The leaders of the East Cobb cityhood effort did the right thing this week by calling off their push for legislation and a referendum in 2020.
They were running out of time to get too many things done—including finalizing a map and a proposed list of services—and had stoked even more opposition, suspicion and confusion for months this spring and summer when they barely connected with the public at all.
County elected officials, including legislators, hadn’t been told what was going on.
After its first town hall meeting in March, the Committee for Cityhood in East Cobb had its work cut out, as citizens packed a church parish hall and demanded to know who, what and especially why this was being proposed.
A month later the cityhood group had a town hall meeting at Walton High School. Like that and future events it held, citizens could ask questions only by writing them down on a note card for a moderator to read. Or not.
This is no way to have a meaningful dialogue with the public about a dramatic change in their local government, in an initiative that would ultimately be decided by citizens.
Neither is having a cityhood bill filed in the legislature the day after that first town hall meeting, and on the next-to-last day of the General Assembly session.
At the time, I thought it smacked of another bad-faith effort on the part of the cityhood group, which paid for a financial feasibility study issued last November, but whose members remained anonymous and unwilling to meet with the public.
At one point on its website, the cityhood group explained that it wasn’t identifying its donors or others involved for fear of harassment from their “enemies” and the media.
By dodging such basic questions, and setting up a non-profit 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization to conceal donors, original cityhood leaders likely created more opponents than they ever conjured up in their paranoid imaginations.
- East Cobb Cityhood effort delayed to 2021
- Cityhood opponents unveil revised map estimate
- Dollar: Proposed map revisions still in progress
- Editor’s Note: A golden goose, and boiling frogs
- Cityhood group releases names of committee members
- Pro- and anti-cityhood forces square off in debate
- Proposed city map expands to include Pope, Lassiter districts
- Cityhood group hires high-profile state lobbyists
- More East Cobb News Cityhood coverage
Public suspicions were immediate, and they continue today: Development interests are behind this. Nothing but a land grab. Look at what’s happening in Sandy Springs. We don’t want that coming here.
Also: We don’t want another layer of government. My property taxes are bound to go up. The services I get from the county are just fine.
When the cityhood group finally faced the public, newly appointed cityhood leader David Birdwell didn’t stand much of a chance.
I’ve found him and Rob Eble, another newcomer to the group, to be well-intentioned. But overcoming the bad start of others has been a tall order, and it’s dogged them ever since.
So has the lack of any kind of public groundswell for a City of East Cobb. When prominent civic leaders say they were blindsided by this, that’s telling.
Trying to push through legislation in two years, hiring high-profile lobbyists and keeping the public in the dark for months hurt the cityhood case even more.
Another big question: What’s the rush?
Other cityhood efforts in metro Atlanta have taken several legislative cycles. There is so much to work out, in addition to finances: Intergovernmental agreements, start-up costs, staffing even a bare-bones city hall, and that darn map.
Eble told me this week the cityhood group never finalized an expanded map to include the Pope and Lassiter school zones. It was an estimate provided by a GIS service that detailed the original map.
Ultimately, the East Cobb cityhood effort struggled from a lack of organization more than having what many consider a shadowy agenda.
Eble admitted the cityhood group made mistakes communicating with the public. As for the idea of cityhood, he said, “I still believe in it. But nobody’s trying to shove anything down anybody’s throat.”
There are many who will never believe this, of course, and they will remain ever-vigilant to stop cityhood.
Yet I’ve also talked to, and heard from, citizens who are unsure. They weren’t necessarily opposed to cityhood but wanted more information, and didn’t feel like they were getting it.
Some others roiled by an annexation spat this summer with the City of Marietta have been open to the idea of an East Cobb city, fearing the county can’t protect them.
As these last few months have transpired, I do think the idea of cityhood is worth considering. I’ve been accused of being biased, both for and against a city, but I don’t really have an opinion.
Too big to succeed?
As someone who grew up in East Cobb, I’ve seen my community become suburbanized, and now more densely developed in some areas.
This is happening all over the county, which has more than 750,000 people and is projected to have a population of one million by 2050.
Before the cityhood issue was raised, I had been wondering if Cobb County government could continue to operate as it has.
There are serious concerns about public safety staffing, the county’s growing pension obligations and addressing transportation and development concerns.
Is Cobb too big to govern the way it is, with a countywide chairman and four district commissioners serving nearly 200,000 people each? And representing communities that are distinct from one another?
There are times when commissioners are squabbling during their meetings that I wonder if they can even agree on what to have for lunch.
I’ve thought a citizen-led, grassroots cityhood movement in East Cobb could gain some traction, especially around zoning, development and land use issues.
I could see a City of East Cobb providing those and other community development services, including code enforcement.
I’ve never understood why the cityhood effort centered upon providing expensive police and fire services to supplant excellent, if not fully-staffed county departments? We have the lowest crime and fire rates in Cobb County.
Why not provide something better than what exists now, in say, sanitation, where the increasingly monopolized American Disposal private hauler is the subject of many complaints?
A financial review group studying the East Cobb feasibility study recommended that option, at least to start.
A “city light” form of government could serve East Cobb much better than one worrying about how to pay for new fire trucks and police cars and trained professionals to staff them.
The “pause and reset” phase for cityhood, to borrow Eble’s phrase to me, is a good time to rethink those matters, as well as to be fully forthcoming with the public before gearing up for 2021.
At the outset, the cityhood group should lay out all of its finances, including how much money has been spent, and who’s been footing the bills.
Identify everybody who’s given money to the cause, and been involved in the effort in a significant way. Everybody.
This isn’t a private business deal, but an entirely public matter that could affect the lives of more than 100,000 people.
Follow the lead of the Mableton cityhood effort, which conducted extensive town halls over a couple of years to really hear what the public thinks, without note card questions and a “here’s what we want to do” mentality.
Like Mableton, have a city map fully detailed, including city council districts that were indicated in the East Cobb bill but never visualized, and provide an online survey.
Better communications include regular use of social media. The East Cobb cityhood group barely updated those platforms and its website, which is absurd heading into the third decade of the 21st century.
Cityhood leaders should have regular discussions with legislators and other local elected officials, since without their support a referendum will likely never happen.
The East Cobb cityhood group certainly has serious intentions. It had the money to buy access and line up the mechanics of getting a bill passed in the legislature.
What it didn’t have was a concept of what it really takes to gather public support, and its efforts to explain its reasons for cityhood were belated and underwhelming.
Something as substantive as creating a new local government shouldn’t be accepted as easily as cityhood leaders may have thought. Nor should it be categorically rejected as the anti-city East Cobb Alliance has maintained.
For those of us who have an open mind about the issue, we’re still receptive to hearing a better case being made.
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