Township of Brookhaven? Toco Hills?

November 26, 2007

Does it really make sense for every aspect of local governance in every neighborhood in unincorporated DeKalb County to be controlled from Downtown Decatur?

This is one of the issues we will discuss during my town hall meeting on local government reform to be held this Thursday, November 29, at 7:00 p.m. in the Talmage Room of the student center at Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road, in Brookhaven.  The student center is best accessed using the side entrance to Oglethorpe located off of Woodrow Way.  Another issue that will be discussed is reining in the excessive power of the DeKalb CEO via House Bill 899, House Bill 894, or Senate Bill 52 (click for more information on each bill).  Please tell your neighbors.  I hope to see you there.

Arguably, services like planning, zoning, land use, code enforcement, building permits, and alcohol licenses that can be controlled by local neighborhoods at a very low cost, and have an immense impact on the quality of life in our neighborhoods, should be controlled more locally than the county level.

Like the overwhelming majority of my constituents, I am fed up with listening to the county CEO tell us what must happen in this neighborhood or that neighborhood for the betterment of the “tax base” of DeKalb County.  When we choose to live in a neighborhood, we choose the great neighborhood that it is, not the cash cow for county coffers that it could become.

I am working with Representative Edward Lindsey of Buckhead on a new township bill that would give DeKalb County communities local control over planning, zoning, land use, code enforcement, building permits, and alcohol licenses, as well as enable presently unincorporated communities to control — by public referendum, and without further action by the General Assembly — whether they would like to become a full-fledged city at a later date.  Under this proposal, townships also would be allowed to exist within large municipalities, such as Buckhead in the City of Atlanta, but not permitted to subsequently form a separate city from the existing municipality.

If this township legislation passes in 2008, I am interested in introducing for the 2009 legislative session a bill to create a new Township of Brookhaven, which will include neighborhoods in the Brookhaven and Ashford Alliance/North Brookhaven areas.  Here is a potential map of a Township of Brookhaven (click for map), although these boundaries certainly would be subject to extensive community input and revision before being finalized.  I also am open to creating a township in Toco Hills, another area I represent, if citizens are interested in it.

While the possible funding mechanisms for townships may need to be flexible in order to accommodate the various communities that have expressed an interest in this new form of local government, what I am considering for DeKalb communities is a penny sales tax, or some fractional amount not to exceed a penny, rather than property taxes.  Any such sales tax would have to be approved by public referendum.

A sales tax may result in surplus revenues.  Citizens of a township also would be empowered to decide via referendum what would happen with any surplus revenues.  They could be applied as a rebate on residential property tax bills, like HOST, or contributed to infrastructure improvements in the local community.

The amount of professional staff that a township could hire would be strictly limited by law, so that a township cannot grow its bureaucracy.  The governing council of each township would elect a chair and vice chair from within its own ranks, rather than having an at-large chairman or mayor.

Townships originally were proposed by Senator David Adelman during last year’s legislative session.  That proposal was a good first step, but is more limited in scope than the proposal outlined above, which will be specifically designed to address concerns brought forward by individual members of the House of Representatives who have specific locations for townships in mind.

The unresponsive and sometimes arrogant approach of DeKalb County bureaucrats who are too far removed from our neighborhoods can yield disastrous results.  Consider the following nightmare that is occurring right now in Dunwoody Forest, which despite its name actually is located south of I-285 in the Ashford Alliance/North Brookhaven area, just outside the Chamblee city limits:

Patrick Ejike, director of DeKalb County’s planning department and an appointee of the CEO, made a unilateral decision to subdivide two lots into three using bizarre property lines.  The neighborhood obtained a decision from the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBOA) that Ejike’s unilateral variance was improper and should not stand.  Ejike then decided to disregard the ZBOA decision, and construction on the subdivided parcels continues to this day.  The neighbors filed a lawsuit to enforce the ZBOA decision against the county and the developer, and now are defending against counterclaims by the developer for — among other spurious allegations — intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The biggest, but not only, benefit of a township is that each member of a town council will represent a small handful of neighborhoods, rather than one-fifth or one-half of the 710,000 people in the state’s third largest county.  Those are the current, unwieldy population sizes of county commission districts.

Townships are not an additional layer of government, because the county no longer will exercise powers which are delegated to the township.  Rather, townships will give local communities the exclusive power to shape and control their own destiny.


Let’s End DeKalb’s Autocracy

November 17, 2007

It’s time to put citizens and neighborhoods back in the driver’s seat of local government in DeKalb County.

On Thursday, November 29, I will hold a community-wide meeting on local government reform.  This meeting will be held at 7:00 p.m. in the Talmage Room of the student center at Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road, in Brookhaven.  Please tell your neighbors.  I hope to see you there.

