Judge hears arguments in the challenge to the City of Mableton’s constitutionality

photo of Cobb Superior Court building from the front with a blue sky with clouds in the background

Wednesday morning, Superior Court Judge Sonja Brown heard arguments related to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the bill and referendum that created the City of Mableton.

No decision was reached during the session. At the end of the hearing, Judge Brown set aside 15 days for her deliberation and for the opposing sides to make proposals for what orders she should issue.

The audience seating in the courtroom was nearly full, and the 9 a.m. hearing lasted a little under two hours.

The plaintiffs in the case are Deidre White, Ronnie Blue, Judy King, Tanya Leake and Robert Swarthout. You can download the suit from https://cobbcountycourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/SUCV-20230067839.pdf. Attorney Allen Lightcap is representing the plaintiffs.

The immediate decision before Judge Brown is a motion filed by Harold Melton to dismiss the case. Melton is a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia who is representing the City of Mableton in the proceedings.

The lawsuit against the city alleges that the legislation (HB 839) and the referendum approving the legislation and the city charter violated the Single Subject Rule, the rule that only one subject can be addressed in one legislative act.

The lawsuit states that by setting up both the City of Mableton and a Community Improvement District (CID), two subjects are introduced in the same legislation and referendum.

A document from the Federal Highway Administration describes Georgia’s CIDs as follows:

CIDs are special purpose, autonomous, nonprofit, public-private partnerships with the power to self-tax industrial and commercial property owners within their districts and pool those funds for public improvement projects.

The Cumberland Community Improvement District and the Town Center Community Improvement District are examples in Cobb County.

Melton argued that the authorization to initiate a CID was not a separate subject, but one of the options the city has during its creation and organization.

He compared it to a recent bill to increase the compensation for judicial officials and staff, which did not separate the various types of courts and staff into separate bills.

Melton said that the different parts of the legislation and referendum were “germane to a single objective” (the formation of the City of Mableton).

He stated that the standard of review presumes that legislation is constitutional and that the legislature has the prerogative to legislate.

He also stated there is a “Don’t be silly” test, and that legislators should not be forced to cobble together all legislation from multiple bills.

Lightcap argued before the judge that since cities and CIDs are separate governmental bodies with the ability to tax and take on their own debt, they are not just separate units within HB 839 but are separate subjects.

He said that the plaintiffs are not arguing that every detail of a legislative act needs to be split into separate legislation.

Lightcap presented a slideshow that listed several cases that he argued supported his argument that CIDs and Mableton cityhood were separate subjects.

One of the cases was Rea v. La Fayette, a 1908 decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia that held that a bond referendum that combined bonds for different purposes should have been split into three separate referenda.

At the conclusion of the session, Judge Brown gave the attorneys until March 22 to submit their proposals for a ruling, and that she will make a decision on whether to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case against the city she hears reads the proposals.

Some audience reactions

The Courier spoke with a few people who watched the proceedings:

Councilwoman Dami Oladapo of Mableton’s District 2 said, “Definitely glad to see the turnout. I love that, you know, people are engaged and took time to drive out here this morning.”

“I’m a little bit disappointed that we didn’t get a decision today,” she said. “But whatever the court needs to do to get us to the right decision. It’s very important.”

Richard Rudy is a resident of the part of the city that was in unincorporated Cobb County with an Austell address, and voted against cityhood.

“I was previously very happy in unincorporated Cobb County,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be able to read the proposed enactment city of Mableton and voted against it.”

“But everybody I talked to says, ‘Oh, well, that doesn’t affect us because we live in the City of Austell,” he said. He said that the people he talked to who voted for the referendum did so because it proposed term limits and opposed conflicts of interest, not because it incorporated Mableton into a city.

Another resident who was opposed to cityhood and lives off Cooper Lake Road thought the lawyer for the plaintiffs should have emphasized what he described as the confusing nature of the referendum. He said he thinks there should be another referendum with only the incorporation of Mableton listed on the ballot for a yes or no vote.

Dr. Benjamin Williams of the Cobb County branch of the SCLC said he is glad that the issue is moving toward finality.

“I think that what we’re seeing is the democratic process in action,” he said. “It’s gonna be interesting to see how this thing is adjudicated.”

“The city of Mableton, in my opinion, has been properly set up and running,” he said. “I believe that our leadership has done the best that they could in crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s.”

Mableton Mayor Michael Owens said, “I am happy with the job that our attorney did today.”

“I’m happy that the argument that Justice Melton was able to put together starting with highlighting the fact this is a bill that went through the House, it went through the Senate, it was signed by Governor Kemp,” he said. “And the referendum was passed by the people of the city, pretty convincingly, might we add.”

“So you know, my biggest disappointment is that we are here spending taxpayer dollars to defend the outcome of the city instead of using those dollars towards finishing our transition and providing services to the city,” Owens said.

“Now, with that being said, I do recognize their right as, as citizens, the plaintiffs to have their day in court and be heard,” he said. “You know, that’s their right, and I accept it and understand that.”

“But again, it’s just unfortunate because we’ve got a lot of work to do in the city,” he said. “You know, we’re seven months old at this point in time.”

“And there’s there’s a lot of work. We need to continue to move forward to ensure that we can, you know, provide the best services possible to everyone, including those plaintiffs.”

“Those are residents of Mableton,” Owens said. “And we want to make sure that the great things we’re doing as a city extend to them as well.”