Editor’s Note: East Cobb cityhood an idea worth considering

East Cobb Cityhood idea
East Cobb Cityhood leader David Birdwell met a skeptical and at times hostile crowd at the group’s first public appearance in March. (ECN file photos)

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.

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, East Cobb city map
State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick said she got a lot of negative feedback about East Cobb cityhood.

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.

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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.

East Cobb cityhood
East Cobb cityhood leader Rob Eble speaks at a Wheeler HS town hall meeting in November.

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?

East Cobb cityhood
Tre Hutchins and Galt Porter of the South Cobb Alliance, a pro-cityhood group in Mableton.

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.

Transparency matters

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.

East Cobb cityhood
East Cobb cityhood leader David Birdwell at an East Cobb Business Association debate in November.

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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9 thoughts on “Editor’s Note: East Cobb cityhood an idea worth considering”

  1. After reading the 8 comments offered, I did not see any reason why I would want to live in the city of East Cobb County. I have yet to met any neighbors who support a new city in East Cobb County. I love where I have lived for 30+ years.

  2. The editorial seems to suggest that, given time, we might get a clearer picture of the benefits of cityhood. I think the very thought of creating a city has to be based on some value proposition worth pursuing. While things like city boundaries might still need to be defined, the benefits of cityhood should have been eminently clear from the start. If they can’t make their case in the first year, it’s time to drop out. They’re beating a dead horse.

  3. I am in 100% agreement with Mr Eshelman‘s comments. I’d like to also add that not only is Cobb County one of 43 counties in the entire country that enjoys the benefits of a AAA Moody’s bond rating, but we are the ONLY county in the entire country that has held that distinction for the past 23 years. This is a significant accomplishment that speaks to the fiscal responsibility of Cobb County and which we all benefit from. For one, it keeps the cost of any short-term borrowing at the lowest possible rates, which translates to lower cost of government and lower taxes.

    Cobb was almost downgraded two years ago when our revenues did not meet our obligations. The mileage rate was raised slightly and we were able to maintain it. If we carve out the general funds from the county to redirect them to a City of East Cobb, there is no way that Cobb will be able to maintain the AAA rating, which means the cost of governing will go up, both in the county and the newly formed city. We will all still be county residents, despite a Cityhood, so we can expect our taxes to go up both in the city and the county to make up for those costs.

    Our taxes are among the lowest in the Metro Atlanta area and our services are among the highest. Like many of the comments above, I have to ask why we are interested in “fixing” something that is not broken. If we are concerned that 5 commissioners are unable to adequately represent their growing constituencies, there is an easy fix for that – add two more seats to the County Commission and draw the lines to more accurately represent the communities in Cobb!

  4. There is nothing with which I disagree in any of the three commenters above me; however, there is one thing I’d like to add – and a couple of thoughts after that.

    The article says: “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?” … how do they intend to do anything better with another trash company? The dump is in Cobb County, they all have to play by the same rules, and there are many good trash companies out there who won’t go into Cobb County (some of whom live in Cobb) because of the associated expenses in Cobb, which are, apparently, much higher than in other counties. Do they intend to put their fingers on the scale of fairness as to who pays what?

    There are far too many things in the air with no resolution or, even, discussion – and there are far too many things slanted to make the proposal sound like a good idea (which works well if nobody digs into what’s being said and the realities of it).

    The bill needs to be (and can be) withdrawn; if Mr. Dollar doesn’t feel that’s within his power, then he can table it and reintroduce it when the group is ready. However, the bill can continue to move through the legislative process regardless of what its instigators say, and the only way to actually delay or stop it is to stop that legislative process. If they’re not going to do that, then it’s just more smoke and mirrors.

  5. After all this time these jokers can’t even come up with one reason why things will be any better for us. Better for them, sure. If you read the fine print, their proposal gives the organizers two full year to do whatever they want with no oversight or accountability. What do we stand to gain? Nothing. What do we stand to lose? Our property rights and higher taxes. If it’s not a good idea now, why’s it gonna be any better in two years?

