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Torpy at Large: Red city rising from increasingly blue Cobb County?

Cobb County, long a bastion of conservatism, now leans Democratic. Meanwhile, a chunk of the county that remains staunchly Republican — East Cobb — is mulling becoming a city.

Is this a cosmic coincidence? Or is it cause and effect, a chance for folks here to elect local officials and stave off the whims of a Democratic junta?

The move coincides with the 2018 election, which put Cobb’s legislative delegation in Democratic control.

At first, it was difficult to get answers about the city effort. I knew that some residents met a couple of times to talk about whether it was time for a City of East Cobb, population 97,000. They raised about $35,000 to get Georgia State University to conduct a study that said, yes, a city was financially viable, with projected annual revenues of $48.4 million and expenditures of $45.6 million.

To find out what was going on, I called around, starting with veteran Republican state Rep. Sharon Cooper, who represents some of what would be the City of East Cobb. She requested the feasibility study but said she did not know much of what was going on with the effort. She said she was simply asked to get the study going because a legislator must be the one to do that.

Cooper didn’t find the lack of information flowing from city organizers to be nefarious. “I think it’s businessmen used to dealing with business deals and not used to dealing with the public,” she said.

I called state Rep. John Carson, a Republican who would represent some of the city. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s all kind of secret.”

Former County Commissioner Thea Powell has attended some meetings and laughed when I said folks are laying low: “I’m in the same boat,” she said. “It’s all quiet on the Eastern Front.”

Tom Cheek, a government activist in Cobb, said, “It’s kind of a mystery. Everyone wants to be one step away from it. It’s a case of, ‘Not being my idea — unless everyone is for it.’”

Joe O’Connor, who was on the cityhood steering committee, said he quit because they wouldn’t tell him who paid for the study.

He said his friend Joe Gavalis, president of the effort, refused to tell him. “His exact words were, ‘It’s none of your business.’”

But Gavalis told me O’Connor hung up on him in midsentence before he could explain why he wouldn’t reveal who funded the study.

Mike Boyce, chairman of the Cobb County Commission, listens to a speaker in Marietta.
Photo: HENRY TAYLOR / AJC 2017 file

Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce said, “It’s funny that it’s out there but no one wants to own it. If you want to be a public entity, you can’t hide behind anonymity.”

I heard that Phil Kent was the effort’s hired gun for communications. His involvement indicates a Republican tilt in the effort because if you set up a political discussion panel in Georgia, odds are Kent’s going to be your growling right-winger.

Kent passed on Gavalis’ number and soon I was talking with the retired law enforcement agent who is the face of the effort.

Gavalis said they weren’t trying to hide anything, they were just new at this and trying to figure out what they were doing. “We weren’t a government entity,” he said, “We were a bunch of ad hoc citizens.”

Gavalis said he and some friends and neighbors have been watching newer cities such as Sandy Springs, Milton and Dunwoody, and they like what they have seen. He argues that East Cobb is understaffed for police and that residents there want “self-determination in zoning and community development issues.”

He said his group will soon start conducting public meetings to discuss the effort.

Lynden Manor, a small subdivision in East Cobb. 
Photo: BOB ANDRES / AJC 2014 file

Thea Powell noted that East Cobb resembles the new(ish) north Fulton County city of Milton, which is kind of Ritzy Rural Meets the ‘Burbs. She said Milton and East Cobb have a similar need in wanting to have local control of zoning: “We don’t want high density. We’d like to maintain what we have.”

Part of the story seeping out is that many in East Cobb did not like it when the County Commission, led by Boyce, a Republican and a former military man, passed a budget last year with a 1.7 mil increase.

“I said, ‘Here’s the cost of amenities. If you want fewer amenities, I’m willing (to advocate) for a lower budget. Which amenities do you want to cut?’” Boyce said.

Remember last year, they were talking about closing libraries. Both Boyce and his aide, Millie Rogers, say there’s no free lunch.

“Anyone who thinks they are not going to pay for another layer of government is not connected to reality,” Rogers said, who admits the last year’s tax increase gave cityhood folks something to use to push their effort.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Democrat who represents neighboring Smyrna, said the rising Democratic tide in Cobb is “absolutely” one of the driving efforts of the cityhood effort.

“If you worry that you’re losing power, you set up another system of power,” Anulewicz said. “More than likely, (after the next election) we’re going to have a Democratic chairman and a Democratic DA.”

Yikes!

Commissioner Bob Ott works in his office at the Cobb County Government building in Marietta. 
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC 2012 file

I spoke with Bob Ott, a Republican county commissioner who represents East Cobb and who voted against the property tax increase.

Ott insists it’s not a Democratic/Republican thing or even a demographics thing (whites will be a minority there in perhaps four years). He said it’s a financial thing. Ott said his district (one of four in Cobb) pays 40 percent of the county’s property taxes but residents argue they aren’t getting the services they deserve.

He points out that a cityhood issue is also taking place in South Cobb. That would be a minority/majority city.

“There’s a faction of people who want more services and there’s a faction of people who are paying the bills who are saying, ‘How much is enough?’” said Ott, who says he is merely watching the effort.

He said the county is increasingly split up into separate communities of interest.

“You keep hearing, ‘Someone else is getting more than we are,’” Ott said. “The polarization that you see on the national level is happening here on the local level.”

Ott suddenly noted that this is not about him trying to be mayor of the new city, something I hadn’t heard about and probably means it is something that he has surely considered.

It might make sense.

Ott flies commercial jets for a living and can do that reassuring pilot’s voice that is calming during bouts of turbulence.

And there is no doubt that many in East Cobb think that Democrats taking over the county is turbulence.

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