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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fulton secession movement still brewing

Matching House and Senate bills to revivify the long-gone Milton County at the expense of Fulton never made it to the floor in the just-completed General Assembly despite having some heavyweight sponsors. But that doesn't mean the issue is dead. In fact, if a recent lunch gathering of North Fulton mayors is any indication, the movement may only be gaining steam.

For its annual luncheon Tuesday, the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation invited elected officials to opine on the unwieldy topic: ”How Fulton County Could Improve Its Governance To Prevent Any Secession.” But no one really took up that challenge — instead, the consensus seemed to be that it's too late to preserve Fulton County in its present form.

Although Roswell Mayor Jere Wood has been in office long enough to have worked with a succession of county commission chairmen from North Fulton, he said the best that be hoped for is a clean break, with Milton pulling out of Fulton.

"The residents of North Fulton believe it's time for the relationship to be ended in divorce," Wood said.

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker was even more blunt: "I have no faith in Fulton County governance…we've got a completely dysfunctional head of state…we don't feel represented by the commission."

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos, another old-timer, was somewhat more diplomatic, but her suggestions were even more extreme: Fulton should shrink the number of commissioners from seven to five and look into merging with the city of Atlanta to create a municipal hyphenate similar to Miami-Dade or Indianapolis-Marion. Then, she said, Fulton could look at spinning off Milton to the north and Campbell to the south. (History buff will recall that Campbell County was annexed into South Fulton two years before Milton was folded into North Fulton. To our knowledge, there's no movement afoot to recreate Campbell — yet!)

All of this was said in front of Fulton Chairman John Eaves, who was allowed to preface and follow the other speakers. Eaves contended that Fulton is the "most financially stable county in the state," and hinted that succession would be devastating since its northern end represents 40 percent of the county's tax digest. But in my opinion, he failed to offer any solid rebuttal of the secessionists' arguments.

Instead, Eaves became defensive, pointing out that while the South Fulton commissioners rarely venture north, neither do the Northern folks come down South. And he showed signs of delusion, claiming Fulton's elected government is no more dysfunctional than any other. "I've heard no reason for a divorce," he concluded, unpersuasively.

Eaves comes across as honest and well-intentioned, but I can't help feeling that, politically, he's out of his depth.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the guy who made the most sense at the meeting was FCTF President John Sherman. I've long dismissed Sherman as too strident on the issue of privatization — and he didn't neglect to bang that drum Tuesday — but he pointed out that although nearly all of Fulton County is now incorporated, the government has done little to downsize its workforce or budget, which amounted to $670 million this year.

If Eaves, who's still learning the ropes of governing, were a visionary leader, he'd be guiding the board through a downsizing to match its new circumstances. Instead, the Fulton Commission is behaving — and spending — as if nothing's different. Until that situation changes, the calls for Milton County may only get louder.

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