  6. I concur with the well-written comments of Mr. Eschelman above and only add the “logic” part of the argument. That being: If this is such a good idea, then:

    1) Why the secrecy of the Cityhood team? Even after all the inquiries, emails and phone calls, few if any responses are forthcoming. There seems to be a cone of silence by their side, some of which are mentioned in this article. It is a disservice to their cityhood desires if they keep ignoring the inquiring minds.

    2) Why issue a “feasibility study” purported to be written by a University department/students that a 2nd year accounting major could see right through as to its inanity?

    If a school and or professor actually put out this level of shoddy work, they should be reprimanded – and the cityhood group should demand a refund of what they paid. It appeared to be a “Excel Spreadsheet” exercise where they kept moving things around until they got the outcome they wanted, and “magically” found a $3M surplus in year 1.

    I recommend reviewing what Mr. Eschelman wrote here that includes many significant items NOT addressed by the study – including that our personal home owner insurance will go up because of loss of the high fire rating we have enjoyed for years. Our senior tax relief will go away because that money will be needed to meet the budgets, senior’s home taxes will triple or more, and some seniors who have been here for decades may be forced to move.

    3) Why can’t they clearly explain the benefits of cityhood over what we have now? All I hear are generalities – better police protection, better roads, etc. No specifics, especially of what is broken.

    4) While I am OK with their keeping the internal information about their org in private (like charter, filings, bookkeeping, etc), if they expect any support they need to disclose their funding. They are a 501-c4 which lets them block the information on participants, which I find interesting.

    5) Finally, I object to the article using the negative descriptor of the East Cobb Alliance as an “anti” group. It automatically makes them “the bad guys” when people are skimming articles, yet you are describing concerned citizens who are asking reasonable questions about keeping what has always been reality here. As example, if people here have enjoyed lower density zoning, they get called “anti-growth” if they fight against higher density zoning proposals. This was seen in the zoning fight on Waterfront Drive (the Maddox land area) a couple of years ago. The people prevailed in that one. Had we been a city, I doubt they would have won.

    This “anti” tag adds a negative connotation to the honest beliefs of – from what I see – the huge majority of affected residents (90% in one recent poll) who do not want this to go through, based on what they have been able to find out. How about calling them the “pro-retain (or remain)” group. Or start referring to the pro-city group as ‘anti-small government”?

  7. The pro-cityhood group can “pull back” all they want, but unless Matt Dollar withdraws his bill, it’s still going forward. Because of that, there is still a lot of suspicion among the citizenry. People who oppose cityhood need to continue yo make their voices heard.

  8. Things to consider with the City of East Cobb:

    1 Cobb county is one of only 43 counties in the United States with a AAA credit rating from Moody’s. this credit rating allows the county to borrow at the lowest possible cost and helps hold down our taxes. there is no way that East Cobb City will have a AAA and there is no way that Cobb county will keep a AAA if East Cobb city is broken off

    2 Cobb has a fire and safety rating ISO 1 which is the highest possible rating. If this rating is lost our insurance costs will skyrocket including the insurance for your home. and that rating will be lost if East Cobb City goes off on its own. There is no way East Cobb City can maintain such a well-trained highly rated Fire department.

    3 Cobb county has a highly-trained Fire EMS and police department. This is done with high standards high levels of training and our own training facilities in the county. East Cobb City will not enjoy that advantage.

    4 the new city of course wants to control zoning and planning. by doing this they will be able to control what kind of high-density development goes on. They will be able to use eminent domain to feed their pocketbooks

    5 they would like to take the old Lester Maddox property there some 30 acres and make it into the city centre.

    6 well it could be true that they can get a bargain deal on the government facility at lower Roswell road it is not true that they will get the contents including fire and EMS. It will take millions of dollars to replace the equipment. and many many more dollars to get training and upgrade staff to the current level of safety that we have.

    all I hear from people that want this city is a desire for local control. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what the statistics are behind that. I do know our systems are not broken and there is no reason to try and fix what is not broken

    This is all about money for developers and jobs for politicians

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