Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Done deal for Dunwoody, House okay ends three-year battle - Crier

By Dick Williams for The Crier

Registered voters among the 40,000 residents of Dunwoody are scheduled to go to the polls July 15 to choose whether their area of unincorporated DeKalb County will become a city. If voters approve, a mayor and six city council members will be elected September 16 and the new city will begin operations December 1.

Polls by opinion firms, informal samplings of public gatherings and opinions posted on Internet forums and with newspapers indicate overwhelming support for incorporation. Sandy Springs and three other new cities were the subjects of citizen referenda in recent years and support for incorporation has exceeded 80 percent. The only proposed new city to be rejected by voters was a section of unincorporated south Fulton County.

After the Georgia state House of Representatives passed the bill for a referendum last Wednesday and sent it to the Senate for final approval, the only remaining hurdle was the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue. He was expected to sign the bill Tuesday, after The Crier’s press deadline.

Upon his signature, the law will be sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval under the Voting Rights Act. Swift approval by the Justice Department will be necessary for the referendum to take place as specified on July 15 in Georgia’s general primary elections.

“I do think the future of Dunwoody is brighter after the events this week,” said state Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody), the bill’s sponsor. “Now we need to have a debate in our community and get the information out there.”

Ken Wright, president of the Citizens for Dunwoody effort, congratulated the legislative leadership for its efforts.

“We are grateful to Senator Weber, Representative (Fran) Millar, Representative (Mike) Jacobs, House Majority Leader (Jerry) Keen, Representative (Wendall) Willard, and the countless others who, despite powerful and Herculean roadblocks, supported the right of Dunwoody citizens to vote,” Wright said.

In addition, Wright said the many residents, volunteers and board members who donated time and money to the effort were invaluable to the bill’s passage.

“This day would have never become a reality without this community-wide effort,” Wright said. “We look forward to continuing to disseminate to Dunwoody citizens the facts and figures our research has uncovered.”

Oliver Porter, who worked with citizens spearheading both Sandy Springs’ and Dunwoody’s incorporation efforts, said that the focus now lies in getting out the vote.

“The Citizens for Dunwoody has done a great job in getting the bill passed so that the citizens can exercise self-determination,” Porter said. “So, it is time for all the citizens to show their support.”

Porter said plans are underway “to involve every citizen who wants to help shape the future city.”

Millar also echoed Porter’s call to get involved and pledged his support during the transition period.

“I look forward to working with the Perimeter CID, DeKalb County, and the Citizens for Dunwoody to benefit all interests,” Millar said. “We are in this together and hopefully any differences can be resolved in a reasonable manner. There should be an effort by all parties to attempt to make this a win-win for all constituents.”

A three-year battle

Weber and other community leaders began discussing the idea of a city in 2005. His bill was introduced in the 2006 session of the General Assembly. Before its first appearance in a House committee, Millar, the bill’s manager in the House, raised questions about the cost of running the new city, and wanted further research. Weber withdrew the bill.

In 2007, the state Senate passed the referendum bill with ease. The ball was in the court of the state House and Millar. In the next-to-last day of the legislative session, it was defeated after prolonged debate on the floor of the House.

Many Republicans were absent for a variety of reasons. Some Republicans from areas outside metro Atlanta believe counties are efficient forms of government and see new cities as another layer of government.

As the 2008 session of the General Assembly began, the city bill suffered another defeat, rejected by the House Government Affairs Committee after angry testimony that opposed the inclusion of the Perimeter Community Improvement District and Perimeter Mall in the new city. One state senator from south DeKalb County even called for an economic boycott of Perimeter Center if Dunwoody became a city.

The bill was believed to be dead. But state Rep. Mark Hatfield (R-Waycross) asked for reconsideration of his nay vote. The bill appeared again before the committee and was approved.

Though Millar believed the bill had enough votes to pass the House this year, citizen advocates hired a lobbying firm and began intensive contact with legislators. The debate last week on the House floor was far less rancorous. Whether because they foresaw defeat or they noticed an absence of Republican members on the floor, many DeKalb Democrats waived their right to speak.

When the bell was rung for a vote, many Republican legislators were attending a press conference by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia’s senior senator. Millar was able to shout from the House hallway down to the main floor and alert his colleagues to the pending vote.

“Mr. Speaker,” Millar said at one point, “Can you ring the bell one more time, please?”

It wasn’t necessary. The measure passed overwhelmingly, 106-66.

In the end, Dunwoody’s self-determination attracted the votes of eight Democrats and 98 Republicans.

A dissident state representative, Jill Chambers, who lives in Dunwoody but whose district is mainly the cities of Doraville and Chamblee, voted against the bill in committee and spoke against it on the floor of the House. She was able to attract the vote of only one Republican after a rambling and emotional speech in which she accused critics of saying she took bribes and slept with Vernon Jones, DeKalb County’s chief executive.

“I allowed myself to be bullied into voting for this last year,” Chambers said. “What we have here is underestimated expenses and overestimated revenues.”

She said the bill is “a recipe for a large tax increase.”

Two studies by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia have shown a city of Dunwoody will operate at a surplus. The proposed city charter allows the new city government to vote only a one-mill tax increase. Any other tax increases would require a citizen referendum.

Pleas for self-determination

In his remarks before the House, Millar spoke of rearing his family over 28 years as a Dunwoody resident. He spoke with pride of the attraction Dunwoody now has to his children and grandchildren, several of whom have moved back to the area.

As he spoke of the nuts and bolts and finances of the new city, he spoke to his legislative critics and drew upon his 10 years in the state House.

“I am many things,” he said, “but I do not lie.”

Other speakers in the House on behalf of Dunwoody included the House Majority Leader, Jerry Keen of St. Simon’s Island, who grew up in Dunwoody, and state Rep. Jan Jones, who spoke of her pride in the new city of Milton and the need for government closer to the people than are county governments.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-north Brookhaven), who has spoken of a city of Brookhaven and is championing legislation to create townships, stressed that local residents have the inherent right to choose their own form of government.

State Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs), said of his city, “The sky did not fall when we became a city; Fulton County didn’t collapse.” He added, “I know when the formula works and the Dunwoody formula works.”