By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
ATLANTA - Some residents of Brookhaven, a historic community north of the city, have watched with growing envy over the past several years as one new city after another popped up around them: Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Milton, and on the south side of town, Chattahoochee Hills.
Those cities began in unincorporated areas of Fulton and DeKalb counties, two of the state's most populous. Residents wanting more local control and greater government efficiency started forming the new cities in 2005.
Now, Brookhaven residents get their shot: Voters will decide Tuesday whether to create a new, 12-square-mile city of 49,000 residents that would be bordered by Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Chamblee and a stretch of Interstate 85. About 25,000 voters are eligible to vote in the Brookhaven referendum.
Cityhood is a contentious issue in metropolitan Atlanta, one rooted in and shaped by politics and race. Wealthier, largely white communities on the city's north side, which watched for years as their tax dollars were spent in poorer, mostly minority areas elsewhere in the two counties, had sought for years to break away and incorporate as cities with more local control.
But with Democrats wielding power in the statehouse and the governor's office, those efforts were rebuffed for years. "It used to be considered local legislation," says William Boone, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University here. "The majority forces in the legislature would go along with the local legislators."
That all changed after the elections of 2002 and 2004, when Republicans - who tend to be white and from suburban or rural districts - gained control of the Legislature and the governorship and promptly passed laws allowing the creation of new cities.
Sandy Springs, which had been trying to incorporate since the 1970s, was the first new city, in 2005. The other four soon followed.
The majority-white new cities absorbed lucrative commercial areas that had been vital revenue producers in the two counties, which have African-American leadership, Boone says. "It's a definite trend in the metro area," he says. "It's picked up momentum. Pretty soon what you could have is a county like Fulton or DeKalb not having enough revenues to support those still in it."
The trend appears to be confined to Georgia. The formation of new cities "does not seem like a national trend," says Gregory Minchak, spokesman for the National League of Cities. Georgia has "unique local annexation practices that make it easier to do."
Black state legislators and minority voters from the new cities have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the new Georgia cities should be dissolved because the state violated the Voting Rights Act by creating white-majority governments and stripping black voters of their ability to elect whom they wanted.
The 2011 suit argues that the state "has geographically compressed or limited the impact of the minority vote."
For example, an African-American resident of Sandy Springs went from voting in a county that is 45% white and 44% black to voting in a city that is 78% white and 12% black.
"Under the Voting Rights Act, you can't do that," says Jerome Lee, an Atlanta attorney representing the plaintiffs, who include minority voters from the new cities and members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.
A sixth new city, the city of Peachtree Corners, in Gwinnett County north of Atlanta, voted to incorporate in 2011; however, it was not included in the lawsuit because Gwinnett County is not a majority-minority county, which describes a jurisdiction whose racial makeup is less than 50% white.
The new Georgia cities won approval from the Justice Department during President George W. Bush's administration.
"That was a very different Justice Department, and one not known for its diligence in regard to minorities," Lee says. He says he expects the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case in a month or two.
The suit names Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, who wasn't in office when the cities were created, as defendant. Deal has declined to comment on the matter and says the issue should be resolved by a court.
Brookhaven cityhood proponents argue that creating a new city would allow residents to reduce the influence of a bloated, inefficient and wasteful county government and replace that power with a leaner, citizen-directed government closer to the people. The new city would handle police, parks, roads, zoning and code enforcement services; other services, such as fire, water and sewer, and sanitation would still be provided by the county.
Rumblings of creating a new city began three to four years ago and crystallized last year when DeKalb County raised taxes 26%, says J. Max Davis, 42, an Atlanta native and attorney who heads the group Brookhaven Yes!
"This is not like an old-line, typical city," he says. "This is a new concept. Our charter is based on Dunwoody, which is based on Sandy Springs. ... The city can't raise property taxes without a voter referendum."
Davis says the new city would bring residents into closer proximity to their government representatives. "None of the (DeKalb) county commissioners live within the Brookhaven city footprint," he says. "The closest one lives 10 miles away."
He dismisses the charge that the new city would be a white enclave. "That's ridiculous," he says. "It's a multi-ethnic enclave of people who are now being underserved by the county with their tax dollars."
Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven and a resident of the community for seven years, disagrees.
"When you look at the diversity of these new cities, these cities are a whole lot less diverse," says Schall, who opposes cityhood. "I'm not suggesting that's the reason people are doing this. There are lots of reasons."
Opponents of the new city, including the group No City Brookhaven, argue that any property tax savings will be offset by higher franchise taxes on utility bills, that residents will have less police protection and that a new mayor and four new city council members will simply add another level of bureacracy.
"I applaud people (on both sides) for their civic involvement," Schall says. "Everyone is civically involved and interested."