A year in review: Decaturish.com’s top stories of 2015Artwork by Sharna Fulton
The year of 2015 was a year of debates over the future of DeKalb County and its cities.
Public frustration with DeKalb County came to a boil as the corruption and dysfunction of county government somehow managed to surpass the corruption and dysfunction of 2014. Cities held elections, and Decatur’s elections were some of the most contentious in recent memory.
The Legislature took a carving knife to the county, drawing new maps that created new cities and expanded the territory of old ones. Only two of these maps – the ones for the proposed cities of LaVista Hills and Tucker – made it to a referendum in November. Of those two maps, only Tucker managed to become a new city while LaVista Hills was defeated by 139 votes.
Crime and food, a perennial topic of interest among Decaturish readers, also dominated the news. Restaurants opened, closed and were put up for sale. A criminal defendant accused of attacking a cyclist pleaded guilty to some of the charges. Decatur Police say a teenager was driving over 100 miles an hour when he struck a vehicle driven by a teacher at his school, killing her and critically injuring her daughter.
There were also glimpses of DeKalb County and the metro region’s future. Google Fiber announced it would be bringing its high-speed internet services to the Atlanta area. City Schools of Decatur got a new superintendent after the old one resigned to pursue other opportunities.
Here are the editor’s picks for the top stories of 2015.
No. 10: Changes within City Schools of Decatur
As other metro Atlanta school systems continued to recover from past scandals, City Schools of Decatur became a beacon for parents seeking stability and high achievement. Enrollments continued to surge, with projections showing the student population would increase from about 4,300 students to over 6,000 by 2020. The school system and School Board members worked to convince city commissioners about their need for a bond to pay for school construction. The School Board elected a new chairperson after two newer board members declined to re-elect board chair Bernadette Seals.
A few months later, in March, Superintendent Phyllis Edwards announced she would resign. On her way out the door, she made several personnel changes. She promoted Noel Maloof from Decatur High Principal to Chief Operating Officer, and promoted Bruce Roaden from principal of the 4/5 Academy at 5th Avenue to the system’s Director of Secondary Education. The School Board eventually selected David Dude, from Iowa City Community School District, to succeed Edwards. A few weeks later, voters gave the school system a ringing endorsement, with more than 75 percent of voters choosing to raise their own taxes so the school system could borrow $75 million for school construction.
No. 9: Crime
Local crime news could be the top news story in any given year, but there were several notable cases in 2015.
– While suspected serial killer Aeman Presley was arrested in 2014, he was formally indicted in February. He is accused of murdering Karen Pearce, a hair stylist from Smyrna who was shot in downtown Decatur on Dec. 6, and the murders of three homeless men: Dorian Jenkins, on Nov. 23, Tommy Mims, on Nov. 26, and Calvin Gholston, on Sept. 27.
– In October, Joseph Alan Lewis was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to some of the charges related to the attempted murder of a local cyclist, Greg Germani.
– In April, police arrested Ramiro Pedemonte, 19, of Tucker, Ga. and charged him with first degree vehicular homicide, serious injury by vehicle and reckless driving. Pedemonte was driving a rented car on his way to the Lakeside High School prom with an 18-year-old female passenger. Both Pedemonte and the 18-year-old passenger were Lakeside High School students. According to police, on April 25, Leah O’Brien was attempting to turn left (from Ridley Circle), eastbound onto Scott Boulevard. The rented Dodge Charger was traveling westbound on Scott Boulevard when it hit O’Brien’s vehicle. She died as the result of her injuries. Her 8-year-old daughter was sent to the hospital in critical condition. Police allege Pedemonte was traveling over 100 miles per hour when his car hit O’Brien’s vehicle.
– The city of Decatur saw a surge in property crimes over the summer, with burglaries increasing by nearly 60 percent.
No. 8: DeKalb County corruption
While DeKalb’s corruption might seem like fodder for a spot further up this list, it is frustratingly familiar to county residents.
The major scandals of 2015, in no particular order.
– Former county commissioner Elaine Boyer’s chief of staff Bob Lundsten was indicted on six counts of theft by taking and three counts of making false statements. Boyer was indicted in 2014.
– Former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis was sentenced to five years in prison after he was convicted of of perjury and attempted extortion.
– An investigator hired by interim CEO Lee May to root out corruption determined the county is “Rotten to the core” and also called on May to resign after he allegedly borrowed money from a subordinate, Morris Williams, in violation of the county organizational act.
No. 7: Elections
Decatur and Avondale Estates residents elected new leadership this year.
Ten candidates ran for office in the city of Decatur, with only one – School Board Chairperson Garrett Goebel – running unopposed. It was a different picture from the 2013 municipal races in Decatur when there was only one contested seat on the ballot. The end of the 2015 campaign in Decatur saw an unusual amount of mudslinging for Decatur, when former mayor Bill Floyd took shots at two of the candidates, John Ridley and Eric Tumperi, in an email that was widely distributed. Ridley and Tumperi lost, though Tumperi came close to unseating incumbent City Commissioner Scott Drake. Residents also elected Tony Powers and Brian Smith as new commissioners, and elected Tasha White to serve on the School Board in District 2.
In Avondale, incumbent Commissioner John Quinn lost his seat and two new City Commissioners were elected: Brian Fisher and Adela Yelton.
No. 6: Restaurant closings and sales
Turnover in the restaurant business is not unusual, but there were some notable names who decided to call it quits this year:
– Paper Plane (reopened as a Tiki Bar)
Restaurant owners also made plans to sell their establishments. Jim Stacy put his Avondale Estates Restaurant, Pallookaville, on the market. There are also two unidentified restaurants in Decatur that were put up for sale this year.
