Cityhood movement boosted by DeKalb’s problems

Residents who want to form the new cities of LaVista Hills and Tucker say their motivations go beyond taking control of parks, business licensing and community planning.

They also want to get as far from DeKalb County’s scandals as possible.

Voters will decide whether to incorporate the communities Nov. 3.

“It has gotten to the point where it’s embarrassing to even say where you live,” said Wanda Walton, a behavioral scientist who favors LaVista Hills’ proposal. “It’s important that we have local control over the area we live in, and that’s just not happening with the government we have in DeKalb County.”

With every revelation of corruption in DeKalb’s government, the case for communities to break into separate cities gains ground, say promoters of the pending municipalities.

Residents say they’re disgusted by criminal convictions, ethics violations and ongoing investigations of county officials. After investigators called DeKalb “rotten to the core” last month, cityhood advocates say they picked up supporters who want a fresh start with a more local government.

The cities would take on a small number of services while still relying on the county to provide education, water and sewer, trash collection, courts, libraries, jails and more. LaVista Hills would also start its own police force, while Tucker would continue to be served by DeKalb police.

Incorporations add more governments to the region, and critics question whether bringing more politicians into the mix is the answer.

Judging by yard signs in some neighborhoods, the debate over cityhood has led to sharp differences in opinion. Some houses boast “LaVista Hills Yes” and “Tucker 2015” signs, while other placards say “Time out. Let’s think!” and “DeKalb is OK with me. No cityhood.”

Ed Ewing, who lives in the LaVista Hills area and is skeptical of cityhood, said backers of the concept have used DeKalb’s problems to boost their own cause during community meetings.

“Disgust sells,” Ewing wrote in an email after a LaVista Hills community meeting at a church last month. “The glaring weakness remained the refusal to really define the DeKalb County problem or the problems LaVista Hills would propose to solve.”

There’s no doubt that government corruption has damaged DeKalb’s image over the last few years. Several high-profile public officials have been found guilty — suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, former DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer and former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis — along with about two dozen lower-ranking employees.

And an upcoming report on fraud and malfeasance in DeKalb, written by special investigators Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde, likely will fan outrage. They’re the ones who called the county “rotten” in a letter to Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May last month, though details of their findings haven’t been released.

Cityhood backers believe they need greater control over their destiny rather than leaving it in the hands of DeKalb, which includes 722,000 residents. By comparison, LaVista Hills would include 67,000 people, and Tucker would cover about 33,000 residents.

“We’ll still be part of DeKalb County, but the more money we can dedicate to our local issues, the better off we’re going to be,” said Jo Anne Stubblefield, a Tucker-area attorney who represents real estate developers. “If we can incorporate and tell new businesses that we want you and we’ll do what we can to expedite our approvals so we can get quality development in Tucker, I think they will come.”

Chris Cordero, who owns Growler Time Beer Company, said he hopes a city of Tucker wouldn’t have as much red tape as DeKalb. When Cordero sought business licenses two and a half years ago, he said, he had to make repeated trips to county offices and waited months for responses.

“There’s nobody in DeKalb with a vested interest in Tucker,” Cordero said. “When we get Tucker going, I’ll know the people in office. They’re my clients. They live here. They can make Main Street more like Decatur.”

Opposition to cityhood has organized through a group called DeKalb Strong, which has sought to fix the county rather than divide it.

The group’s members believe DeKalb’s government is improving after investigations exposed wrongdoing and state lawmakers passed reform measures. Those changes include approval to hire an independent financial watchdog and replacing the DeKalb Board of Ethics with new members.

“Are cities a permanent solution to a temporary problem?” asked Ron McCauley, a board member of DeKalb Strong who lives just outside LaVista Hills’ proposed borders. “We’re getting things cleaned up.”

Though DeKalb would continue to provide most services, incorporation would make a difference, said Leslie McBee, an educator who backs LaVista Hills.

“We can do better,” she said. “I’m fully aware that city services are a minor part of all of our government services, but I’m in favor of it because it’s a step in the right direction.”

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