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Winds of change coming for Fulton County

January 30, 2013
There is a new wind blowing in Fulton County and it is definitely coming from the north.

Redistricting is its name. First, the GOP-dominated Legislature redrew lines giving several Republicans in neighboring districts some precincts in North Fulton. That swung the majority in the Fulton County legislative delegation from Atlanta-South Fulton and a Democratic majority to a North Fulton-Republican majority.

This little-known entity, the legislative delegation, is there to pass on numerous bills of "local legislation" as they filter up from the cities and county commissions of their respective counties. These bills from a potential pool of 159 counties and Lord knows how many cities are bundled up at the end of the legislative session to be voted up or down (it is always up) collectively as one vote. This gets the legislative process over quickly and cleanly and the legislators can all go home early.

Since these bills are normally promulgated from the ground up, there are seldom any hiccups along the way.

But with the majority of the delegates now packed in the Republican favor, they are some changes brewing as this new legislative delegation is shaping up to be an activist one. That is, they plan to initiate substantive changes in Fulton County government.

The biggest card the new delegation has is Redistricting II. Now that the Legislature's redistricting has set the stage, the Fulton delegation is set to redistrict Fulton County's voting districts for the Fulton County Commission.

This is a federally mandated redrawing of lines using the new Census data. But the lines will be drawn with a Republican pencil this time. The latest rumor leaked out is that there will be five districts instead seven, which will dilute Atlanta-Democratic-black voting strength, much the way North Fulton-Republican-white voting strength has been diluted when the shoe was on the other foot.

Other legislation has been promised to restructure the county's taxing authority, ostensibly to curb what is seen by some as a bloated budget that is too full of pet projects and personal kingdoms. For years, the budget process more closely resembled an episode of "American Pickers."

There are plans afoot to strengthen the commission chairman's powers so that there is an executive presiding over the board instead of a "first among equals."

More will be forthcoming, we are promised, after the GOP delegates come to unanimity on what they want to do.

This may shock some. In others it may elicit, "It's about time," or some similar theme. Certainly it is politics and the general rule in that arena is if you have the power, you use it.

We might have been spared another round of internecine fighting, had Atlanta not made such a naked play to control all things Fulton County. But that was as likely foreordained by the politics of the 1960s, '70s and '80s when the system under which we all now labor grew.

It came as black strength began to articulate itself and take control of Atlanta and then Fulton County. The northern suburbs were not much to shake a stick at in those days. There were a lot of spaces between the places.

The politics began to change. As more development and more people flowed through Ga. 400 north, the clamor for more of a voice grew until the balance has tipped – or so it seems.

I will withhold judgment of what transpires in this newly empowered legislative delegation. This is not what was envisioned when they were created. Now we have a star chamber conducting the public's business sub rosa.

(click for larger version)
There is already more than a ripple in North Fulton as it appears the charter commissions of Milton and Johns Creek will be ignored in their desire to put those cities' taxing authority on the same footing as the rest of their sister cities in Georgia. But that is not clear.

And still, the beat goes on to re-form a Milton County. South of Sandy Springs, a Milton County is looked upon as white flight in place. North of Atlanta, it is looked upon as the only answer to years of unresponsiveness and often political vindictiveness.

I cannot agree wholly to the charge of unresponsiveness. This is a huge county and many hands are always stretched out for resources that are never enough. But I have witnessed personally many, many incidents of vindictiveness inside commission chambers and pointed toward people they've never met and whose only sin was where they chose to live.

How it all plays out remains to be seen. The problem with star chambers is once they pick up the reins, they don't let them loose. We are asked to trust them because they know best. Personally, I like it when everything is done out in the open and everyone has a say.

The lesson Atlanta must learn is if you wanted the county to stay together, we should have all worked together.

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Tags: Community & Outreach

  1. report print email
    Winds of Change
    January 31, 2013 | 01:49 PM

    I'm rather confused. Gwinnett has three elected commissioners leave office under suspicion, indictment and/or incarceration. Yet Fulton is under attack yet again?

    I got married and chose to live in South Fulton 35 years ago when I return home from school. I like the rural features of the community. At the time it didn't matter that Fulton Industrial Blvd was the cash cow that modernized Sandy Springs. Some how most folks up there don't know or want to hear that fact. My community remain very rural to this day. You speak of the actions of the commission being vindictive towards folks they don't know. Well these action are just as vindictive toward people the republican delegation doesn't know and has no interest in what so ever. In the end misery and suffering will be heap upon these people who can least afford it.

    To me it's a kin to "apartness" separating folks along racial/economic lines much like what took place in South Africa with apartheid with minority rule. Sure you can gerrymander lines to your advantage to get control but, in the end if only your slice of utopia survives then it's a failure.

    This is all about the fact that the GOP can't win elections in Fulton County.

    I guess ya'll didn't notice Barack Obama won Fulton County by 118,000. 118,000 VOTES!!!!

    "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" translate loosely as "let them eat cake."