No. 5: Restaurant openings
While some restaurants were shutting down or planning to change ownership, others were just getting started.
Notable openings this year:
No. 4: Twain’s saves Suburban Lanes
Local Decatur favorite Twain’s became the savior of a local institution: the Suburban Lanes bowling alley.
It’s a match seemingly made in bowler heaven. Twain’s, a brew pub, plans to reopen the establishment as The Comet Pub & Lanes. It is expected to open sometime in early 2016.
In January, Decaturish reported that Suburban Lanes would not be staying in Suburban Plaza. Selig Enterprises, the developer of Suburban Plaza, made the announcement at a community meeting. The response from the community was swift, with many mourning the loss of the bowling alley, which had been there for decades. Ethan and Uri Wurtzel and General Manager Ben Horgan, the owners of Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards, acquired Suburban Lanes, saving it from the chopping block.
The Wurtzels said they learned about the dilemma facing Suburan Lanes via Decaturish.com’s coverage.
No. 3: DeKalb County’s self-inflicted water crisis
A seemingly routine incident involving a mower hitting a fire hydrant turned into a days-long crisis that hurt businesses and royally ticked off residents.
The hydrant was struck on July 23. It sits on a 48-inch main at Henderson Mill and Evans roads. The county issued a boil water advisory two days later, and it remained in effect until July 27. The water main debacle hit Decatur especially hard. The problems left many residents and business owners, particularly restaurants, frustrated. Some restaurants had to limit their menus to avoid using the county water during the advisory. The city of Decatur had to close its Slide the City water slide event early on July 25, bringing an abrupt end to a 1,000 foot water slide on West Ponce. The city reported that 3,600 tickets had been sold for the event.
Throughout the incident, residents complained about a lack of communication from county officials. Some of those residents included people in high places, most notably John Shelton, the CEO of DeKalb Medical Center.
Shelton emailed County CEO Lee May directly on July 24 about his concerns over how the county responded to hospital officials who were concerned about the lack of water pressure. In the midst of the crisis Sue Loeffler, the head of the DeKalb Emergency Management Agency, sent an email update on the status of water pressure at DeKalb Medical.
“DeKalb Med still does not have normal pressure and has been as low as 20 lbs thru the nite,” she wrote. “They are very concerned with time frame and total shut off to fix as they have patients in surgery this morning and less than 20 lbs means no water to the upper floors of the hospital.”
The incident led to strong condemnation from county commissioners and a public apology by the county’s Chief Operating Officer.
No. 2: Proposed city of “LaVista Hills” rejected by voters
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with county government, the possibility of wresting at least some control from DeKalb by creating a new city seemed like an easy sell. But it was a hill too high to climb for the proposed city of LaVista Hills, which lost by 139 votes after a heated debate with cityhood opponents.
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.
While LaVista Hills supporters promised lower taxes and better government, opponents represented by DeKalb Strong said such promises were an illusion as well as a distraction from fixing the county’s problems. It was a stark contrast to the proposed city of Tucker, which passed easily. Unlike LaVista Hills, which was a map comprised of the previously proposed cities of Lakeside and Briarcliff, Tucker had always had a historic sense of its identity. But that wasn’t the only problem plaguing the cityhood effort.
According to LaVista Hills supporters, opposition in the southern part of the map played a significant role in the referendum’s defeat. Marjorie Snook with DeKalb Strong said that LaVista Hills supporters didn’t listen to residents of neighborhoods who said they didn’t want to be in the map but were added anyway.
The defeat of the referendum cast doubt on whether any of the proposed city or annexation measures would be taken up again in the upcoming Legislative session. A recent report from a Senate Committee recommended major reforms to the annexation and cityhood process.
No. 1: Google Fiber announces plans to enter Atlanta market
One of the first major stories of 2015 is also Decaturish.com’s pick for the most important. In January, Google confirmed it would be bringing its 1 gig internet and cable services to the metro Atlanta market. Google Fiber will fundamentally change the market for high speed internet in this area and will be a powerful economic development tool for cities.
The Fiber service will be introduced in nine cities: Atlanta, Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs and Smyrna. Metro Atlanta will also be home to a Google Fiber training facility.
Mayor Kasim Reed called it “one of the most important moments in the life of the Atlanta metropolitan region.” It’s already forcing other local ISPs to step up their game, with AT&T and Comcast announcing plans to offer faster internet speeds to customers.
Google is in the process of installing its fiber optics cables throughout the area. When Google made the announcement about its plans to expand to Atlanta, the company said at the time that it might be up to two years before the service is available to residents.
Readers vote for top 10 with their eyes
An editor’s preferences and a reader’s eyes don’t always agree on what the “top news” of the year was. Decaturish had 2.6 million page views in 2015, up from 1.6 million in 2014.
Here are the stories that received the most page views in 2015.
1. DeKalb County issues Boil Water Advisory (Editor’s note: Decaturish.com’s coverage of DeKalb County’s self-inflicted water crisis caused our server to crash numerous times.)
“Quote of the year”
This story didn’t make any of our top 10 lists, but the quote at the end is memorable.
Cyclist Wesley Upshur said he had no idea the person who allegedly hit him was someone he knew until Zachary Thigpen called asking for forgiveness.
Did he forgive him?
“Yeah, I respect him for … telling me after the fact,” Upshur said. “But I don’t know. Shit was f$#!ed up.”