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Senator's statement on Sharon Springs
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Forsyth County News

The following is District 27 state Sen. Michael Williams’ statement on Sharon Springs:

 

Sharon Springs city-lite legislation withdrawn

 

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had many conversions with supporters of the City of Sharon Springs movement. One thing that is abundantly clear - people are frustrated, mad, disappointed, and clearly hurt. They wrote checks and sacrificed countless hours in an effort to get their candidate elected. Then they placed their hopes, dreams and trust in their elected official’s hands only for them to “turn their backs on us.” I understand and see why so many people feel this way. I would like to shed some light on the process that led to our decision and answer some of the lingering questions many have.

During the 2015 General Assembly, both the House of Representative and the State Senate passed a resolution that created study committees to review the process of creating cities in Georgia. For years, the fight over the creation of cities went through the state capitol. Many legislators where looking for better solutions to solve local issues that were not in their district.

In March of 2015, Representative Mike Dudgeon introduced HB 660. This began the legislative process of creating the City of Sharon Springs. At the time he introduced the Bill he made it clear that the process of creating a city is a long and difficult process. He also stated that his final decision on whether to push the Bill for final passage in the 2016 General Assembly will only come after a full year of debate and study.

During this past summer, a list of possible alternatives to the creation of Sharon Springs that would add transparency to the zoning process and help control growth began to form. I was excited to hear this because the issues facing the people in the proposed city of Sharon Springs are the same issues faced by the entire county. While the supporters of Sharon Springs believe that a city will solve most of their issues, I was looking for a way to solve the issues facing our entire county.

The first time I actually saw “the List” was at a meeting in September with members of our delegation, representatives from the Sharon Springs Alliance (“SSA”) and other community activists. Because everyone present knew and understood the difficulty of creating a city, we discussed several possible alternative plans including annexing the proposed area of Sharon Springs into the City of Cumming, county and city consolidation, county wide voting for commissioners and several other actions that could be taken by the BOC that would resolve the issues we face. Many items were added to the List that was originally presented.

We also discussed the growing argument that the city-lite concept was not constitutional. At that time, we felt like many of you feel; there were already city-lites in existence, there had not been a court ruling that a city-lite was unconstitutional and who would be the one to challenge a city-lite in court. At the end of the meeting it was my understanding that; 1) the Bill was still a viable option and 2) SSA agreed that their concerns would have been addressed if the BOC agreed to all the items on the List. You can find the List following my comments.

After the meeting I had several meetings and conversations with Commissioner Cindy Mills, Commissioner Pete Amos, Commissioner Todd Levent, community activists that supported SSA, as well as members of our community that oppose it. The underlying intent of each of these meetings/conversations was to find some common ground in resolving the issues our county faces. It is my understanding that Representative Mike Dudgeon had several similar conversations with members of the Board of Commissioners, SSA members and other community activists.

During this time, Representatives Mike Dudgeon, Geoff Duncan and Sheri Gilligan as well as myself met and had several phone conversations discussing obstacles the city-lite Bill may have in the state legislature. We also discussed possible ways to overcome these obstacles, the likelihood of the Bill passing, and alternatives in the event the Bill doesn’t move forward, including the make-up of the BOC.

Rep. Dudgeon and I soon realized there were too many side discussions going on, leading to inconsistencies among the groups involved. We called a meeting for October 28, 2015 with all five BOC members and the delegation members at the Capitol. During this meeting we discussed the growth of the county, crowded schools, the additional debt that will have to be placed on the citizens of Forsyth County to build new schools, limiting building permits, the City of Sharon Springs, the make-up of the BOC, the lack of communication from the Board of Education (“BOE”) to the BOC, the importance of the BOE being more vocal about growth issues and several other issues facing our county.

At the end of this meeting it was decided that the BOC would create a plan to address the issues, specifically high growth rates and over-crowed schools. We scheduled a second meeting at the capital for December 1st. At that time, I still believed the Bill was a viable solution. During this time, the House and the Senate study committees were having public hearings discussing annexation, de-annexation and incorporation. I did not attend but received updates on the Senate hearings. After meeting with the BOC on October 28th, I went to the office of the Senate Study Committee Chairwoman, Senator Elena Parent. I asked for guidance on where the study committee was heading with the creation of cities, specifically city-lites.

Senator Parent informed me that the committee was strongly leaning toward issuing a report that stated that the city-lite concept was not in compliance with the Georgia Constitution and would recommend a Constitutional Amendment be passed that would create either townships or villages. It is my belief that this should have an option for the cities that already exist under city-lite to convert to either a township or a village.

After my discussion with Senator Parent, I called Senator John Albers, Chairman of the State and Local Government Committee, the committee the Bill would have to pass through. I asked his opinion of the city-lite concept. He believed it was not in compliance with the Georgia Constitution. I then asked him if he would allow a city-lite to pass through his committee. He informed me that a bill that created a city-lite would be ruled out of order and not allowed to pass. This is when I realized the Bill had a zero chance of passing the legislature.

The belief that a city-lite is not in compliance with the Georgia Constitution originated out of the fight between the City of LaVista Hills (full city), and the City of Tucker (city-lite). The supporters of the City of LaVista Hills wanted some of the land that would be incorporated into the City of Tucker. Realizing they would not be successful in taking land from the City of Tucker, they formulated the argument that city-lite is not in compliance with the Georgia Constitution. There was not enough time left in the session for this argument to take root. Accordingly, both the City of Tucker and the City of LaVista Hills passed the legislature in 2015. Voters for the City of Tucker passed the referendum, the City of LaVista Hills did not pass the referendum.

