Why Lakeside cityhood push failed

It was clear state Rep. Mike Jacobs didn’t want to touch the controversial Lakeside cityhood issue with a barge pole.

But the Republican lawmaker cobbled neighboring Brookhaven into a city two years ago, and desperate Lakeside backers, who were watching their effort fall apart last week, drafted Jacobs to work his magic again.

Jacobs spent an afternoon drawing up a compromise map that split some land with the competing proposed city of Tucker. The move brought quick outrage from two Democratic legislators from DeKalb County, who in emails to Jacobs, called the maneuvering a “backroom deal.” One, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, noted he’s the only legislator living inside Lakeside, and was incredulous Republican lawmakers performed such machinations without letting him know.

Lakeside, once seen as a politically connected inevitability, had many forces going against it: proponents of two competing city proposals; those who wanted no city; many who thought its backers moved too quickly and even underhandedly; and an identity based around a high school district, not a historic community.

In the end, the effort didn’t pass the smell test with other Republican legislators, who did not want to pick winners and losers in the nasty DeKalb squabble that would have created another Republican-leaning city in a overwhelmingly Democratic county. Neither Lakeside nor Tucker got a House committee’s OK this week to go to residents for a cityhood vote. House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, said he didn’t feel comfortable with moving ahead.

“I feel like (Tucker) got run over,” he said.

Republican insiders had ignored and doomed another proposed city, Briarcliff, which competed with Lakeside for much of north-central DeKalb.

For a year, Lakeside backers built up their vision of local government by tearing down DeKalb County. Lakeside residents finally would have a voice in a smaller jurisdiction, they said, avoiding the shady deal-making alleged in the DeKalb corruption scandal that led to criminal charges against CEO Burrell Ellis.

But now, Lakeside opponents said there was a delicious irony to its downfall, saying its backers’ antics and closed-door dealings doomed their own effort.

“They did not try to make friends,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. “They had a very exclusive, not inclusive, view. They hired Republican consultants and lobbyists. They mapped it to solicit Republican voters. They said, ‘We’re Republicans and we’re going to pass this bill.’ “

Jacobs insisted “this was not about partisan politics” and said he was glad to help carve out a workable solution between Lakeside and Tucker.

Still, when questioned by committee members, he conceded he was “not entirely comfortable” with the amount of legislative rule-bending needed to approve both cities at once. (The Tucker bill didn’t get proper approval by a key legislative deadline, and the compromise had to have both cities advancing together.) He suggested supporters “come back and do this the right way in 2015.”

State Sen. Fran Millar, the Dunwoody Republican who sponsored Lakeside despite representing just a sliver of it, said GOP legislators betrayed their own moments before he withdrew his proposal.

“When Republicans don’t let people vote for self-determination for their form of government, then shame on us,” he said.

Afterward, an angry Millar pledged not to revive the plan and seemed stunned to have become the first lawmaker to lose a cityhood push.

“This is ridiculous,” he grumbled. “It’s just, I don’t know, unheard of.”

Rumors abounded that Gov. Nathan Deal, who is running for re-election, did not want the extra controversy of cities squabbling over boundaries during this election year.

The head of the Lakeside movement acknowledged as much.

“I think the speaker (David Ralston) and governor are afraid of their own re-elections,” Mary Kay Woodworth said. “This is dirty politics.”

But Lakeside advocates opened themselves up to similar charges with multiple boundary changes as the proposal moved through the Legislature. Lakeside gradually took in more and more land to the south, which would have been part of Briarcliff. That Democrat-supported proposal did not advance.

“This is exactly the kind of behavior that makes people feel cynical about government,” said Allen Venet, a Briarcliff supporter.

Lakeside’s map changed at least three times initially and then was altered twice more after Senate approval in February. Most controversial was Lakeside’s perceived overreach into Tucker, a century-old unincorporated community.

“The overlapping, competing entities left a bad taste in the mouths of legislators,” said DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader. “Tucker has emerged because of this. They were a sleeping dog before this.”

The Lakeside map, he said, “left all sorts of islands and peninsulas” of unincorporated areas north of Decatur that would make it difficult to provide county services. Lakeside organizers “didn’t look at how it would impact the rest of the county,” he said. “It was a feeling of ‘Let those people figure it out.’ “

Rader said supporters of new cities in north Fulton County worked out their differences before appearing before legislators for approval.

Berkeley Boone, a Tucker resident, was in Lakeside’s boundaries and then, after a last-minute remapping, was back in Tucker’s. “The thought was Lakeside was moving too fast or too aggressively,” he said.

Lakeside’s backers said they held more than 70 community meetings but also long said their proposal, the only one with a Republican sponsor in a GOP-dominated Legislature, would win approval.

But now the county government, long painted as untrustworthy, said it will step in and try to carve out a map of the entire county into municipalities, either through new cities or annexations or new entities sharing some services.

Josh Kahn, who lives in what would been southwest Lakeside, said DeKalb is “just too big for people to feel like they’re being heard.” He said the effort, as flawed as it might have been, now puts county leaders on notice that residents are dissatisfied.

Interim CEO Lee May has pledged to tackle the problem while acknowledging the Lakeside-Tucker dispute lays bare challenges. Much of south DeKalb, like Lakeside, is mostly residential with limited commercial development. That limits the ability of an area to tax itself to pay for services.

A yet-to-be-named task force is expected to look at how the county should be incorporated going forward, May said. “We have to create a more logical division.”

Many are unsure of such promises. Business owners suspect DeKalb leaders won’t relinquish political power. Some residents worry the Democrat-controlled government will resist creating more Republican strongholds, like the new cities of Dunwoody and Brookhaven.

Residents such as Jon Brock, who supported cityhood, are relieved for the break. Brock lives in a neighborhood outside I-285 that was in the Lakeside footprint but many consider Tucker. He worries he’d be in a “no-man’s land” when it came to police jurisdiction.

“I think (the discussion over cityhood) has been too fast,” Brock said. “There’s no harm in waiting. I’d rather they have all these details worked out before they go all in.”

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