Atlanta annexation bills debated as supporters seek chance to vote

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A war is brewing on two of Atlanta’s borders as groups that will decide whether to annex into the city clashed Wednesday in a public hearing at the state capitol.

At issue are a pair of bills sponsored by Democratic Rep. Pat Gardner, chair of the Atlanta delegation. The bills would allow residents in the Druid Hills area and a swath of unincorporated Fulton County to vote this November on joining Atlanta’s ranks.

But dozens who attended the packed meeting — including several local officials — debated the merits of annexation itself, while others simply asked for the right to vote.

In a lengthy and contentious meeting, residents and public officials alike aired a laundry list of concerns over how H.B. 586 and H.B. 587 would impact county budgets and school systems, not to mention competing cityhood efforts underway. At times, legislators sparred over the bills.

“Everything I’ve heard so far are reasons not to vote for it in the referendum. Fine, don’t vote for it,” said Rob MacKenna, a Druid Hills resident in favor of annexation. “All we’re asking for is us to have an opportunity to vote.”

Residents from both communities in favor of annexation say they see Atlanta as ascendant, praising its city services while also voicing concerns with what some said are systemic problems in DeKalb and lack of opportunity in their part of Fulton.

Opponents from both communities have deeply personal views against the bills. Some DeKalb officials and residents said they worry about the financial impact a Druid Hills annexation would have on the rest of the county. Some Fulton residents said their area would be better served by the proposed City of South Fulton, a bill that cleared the House last week and is now under consideration by the Senate.

Others in areas not directly affected by the potential annexations said it was unfair that they wouldn’t also have a say in the matter.

“As the great political philosopher Larry Flynt once said, ‘You don’t let five wolves and one sheep vote on what to have for dinner,’” quipped DeKalb resident Marjorie Snook, who leads a group called DeKalb Strong that wants a moratorium on annexations and incorporations.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May said it’s difficult to assess the true financial impact of annexation because the proposed boundaries continue to change. What’s clear, however, is that Atlanta stands to gain some of the county’s most valuable land: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and the Fernbank Museum.

“When people say let the people vote on this, let them have an opportunity to vote,” May said. “But I believe people ought to have an opportunity to vote when all the information and facts are laid before them, and that, we know, has not really been laid out.”

Annexation supporter Anne Wallace pointed out the group backed down from a similar effort last year to allow DeKalb time to study the issue.

“The reality is we believe that all of Dekalb County is going to be incorporated, that it’s inevitable and it’s just a matter of time,” she said.

A movement for the Druid Hills neighborhood to become part of Atlanta arose in large part from a desire by parents to separate themselves from DeKalb County’s public school system. Rep. Karla Drenner said the proposed annexation would “decimate” DeKalb’s schools system and “disenfranchise” roughly 2,000 students.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, who supports the Druid Hills legislation, said she expects a separate bill that would allow Atlanta and DeKalb school districts to reach a compromise on the issue.

Talks over the Fulton bill were far more vitriolic, however, as state Sen. LaDawn Jones, grilled Gardner and state Sen. Horacena Tate over talks held with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed over annexation.

Jones is behind a separate bill for the City of South Fulton. Last week, she railed against Reed for backing broad annexation proposals that potentially undercut her efforts.

At one point, state Sen. Vincent Fort called for Gardner and Tate “to be treated with the respect that they deserve,” to which Jones shot back: “They better hold on tight. It’s going to get worse.”

The Atlanta delegation took no action on the bills Wednesday.