Max Lehmann
Max Lehmann

Dunwoody’s Charter Commission review began when Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) called me. Mike’s political district barely intersects with Dunwoody at the Ashford-Dunwoody Road bridge. Rep. Jacobs’ district anomaly allows him to appoint a Charter Commissioner. Mike states, “You represent the man under the bridge.”

So began a summer sojourn of public service for the city. Commissioners had civil, passionate debates that allowed for reconciliation and mutual respect.

Unexpectedly, an angry public excoriated appointed citizens called upon to review the foundation document on which the very existence their city depends – its charter.

The charter commission is a ‘check and balance,’ giving citizens and members of the council an opportunity to change their charter based on facts, current trends and analysis of future needs. On Oct. 11, the commission’s final report went to the public, Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) and Reps. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) and Jacobs. Recommendations may become authorized by the 2014 General Assembly, or not.

Early on, the commissioners felt that few substantial charter changes would reflect Dunwoody is essentially “working as advertised.” The final report shows nine Charter suggestions, seven material changes and two scrivener clarifications.

Commissioners noted that Dunwoody provides quality police, community development, public works, finance and administration, at the original tax rate. This is extraordinary, as it occurs during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

We soon learned that some neighbors just don’t see things that way.

At the third charter meeting, a groundswell of public appearances caused city staff to quickly accommodate by locating a more spacious room. At first, commissioners heard angry messages centered around topics unrelated to charter business – intersections, trails and parkways. Concerns morphed into criticism of relevant topics, like taking on fire service, which I will discuss as a matter of fact.

Current Charter Sec. 1.03(26) authorizes the council to bring on fire service without a public vote. In fact, the council retained the DeKalb County Fire Department, upon incorporation. We did not vote for any of the above-mentioned services we took on from DeKalb.

The conundrum is the charter remains silent to a funding mechanism for fire service. Commissioners wrestled with not violating a primary charter directive: the 3.04-mill tax rate cap. In a unique split vote, the majority of commissioners chose to create a new, separate budgetary “fire bucket.” Businesses and residences fill the ‘fire bucket’ by paying to the city no more than what they have paid DeKalb in the past five years, on average. HOST credits are kept for residences.

Our decision has nothing to do the DeKalb fire service quality. In fact, we honored both police and fire personnel in a heartfelt 9/11 commemoration.

Another suggested change centers around creating sponsorship and consensus among city councilors by requiring at least two councilors to add an agenda item. This would eliminate an item from reappearing after a vote.

Commissioners felt that finality is a key concept to effective governance; a matter once decided should remain so unless compelling new information is brought up. We used that metric for our own meetings.

The commission became keenly aware that their actions and movements now became political. We suggested a change to prevent future charter reviews from occurring in an election year to keep the process free from political influence.

Misinformation, mistrust, and political pressure made the charter review process more difficult – none of which was of our making. Public involvement is fantastic, yet we each must exercise grace, manners and civility in order to make a difference. People must be willing to take time to understand the issues. Effective advocacy suffers from rhetoric and emotion; both are terrible substitutes for facts and passion.

Said Rep. Jacobs, “Max, this was supposed to be a sleepy, little commission.” But nothing is ever sleepy in Dunwoody.

Max Lehmann chaired the Dunwoody Charter Commission.