Taking apart the city of Stockbridge -- and the faint whiff of a deal

We spoke on Presidents' Day, so from my point of view, the comparison to Abraham Lincoln was irresistible.

On Jan. 1, Anthony Ford became the first African-American elected as mayor of Stockbridge. Just like Lincoln, Ford has been immediately greeted with an unprecedented crisis of southern secession. Right?

“Ah. Very good. I got that,” the mayor said. “I don’t know if I feel like Abe Lincoln. We’ve got a little bit different process here.”

Last week, the state House and Senate passed separate packages of legislation that would strip away an estimated 54 percent of Stockbridge’s sales tax revenue — by removing from the city a commercial district and other acreage that would be incorporated into a new city of Eagles Landing.

On Stockbridge’s southern side.

We have grown used to the creation of new cities from unincorporated portions of counties. This is the first time that, by whim of the Legislature, an existing city would be disassembled so that a portion of it might be cannibalized into another, new creation.

Ford and other city officials say Stockbridge’s ability to survive economically would be jeopardized. The city has no property tax. “If this does go through, myself and the council would have to impose one on the citizens to survive,” the mayor said. Voters might or might not approve.

“The folks that would be left behind don’t have a whole lot of money,” Ford said.

This isn’t about race. And yet it’s very much about race.

It isn’t about race if you’ve listened to supporters of the new city of Eagles Landing. The House passed the Stockbridge package with no debate. In the Senate, sponsor Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, spoke of residential and business complaints about access to city services, and the virtues of self-determination. (In the Senate legislation, voters in the de-annexed portion of Stockbridge would be allowed to decide, by referendum, if they want to join the city of Eagles Landing.

One of the few slips in discipline, caught by a CBS46 camera, occurred in testimony during a House subcommittee meeting. "The demographic make-up of the current city of Stockbridge has kept some businesses from coming to the area. With the development of the proposed city — the demographics change," said Susan Clowdus, a Realtor and vice-chair of Eagles Landing Educational Research Committee, the group funding the new-city effort.

Even Ford and other Stockbridge city officials have resisted playing the race card. “Our city position is that we’re talking about the people. We don’t want to focus in on ethnicity and this aspect,” Mayor Ford said. “It’s about the people and doing what’s right for the citizens inside the city limits itself.”

And yet the situation is very much about black and white if you consider the massive racial reconfiguration underway in all of Henry County. Whites made up 80 percent of the county’s population as recently as 2000. In 2016, when the county went for Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest, whites were only 47 percent of the population.

Stockbridge has felt the turmoil. By one AJC count, the city had gone through six city clerks, five finance directors and five city managers between 2010 and 2015. In late in 2015, Mayor Tim Thompson, who is white, resigned after several clashes with black members of the city council. Ford, as mayor pro tem, filled in for 11 months.

Judy Neal, a white former administrator in the Zell Miller administration, was elected to fill out Thompson’s term in an 2016 special election. She qualified for re-election last year, then abruptly withdrew her name.

That allowed Ford, a retired U.S. Army colonel, to be easily elected mayor. Another November result: For the first time, the Stockbridge city council would be made up entirely of African-Americans.

It’s also worth noting that 53 percent of Stockbridge’s voting-age population is black. In the new city of Eagles Landing, black and white voters would enjoy a rough parity.

But while race is a primary factor in Stockbridge’s fight for survival, it isn’t the only factor, according to state Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat whose district includes nearly all of Stockbridge. He opposes the legislation.

Jones owns Ford and Hyundai car dealerships in nearby McDonough. He said the Stockbridge/Eagles Landing fracas is also a fight for the right to control zoning and, with it, economic development around the Jodeco Road and I-75 exit. The legislation would put it within a new city of Eagles Landing.

What comes next is hard to say. Final passage of the Stockbridge/Eagles Landing is likely in the weeks ahead. Stockbridge officials are already making the case for a gubernatorial veto.

The involuntary dissolution of a city creates a terrible precedent, Ford and others argue – think of Buckhead seceding from Atlanta. And it’s unclear what would happen if Stockbridge should default on outstanding bonds as a result of the de-annexation.

Bruce Holmes, a Henry County commissioner, has petitioned Gov. Nathan Deal to stop what he called “pirating” tactics. “If you sign this into law, the city of Stockbridge would lose all of its high-end commercial, medical and technology businesses and [would] only be left with pawn shops, liquor stores, used tire shops, used auto parts shops and tow truck lots,” he wrote.

But Holmes’ request might be complicated by the fact that Brian Strickland, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, is one of the governor’s floor leaders.

On the other hand, Stockbridge hasn’t given up pursuit of a compromise — perhaps one reason why the fight hasn’t devolved into a racial shouting match.

We’re in possession of a letter from Lakeisha Gantt, mayor pro tem of Stockbridge, to state Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, sponsor of the House legislation. It speaks of referendum in which voters would be asked to approve creation of a larger city of Stockbridge, incorporating the Eagles Landing area, and divided into council districts “so that every area of the City would be assured fair, local representation.”

Currently, all members of the Stockbridge city council are elected at-large. Among the advantages of a compromise, Gantt noted:

-- “Stockbridge would not be financially devastated;”

-- “No residents would be faced with new property taxes;”

-- “Residents of Eagle’s Landing communities would be assured of fair, local representation;” and

-- “The state of Georgia would be spared any embarrassment and litigation expense.”

That sounds like a deal worth pursuing. Here’s the Gantt/Welch letter: