Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
There were many reasons to oppose letting Eagle’s Landing tear apart the city of Stockbridge, but it shouldn’t have even been on the ballot in the first place.
The city of Stockbridge, Georgia, came dangerously close to losing half of its municipality this week. It came down to a ballot vote on Election Day that would have allowed a country club-anchored enclave in unincorporated Henry County to snatch away large swaths of Stockbridge to create a new, wealthier city called Eagle’s Landing. The ballot failed—4,545 people voted against it, and 3,473 for—but questions abound concerning how it even came to this point. How could a place with no municipal standing simply redraw the boundaries of another place that’s been a city for nearly 100 years?
If nothing else, the drama around this ballot has exposed the fault lines of “cityhood,” the name for the movement happening around metro Atlanta that has unincorporated territories lobbying for official municipal status. Of the dozen new cities that have formed since 2005, none took residents or properties from other existing cities to do so, as the Eagle’s Landing group attempted to do with Stockbridge. But there were other problems with the manner in which Eagle’s Landing pursued cityhood. Looking at the events leading up to this vote, it probably should never have come up for a vote to begin with.
New cities can only be authorized via ballot initiatives in Georgia, and the sole power for determining whether a new city proposal will land on a ballot lies with the state general assembly. According to Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford, the principals responsible for the Eagle’s Landing city proposal never approached Stockbridge city officials to discuss what they wanted to do, let alone alert Stockbridge leaders to the fact that Eagle’s Landing wanted to take parts of their city away.
The Eagle’s Landing group didn’t need Stockbridge’s permission to do it—all they needed was the state’s blessing to get it on the ballot. There’s been much attention drawn to the fact that the Stockbridge residents who were left out of the Eagle’s Landing city plan weren’t allowed to vote on that ballot. But they didn’t have any say in whether it could go on the ballot either, thanks to Georgia’s lax cityhood standards.
Here are some of the essential requirements if you want to start a new city in Georgia:
- You need to form a 501(3)c organization.
- Your city plan must commit to providing three of 11 services, such as fire safety, road construction, and electric or gas utilities. (People who live in unincorporated areas have these services provided to them by whatever county they live in.)
- You need to secure a legislator who will introduce and carry through the general assembly a bill to have your city proposal placed on a ballot.
- You need to have a feasibility study conducted by one of the state-approved academic institutions in Georgia.
The people behind the Eagle’s Landing proposal formed a non-profit organization called the Eagle’s Landing Educational Research Committee, or ELERC, which was headed by Vikki Consiglio, who currently serves on the Henry County Zoning Advisory Board. The ELERC plan stated that it would take on code enforcement, planning and zoning, police, libraries, solid waste collection, and parks and recreation services, according to the feasibility study conducted by Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School Center for State & Local Finance (one of the state-approved institutions for cityhood studies). And finally, the Eagle’s Landing group was able to find several legislators to sponsor a bill to put their proposal on the November ballot.
That last part is where things get murky, though. The legislators carrying your cityhood bill are supposed to be from your local delegation, and that holds true for the six legislators who sponsored the Eagle’s Landing bill. However, local delegation is defined by county. Of those legislators, only one of them, state Representative Dale Rutledge, has a district that covers Stockbridge, and only a small part of it at that (he’s listed as representing another city, McDonough).
The actual legislator who represents Stockbridge, state Representative Demetrius Douglas, opposed the Eagle’s Landing proposal. The other sponsors of the Eagle’s Landing bill all represent other parts of Henry County that exist outside of Stockbridge. All six of the bill’s sponsors were white Republicans who were carrying a bill to carve up a majority-black, majority-Democrat city that its own representative in the state assembly was against. The bill eventually passed through the assembly, voted upon by 135 state representatives and senators who have nothing to do with the city of Stockbridge.
“The legislative process was not favorable to the city of Stockbridge, because those individuals who put up the bill did not represent us,” said Camilla Moore, the assistant city manager for Stockbridge. “They say whoever controls the rules controls the process—well, they manipulated the rules, in my opinion, and they manipulated this process that allowed them to push the bill through.”
Georgia Republicans have been more than eager to pass cityhood bills over the past 13 years, with one notable exception—the proposal to convert a huge swath of unincorporated land in DeKalb County, in Atlanta’s eastern suburbs, into a city called Greenhaven. Otherwise, as long as there’s a legislator from the “local delegation” supporting it, and the feasibility study says the new city can afford to provide municipal services, generally the state will put it on the ballot. But even the feasibility study done for Eagle’s Landing was questionable—in large part because the academic institutions that reviewed it had never studied proposals that included incorporating parts of another established city in the new one.
“When this one came to us, we looked at the map they sent us and we said, ‘Part of that is in Stockbridge; maybe you need a different map?’ But they said, ‘No, that’s the right map,’” said Laura Wheeler, a senior research associate at GSU’s Andrew Young School. “Something of this scale was not what anyone saw coming at all.”
The institutions in charge of these feasibility vettings have a very narrow charge from the state—they can only answer the question of whether a proposed city is economically viable, not whether it’s a good idea, or even if it’s lawful. The Andrew Young Center study did not include any debt that Eagle’s Landing might have to pay from when it was part of Stockbridge, and it was completed before a court ruling that said Eagle’s Landing would have to pay it. It wasn’t in the center’s realm of authority to question any of this, and the researchers purposely don’t stake any personal opinions in the feasibility studies to avoid politics surrounding the proposals.
“We were asked a very specific question—does the proposed area create a viable city—and based off that question and available data, we said yes,” said Wheeler. “But perhaps other questions should be asked: What happens to Stockbridge? Also, what happens to Henry County because of this? Those are reasonable questions to ask, but they do not have a place currently in the process, and that process is created by the state general assembly.”
There were many other reasons for people to oppose the Eagle’s Landing proposal. The timing and the optics were terrible: The group was making this Southern secession play right after Stockbridge elected its first black mayor and its first all-black city council. Global finance agencies such as Moody’s said the move could wreck the credit and bond ratings of every city in Georgia. Not to mention that the Eagle’s Landing group’s stated reasons for breaking-away-while-breaking-up Stockbridge rang shallow. They said they wanted more upscale eating establishments, like a Cheesecake Factory.
All of those reasons no doubt gave people plenty of ammunition for voting against it. But the fact that legislators who didn’t represent Stockbridge were the ones carrying a bill to carve it up strongly suggests that it should have never been on the ballot in the first place.