At the meeting, I will discuss two bills that will be introduced for the upcoming 2008 legislative session aimed at improving and fundamentally reshaping DeKalb governance.

One is a new township bill, to be co-sponsored by me and Representative Edward Lindsey of Buckhead, which would give DeKalb communities local control over planning, zoning, land use, building permits, code enforcement, and alcohol licenses, as well as put citizens in control over whether or not they would like to become a full-fledged city at a later date.  I will discuss this proposal at greater length in an e-mail newsletter early next week.  If this township legislation passes, I am interested in introducing a charter for a Township of Brookhaven, which will include the Brookhaven and North Brookhaven/Ashford Alliance areas, in the 2009 session of the General Assembly.  I am open to doing the same in Toco Hills, another area I represent, if citizens are interested in it.

The other proposal is House Bill 899 (click for more information), the County Chief Executive Officer Accountability Act, which was filed in the House of Representatives this past Friday.

The form and structure of government in each county in Georgia is controlled by the General Assembly, not by the county itself.  In DeKalb County, we have an elected chief executive officer (CEO) and county commission.  The county commission, however, doesn’t have much power at all.  The CEO presides over county commission meetings, sets the agenda for those meetings, votes in the event of a tie, possesses the power to veto legislation, directs the county staff, which serves at the CEO’s pleasure, and is responsible for the day-to-day administration of county services.

When considering the powers vested in the CEO, let’s take Vernon Jones out of the equation.  That is an excessive amount of power to be vested in any single elected official.  In a county of 710,000 people, it makes no sense to have a system where the elected county commissioners are completely marginalized.  The system needs to be changed.

The county commission should be empowered to be an independent policy-making and oversight body, as is the case in most other counties in the State of Georgia.  At a minimum, the CEO no longer should preside over, set the agenda for, or have a vote in county commission meetings.  House Bill 899 would accomplish all of those things.

HB 899 also would eliminate the CEO’s power to veto ordinances and other measures passed by the county commission.  Eliminating the CEO’s veto power would bring DeKalb closer to the traditional county manager form of government that exists in most other counties.  Presently, all that is necessary for the CEO to frustrate the policy-making role of the county commission is three votes, which is the number of commissioners required to sustain a veto by the CEO.  With all of the CEO’s power to decide how the county administration responds to concerns brought forward by an individual commissioner, it’s easy for the CEO to cobble together three votes on just about anything.

Although the CEO would argue that his position looks after all of DeKalb, with two “super district” county commissioners who each represent half of the county, and each represent portions of North, Central, and South DeKalb, there already are voices on the county commission that speak for large, diverse, non-regional swaths of the county.  Nevertheless, I realize that eliminating the CEO’s veto power would be a sea change, and I am especially interested in public input on whether it should be included in this legislation.

Representatives Jill Chambers and Fran Millar will co-sponsor House Bill 899.  As you can see from its wording, HB 899 is a statewide bill of general applicability.  Unlike Senate Bill 52 and House Bill 894 (click for more information), two other attempts at achieving reform, it is not local legislation.

Local legislation requires the approval of a majority of the seven senators and nineteen representatives from DeKalb County.  While there are four of seven senators who tend to support reforming DeKalb governance, only five of nineteen representatives can be counted on to support such reform.  SB 52 and HB 894 face a steep uphill climb for this reason. 

When reform is right, it doesn’t matter what procedure is used to achieve it.  HB 899 will have to be approved in a 2008 countywide referendum in order to take effect in DeKalb.  It ultimately will be up to the voters of DeKalb County to make the decision whether or not to strengthen the policy-making and oversight roles of our county commissioners.

The issue of reforming DeKalb’s governance structure has been around for more than a decade.  Hopefully 2008 will be the year that we end autocratic “rule by CEO” in Georgia’s third largest county.


Last Call Ordinance & DeKalb Governance Reform

November 11, 2007

If you are planning to e-mail or call our county commissioners about the proposal to roll back DeKalb’s pouring hours from 3:55 to 2:00 a.m., now is the time to do it.  The DeKalb County Commission will vote on this proposal, or a possible compromise proposal, at their meeting on Tuesday, November 13.

If you plan to attend the commission meeting, Commissioners Elaine Boyer and Jeff Rader recommend arriving between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m.  They anticipate a filled-to-capacity crowd.  The meeting will be held at the Manuel Maloof Government Center, 1300 Commerce Drive, in Downtown Decatur.

CEO Vernon Jones has vowed to veto the rollback, which means that five of the seven commissioners must support the proposal in order to override the CEO’s veto.

