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David Pendered

Comedy or tragedy? Fulton legislative meeting heralds new era in county politics, government, civic theater

By David Pendered

The latest act in the civic theater that is Fulton County began Thursday in a crowded room on the fourth floor of Georgia’s Capitol.

Joe Beasley, a longtime civil rights advocate, admonishes the Fulton County delegation over various proposals, as Rep. Lynne Riley gavels him out of order. Credit: David Pendered

Joe Beasley, a longtime civil rights advocate, admonishes the Fulton County delegation over various proposals, as Rep. Lynne Riley prepares to gavel him out of order. Credit: David Pendered

Republican lawmakers sat quietly while an hour’s worth of speakers protested Republican proposals to change what has been the natural order of the county – at least, it was the natural order before Republicans took effective control of the county’s legislative delegation this year.

The chorus in this case could do little to relieve tension, but the 75 who gathered certainly helped establish the mood. There were few smiles among the crowd of lawyers and lobbyists, community advocates and union reps, preachers and seniors – many of whom are familiar faces at meetings of the county commission and Atlanta City Council.

Just about the only happy chorus member was a man who said he plans to be the state’s first black governor. He said he and Nathan Deal both come from humble origins, and his background trumps the governor’s because he was homeless when he arrived in Georgia in 2001.

At the meeting’s right-on-time conclusion, Rep. Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek), who chairs the delegation, thanked everyone for coming. She promised the delegation would consider the concerns the speakers raised.

“We welcome the information we heard,” Riley said. “We welcome the additional information.”

A standing-room-only crowd attended the Fulton County delegation meeting. Credit: David Pendered

A standing-room-only crowd attended the Fulton County delegation meeting. Credit: David Pendered

It’s said that tragedies show man at his best; comedies show man at his worst. No matter which was the case at Thursday’s delegation meeting, the fact of the matter is that a new era has begun in the county’s political theater.

Neither Riley nor any other Fulton lawmaker gave any reason to think the three proposals submitted by Republicans will be altered. One Democratic state representative said another meeting will be scheduled to discuss the proposals. But the microphone wasn’t turned on, no one was taking notes, and Riley was exiting the room.

Next stop: A committee meeting to consider the ethics proposal introduced by House Speaker David Ralston. In a hallway after that meeting, some advocates of Common Cause of Georgia said they are optimistic the bill will be an improvement over the state’s current ethics laws.

The three proposals from the county’s Republican leadership include:

  • Doubling the homestead exemption to $60,000 – House Bill 170 would put the plan before voters in November 2014; No fiscal note was attached, but county Chairman John Eaves said the county can’t afford to operate with that level of funding.
  • Redistricting the board of commissioners – House Bill 171 would add a second seat in north Fulton; eliminate one countywide seat; toss two Democratic incumbents into the same district.
  • Ending civil service protection for workers – House Bill 171 would allow workers to be fired, demoted or disciplined for any reason and without notice; end classified service protection for future workers.

Around two dozen speakers took the podium to explain why they opposed one or more of the proposals. Most were comfortable, as this wasn’t their first rodeo, and they were pleasant and respectful – many of them thanking the delegation for allowing public comment.

Joe Beasley, a civil rights advocate, took the podium to say that he’s become blunt now that he’s 75. His comments could be described in many ways, but conciliatory wasn’t one of them.

“It’s all about race,” Beasley said. “It’s all about cramming it down [our] throat. We need to refocus the conversation and what it’s really about – it’s about race, [it’s about] don’t let [African Americans] have any power.”

By the time Riley gaveled him out of order, Beasley was walking away from the podium and she remarked as he walked:

“I beg to differ. We’re not going to tolerate it.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. SteveBrown February 8, 2013 9:17 pm

    OK, here we go again with the violation of local home rule.  We have a problem my fellow Republicans.  
    Fulton County should decide Fulton County’s fate, not the State Legislature.  While it may be attractive to metro Republicans that the Fulton County Board of Commissioners is getting roasted over an open fire, just wait until the legislative Republicans come after your county too.  We all know power corrupts, and an emboldened legislature will begin controlling local politics more than ever.
    Local control should be defended by all, at all times (not on a case-by-case basis).  You either have principles or you don’t.Report

  2. Just mean and Nasty February 9, 2013 7:57 am

    Mr. Brown.  You haven’t lived in N. Fulton County where the County Commission has been condescending, mean spirited, and vicious in dictating county policy for the 3 decades I have lived here.  The current configuration of county districts—by design by democrats—disproportionally gives favor to the center and the south of the county.  To use Emma Darnell’s favorite words~~”NOT FAIR”.  The county has far expanded its charted responsibilities– far beyond the likes of your county (Fayette) by providing millions upon millions of tax dollars to the likes of Grady, Arts, and social services that–if you bothered to research–would embarrass Fidel Castro and Caesar Chavez. 
    Your self described “local home rule” does not take into consideration the built in bias and unbalanced representation in how decisions are made in Fulton County.
    So, either step up to the bar to get your county to help pay for a regional hospital for the indigent (now being paid for by Fulton taxpayers–or stay out of the argument!Report

  3. SteveBrown February 9, 2013 8:27 pm

    To: Just Mean and Nasty
    Actually, I have lived in North Fulton.
    Fulton needs to change within Fulton County.  If you do not want to pay for Grady Memorial Hospital, advocate for change in Fulton County.  Destroying the fabric of Home Rule through actions of the legislature has to the potential to destroy all metro counties.  My principles on local government is best does not change on a county-by-county basis.
    It appears the metro Atlanta region is having a Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment by opening the door to state control of local politics.
    In Fayette County, we have removed 12 consecutive incumbents from office in the voting booth. In a City of Fayetteville council post race, we backed the Democrat over the incumbent Republican because he’s one of the most honest men we know.
    The state legislature does not need to taken over local control.Report

  4. Just mean and Nasty February 10, 2013 10:32 am

    Mr. Brown,
    Clearly, you have no understanding of the political (and always the underlying reverse racism) structure in Fulton County, else you would know that the current districts do not allow for an equivalent one-man-one-vote.  Martin Luther King should be rolling over in his grave at the blatant, intentional, and raw power being hoisted on taxpayers of N. Fulton to maintain control and neutralize any opposition. 
    To answer your point, we have no equal voice–and no hope of having an equal voice, until our representation equals that of other parts of the county. It is going to take the state legislature to IMPOSE justice and fairness on Fulton–because the County Commission is stacked in the favor of those with a clear socialist and redistributive agenda. 

    For you to defend this ongoing and long tenured injustice through some kind of “fix it yourself” proposition denotes your lack of understanding of this tyrannical predicament.
    Your Home Rule proposition does not apply and is not effective if there is not equal representation, which is what we have here in a dysfunctional, bureaucratic, bloated, crony-istic, inefficient, and blantent misdirected buffoonery we have in Fulton. 
    Give us equal footing and a level playing field, and we will fix this county.Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia February 10, 2013 6:50 pm

    {{“Comedy or tragedy? Fulton legislative meeting heralds new era in county politics, government, civic theater”}}
    …Instead of “Comedy or tragedy?”, in the case of the notoriously-dysfunctional government of Fulton County maybe the headline should read “Comedic tragedy or Tragic comedy?”.
    Though, I will say that the continuing governance struggles seen in large urban Metro Atlanta counties like Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Gwinnett counties is not necessarily that different from the governance struggles seen in other large urban counties around the country.
    Struggles seen in large urban counties like Los Angeles County in Southern California where the San Fernando Valley portion of the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles has long wanted to break-off and form its own city and county government because it feels that it is under-represented (and at-times even outright disrespected) in L.A. city and county politics as Los Angeles County is a very-large and very-urban county of nearly 10 million people.
    Though, the political battles that are going on in Fulton County at the moment are likely most reminiscent of the political battles that have gone on for years in Cook County, Illinois, a very-large and highly-populated urban county that is the home of the nation’s third-largest incorporated city of Chicago, Illinois.
    Cook County, Illinois is somewhat similar to Fulton County, Georgia in that it is a large, highly-populated urban county with some ill-fitting geographical and socioeconomic pieces and a county government that has a history of intense dysfunction and continues to at times be intensely-dysfunctional to this day.
    Cook County, IL even has a history of attempted, but unsuccessful secession movements in its far-northern and far-southern suburban reaches just like its highly-dysfunctional southern counterpart in Fulton County, GA.
    From Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cook_County,_Illinois#Secession_movements)
    {{“Secession movements…To establish more localized government control and policies which reflect the often different values and needs of large suburban sections of the sprawling county, several secession movements have been made over the years which called for certain townships or municipalities to form their own independent counties.”}}
    {{…”In the late 1970s, a movement started which proposed a separation of six northwest suburban townships, Cook County’s panhandle (Barrington, Hanover, Palatine, Wheeling, Schaumburg, and Elk Grove) from Cook to form Lincoln County, in honor of the former U.S. president and Illinois resident.[12] It is likely that Arlington Heights would have been the county seat. This northwest suburban region of Cook is moderately conservative and has a population over 500,000. Local legislators, led by State Senator Dave Regnar, went so far as to propose it as official legislation in the Illinois House. The legislation died, however, before coming to a vote.”}}
    {{…In 2004, Blue Island Mayor Donald E. Peloquin organized a coalition of fifty-five south and southwest suburban municipalities to form a new county, also proposing the name Lincoln County. The county would include everything south of Burbank, stretching as far west as Orland Park, as far east as Calumet City, and as far south as Matteson, covering an expansive area with a population of over one million residents. Peloquin argued that the south suburbs are often shunned by the city (although Chicago is not bound or required to do anything for other municipalities) and he blamed the Chicago-centric policies of Cook County for failing to jumpstart the somewhat-depressed south suburban local economy. Pending sufficient interest from local communities, Peloquin planned a petition drive to place a question regarding the secession on the general election ballot, but the idea was not met with success.[13]”}}
    {{…Talk of secession from Cook County amongst some outlying communities again heated up in mid-2008 in response to a highly controversial 1% sales tax hike which has pushed the tax rates across the county communities up amongst the highest in the nation. Some border towns in particular had been outraged, as people can take their business across the county border (paying, for instance, 7% in Lake County instead of Palatine’s 9.5%).[14] The secession issue eventually died down from the nominal tax increase.”}}
    On a side note, just as the highly-urbanized and heavily-populated Atlanta metro area has a history of friction with the predominantly-rural rest of the state in Georgia politics, so does the even more highly-urbanized and heavily-populated Chicago metro area (or “Chicagoland” as it is most-commonly called) have a history of friction with the predominantly-rural rest of the state of Illinois that feels that Chicago imposes its urban values on the rest of a state which is mostly rural and sparcely-populated outside of the northeast corner of the state that Chicago and its suburbs and exurbs occupies.
    Also from Wikipedia:
    {{“In 2011, two downstate Republican state representatives, Bill Mitchell of the 87th district and Adam Brown of the 101st district, proposed statehood for Cook County. Mitchell said that Chicago is “dictating its views” to the rest of the state and Brown added that Chicago “overshadows” the rest of Illinois.”}}Report

  6. Really February 20, 2013 2:23 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 — with an assist from gerrymandering — 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 — including operating libraries and senior centers and doling out arts grants — 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.Report

