Central DeKalb County, GA, February 19, 2015 – by Tom Doolittle, Contributor – Following North Metro Atlanta cityhood’s march into Central DeKalb, one would wonder if it has now met its match in the form of the annexation rights of existing cities.
Alexander’s overextending into the Subcontinent might be a reasonable analogy for cityhood extending too far. The cityhood/annexation conundrum is well expressed in a December 22 perspective by Dan Whisenhunt on the Decaturish news site.
Unbelievably, Buzz Brockway (R-Cumming), the chairman of the hastily formed “special subcommittee” of the House Government Affairs Committee (HGAC) to solve LaVista Hills’ FIRST border problem (with Tucker) has now proposed a change to the ANNEXATION law in response to the cityhood quandary. Brockway has proposed House Bill 360 which appears to favor action that either prompt a delay or jeopardize the Atlanta annexation of Together in Atlanta’s (TIA’s) “Druid Hills-Plus” map. It’s anyone guess if this is motivated by a preference to “move” LaVista Hills’ cityhood referendum to the next level.
HB 360 would have the effect of making it more difficult for an existing city to annex territory—or for neighborhoods to ELECT to be annexed, depending on your point of view. The bill proposes allowing current city residents to counter a “yes” vote from those being annexed. For those requiring a more simplistic term, it is “veto power”.
Why Brockway did this is anyone’s guess. Is this what he had in mind when he said “I think we need to take a hard look at this whole process of how cities are formed, how annexations take place”? He has apparently chosen to attack the conflict at the annexation level.
That won’t suffice for lasting governance throughout the state. The general constitutional problem between cityhood mapping and existing cities’ annexation prerogatives has more to do with cities PLANNING for future annexations and the choices that property owners (and neighborhoods) want to reserve for themselves. In DeKalb, the Cities of Decatur and Avondale have annexation plans and likely would have more in subsequent years if allowed to. Such plans would be shaped by neighborhood interests—like those currently in Clairmont Hills and Medlock.
The neighborhoods and others would prefer to keep their options open rather than be swept into LaVista Hills—cityhood is “general legislation”, so can be resolved by the HGACs magic wand—it’s essentially unaccountable to Central DeKalb citizenry. One answer would be to have local legislation to mandate a 10-year annexation map with the neighborhoods reserving their right to be annexed later either into a new city of Lavista Hills (once formed) or a currently existing city. That process could be codified for use statewide. It would be done constitutionally under comprehensive planning law.
The aforementioned solution shows that you don’t have to have a procedure for breaking “ties”—or using a pecking order for annexation requests and cityhood maps. However, short of responsible long-range constitutional policy, how WOULD you establish a credible “tie-breaker”? How do you decide what order the legislature should consider each bill? One way to decide would be to weigh the relative strength of the public mandates in each law—would a citizen or neighborhood prefer to CHOOSE its new city (the basis of annexation law) or be forced into one (Brookhaven’s and LaVista Hills cityhood process). The pecking order would be based on each government’s legitimacy to rule as determined by the comparative strength of annexation vs cityhood law. So which one IS more credible?
Maybe the answer to those questions lies in the legal history of both, their relative protections of neighborhood rights and the consistency of application. We now know the record on cityhood law is weak along those lines.
Cityhood law, as presently being applied to rapidly form new cities in North Metro is only 8 years old. I have explained in an earlier article that specific weaknesses in the law left cityhood in Central DeKalb with competing advocacy groups, disenfranchisement of whole neighborhoods, heightened anxiety levels and now we can add conflicts with historically constituted cities to the pile. Decaturish quotes Representative Scott Holcomb (D-Northlake) as saying: “One thing that I can tell you is one of the greatest challenges of all this is to try and get a sense of what the pulse of the people is without … any systematic or structured method for acquiring this data through polling …” Holcomb now sits as the only potential sponsor of the LaVista Hills and he has a problem with not having evidence that certain neighborhoods want to essentially “opt-in”.
Now consider the difference with annexation law, which has stood the test of decades, with its basis in rule not just including an “opt-in” method, but the law itself is predicated on petition rules and codified (notarized public notices) prerequisites for referendums including public hearings and official procedures for addressing comments. Annexation is endemically an “opt-in” method where neighborhoods are concerned. Distinct neighborhoods can’t be forced into a city or an annexation map and residents have much greater control of their own destiny than when their votes are diluted by large cityhood referendums.
The bottom line is that one forces the legislature to review your “opt-in”, the other is at the discretion of legislators to consider your choice of opting in or out. The choice in a tie is a simple one—and so is the process. Codify it for all time.