15 Sep 2014
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“Jurisdiction-hood”: size matters

North Central DeKalb now takes a break from the “march to cityhood” care of the General Assembly’s gate-keeping House Government Affairs Committee. By “break”, I mean whatever cityhood organizational work is done now will be done without a legislative timetable until one is announced—and that should be welcome news to those who felt pressed by all of the attention given the issue last year. By “break” I mean the competition between Lakeside City Alliance and Briarcliff should end for all time—or nothing will change from last year’s legislative morass and impact on public spirits.  By “break”, perhaps legislators have different feelings toward forming new cities—will they approve any more referendums without changes in the manner in which they interpret the law—promotion vs regulation.

So how should the good citizens of “NorthCentral” use their cityhood break? On one hand, leaders who started this are drawn to continue the quest. Admittedly it’s likely that anyone who was following cityhood still expect something, if nothing more than answering the more general question “what’s next”? On the other hand, a brutally candid look by those who have been burned would tell them to consider more deeply whether the kind of city that proponents were after is a good fit for the area—if there were fundamental assumptions that should have been questioned. Most fundamental of them all was following the more suburban trend for 50,000+ jurisdictions. Second was to assume that moving “straight to cityhood” didn’t produce its own unique blockade—and a step backward to looking at alternative governance models and jurisdictions wouldn’t have avoided it.  The assumptions for large cities caused untold conflicts within the population, among local leaders and legislators—further complicating the traditional cityhood issues that all areas have contended with.

Can proponents change some of their underlying premises, such as the economics which presumably forces outsized new cities? Can alternative means for providing localized services and economic development either replace the need for new cities or ease the creation of smaller jurisdictions—eliminating the community-of-interest conflicts?

Will cityhood proponents use a more “inquiring” evaluation rather than assertive pitch next time? If we had done that, we’d have or be closer to generating well-known community metrics (beyond basic demographics); a structure for a local “lobby” that is familiar to the average resident (see pre-city Sandy Springs); and an easy way to judge the level of support for a city referendum or multiple forms of jurisdictions (polling).

So why does “size” complicate all other factors? It actually might not in other states, but it does in the manner that new cities have been formed in Georgia. Georgia has a very loose process requiring no tangible record of support for cityhood proponent organizations, nor polling data in behalf of legislative action. What that translates to is little confidence that communities-of-interest exist. A thorough analysis shows the legislature not only couldn’t stomach the conflicts in the now-anointed “North Central DeKalb” corridor, but the “serious people” here didn’t figure in that the size of the proposed jurisdictions played right into the competing interests between the state senate and House. North Central DeKalb has a completely unworkable number of state representatives and senators, so smaller jurisdictions might have helped that issue.

So what to do about this? It’s not easy, but you gotta figure out a way to use other forms of smaller “jurisdictions” (not necessarily cities alone—or any)—and bring institutional partners to the table. All of the sudden, what looked like a single-dimensional project (sell a city) becomes a Maslo’s needs hierarchy for community-building and jurisdictional ownership and management—all having their own timetables.

Self-taxing districts start looking like a reasonable first step when you look closely at the reasons people call for more policing (ie—security) and a small number of city-like services. You realize that once commercial areas (and perhaps groups of residential areas) are servicing (and taxing) themselves, starting a new city with large boundaries might be overkill. Once you take out a tactical “problem child” like Northlake so it can “tax and serve” itself, the remaining areas can be served by smaller jurisdictions (townships?) and the even fewer service platform can be financed without commercial-only land grabs.

Feel free to pick these suggestions apart—but the specifics are immaterial given that the fact remains we have never inquired about the possibilities and choices that are available in a broader “jurisdictionhood” conversation. Focusing on cityhood—and not jurisdictional options also has a comparatively in-bred flavor to it given the limited number of non-residential partners at the table—at least openly. Commercial property owners, other nongovernmental organizations and indeed, the county are likely to engage and use your interests as reasons to move forward with their own associations.

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