By Rebecca Gaunt
In less than two weeks, those who reside within the established boundaries will begin advance voting on the referendum for Mableton cityhood.
Where those boundaries are located is one of the key concerns for some members of the opposition.
Christie Lynn, a member of the citizen group Preserve South Cobb, has lived in unincorporated Smyrna for 17 years.
“I consider Smyrna my home. I want what’s best for Mableton, but I don’t live in Mableton,” she told the Courier.
Unincorporated Mableton comprises about 40,000 people, but the proposed city nearly doubles that to 78,000.
Lynn had heard talk of the proposed new city, but given her Smyrna address, she was caught off guard earlier this year to learn her home was inside the boundaries. She’s now focused on making people with Smyrna and Austell addresses aware of the referendum.
Daniel Sukup was also surprised to learn he would have a chance to vote on the measure. He happened to overhear Lynn during this interview at a coffee shop, and immediately pulled out his laptop to check his address. He said he wants to see the dilapidated old strip malls get redone, and he also wants increased walkability. He’s enthusiastic that bike trails are expanding through the county.
Concerned whether cityhood would inhibit or invite public transportation, he left with the intention to do more research.
The City of Mableton is the fourth proposed new city to go to referendum in 2022. Referendums for the cities of Lost Mountain in West Cobb, East Cobb and Vinings all failed on the ballot in May.
Like those efforts, Mableton is proposing a “city lite” model of governance. Rather than provide all the services typical of a city, it is limiting offerings to code enforcement, planning and zoning, solid waste management, and parks and recreation. Services such as police, fire, and schools will still be provided by the county.
What sets the Mableton push for local control apart from the other three is that, while the others described their goals as preserving quality of life and keeping development out, Mableton cityhood supporters want change and to attract redevelopment.
“The catalyst for the efforts was a cityhood forum held by the Mableton Improvement Coalition to educate the community on cityhood. The response was very favorable, and a number of community leaders organized a grassroots effort to investigate the prospect and feasibility in more detail. South Cobb deserves the same quality of life and attention received by the rest of the county,” William Wilson, chairman of the Committee for City of Mableton, told the Courier in an email.
Mableton was briefly a city from 1912-1916. The modern Mableton cityhood effort began in 2017. In 2019, Democratic state representatives David Wilkerson, Erica Thomas, and Erick Allen filed a bill on behalf of the city to be taken up in 2020, but it went by the wayside during the pandemic.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia House Bill 839 into law in May 2022. Again, Thomas was a sponsor, joined by Democrat Rep. Teri Anulewicz, and Republicans Ed Setzler, Ginny Ehrhart and Matt Dollar. Setzler and Ehrhart were active in the Lost Mountain cityhood campaign; Dollar in the East Cobb effort.
Lynn agrees that South Cobb has been neglected and deserves change. She just doesn’t think another layer of government is the way to get it. Rather, she said, she would like to give more time to the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, which flipped to a Democratic majority in the 2020 election, with Lisa Cupid as chair.
“Those things that were ignored for so long in South Cobb, Lisa Cupid, the chairwoman, is working on them,” she said.
Lynn used a code amendment requiring apartment complex inspections as an example. Just approved by the BOC last month, it replaces a system in which tenants had to request an inspection from code enforcement if there was a problem. Fear of retribution kept many inhabitants from speaking up, while others said they faced retaliation for complaints. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated the miserable living conditions of some of these complexes in 2019.
Wilson countered that in the five years cityhood has been on the table, residents haven’t seen a change.
“The County is not structured to solve the issues of South Cobb. Zoning has declined, parks and recreation offer very minimal programming, code enforcement has not improved, quality of life has declined, and economic development does not suit the desires of the community. A city can customize and prioritize the needs of the community,” he wrote.
Wilson continued, “In respect to Code Enforcement there are two parts. We have violations up and down our streets. Codes have been in place to address them for years. Merely adding code amendments does not solve the problems. The issue is the enforcement of codes and that’s where the county falls behind. South Cobb does not have the same level of enforcement as the rest of the county. The city is not a duplicate layer of government, but rather a more responsive layer that can address needs proactively. A city government is better positioned to affect change.”
James Talton posted photos in a community Facebook group of overgrown sidewalks along South Gordon Road and Factory Shoals Road. He wrote, “These pictures are pictures of the neglect that’s happening in South Cobb while other pockets are thriving.”
Extensive debate ensued on the post, but Talton added to the thread, “This is a Code Enforcement and Parks issue. Cityhood would allow for issues like this to be addressed in a more expedient manner.”
Anti-cityhood group Preserve South Cobb posits that cityhood will mean higher taxes because the city can levy taxes in addition to what is paid to the county. Nor do they believe that the money diverted to the city from the county will be sufficient for the size of the area.
The Mableton Cityhood Vote Yes campaign’s website has an FAQ which states that the feasibility study prepared by the University of Georgia shows that it will not need a separate property tax.
It goes on to say that the study “found that the city would have an annual surplus of $3.2 million without a separate property tax. We anticipate you will continue to pay the same property taxes to the county and will not receive a separate city tax bill.”
The opposition isn’t convinced, pointing out that the city can collect franchise fees from the utility companies.
Preserve South Cobb has also raised the concern, heard before in the other three cityhood attempts, that if citizens approve the referendum, the charter can be amended after the fact. Just because voters approve city lite, doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
Wilson contends that the charter for Mableton is no different than any other Georgia city.
“Georgia law limits what can be changed. Additionally, the law spells out the requirements for legal notices and public hearings,” he said.
Ultimately, the long term vision for the city will be up to the six elected city council members and mayor.
Deirdre White is the outreach chair for Preserve South Cobb and lives in unincorporated Smyrna.
White told the Courier she already sees changes in the area since the BOC flipped.
“It’s evident. They’re doing it. They just haven’t had that much time. It’s barely been two years,” she said.
She got heated when discussing the referendum wording on the ballot, calling it “deceiving” for those who arrive to vote unaware of what’s at stake.
Shall the Act incorporating the City of Mableton in Cobb County, imposing term limits, prohibiting conflicts of interest, and creating community improvement districts be approved?
For White, there are too many unknowns to support the city.
“If we vote this in, there’s no turning back,” she said.
To learn more:
Preserve South Cobb is holding two virtual information sessions on Oct. 6 and Oct. 20: Vote NO to Mableton Cityhood Town Hall 10/6 – YouTube and Vote No to Mableton Cityhood Town Hall 10/20 – YouTube
The Mableton Improvement Coalition and Austell Community Task Force are holding a virtual forum which will include people from both side of the issue on Oct. 11 at 7 p.m.: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_THbuGOtEQI-oQ3Rj63ZmKQ
Mableton Yes! lists events on the website: Release Dates | Mableton YES!
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.