EAST COBB — The first public event featuring those looking to create a new city in east Cobb drew a large crowd, but the audience seemed more supportive of those who criticized or questioned the proposal than those in favor of cityhood.
It was a full house in Nolan Hall at the Catholic Church of St. Ann for what had been Commissioner Bob Ott’s town hall meeting, during which members of the Committee for Cityhood in East Cobb were scheduled to share details of the movement, outline its future activities and take questions.
Leading discussion on the proposed city was David Birdwell, an east Cobb resident and entrepreneur with executive experience in the commercial real estate industry and prior experience as a CPA.
Among the reasons Birdwell said he and others were exploring cityhood was the potential to improve public safety — the new city would be established with its own fire and police departments along with community development division. Cityhood would also provide local representation, he said, as East Cobb’s proposed six council member structure would have each member representing about 16,000 residents versus being among 180,000-plus residents represented by one county commissioner that could be outvoted by three other district commissioners and a county chairman.
“It would be somebody that lives here,” Birdwell said, which earned a smattering of applause. “It’s important to understand that — local control over local matters.”
But those who raised concerns about cityhood tended to earn stronger support from audience members throughout the final 40 minutes of the nearly two-hour town hall, which featured discussions on topics such as zoning and transportation planning.
Emmanuel Kipreos, an east Cobb resident of two years who works as a finance director, said he believed there were interests “other than public safety and road maintenance” behind creating the city.
“What a lot of people’s concern is is that they’re trying to create a solution to a problem that does not exist. I’ve never heard in my two years here someone say, ‘Oh, I wish we could incorporate into our own city because of X, Y, Z,’” Kipreos said after the meeting.
During a question-and-answer period, Kipreos asked Birdwell about his and other organizers’ career backgrounds.
“Quite a few of them are in real estate development, as I believe you are?” Kipreos asked.
Answered Birdwell: “I’m semi-retired now, but yes.”
“I’ll just leave it at that. Thanks,” responded Kipreos, which sparked audience laughter and clapping.
The strong crowd response against Birdwell continued moments later as he remained on the topic raised by Kipreos.
“There is nobody involved in this that is doing it for any kind of personal gain,” Birdwell said, which brought on laughter and jeers from the crowd.
“My real estate activity was warehouse buildings way outside of Atlanta and other cities around the country,” Birdwell added, “and I’m no longer in business anyway.”
One attendee earned strong applause when he questioned Birdwell on just how the services a city of East Cobb would provide were “currently inadequate” as provided by the county government.
Responded Birdwell: “I understand we have 10 (police) beats in east Cobb. On a typical day, three of them are going uncovered.”
CITYHOOD GROUP’S TRANSPARENCY QUESTIONED
Another audience member questioned the motive of defending against “the Democratic wave” in east Cobb, alluding to cityhood proponents such as Phil Kent, who had been hired as the cityhood group’s spokesman. In a Feb. 2 Facebook post, Kent wrote that east Cobb would “be in the cross-hairs” when “the Cobb Commission government flips to tax-and-spend Democrat control in 2020 or 2022. … Neighborhoods will need to protect themselves and, remember, a city can opt out of unnecessary Cobb County bond issues.”
That political reason, she said, “is not a reason to do this.” Others in the audience asked about Kent’s role with the group.
“You asked about Phil Kent,” Birdwell said. “We’re now taking all of our media activity and communications in-house — we want to do as much as we can with this committee working independently, so he is no longer our media contact.”
Also speaking briefly on cityhood was state Rep. Matt Dollar, R-east Cobb, who told the audience he would be introducing the bill Friday that if approved would create a referendum toward cityhood for East Cobb. While the legislation cannot be considered for adoption this year, Dollar said cityhood would be a two-year process, with the bill the “first step” in that process.
Birdwell has said his group wants the East Cobb cityhood referendum on the ballot in 2020.
“Why is there a rush to make it in this General Assembly?” asked Kirsten Porter, an east Cobb resident since 1980, which earned audience applause.
The feeling of organizers, Birdwell said, was “let’s get the process started, get everybody involved, and then we’ll have a vote in the fall of 2020.
“We’ve got a lot of time to get the process going,” Birdwell added.
OTT NON-COMMITTAL ON SUPPORT
“This is not just about the proposed new city,” Ott told the crowd at the meeting’s start, adding that a “normal” town hall would draw 150 people, “not 500,” as community members filled the seats and stood along nearly every spot along the walls. He later estimated that somewhere between 500 to 600 people had crammed inside to learn more about the cityhood movement, which as proposed would have some 97,000 residents, making it the eighth largest city in Georgia.
“Part of the reason I did the town hall the way I did was to make it very clear that this is not about me. I did the town hall that I normally do for the public, we talked about all the different things we did, and because I had received a lot of requests from citizens to allow the people who want to have a city to come talk to the public, I gave them time at this meeting,” Ott said after the meeting.
But when asked point blank by the MDJ if he would vote in favor or against the proposed city, Ott showed no direction either way.
“What I have decided on is that I think — anytime you talk about a referendum, I support giving people a choice, give people the opportunity to vote,” he said. “This is the first time most of them have heard about it. I’m sure they have a lot of questions, but that’s the reason for the town halls and the meetings.”
In a follow-up question on whether he would run for a city council seat or as mayor if the new city was created, Ott responded, “You’re getting ahead of yourself.”
QUESTIONS STILL REMAIN
Expressing a desire to learn more about possible cityhood was Christine McKinnell, a real estate agent who lived in Sandy Springs when it incorporated before moving to east Cobb in 2006.
“Everyone’s talking about the political aspect of it. I don’t really see any political aspect of it, I don’t know what that has to do with it. I didn’t see when the city of Sandy Springs incorporated, what that politically had to do with it,” McKinnell said. “I didn’t think there was a political motivation to it so much as to provide better services.”
McKinnell said she witnessed Sandy Springs’ cityhood bring about decreased public safety response times and an increased police force, adding that the city also replaced aging facilities.
“Firefighters (had) slept in mold-infested, rat-infested buildings. It was disgusting,” she said. “(Under the city), they were renovated, they got new buildings.”
Norman Miller, a personal injury attorney, says his northeast Cobb residence would place him a mile or two outside of the potential city, but he attended Thursday’s meeting to learn if he might be affected if the area was incorporated.
“I’m just wondering if they do form the city of East Cobb, and I don’t know the answer to this, would our taxes go up because the city of East Cobb is not paying as much into Cobb County as they are now? Would we have to raise our taxes to make up the deficit that the city of East Cobb isn’t paying? I don’t know,” Miller said.
One audience member urged Ott to call for a show of hands to find out who was in favor of the city and who opposed it, but the county commissioner refused.
“I’m not going to ask that, because that is the purpose of the referendum,” Ott said.
Despite the stronger crowd response to those who questioned cityhood, Birdwell after the meeting said he believed the crowd was “probably 50-50” on the issue.
“I think the opponents are probably more vocal than the proponents,” Birdwell said. “I think they are skeptical about how some of this has played out, even though hindsight is 20/20. But at this point, we (have) to get out there and get people involved and get feedback on it. A lot of people are concerned about their taxes going up, and I am not for this if our taxes go up, and I was quite frankly surprised when I looked at it and realized you can do this.”
Birdwell added that he would not have voted had the audience member’s requested straw poll had taken place, “because I don’t know enough information yet to say I want to do this.
“We want to explore this, it’s an important thing for this community to consider,” Birdwell added. “I think it has merit, but there’s a lot to learn.”