How will Democratic sweep of DeKalb’s legislative delegation affect annexation and cityhood?

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt December 5, 2018

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

This story has been updated. 

There are no more Republicans in the DeKalb County delegation following a Democratic sweep in the Nov. 6 election.

That means cityhood bills have lost their greatest champions, notably state Sen. Fran Millar, who lost his seat to Sally Harrell. Annexation, the process of expanding current city boundaries, is a different process but is often a reaction to cityhood efforts. This was the case in 2014 and 2015, when multiple cityhood proposals resulted in cities and proposed cities drawing up competing maps to claim unincorporated territory in DeKalb County.

Following the narrow defeat of a city of LaVista Hills and the overwhelming approval of a city of Tucker, the debate over cityhood and annexation cooled, though cities continued to annex territory via petition methods that did not require legislative approval.

A proposed south DeKalb city of Greenhaven has continued to press its case with the legislature as has a proposed city of Vista Grove, which has a map similar to that of LaVista Hills backed by a group trying to avoid the divisiveness of that debate.

Annexation can continue on a case by case basis via petition without help from the Legislature.

But how does the turnover in the delegation affect the chances of cityhood bills moving forward?

It depends on who you ask.

Marjorie Snook, one of the founders of DeKalb Strong which has opposed cityhood, said that the blue wave washing over DeKalb will affect the future of these bills.

“I think it makes a huge difference,” Snook said. “So far, what we’ve seen over the past 10 years was this was always something that was pushed by the Republicans in the delegation and has never been a cause that was championed by the Democrats in the delegation.”

The partisan history of cityhood can be traced back to the formation of Sandy Springs in Fulton County. New cities have been vehemently opposed by Democrats that control the delegations of some Atlanta counties. To get around this, when the Republicans took control of the Legislature they changed the rules so that city legislation could be general legislation. This is why Sandy Springs finally formed in 2005 after decades of trying to become a city. But annexation has remained local legislation.

Those rules remain in effect, so it’s possible legislators from outside DeKalb could push cityhood bills, Snook said.

“We very well may see a cityhood initiative that is sponsored by somebody by Albany that doesn’t have the support of any local legislators,” Snook said.

This already has happened in Greenhaven’s case, with state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus introducing a bill on that proposed city’s behalf for the 2019 session. McKoon did not seek reelection and his term will end next year.

State Rep. Michele Henson, D-Stone Mountain, said she hopes to see the rules changed to make cityhood local legislation again.

“I think that it’s time things like this return to local legislation,” Henson said. “These are our issues and they shouldn’t be decided by a majority of votes from people that represent areas such as Blue Ridge. And you know, I’ve always been concerned when we moved from local legislation to things being general legislation and I can understand what brought it about with Sandy Springs and the frustration they had for so many years. I think we’re at a point that Dekalb should be making decisions for DeKalb as Cobb County and Fulton should be making decisions for their counties.”

Henson noted that the delegation hasn’t met to discuss the issue.

State Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, is the interim chair of the delegation and said she is working to organize a meeting with delegation members about cityhood bills.

Cityhood advocates remain optimistic.

Andrew Flake, one of Vista Grove Initiative’s founding members, said the group would need to find a new sponsor for the bill now that Millar is gone.

“Obviously we’re going to need to identify other sponsors and we hope they are a good bipartisan cross section of people, so that’s the objective,” Flake said.

Flake said the Vista Grove group doesn’t see cityhood as a partisan issue.

“From our perspective, the policy issues and the reasons why it makes great sense to look a city formation are nonpartisan,” Flake said. “… We have been working as we have for the last year plus to get good ideas out there and generate bipartisan support.”

Kathryn Rice, with the Greenhaven cityhood movement, said changes in the delegation could affect how Greenhaven’s bill fares. But she said Greenhaven has a good case for becoming a city.

“I think the lack of a Republican legislator representative in the DeKalb Delegation is meaningful, given Republicans still control both the House and the Senate,” Rice said. “Having said that, I think the case for cityhood is strong. I think legislators have not listened to it. The situation is, everyone is incorporated except for two areas, and those two areas are getting the brunt of being unincorporated.”

One legislator see the changes as an opportunity to reform the messy and contentious cityhood process.

State Sen. Elena Parent sees the Democratic sweep in the delegation as a chance to make things fairer for everyone involved.

“My view is not that there should never be any new city,” Parent said. “It’s that there should be a process that demonstrates a high level of interest in the area. I’d be interested in a petition requirement. I’d be interested in ensuring that studies not only look at the feasibility of any new cities but also look at the impacts on local government.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she can’t predict how the DeKalb delegation will handle cityhood bills going forward.

“I think we have a different delegation. That’s clear,” she said. “There’ll be some changes. It’s not really clear to  me today how a lot of different issues will proceed. We have a lot of energy going on in a variety of ways related to new cities and new annexations. But I don’t think, to me, it’s very predictable right now.”

State Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, disputed cityhood’s partisan past.

“Annexation and incorporation hasn’t always been a Republican initiative,” Joones said. “If you look at annexation as it relates to the city of Atlanta, annexation as it relates to the city of Decatur, Stone Mountain, those are represented by Democrats in heavy Democratic districts. It hasn’t been monopolized by one particular party.”

Jones said Millar’s departure will alter the debate.

“I think with Fran Millar leaving, you’ll see less where it’s been north [DeKalb] versus the south,” Jones said. “Obviously, he played a major role in that whole thing. I think you’ll see a slow down on changes to the form of government. You may see the reverse though. You may see some de-annexation. I think there’s been some discussions about that. It can vary. I don’t think you should say incorporation and annexation is going to stop because there are no Republicans in the delegation anymore.”

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said cityhood bills should reflect the sentiments of the community.

“I think what matters is a lot of community engagement and support for the potential for cityhood and that needs to be clearly demonstrated,” he said. “I think the new people who have been elected will be thoughtful and careful about how they listen to the people they represent, and will make decisions about whether any incorporations or annexations make sense.”

Interest cityhood and annexation among residents county has not diminished.

The Medlock Area Neighborhood Association recently promoted new survey on the subject. The survey, created by the created by the Mason Mill Civic Association and the Citizens of Victoria Estates, is being coordinated with other neighborhoods, including Clairmont Heights, “to learn what residents might prefer if we were forced to choose or have a choice: to stay unincorporated, join a new city, or an existing city.”

“We realize there are many questions about annexation and incorporation, which this survey does not answer, but for now we simply hope you will start thinking about the issues and consider what you might choose IF you have to,” an email from MANA says.

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About Dan Whisenhunt

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

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