If there’s one incontrovertible fact in the still ongoing mess that was “LaVista Hills,” it’s that the cityhood referendum didn’t deserve to be on the ballot in the first place. As supporters actively seek sufficient evidence from confused voters in order to convince a judge to invalidate the results of their narrow defeat, they are reinforcing the need for reforming the legislative process currently used to create cities.
The most recent version of LaVista Hills lost, and could never have truly won. 136 votes out of 13,789 cast is less than 1%, and both pro- and anti-cityhood camps should acknowledge that the LaVista Hills incorporation could have easily gone the other way. But even if LaVista Hills had “won,” such a narrow margin would still have been a loss.
There was never any community outcry for a city of Lakeside, nor Briarcliff, nor LaVista Hills, and a glance at the now-failed city’s map shows why. It was a Frankencity, cobbled together by consultants, lobbyists and potential vendors of city services, rather than a community of interest, because there’s nothing uniting areas as distinctly different as say, Embry Hills and Druid Hills. You don’t have to live in metro Atlanta for very long to learn the distinction between ITP and OTP, and cities –brand new governments designed to be permanent and eternal- shouldn’t be created just because a political consultant draws an arbitrary line around a disjointed area.
From its inception, LaVista Hills was given every advantage. Their very first move was to draw a line around a huge swath of Tucker*, catching that historic and tight-knit community off guard. As the two groups battled over their borders, every rule controlling the legislative process for incorporation was either waived or bent in favor of Lakeside/LaVista Hills. The boundaries “poured in concrete” by a specially-tasked House Subcommittee were uprooted at the 11th hour. Their feasibility study was supposed to be completed before the Legislature approved their charter, but an accommodating committee chairman waived that rule. After their charter passed, a sharp-eyed numbers guy found a flaw –their finances assumed a higher property tax rate than their charter legally permitted. Let that sink in a minute. The very financial viability of what would have been DeKalb County’s biggest city was in doubt because a single legislator waived a rule. That’s a mighty big “oops” in the process, one that gives any responsible state legislator pause. Those rules, such as they are, exist to prevent mistakes like that –not to enable them.
Georgia’s incorporation laws require only that a potential new city take over three public services, a feasibility study showing how they’ll pay for them, and a simple majority vote. It’s easier than opening a liquor store.
No, really. If you want to sell hard liquor in bottles in a formerly dry area of Georgia, you need to get a petition signed by 35% of the registered voters in that area. Those signatures have to be verified by the local elections official, and only then does the issue go before the voters for approval. Why on earth is it harder to open a liquor store than to create an entirely new government?
The campaign for LaVista Hills cityhood was as fast and loose with the rules of civic engagement as the sloppy legislative process that created it. LaVista Hills Alliance promised a Republican-style government to Republican voters, bashed the DeKalb County Police Department when it suited them, played the race card at the last minute, and accused anyone who doubted their unbelievable promises of being in league with “DeKalb County’s thugs and criminals.” That bitterness created by their narrow defeat hasn’t been mollified by the end-zone dancing, chest beating, and in-your-face attitude on social media by members of the anti-cityhood group DeKalb Strong.
50% + 1 isn’t a mandate for anything but a divided community. Who would want to live in a community where half the voters oppose its very existence?
Regardless of how the vote is actually determined by the courts, the actual residents of LaVista Hills have already lost. We didn’t ask for this. Instead, we continue to be but pawns in other people’s games and business models.
When it comes to cities, winning ugly isn’t winning.
*Disclosure: Tucker 2015, used my company, Apache Political, in their campaign for cityhood. Tucker became a city with a 74% “yes” vote.)