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Guest column: Its time to discuss local governance structure
Dudgeon
Dudgeon

There is an old adage in the Georgia Legislature that long predates my four years under the Gold Dome: “Local politics will get you beat.”

However, local politics is often the most important. Even though it is controversial and probably easier to just ignore, I am moving forward with a public role on the subject of Forsyth County’s governmental structure.

I am an engineer and technology entrepreneur in my private sector job. When I approach a decision I look for facts, compare to similar situations, and ask the question, “If there were no history how would I answer this question just based on moving forward?”

On this note, I asked the legislative redistricting staff to do some research on counties similar or bigger in size to Forsyth County. I found out that we are a significant outlier.  

There are 13 large counties in the state having 150,000 or more residents. We have 195,000 and are rocketing up.

Our county commission has five members elected by district, five council members for a small, single city and one mayor.

There is no other large county like that in Georgia. Bibb and Muscogee have consolidated city/county governments. Our neighbor counties, Hall and Cherokee, have eight and seven cities, respectively. Gwinnett has 16.

Henry and Clayton on the south side of Atlanta have four and seven. Richmond may be the closest with three cities, but Augusta is a huge city and force in that county.

For the non-consolidated counties, when you add up city councils, mayors and commissioners, there are 30 or more locally elected folks in most of these other counties.

Those officials are elected to make the most personal decisions about their constituents, centered around zoning and the direction of their communities.

While some may think this is too high a number, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s quote that, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

Further, no other large county has a setup of five district-elected commissioners. Most have the chairman at least elected countywide, and the average commission size for the group is 6.8. The consolidated counties Bibb and Muscogee have 10 each.

Again, Forsyth County is unique.

Closer to home, our commission was changed by state law to district voting in 2009 after a straw poll on the GOP ballot indicated strong support.

I am not sure that the voters at the time were able to make a fully informed pro-and-con analysis, as the question stood alone on the ballot without context.

Despite that, I actually like much of the district voting philosophy. When I ran countywide for a Board of Education seat in 2006, I had to reach 150,000 people, which was bigger than a state senate district. That was very tough and there is a practical limit there.

However, I am concerned that only having to answer to constituents in their districts can lead at times to fragmentation, conflict, and not looking out for the whole. I think the ideal situation may be a mix of both.

Another thing I looked for is checks and balances. Cities and counties must by state law negotiate sales tax revenues and often work in other joint projects.

When there is one city and one county, the single city by definition has an outsized influence on the majority of people in the full county. When there is more than one city, there must be more compromise and it is easier to get more equal agreements.

The other way to avoid this issue is a consolidated government which means there is no need for negotiations or splits.

In my area of the county, there is a passionate group of residents who have been exploring the idea of forming a new city, tentatively named Sharon Springs. This is a very big step, and they are proceeding with appropriate caution.

They conducted a survey of about 1,000 people that showed only 5 percent were very satisfied with their representation. About 74 percent believed our county is getting worse. We also have a lack of identity in my area, with three different zip codes of Alpharetta, Suwanee and Cumming confusing everyone.

Just 10 miles to our south, the three-year-old city of Peachtree Corners has shown that it can take very little tax money to form a “light” city that does not take on many services. They only do zoning, code enforcement and sanitation. Their millage rate was 1 mill the first year and zero since.

However, there are real downsides and risks with a new city, and we have seen some growing pains with new cities in north Fulton.

So what does this all mean? In thinking seriously about this subject for a few years, I have come to a conclusion.

I am not yet certain which change needs to take place, but I believe that we need to adjust our current system. I also passionately believe this is not about the “who’s” of the officials involved but about the “structure” for the long term.

I am not taking the well-trodden road in politics to just consider current office-holders, I want to decide the underlying issue and future ramifications.

So, do we add a new city in the south and one in the north? Add two countywide commissioners to the five district ones? Consolidate the city and county?

We need robust civic discussion on these topics to see if one captures the intent and will of the people. I intend to lead some town halls, online forums and focus groups on this subject in the fall to discuss our governance structure.

I hope you will participate with me in efforts to keep Forsyth County one of the best places to live in the United States.

 

Mike Dudgeon is the state representative from District 25 in Forsyth County.