The Battle of Sandy Springs

With cityhood nearly a done deal, opponents only make matters worse

In the ignominious annals of shooting one's self in the foot, the Fulton County Commission seems intent on writing an embarrassing new chapter under the heading "Sandy Springs."

More specifically, the Democratic, African-American and predominantly south-side majority has been pulling out all the stops in a quixotic and racially divisive crusade aimed at derailing the creation of an 11th city inside Fulton County.

A casual onlooker might be excused for believing the matter was settled April 15, when Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation mandating a June 21 referendum to allow Sandy Springs residents to vote themselves into a new city. But tell that to commission naysayers Bill Edwards, Emma Darnell, Nancy Boxill and, so far, Robb Pitts. On the other side are Tom Lowe, newcomer Lynne Riley and Chairwoman Karen Handel.

Within the last two weeks:

The county attorney — acting on the bidding of the four opposing commissioners — shipped a hefty report to the U.S. Department of Justice that argues the incorporation of Sandy Springs is a racist enterprise that will erode the rights of Fulton's minority voters and taxpayers.

At a Sunday town hall meeting, Edwards led angry south Fulton residents in a chorus of invective against Sandy Springs proponents, including repeated use of the "R" word.

In a comission meeting last week that redefined the meaning of "tense," a frosty Darnell, in a clear reference to her north Fulton colleagues, explained, "My constituents tell me, 'Emma, don't get down on their level, down with the thugs.'"Some veteran county staffers claim that relations between commissioners have reached an all-time low, with members on either side of the issue trading insults and accusations, barely able to look each other in the eye.

But Lowe, who's represented Sandy Springs since 1974, says he can remember bleaker days. For instance, he recalls that time about 20 years ago when a couple of commissioners were tagged by the FBI for extorting money from local developers. ...

Anyway, there's no getting around that things are bad on the board. The irony is that every move the anti-Sandy Springs crowd makes, every public declaration they utter, and every vote they take only serves to empower the proposed city's supporters and expand the wedge between the north and south ends of the county - all while cementing Fulton's reputation as perhaps the most dysfunctional government in the metro area.

"Every time they make some racial statement, we pick up 1,000 votes," says Lowe, referring to the June referendum that's all but guaranteed to consummate more than 30 years' worth of city envy in Sandy Springs. The latest poll he's seen indicates that more than 70 percent of the area's 86,000 residents favor creating a new city between the northern reaches of Atlanta and the Chattahoochee River. About 10 percent are opposed, and the other 20 percent are like, "Huh?"

Where Sandy Springs is concerned, Fulton County has been digging its own grave for decades. Commissioners have long treated Sandy Springs like the county's personal piggy bank, drawing out about $45 million in tax revenues to help bankroll south Fulton while delivering only $20 million in local services.

That fiscal imbalance, combined with the perception that the commission historically has allowed developers to run rampant in Sandy Springs to feed the property tax engine, has stoked an incorporation fever that ensures the referendum will be a mere formality on the road to cityhood.

Lowe tells

CL: "There's nothing racial about this."

Of course, that's not entirely accurate. When it comes to Southern politics, the issue of race is rarely out of the picture, and Sandy Springs is no exception. Many early supporters of incorporation signed on out of a concern that the city of Atlanta might someday annex their mostly white neighborhoods - a publicly stated goal of the late Mayor Maynard Jackson - thus forcing their children to attend city schools.

Because of Georgia's spotty record in race relations, the Department of Justice is required to sign off on all significant changes affecting voters. Unfortunately, the county's voluminous petition to the DOJ to block the incorporation vote will do nothing to help race relations. Supplemented by a dizzying collection of wall-sized district maps, charts and old AJC clippings, the 2-inch-thick document argues that the Sandy Springs legislation was inspired by "discriminatory motives" and would wreak "punitive economic and racial consequences" on Fulton residents "based on their race, color and membership in a language minority group," presumably a reference to the area's Latino residents.

Among the report's odder arguments is that every resident of the county should be able to vote in the June referendum because its outcome affects the entire county budget. Another leap of logic holds that incorporation would hurt black residents of Sandy Springs because it would place them in a new political jurisdiction where they'd be in the racial minority.

"This [incorporation of Sandy Springs] hurts people, and anything that hurts people I'm going to fight with everything I've got," Darnell intoned at last week's meeting.

Of course, it's no secret that the creation of a new city will indeed hurt Fulton County - provided that your definition of "hurt" includes the inability to maintain a lucrative status quo. In addition to losing $25 million from its unincorporated fund, the county also could be forced to write off another $15 million in local sales tax revenue that would go to the new city.

Still, a source within one of the private law firms with which Fulton consulted in preparing its anti-incorporation case tells CL that attorneys warned the county that its legal arguments were shaky at best.

The report, however, does shine some needed light on a mean-spirited provision in the Sandy Springs legislation, added by state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, that would prevent any taxes collected in unincorporated north Fulton to be spent in south Fulton, or vice versa. State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who co-sponsored the bills, says he believes Shafer's amendment is vulnerable to a legal challenge.

"It's one of those compromises you make to get your bill passed," Willard says, "but I wasn't supportive of it."

The county has yet to take a vote on whether to file a lawsuit challenging Sandy Springs' incorporation, but several insiders predict that Pitts, a former Atlanta City Council president who harbors wider political ambitions, wouldn't favor it, effectively ending the battle there.

CL would have asked Pitts, but he didn't return phone calls,.

As June 21 approaches, it's a safe bet that any vestige of civility that remains among Fulton commissioners will continue to deteriorate - in direct proportion to the inevitability of the referendum's passage.