On a related note, I am working on two reform proposals for the 2008 legislative session to put neighborhoods and citizens back in the driver’s seat of local government in DeKalb County.  I will discuss these proposals in detail in upcoming e-mail newsletters next week and the following week.  In addition, these reform proposals will be the focus of a town hall meeting to be held Thursday, November 29, at 7:00 p.m. in the Talmage Room of the Oglethorpe University student center. 

I hope to see you there.


Retrofitting Tax Incentives & Water Update

November 11, 2007

I appreciate and enjoy the responses I receive from constituents to the e-mail newsletters I send out.  One e-mail that generated a lot of responses was my recent discussion of the water crisis. 

Since the mid-1990s, all newly constructed homes have been required to include water-efficient plumbing fixtures.  There is legislation that was introduced in 2004 and will be introduced again in 2008 to require retrofitting of outdated plumbing fixtures in older homes to new, water-efficient fixtures, at the time of resale of the home.  This “retrofit at resale” legislation stirs up a hornet’s nest of opposition because it is heavy-handed and selective in whom it impacts. 

As an alternative approach, I will introduce two bills for the 2008 legislative session designed to create incentives for retrofitting old plumbing fixtures.  One will be a tax credit, although the amount and form of the credit will need to be ironed out.  The other will add water-efficient products to the current sales tax holiday for energy-efficient products.

Hopefully we all can agree that retrofitting old plumbing fixtures should be highly encouraged.  I would hate to see us come out of the 2008 legislative session without having passed anything that spurs retrofitting, and only having generated a lot of rancor over the “retrofit at resale” legislation.

A couple of constituents disagreed with reducing the water releases from Lake Lanier.  Here is an example:  “Atlanta is just like LA, they would suck every river and stream dry if they could at the expense of others.  Alabama and Florida are as entitled to their share of the water as Georgia.”

I don’t advocate cutting off all water to Alabama, Florida, and downstream endangered species.  If you have looked at the Chattahoochee River recently, you will notice that it is filled to the brim with water.  The rate of water releases from Lake Lanier can be reduced without killing off downstream interests, a fact the Army Corps of Engineers recently confirmed:  “What it comes down to is whether we can reduce the flows enough to still save the species and meet all the users’ needs downstream.  We’re finding now that the power plants and a lot of the other interests can operate at something less than the current flows.”

One constituent hit the nail on the head:  “My wife, dog, and I walk along the Chattahoochee River several times a week.  All summer, we’ve been amazed watching the river.  Who’d know there was a drought based upon how it’s been flowing?  This week, every time we’ve been to the river it’s appeared to be even higher than usual.  I don’t understand how this could be since it hasn’t rained in nearly two weeks and there’s now supposedly some agreement that the Army Corps of Engineers isn’t going to let it all go downstream.  Well, I just checked out the Vinings gauge, and sure enough, the river is higher!”

The federal government continues to release water from Lake Lanier in alarming amounts.  Governor Perdue had reached an agreement with Governor Riley of Alabama, Governor Crist of Florida, and federal officials to reduce the rate of these water releases, but the latest news is that Florida wants to renege on that deal.

We must continue working to reduce the excessive and rapid draining of Lake Lanier, and create new capacity by investing in reservoirs that would be controlled by the state, not by the federal government.

Meanwhile, here in DeKalb County, there rightly should be a great deal of consternation over the county’s insatiable appetite for immense new development projects.  CEO Vernon Jones points his finger at everyone but himself:  “We cannot conserve our way out of this crisis.  Washington and the state have failed to plan.”  Yet, under the Georgia Constitution, zoning, land use, and development are exclusive powers exercised solely by local governments (counties and cities, not the state government).

Commissioner Jeff Rader brings to light an important point:  “Almost 20% of the drinking water produced in DeKalb is unaccounted for — most of that leaks out of the pipes and is lost.  DeKalb should establish a target for lost water that is lower that the regional average of 9%.  This will require costly maintenance and replacement, but is the biggest thing we can do to reduce water waste.”

The county recently raised water rates.  The bulk of this rate increase won’t be used to fix leaks and help homeowners get connected to the sewer system instead of septic, which the county presently charges individual homeowners several thousand dollars to do.  It will be used for water and sewer capacity increases in South DeKalb, further compounding the problem of water consumption.

I am ready to do my part to help alleviate our water woes.  Elected officials at all levels need to focus on the issue.  It’s a complex problem.  There is no single doorstep on which to lay blame, and there is no single solution.  The solutions (plural) will require a combination of increasing our available water sources, better management of existing resources, and conservation measures.


