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Monday, March 24, 2014

Kevin Levitas Responds to the AJC

Kevin Levitas

LCA's Kevin Levitas' response to AJC editorial/reporting staff re: one-sided article from 3/23/13: 

While I do not anticipate that any what follows will make it into a follow-up article or as part of a retraction, it is nonetheless important to have a record of the facts because the truth really does matter. I have spoken with you both you repeatedly and at length over the last year about cityhood and have been easy to reach, so shame on you for not having the journalistic integrity to engage in even remedial fact-checking before submitting your flawed piece. 

I will respond to the erroneous points raised in the order in which you presented them:

1. "[D]esperate Lakeside backers, who were watching their effort fall apart last week, drafted Jacobs to work his magic again." This is utterly false. At no time did anyone from the Lakeside City Alliance ask or "draft" Rep. Jacobs into the process. Rep. Jacobs's statements to the House Governmental Affairs Committee came as a surprise to Alliance members and, I believe, to the sponsor of SB 270. 

2. Lakeside had "an identity based around a high school district, not a historic community." One of the more tiresome notions espoused by April and other pro-Tucker supporters is the idea that Tucker is a "real" community, but other areas are not. Tucker is, of course, a strong and historic community, but the idea that our community is somehow less historic is absurd. 

My writing to correct the many grievous errors you published is not the proper venue for a history lesson, and your post-hoc education cannot “unprint” your misstatements. Nonetheless, it might be interesting for you, at another time, to examine who Greenville Henderson was, where he lived and the genesis of communities between modern-day Tucker and Chamblee. Before you went to press, you might have spoken with longtime members of our community to get some minimal background, but, as your hit-piece now attests, you chose to opt for a less labor-intensive route. 

The discussion above, however, somewhat misses the larger point, which is: for those of us who were born and raised in this part of DeKalb County, who love, who have served and who continue to serve our community, it is offensive and crass to suggest that we are somehow unequal to Tucker. You do not need to denigrate one community in order to promote another in your story. It is regrettable that you chose this path.

3. Lakeside "would have created another Republican-leaning city." This baseless and transparently subjective characterization might be amusing if it did not do such a disservice to the thousands of people in our community who simply wanted a chance to vote on self-governance and were completely uninterested in partisan politics. To understand the speciousness of your quoted claim, one need only to engage in the most basic analysis of area voting patterns, such as the 2012 presidential election results (or the overall political composition of the proposed city). You either failed to take this basic step, or you simply chose to ignore it. Either result is disappointing. 

4. "Lakeside backers built up their vision of local government by tearing down DeKalb County." This "observation" reveals yet another bias and indicates that you did not attend our meetings. No one needs to "tear down DeKalb County." Its own incompetence, dysfunction and sometimes criminal conduct as well as your paper's own desire for salacious headlines has constituted a more-than-sufficient demolition process without any assistance from cityhood groups. 

The Alliance’s meetings were educational and focused on the pro's and con's as well as the nuts and bolts of incorporation and city operations. You may be confusing our meetings with the City of Briarcliff Initiative, which did focus a great deal of attention on the pervasive problems with county government. The Alliance, however, felt this was not the proper focus of the overall cityhood discussion.

5. "They [Lakeside] hired Republican consultants and lobbyists." While this quote is attributed to Rep. Oliver, you owed your readers a duty to ask us if her allegations are true; they are not. There is a much larger story here about Rep. Oliver's strategy to thwart cityhood and her dedicated efforts to achieve that goal, including statements she made about using her own bill as a tool to stop Lakeside rather than promoting the bill on behalf of the Briarcliff cityhood group that she purported to represent. All of this, however, is somewhat tangential to the larger failures of your column.

6. "Jacobs insisted 'this was not about partisan politics' and said he was glad to help carve out a workable solution between Lakeside and Tucker.

Still, when questioned by committee members, he conceded he was 'not entirely comfortable' with the amount of legislative rule-bending needed to approve both cities at once. (The Tucker bill didn’t get proper approval by a key legislative deadline, and the compromise had to have both cities advancing together.) He suggested supporters 'come back and do this the right way in 2015.'" 

Your comments--especially the use of the word "still"--are written (perhaps intentionally) in a way that gives the appearance that Rep. Jacobs was acting in a partisan fashion and in favor of Lakeside. Had this been a partisan result, then SB 270 would likely be awaiting the Governor’s signature now. After all, the bill purporting to be the Tucker cityhood bill and the one purporting to the Briarcliff bill were sponsored and cosponsored by the same Democrats who voted against the creation of both Dunwoody and Brookhaven. Had this been a partisan process, the city of South Fulton--an area populated overwhelmingly by Democrats--would not have sailed out of the House this year. It is important to be clear, however, that the necessary rule-bending that was considered by legislators pertained only to the Tucker bill. 

