Construction on Johnson Ferry Road in Sandy Springs in 2017. Chad Rhym,
Photo: Chad Rhym
Photo: Chad Rhym

In our GOP-controlled Legislature, ‘local control’ has lost its cachet

Sometime this week, the mayors of several metro Atlanta cities – three of which were created by a GOP-controlled state Legislature – will gather to discuss whether to mount a constitutional battle for the right to determine what goes on inside their boundaries. 

Their argument: The Republican party, which came to power with a promise of more local control, is now spinning out of control. 

“This Legislature has been – there’s been a real assault on local control and home rule, which is encased in the Georgia constitution. These are not small issues,” said Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs and former chairman of the state GOP. 

Former President James Carter reflects on the life of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller.

Specifically, Paul and other mayors point to House Bill 876, a measure that prevents city and county governments from adopting tougher standards than required by the state when it comes to the construction of wooden buildings. 

Sandy Springs and Dunwoody have ordinances that mandate the use of non-flammable material – stone, concrete, metal and such – on structures taller than three stories. HB 876, which has passed both chambers and now awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature, would require them to permit wooden structures up to five stories. 

In metro Atlanta, there is a worry about fire. “I have seen these things burn, I know how fast they are,” Paul said. 

In Savannah, city officials are looking askance at HB 876, but with a different concern: Hurricanes. 

On the surface, HB 876 is an industry-protection measure of a sort often seen at the Legislature, intended to guarantee a market for state forestry concerns. But most of the wood used in metro Atlanta construction comes from parts north, including Canada, Paul said. 

Which means HB 876, despite its potential impact on Georgia cities, is largely symbolic. It is a testament, like many other bills this session, to the growing tension between Republicans in struggling rural Georgia, and those in the orbit of a booming metro Atlanta economy. 

Deals between rural and urban Georgia often dominate the Legislature. This year, the primary transaction is an even swap: Legislation to establish a path toward commuter rail in metro Atlanta, in exchange for greater rural access to broadband service. Both are considered fundamental to the economies of each, and both could be in play until midnight Thursday, when the Legislature adjourns. 

But other bills expressing rural angst have also been promulgated this year, many of them at the expense of metro Atlanta suburbia. 

SB 426, a separate bill associated with the rural broadband effort, would give Internet providers quicker and easier access to municipal right-of-way. It caps what cities can charge, and gives broadband companies license to set up devices – on poles or on the ground – “the size of a refrigerator,” one city-oriented lobbyist said. Never mind traffic concerns or the fact that, in suburbia, such rights-of-way include the front yards of many residents. 

“I never again want to hear a conservative, a Republican, say to me that local government is a laboratory of democracy, because I’ve never seen such hooey and hypocrisy,” Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said last week on GPB’s “Political Rewind.” 

Some of this year’s assaults on local control might be termed political mission creep. 

The creation of the city of Sandy Springs in 2005 was one of the first accomplishments of a state Legislature under total GOP control. The legislation created a precedent by circumventing the wishes of the Fulton County legislative delegation, dominated by Democrats. 

This year, the Legislature is on the verge of expanding that precedent, by taking apart the city of Stockbridge in Henry County, in order to create a separate city of Eagles Landing. This is being done against the wishes of both the city of Stockbridge, which is 60 percent black, and the Henry County legislative delegation, which is also majority African-American. 

“I believe we created a monster. It’s bad policy because you are creating cultural wars,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, during debate in that chamber earlier this month. 

Cultural differences are a substantial piece of the rural-suburban puzzle in Georgia, and always have been. Past legislation to expand where concealed weaponry could be carried fell along that fault line. So have less successful efforts, advocated by religious conservatives, to give legal protection to firms that don’t want to do business with same-sex couples. 

But when it comes to the increase in legislation aimed at restricting the powers of urban centers in Georgia, Todd Rehm, the editor of and a Republican strategist, has a theory. 

Rehm points to the coming 2020 census, which is sure to record the further depopulation of rural Georgia. With that comes reduced representation in Congress and, especially, the state Legislature – where rural lawmakers still tend to dominate the more important committee chairmanships. 

“Some of this is, ‘Get it while you can, because everyone understands that with the next redistricting, more power will be shifted to metro Atlanta,’” Rehm said. 

Rural trepidation runs deep, in ways that suburbanites might not consider. Rehm pointed to two pieces of legislation introduced this year that reflect uneasiness over suburban and urban encroachment. Both involve animals. 

HB 948 was aimed at cities and counties that have, reflecting a new trend, banned the retail sale of puppies in pet stores – an effort to increase adoptions from shelters. The bill would have barred cities and counties from restricting the sale of any product approved by federal or state government. 

Rehm, who is a lover of canines himself, characterized the fight as a revolt against “places where a dog without a leash is a problem to be solved, not a part of everyday life.” 

HB 948 passed the House Agriculture Committee, but failed to get any further. A mirror-image bill in the Senate also failed to move. 

Then there’s SB 257, authored by state Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, which remained on the cusp of passage Tuesday. The bill would require law enforcement officers, before leveling charges of animal cruelty against farmers involved “in animal husbandry of food animals,” to consult with a qualified veterinarian to determine whether farmers are doing anything that isn’t “customary and standard.” 

This is a bill written for the day, which may or may not come, when PETA has outsized influence in the state Capitol. 

What chafes Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs, is that some rural lawmakers seem less inclined to let suburban Georgians live by their own customs and standards, too. 

Which bodes ill for Republicans in metro Atlanta who are trying to stay in office in an increasingly challenging climate. 

“These people are my friends,” he said. “I respect them. But we’ve got to come to some accommodation where rural Georgia doesn’t feel threatened by some of the things we have to do in these more densely populated areas to make life work for our own people. It’s not a zero-sum game.”

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.