DeKalb Revisits Last Call on November 13

November 6, 2007

It’s time again to contact county commissioners in support of the proposal by Commissioner Jeff Rader to roll back “last call” in DeKalb County to 2:00 a.m., instead of the present 3:55 a.m.Last month, the county commission voted 4-3 to defer action on this proposal until the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, November 13.

This motion to defer, a simple procedural motion to allow more time for consideration, was opposed by Commissioners Larry Johnson, Lee May, and Connie Stokes. Unless I am reading too much into their votes, it appears these three commissioners are opposed to any efforts to preserve homeowners’ rights to quiet enjoyment of their property, or to curtail the real-life public safety problems that certain DeKalb nightclubs have caused.

Before I receive a handful of e-mail messages proclaiming that “bar and nightclub owners have private property rights, too,” let me respond that property rights are a two-way street. The rights of bar and nightclub owners to pour alcohol into the wee hours of the morning should end where the rights of DeKalb County homeowners to raise their families and enjoy their neighborhoods begin.

I sincerely hope that Commissioners Johnson, May, and Stokes are not as intransigent as they appear. If three commissioners are opposed to doing anything to address neighborhood concerns about a very real problem in DeKalb County, then there aren’t the five votes needed to override the veto that CEO Vernon Jones has promised on this issue. The CEO’s repeated threats of increased property taxes and job losses if DeKalb eliminates alcohol pouring hours between 2:00 and 3:55 a.m. are one of two things: (1) a bluff, or (2) a sad statement about economic development in DeKalb County under his watch.

In addition to Commissioner Rader, Commissioners Elaine Boyer and Kathie Gannon deserve praise for their steadfast support of reducing DeKalb County’s pouring hours.  Along with Commissioner Burrell Ellis, who seems to be a swing vote on this issue, they are trying to hash out a compromise with the three “no” votes.  Hopefully a compromise that fully addresses neighborhood concerns and receives the necessary five votes is attainable.  This 1,500-foot proposal (click for link) is not a suitable compromise.

DeKalb County presently has the latest last call of any county in Metro Atlanta. That has attracted a stampede of new nightclubs to storefronts in our community. The latest, known as “Pure,” has opened in the Williamsburg shopping center located at the intersection of Briarcliff and Clairmont Roads. Two others, Club Miami and Hi-Tops (formerly the Cabin Room), both of which are located on Buford Highway, have caused significant noise and crime problems for homeowners in the Keys Lake Condominiums and Rivers Edge Townhomes, and in nearby Pine Hills.

The following is an e-mail I received from a constituent who lives in the Keys Lake Condominiums about an incident that occurred two weekends ago:  “There was another incident in the area of Club Miami.  Unfortunately, it was an incident that started at the Pink Pony and this occurred around 3:30 a.m. last Saturday night.  Guns, police, etc.  The individuals ran onto condo property and apartment property, directly across the street from Club Miami.  Five people were taken into custody, one person in the hospital with a gunshot…one person was found to have 100 hits of narcotic ecstacy on him and $8K in cash!! Mike, please do whatever you can to close the clubs down at the earlier times.  We will do whatever we can.  DeKalb County Commissioners need to show up on the weekends around 3:30 at these clubs.”

Consider these statistics recently reported by GoDeKalb.com (click for link): “NHTSA (National Highway Transportation and Safety Association) data showed statewide 32 percent of auto fatalities were alcohol related in 2005 in Georgia. The percentage for DeKalb was 41 percent; for Cobb 29 percent; for Fulton 32 percent; for Gwinnett 39 percent; and for Clayton 31 percent.”

These numbers don’t lie. Our county’s policy needs to change. Please call or e-mail the county commissioners. Their contact information is as follows:

Commissioner Elaine Boyer, District 1

[email protected], 404-371-2844

Commissioner Jeff Rader, District 2

[email protected], 404-371-2863

Commissioner Larry Johnson, District 3

[email protected], 404-371-2425 

Commissioner Burrell Ellis, District 4

[email protected], 404-371-4907

Commissioner Lee May, District 5

[email protected], 404-371-4745

Commissioner Kathie Gannon, District 6

[email protected], 404-371-4909

Commissioner Connie Stokes, District 7

[email protected], 404-371-3053

Citizens should consider attending the county commission meeting on Tuesday, November 13, at 10:00 a.m. at the Maloof Government Center, 1300 Commerce Drive, in Downtown Decatur. Last month, opponents of Commissioner Rader’s proposal attended in droves and demonstrated in front of the building. Proponents were decidedly outnumbered.

As your State Representative, I will not rest until there is a successful resolution of the last call issue, whether or not that resolution occurs at the county level.


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