SB 270 was the only one of the three cityhood bills to adhere to the House Governmental Affairs Committee rules, which are intended to have fully fleshed-out cityhood bills filed in year one of a two-year legislative term so that they can be discussed in communities over the next year before any further committee action is taken. SB 270 was filed during the 2013 session, contained 41 pages of text (exclusive of land descriptions) and a map. Neither the purported Tucker nor Briarcliff bills contained either of these latter two elements. I use the word "purported" because both other bills were devoid of city names or any other meaningful text. In fact, this is the sum and substance of the bills (since the bills are essentially identical, I set out just one example):

13 LC 28 6782
H. B. 677
- 1 -
House Bill 677
By: Representatives Mitchell of the 88th, Henson of the 86th, and Williams of the 87th
1 To incorporate a new municipality in DeKalb County, Georgia; to provide for related
2 matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.
5 There is created in DeKalb County, Georgia, a new municipality which shall have such
6 boundaries, governing authority, powers, duties, and name as the General Assembly shall
7 provide by law.
9 All laws and parts of laws in conflict with this Act are repealed

For Tucker to pass--but not so for SB 270--rules (and maybe even state law) had to be changed. The Legislature was right not to engage in legal gymnastics on behalf of a Tucker group that did not follow the rules as the Alliance had. The time that the Alliance spent hosting meetings and developing a proposal was much of the same time that the other groups spent simply attacking the Alliance and its members.

That was, after all, the cause that gave rise to both other "cityhood" groups: stopping Lakeside. Some in those groups were honest enough to admit their purpose. Others were not. Ultimately, however, that plan succeeded. If anyone has doubts about the ultimate purpose of the anti-Lakeside contingents, then simply look at what they wrote and said to others or with whom they celebrated after city legislation was killed. It would not have been a tall task to track down the information above, but this countervailing information clearly did not fit with your narrative. 

7. “Rumors abounded that Gov. Nathan Deal, who is running for re-election, did not want the extra controversy of cities squabbling over boundaries during this election year." Rumors? Really? How did the Governor's Office respond when you put this question directly to them to provide your readers with something other than “rumors?”

8. "But Lakeside advocates opened themselves up to similar charges [of dirty politics] with multiple boundary changes as the proposal moved through the Legislature." What were Mary Kay's and Sen. Millar's responses when you asked them about why the map changed? Since you interviewed both, I assume that you asked this most basic question.

9. "Most controversial was Lakeside’s perceived overreach into Tucker, a century-old unincorporated community." This is the same tired line of reporting that April has stuck by for months. Unincorporated DeKalb is just that. The area does not belong to one group or another on either side of the Interstate. Rather, the community is defined by the residents who live there. Some people east of I-285 identify with Main Street and the Tucker community; others identify with Northlake and the community to the west. Still, April has repeatedly reported the Lakeside proposal as encroaching on land that "is" Tucker's. We have pointed out this bias to her on a number of occasions, but unfortunately, the line has remained essentially the same in her stories. 

The leaders of the Tucker proposal view I-285 as a DMZ of sorts (except when it comes to Northlake's valuable commercial property). The Alliance does not. A significant reason for hosting over 75 community meetings was to determine who, from either side of the Interstate, wanted in and or out of the Lakeside map. While you may view adjusting boundaries as a negative, the Alliance believes that attempting to respond to the wants of the people in the proposed boundary area was important and desirable. 

10. "Lakeside’s backers said . . . their proposal, the only one with a Republican sponsor in a GOP-dominated Legislature, would win approval." This is yet another false claim. What the Alliance said was that our bill was the most likely to win approval. At the time, we believed (perhaps naively) that House committee rules mattered, that a bill that crossed over from one legislative chamber to the other was due more consideration than two bills that had failed to comport with those House rules or to gain approval from even a single committee.

We, or at least I, did not foresee the masterful job that lobbyists and their clients would do of misleading an all-too-gullible group of legislators. At no time, however, did we say that our bill would pass. We knew there were hurdles, even if we did not foresee a scenario in which our bill would be dragged down by the failures of another cityhood group to do what was asked of all cityhood groups. We did not anticipate the misguided misuse of power by the House Rules Chairman John Meadows. It was sad to see so many legislators bow meekly to his will, but that is a story for another day, certainly a more interesting tale than the one that you spun. 

The worst part of your awful piece is that it does a great disservice to your readers by knowingly or recklessly providing them with false information (though, admittedly, there is an element of caveat emptor as well). You could have reported the facts and delved into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to this unfortunate outcome. 

The true story of the demise of Lakeside is a compelling account of betrayal, lies, lobbyist influence, and other elements of a real-life episode of “House of Cards.” It is a shame that you chose instead to base your writing upon a more allegorical house of cards that collapses under the weight of the facts. 

Did you speak to Tucker's lobbyists? To DeKalb County's? Did you interview the legislators and ask what they were told by these same people? It does not seem that you did, but then again, were you ever interested in the truth? Sadly, I suspect you found the "story" and the headline more compelling than maintaining journalistic or personal ethics.

Kevin Levitas

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