venet also described the decision by DeKalb County on August 4 to locate United Atlanta FC’s soccer complex on 41 acres along 285 near Memorial Drive at a cost of $12 million to DeKalb taxpayers without allowing public comment as “a lousy way to govern.” The 4-3 decision by the DeKalb Commission made the front page of the AJC Wednesday, in which it was reported the Commission denied a request before voting on the deal to hear from a crowd of unhappy residents, some of whom “shouted in protest.”

Venet said: “There was there no public debate about a decision in which county residents become responsible for bearing the expense of clearing the land and providing new and perhaps unnecessary office space for the government while roads, water management and public safety suffer,” Venet said. “There was also little information shared about the deal before the decision was made.”

“Not only are these events proof that a radical change to the structure of the DeKalb County government is necessary and appropriate,” Venet said, “but they support the value of cityhood – of people being able to come together and have more control over what goes on in their communities, of cities being able to make decisions based on a more true and accurate community consensus.”

Open Letter to Lee May