Court won’t hear Cobb cityhood challenges until after election day

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard

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Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard

Lawsuit can continue if cities of Vinings, Lost Mountain or East Cobb are approved by voters

A Cobb Superior Court judge on Thursday allowed three cityhood elections to proceed on the May 24 ballot, issuing an order that postpones the lawsuits challenging them until after election day.

The lawsuits had sought to either delay the referendums to November or have them blocked from the ballot entirely, arguing that the proposed city charters of Vinings, East Cobb and Lost Mountain violate the state constitution.

“This court declines to interfere with the legislative process and remove the referendum from the ballot,” Chief Judge Robert Leonard wrote in the order. “...In the meantime, it is incumbent on the proponents, opponents, and voters — not this court — to educate one another on the issues presented in this lawsuit.”

Cityhood supporters cheered the decision, calling it a victory for Cobb County voters.

“We are very pleased with the ruling,” Taryn Bowman, who leads the Vinings Exploratory Committee, told the AJC in an email. “The opposition’s ploy to defeat cityhood by actually taking away people’s right to vote on it one way or the other failed miserably, as it should.”

The stay order stopped short of an outright victory for the cityhood movements, who had asked the court to dismiss the suits entirely.

Leonard wrote that if any of the cities are approved, “the complex issues presented in this case” would be heard with full arguments from both sides, rather than on a “rushed timeline” ahead of the vote. If the cities are rejected by voters, he added, the cases are moot anyway.

At issue is whether the city charters improperly limit the home rule powers of cities. Under the state constitution, cities are granted 14 supplementary powers that outline what services they can provide, and the authority to levy taxes.

The charters specify that the cities will provide some services, like code enforcement and planning and zoning, but not others. And while cities in Georgia can offer limited services if they choose, the lawsuit argues the charters put forward by the legislature unconstitutionally limit future city leaders from making that choice.

The Vinings charter, for instance, directs the city to provide planning and zoning, code enforcement, and parks and recreation services, while contracting with Cobb County or private entities to obtain other public services, such as police and fire.

The charters for East Cobb and Lost Mountain also say the cities will provide limited services. To add others, their city councils would have to ask voters permission through a public referendum.

In a statement, one of the cityhood opponents challenging the referendums said she was “delighted” that the court “recognizes the legal merits of the case.”

“Proponents for cityhood in West Cobb are selling the concept of a four-service ‘city-lite’ that they cannot deliver, by law,” said Dora Locklear, the chair of West Cobb Advocate. “They are asking the citizens in their community to buy into and vote for a bait and switch marketing scheme that promises limited services, while the constitution mandates all 14 services.”