Residents, community leaders, supporters and opponents filled the Lakeside High School auditorium Sept. 30 for a debate about the merits of incorporation for the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Excitement for new Metro Atlanta cities fades over time

In feverish campaigns to create new cities across Metro Atlanta, citizens drummed up support with yard signs, community meetings and email blasts.

Their efforts paid off, resulting in seven fresh cities since Sandy Springs opened the floodgates a decade ago. Two more potential municipalities — LaVista Hills and Tucker — will be on the ballot Nov. 3.

But the enthusiasm surrounding the ideas of self-determination and local control doesn’t always last, and perhaps contentment sets in.

Some of the region’s youngest cities canceled next month’s local elections because no one challenged incumbents, and voter turnout has steadily declined.

Of 21 city council and mayoral seats up for election in the region’s fledgling cities, 13 are uncontested. At the same time, residents who flocked to the polls for initial elections now stay home in droves, voting at rates more comparable to established jurisdictions, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of turnout figures.

“After a while, you get bored and worn down,” said Sandy Murray, who opposed the city of Brookhaven and lost an election in 2012 to become its first mayor. “People at first were very excited. The governing is the hard part.”

Cityhood supporters say a decline in excitement is only natural after the big push for incorporation reaches its successful conclusion. And the lack of competition for elected office may reflect satisfaction with local government rather than apathy.

“There’s been a little bit of a dropoff, but the folks who were most heavily involved in the (cityhood) referendum … have remained engaged,” said Burt Hewitt, a councilman in Milton, where this year’s city council election was canceled because no one opposed Hewitt and two others.

Peachtree Corners Mayor Mike Mason hasn’t ever faced an opponent — neither in his city’s first election in 2012 nor in this year’s election. Mason says residents are pleased with a government that quickly returns their phone calls and code enforcement officers that respond to complaints.

“We had no opposition, and it’s because we have a good city council, good city staff, and we work together,” Mason said. “People are happy with what we’re doing.”

Because Mason and three incumbent council members are unopposed, the city called off November’s election as permitted by Georgia law. Chattahoochee Hills also cancelled two council elections.

Voter turnout dropped in most new cities’ mayoral elections, including Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs. Dunwoody was the exception, where turnout rose in its second mayoral election. Brookhaven and Peachtree Corners have only had one mayoral election.

Meanwhile, each referendum asking voters to approve a new city has received less support. About 94 percent of voters in Sandy Springs backed its incorporation in 2005, but only 55 percent wanted to form Brookhaven in 2012.

Dawn Forman, a resident who opposes the LaVista Hills initiative, said adding another government will make it harder for concerned citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.

“No one has time to watch all of this,” Forman said. “There are people already involved in civic associations and park groups, so we don’t need a city for that.”

On the other hand, said LaVista Hills Yes Chairman Allen Venet, the motivation to start a city is just the beginning of getting residents involved in taking control of community planning, public safety and parks.

“That level of interest and emotion isn’t going to disappear the moment the city forms,” Venet said. “When you look at the LaVista Hills community, it’s full of people who are interested and engaged and watching the government very closely.”

He said cities generally do a better job of working with citizens because they’re smaller than county governments, and it’s easier for residents to run for office if they’re dissatisfied with city leadership.

In Tucker, which has been a community for more than 120 years, residents will likely continue their existing involvement in civic associations, business alliances and arts groups if voters approve cityhood, said Michelle Penkava of Tucker 2015.

“We’ve never had to fight complacency in our community before. We have so many people who are so actively engaged already,” she said. “We’re very confident that the multitude of citizens that are already active in Tucker will continue to be active in Tucker.”

In Brookhaven, many residents have continued to email council members, show up at meetings and report problems to city leaders since it became a city three years ago, said Councilwoman Linley Jones, who is facing a challenge from Eve Erdogan in the Nov. 3 election.

“Over the course of our city’s short life, people are even more engaged in the issues that affect them locally than ever before,” Jones said. “That’s what we wanted before we became a city, and it’s come true.”

But Jim Eyre, one of Brookhaven’s founding city council members, said residents have become disillusioned with the government. He said officials don’t listen to constituents’ concerns, and then they give up trying.

“To be brutally honest, I think 90 percent of the people who live in Brookhaven have no idea they live in a new city,” said Eyre, who resigned over differences with other city leaders last year. “As far as they’re concerned, there’s a government out there doing what it always did.”

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