  7. Burroughston Broch February 21, 2013 3:37 am

    @ Really
    “Because growth in Fulton’s top end has outstripped population gains in the southern part of the county over the past decade,”
    There has been no appreciable population gain in the City of Atlanta and south Fulton over the last decade; effectively all of the 104,000+ increase was in North Fulton. In 1980 the City’s population was 425,000 and the County’s was 590,000, so the population outside the City was 165,000 (28% of the total). In 2010 they City’s population had fallen to 420,000 while the County’s had increased to 921,000, so the population outside the City had increased to 501,000 (54% of the total). Those 255,000 additional residents added between 1980 and 2010 were in North Fulton, not the City or South Fulton. In 2010 the six cities in North Fulton had 349,000 residents (38% of the total).Report

  8. Burroughston Broch February 21, 2013 7:21 am

    @ Really
    Let me give you a view of the magnitude of waste in the Fulton County government.
    The Fulton County Fire Department protects a mostly rural area in the southern part of the county with a population of 59,000. The cities of Chattahoochee Hills, College Park, East Point, Fairburn, Hapeville, Palmetto, and Union City have their own fire departments.
    The Fulton County Fire Department has 10 stations and a fulltime staff of 149 – no volunteers.
    As a contrast, the Rome-Floyd County Fire Department has the same size staff but protects 96,000 people in the City of Rome and the entire 518 square miles of Floyd County.
    The Fulton County protected population is 39% smaller and the protected area is smaller than Rome-Floyd County.Report

  9. Wishing MIlton County May 12, 2013 10:41 pm

    If I may – I believe the “at large” county commission seats was hoisted on Fulton County back after the 2000 census when it became apparent that population growth was in North Fulton.  Democrats used it as a means to maintain control and continue the “under representation” of North Fulton citizens on the commission.  SO THOSE CRYING FOUL NOW ARE EITHER IGNORANT OF HISTORY OR HYPOCRITES!  I think they are the latter.
    I have lived in North Fulton since 1985.  This has been the fight ever since then.  Roswell had to sue Atlanta over the sales tax split.  A split based on population but Atlanta can’t take a smaller portion.  In fact that battle is still raging with a ridiculous concept now being hoisted by Atlanta on were the tax is collected (point of sale).  Yet another democrat scheme to keep North Fulton as the piggy back and Atlanta as the drunken spender.
    MARTA – have paid for that since we moved here.  Only one bus route east of 400.  No direct service after what 7 pm.  MARTA is such a disaster that the new INTERNATIONAL AIR TERMINAL has no direct connection.  MARTA is the only system in the country that is seeing less people use it.  WHY – BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT THE CUSTOMER.  MARTA is a make work project so people can get a pay check, not work for a living.
    GRADY – paid for that for all these years.  Grady is used to give any politically connected person a job for 5 or 6 figures.  Finally get someone to clean the place up and he is run out of town.  Again, NORTH FULTON pays for it and ATLANTA reaps the benefits.
    FULTON COUNTY GOVERNMENT – How bloated and inefficient can you get.  Study after study shows it has to many employees, yet there is no real hiring freeze or attempt to streamline.  Now the taxpayers are being hit with suit after suit for reverse discrimination.  Which it seems the county always looses.  Is anyone held accountable – HECK NO!!!  North Fulton and all taxpayers pay for the arrogance, ignorance and stupidity that is our county government.
    The list goes on and on.  How long does it take for someone to realize that you can’t keep punishing those paying the freight.  This political mentatlity of “PAY BACK” does not work anymore.  Atlanta & Fulton County need to get their houses in fiscal order before they come to any taxpayer for another dime.
    However, I believe it is to late to save North Fulton county.  We want local rule which we can only get by becoming Milton county.  I have heard nothing from the Fulton County Commission since 1985 that tells me that they want to change.  So let them run what is left of the county in South Fulton.   I think they will find those taxpayers down there just as frustrated with them as we are up here.
    Maybe those folks down there should DEMAND THE RETURN OF CAMPBELL COUNTY.  Then what with the commissioiners say.  The problem is about money and people trying to spend someone elses.  Until the commission learns that those paying for things want a say on how the money is spent, nothng will ever change.
    Here is – WISHING FOR MILTON COUNTY!!!Report


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