MacGregor leads the Druid Hills Civic Association, one of the largest and most powerful homeowners’ associations in the county. His 75-year-old association has about 4000 homes — perhaps 10,000 residents — surrounding the Centers for Disease Control and Emory, with a lawyer-to-actual-human ratio roughly equivalent to a Washington D.C. suburb. Two current DeKalb County commissioners are past presidents.
And he told me he can’t seem to get the DeKalb CEO to pick up his phone.
Tonight at a town hall meeting at Clairmont Hills Baptist Church, MacGregor gave the applause line of the night, when he said that he would rather see the county reform itself than Druid Hills form a city. But there it is — HB 655, a placeholder bill filed by State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur (potentially D-Druid Hills).
MacGregor has a basket of misgivings about incorporation — the process sucks, it’s expensive, incorporation doesn’t address schools, it doesn’t really lower taxes, most of the county’s services aren’t really a problem and incorporation fights can piss people off — but when you’re being ignored and in pain, it’s defensive kung-fu. The civic association has several disputes with the county that should be solvable with a little communication, but county leaders have been curiously unresponsive, he said.
“People are concerned about schools and land use,” he said to a crowd drawn largely from northern and central DeKalb County. “It seems that we’re beginning to be overruled on land use by people outside our area. … If everyone north of us incorporates, we’re orphaned. We lose control of our destiny.”
We’ve been hearing about the proposed incorporation of Lakeside for months now — Bernie Knight says they’re half-way to reaching a $30,000 fundraising goal for the legally-required impact study — but there are half a dozen other city proposals quietly smoking in the waiting room. Theoretically, someone living in the right neighborhood could have as many as three different cities vying for their support. Lakeside, Druid Hills, Tucker, LaVista Hills and an omnibus city of Briarcliff covering about a fifth of the county are all in play. Maps are “fluid,” State. Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) reminded people, but several proposed cities have overlapping areas in common.
A City of DeKalb also remains on the table with HB 687, although the legislature has apparently signaled its dislike for the idea with rejections of earlier proposals. A City of DeKalb would effectively halt all further incorporation and annexation in the county. A different bit of legislation — HB 22 — would change the incorporation rules, effectively making it a bit more difficult to do. “(HB) 687 is about strategically planning for the county,” said State Rep. Pam Stephenson (D-DeKalb) as she referred to the impact of other incorporations on the county as a whole. “Without intellectual honesty in the discussion … we will continue to have debates without understanding what we’re debating.”
Oliver called the town hall (county hall?) meeting partially to create a forum for introducing the different groups to one another to iron out the inevitable territorial disputes and acrimonious intra-neighborhood fights. For example, pro-incorporation folks are still pushing for areas north of I-85 to join Chamblee, and they quite openly accused opponents of lying in direct mail about what incorporation might mean. State. Sen. Jason Carter (D-DeKalb) noted how disturbing he found the divisiveness of the Brookhaven political fight. “You need buy-in for it to work.”
Interestingly, that lack of buy-in appears to be driving one more incorporation idea that’s floating in the ether — that of the area around the Mall at Stonecrest. Jason Lary presented plans for a City of Stonecrest, which would cover a swath of south DeKalb … including the entire city of Lithonia. The new city would leave Lithonia as a Vatican City-esque enclave within it.
An audience member asked Lary, a music promoter and business development executive for Kaiser Permanente, if that would prevent the city of Lithonia from ever expanding.
Lary paused for a heartbeat, to let that land uncomfortably. And then he lit into Lithonia. Lary said he spent about $1.3 million over six years to help develop a civic center in Lithonia, “dragging the city kicking and screaming along. I’m not going to do that again.” He cited the drop in his property values over the last five years or so in his neighborhood near the mall — a loss of about two-thirds of his value. If the financially-troubled mall fails, he said he expects to cut his home value in half again. He said he thinks he can find more support outside of the city than within it. “You cannot conquer a people. They have to want it.”
Now … some of this could be sour grapes. Lary’s contract for concert promotion with Lithonia disintegrated in acrimony a few months ago, with city leaders describing him as disrespectful. Though there’s no telling how much support it may draw, Lary’s concept has a sponsor in the Georgia Senate. It illustrates the general level of dissatisfaction with the quality of governance in the county.
Presenters openly discussed the specter of future indictments of county officials and a general sense of lack-of-responsiveness from county government as a driving factor toward incorporation. The schools question also emerged, noting that a proposed change in the law may allow cities to eventually form their own districts and disassociate from the county system. (Fun fact: ousted DeKalb school board member Jay Cunningham stood quietly in the back aisle of the church, watching within an arm’s length of the double-door exit.)
I came to this meeting looking for a sense of strategic vision from county leaders. Commissioner Jeff Rader addressed some of those issues obliquely, but it was apparent that he wasn’t speaking from consensus. As I spoke with county functionaries in the crowd, I heard the standard refrain, that the county system of government — a strong CEO elected separately from a relatively weak board of commissioners — doesn’t work and that it needs to be changed … except that no one from the DeKalb legislative delegation wants to make the proposal.
So, I asked State Rep. Howard Mosby after the meeting why that was. He smiled a bit, and said that the delegation had studied the issue. “Well, the form of government, it depends on the people,” he said. The implication was clear, even if he was being polite: if the people in office aren’t any good, it doesn’t matter what kind of government you have.