There are questions about the concept of a city-lite being called unconstitutional. There has yet to be a court that has ruled them unconstitutional. But when I, and other legislatures, taking the Oath of Office, we swear to “support the Constitution of this state and of the United States . . .” Therefore, members of the legislature should not attempt to pass bills that they believe are not in compliance with the constitution of the State of Georgia or the United States. Accordingly, when state legislatures say that they believe city-lite is unconstitutional, they are not implying that a court has ruled it “unconstitutional,” only that they believe that a bill to create a city-lite would not be in compliance with the Georgia Constitution. Furthermore, voting for such a bill would be going against their oath of office.

Between the October 28th meeting and the December 1st meeting I had several meetings and conversations with members of the delegation, members of SSA and other community activist to discuss possible alternatives to the City of Sharon Springs. During this time the only people I informed of my concern that the Bill was dead were members of the delegation and a very respected community activist. I did tell members of SSA that the likelihood of the Bill passing as a city-lite had dramatically diminished.

On December 1st the delegation met again with the BOC. The BOC came prepared with what was in essence the resolution they passed on December 14th. We discussed, at length, the different points of their resolution and what their intent was for each point. We also discussed the make-up of the BOC, the lack of communication between the BOC and the BOE and any possible remedies and the status of the City of Sharon Springs. Both Ken Garrard and Commissioner Mills had testified at the Senate Study Committee and followed it closely. During this meeting the delegation informed the BOC that there was a very strong likelihood of the bill being withdrawn and that we would announce it at the legislative breakfast.

Shortly after the December 1st meeting, Rep. Dudgeon and I had a conference call with members of SSA and other community activists that support SSA to inform them that the city-lite concept would not pass the legislature. While I knew there was a strong probability that we would pull the Bill, I did not inform them on that call. Several other conference calls occurred between December 1 – December 13 between myself, members of the delegation and members of the BOC finalizing what was going to be in the resolution by the BOC.

On several occasions both BOC members, members of the delegation, and myself, made it clear that while the two announcements are occurring in a similar time frame, they are not dependent upon each other. Had the BOC not passed their resolution, the delegation would still have announced the withdrawal of HB 660 at the legislative breakfast. During a conference call on December 13, Representatives Dudgeon, Duncan, Gilligan and myself all agreed that regardless of the BOC, our plan of action was the correct one.

At the time, I was not aware of how harmful the order of who we informed first and how that information would come out would be to the SSA members and others who supported them. The morning of the breakfast, I was scolded by a supporter of SSA for announcing it at the breakfast. It only seemed reasonable to announce legislative news at a legislative breakfast. Later that day I received a phone call from another support with the same concern. This activist expressed to me how hurtful it was to hear the news from Brian Tam in the newspaper than to have us announce it without members of SSA present. The light bulb came on.

I strive to acknowledge when I make mistakes and own up to them. I made a mistake in the manner in which the delegation made public their intention of withdrawing HB 660. I further compounded the mistake while attending a Smart Growth meeting on December 9, 2015. While at this meeting, with members of SSA present, I stated that the city-lite concept was dead. Because I told the people present at that meeting that a city-lite bill would not pass the legislature, Commissioner Tam used it as an opportunity to make it public and thus drive a wedge between members of the delegation that support SSA and SSA. If I could do it over, I would have reached out to SSA, informed them of everything going on and issued a joint statement. I want to apologize for how I handled the situation. SSA and their supporters deserved better than to learn from Commissioner Tam that city-lite was dead.

Let’s, for a moment, step away from the mishap of how this was communicated to the public, both Mike and I have acknowledged it was handled wrong and have apologized for it. Let’s focus on the heart of the matter; the excessive growth in the southern parts of the county. What we will find there is a laundry list of broken promises and double talk by a single county commissioner, Brian Tam.

Just in the past few months, we have seen him at work. Brian bullied a member out of the planning commission because this planning commissioner didn’t support him in front of the people he pre-appointed to the committee that he would chair that would report to himself. While other members of the BOC and the delegation are working tirelessly to find common ground and bring unity to our county, Brian is scheming to find ways to drive wedges between the home owner’s coalition and the delegation, a divide and conquer strategy. At the December 22nd BOC work session he voted for a resolution that supported a recommendation to the delegation to revert back to county wide voting for BOC members, only in the same meeting to offer his own recommendation that keeps voting by district but adds 2 additional BOC members each voted on by half the county. This man will say and do anything in order to remain in office.

It is time that someone stood up to Brian Tam on behalf of the Citizens of Forsyth County. I will no longer remain quiet and watch as one individual bullies, intimidates, and destroys our community. He has proven time and again that he will put his own interests above that of the county. Let us focus our attention, our resolve, and our determination where it belongs; electing a commissioner in District 2 that will represent their constituents, not their own personal interests. I am announcing today; I will publicly support a home-owner-centric candidate that will run for District 2 Commissioner.

While I cannot change the past, I can learn from it. I have learned, regardless of intentions, there wasn’t enough transparency and it came across as “politics as usual.” Those are not words I want to be associated with and will work vigorously to prove otherwise. I ask for your faith, patience, and prayers as we work through this together. Please join me and other members of the delegation at our town hall meetings to discuss the future of Forsyth County. Representative Dudgeon is hosting one January 7, 2016 at Lambert High School at 7:00 pm. I will also be holding a town hall on January 11, 2016 at West Forsyth High cafeteria at 7:00 pm. I hope you will join me.