It seemed to be the summer of Dunwoody’s discontent.
Crowds packed meetings of the Dunwoody Charter Commission last summer to watch as its five members hammered out proposed changes to the young city’s charter, its foundation document. Interest grew so intense that the commission had to move from a small conference room to a larger meeting room in a different building simply to accommodate the crowd.
At times, emotions ran high. The commission had been appointed to review the charter and make recommendations to state lawmakers about what, if any, changes should be made. Much debate centered on whether the city had the ability to start up a fire department and pay for it without a citywide referendum.
Turns out, state officials believe the city had that power all along.
“The City Council, from Day One, … their charter empowers them to provide services,” said State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody).
The state’s lawyers back him up. In a letter to Taylor, a representative of the state legislative counsel wrote that the state Constitution authorizes the city to establish a citywide special service district and to impose taxes for the services.
The Legislature approved revisions to the charter that say the City Council has the power “to exercise all authority provided by … the Constitution of Georgia to create special districts for the provision of local government services within such districts and to collect fees, assessments and taxes within such districts to pay, wholly or partially, the cost of providing such services…”
That seemed to surprise some in Dunwoody, especially after the charter commission spent hours devising a mechanism for paying for fire services, should the city ever decide to take them over from DeKalb County.
“If we had known that, we could have saved ourselves a great deal of angst,” Charter Commissioner Robert Wittenstein wrote in a letter to Taylor and Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody).
The decision has left some in Dunwoody angry at the legislators. Robert Wolford, for one, thinks the legislation keeps Dunwoody’s voters from deciding an issue they should control because it requires a tax increase.
“I think what just happened is we lost the right to have a referendum for funding for a fire department,” he said.
But supporters of the legislation say that funding a fire department doesn’t automatically mean a tax hike. Rather, they say, the fees now charged to pay for DeKalb County fire services simply could be transferred to the city, which, should city officials ever decide to do so, could take over fire services in the same way it took over police and park services.
The legislation did include a provision stating that the intent of the General Assembly was that any fee imposed by the city for fire and rescue services should not be more than the five-year average of the fees charged for the service by DeKalb County.
That is based on provisions developed by the Charter Commission, and Wittenstein said he thinks it was significant to include in the legislation.
In the future, he said, judges will be able to tell what the lawmakers were thinking.
So, was what ended up in the charter worth the fuss that led to the change?
“It was most definitely worth it,” Charter Commission Chairman Max Lehmann said. “The process absolutely had to take place.”
And although Lehmann admits he might decline to take part in charter revisions next time it comes around, when it comes to changing a city’s charter, he said, “you can’t put a price on some level of community involvement.”
Wittenstein agrees the lengthy debates turned out to be worth the trouble.
“I don’t think it was wasteful,” Wittenstein said. “If nothing else, it was an opportunity for citizens to express themselves. We like that, right?”