    James R
    South Fulton
  2. report print email
    February 20, 2013 | 02:39 PM

    There are plenty of ideas floating around the Gold Dome about how the operations of Georgia's largest county could be improved.

    State Rep. Ed Lindsey of Buckhead wants to "reduce the footprint of Fulton County government." His fellow Republican, Rep. Wendell Willard of Sandy Springs, hopes to instill a "more realistic way of governing." Another GOP House member, former Fulton Commissioner Lynne Riley of Johns Creek, is even more ambitious. "I have three goals: to reduce taxes, promote better service delivery, and achieve better representation," she says.

    And to think many of us would be half-satisfied if Fulton's elected leadership stopped calling each other names and building white-elephant amphitheaters in the middle of nowhere.

    Much as it often seems distasteful to see state lawmakers meddling in the affairs of local jurisdictions, the freewheeling catalogue of dysfunctions that is the Fulton County government isn't likely to be cured from the inside.

    Thanks to demographic shifts â€" with an assist from gerrymandering â€" the would-be reformers at the Gold Dome finally have enough votes within the Fulton delegation to alter the county's governance structure. They haven't yet decided exactly what course to take, but they already have a few suggestions left over from a 2007 House study committee helmed by Lindsey, the lower chamber's majority whip.

    But the first step is likely to be dictated by the state Reapportionment Office, which is responsible for determining who lives where. Because growth in Fulton's top end has outstripped population gains in the southern part of the county over the past decade, it's likely that the commission districts will need to be shifted north, a move that should give North Fulton more political clout within the commission.

    Fulton's population growth has also derailed lawmakers' hopes of shrinking the size of the seven-member commission, but they seem to agree that the at-large seat currently held by Robb Pitts should no longer be elected countywide because, well, that just never made any damn sense.

    Twenty years ago, Fulton had three at-large seats, including the chairman's post, but one of those was changed into a regular district seat with the last redistricting a decade ago. The notion of turning Pitts' seat into a locally elected district seat has been assailed by some as an effort to dilute minority voting strength. But with African-Americans now making up less than 45 percent of Fulton's population, that argument seems a tough sell. It also seems somewhat moot, considering that while Pitts is a black Democrat, he hails from Buckhead, is chummy with Republican businessmen, and votes like a human weather vane. Pitts, by the way, is widely expected to run for commission chairman next year. He could not be reached for comment.

    In addition to redrawing district lines, lawmakers are set on beefing up the power of the commission chairman to bring the position more in line with counties like Cobb and Gwinnett. Under Fulton's current weak-chairman system, the chair effectively serves as a glorified parliamentarian and all-around punching bag. Watch any commission meeting and you're likely to witness at least one you're-not-the-boss-of-me bitch-slap delivered to the well-meaning but hapless Chairman John Eaves by his colleagues.

    "Down there, you've got no one in charge," laments Willard, who is considering giving the chairman the authority to set the commission agenda. Currently, an individual commissioner can add any item he or she wants to the agenda, which is why you often read about inflammatory resolutions that often serve only to earn the board more highly placed enemies.

    An alternate approach being discussed would require at least two votes to place an item on the agenda, a move that would do little to curb the excesses of South Fulton Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards, the board's two most enthusiastic bomb-throwers.

    Willard would also like to give the county manager more job security, perhaps by mandating that he or she cannot by fired by a four-vote majority without cause. Insiders say this measure likely stems from an alleged attempt last year by several commissioners to pink-slip then-County Manager Zachary Williams that failed when one commissioner customarily flip-flopped.

    Williams subsequently jumped ship to DeKalb County last month, leaving Fulton without a permanent day-to-day manager at a time when it is facing a $70 million budget shortfall; has seven department-head vacancies; and is embroiled in a state investigation of its ever-bungling elections division.

    In his place, commissioners temporarily named County Attorney David Ware, who is currently the focus of a sexual harassment suit filed in November by three of his former female employees. Ware is fighting the claims.

    Lindsey wants to restrict the scope of services the county provides, in recognition of the fact that all but a corner of South Fulton has been incorporated into new cities. Currently, the county performs a number of municipal functions â€" including operating libraries and senior centers and doling out arts grants â€" that are not among the duties mandated by state law.

    While Lindsey concedes that the state does not traditionally step in to tell counties how to spend their money, "Fulton is a unique situation." Unique or not, Lindsey can expect plenty of push-back from mayors who don't want to hike city taxes to pay for services now provided by the county. Or from lawmakers who might view such a move as a breach of local control.

    Although Riley is largely mum on details of how she hopes to increase efficiencies in county government, she says, "The new cities have been able to do more with less and I look forward to seeing the county do the same."

    As the newly named chairperson of the Fulton House Delegation and a former commissioner, it's likely that Riley will carry whatever legislation eventually emerges from the ongoing discussions.

    Left aside for the moment is any talk of decapitating Fulton to create, or, rather, re-create Milton County, a move many lawmakers in the county's north end still crave. All things in good time.

    James R - Sorry
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