Home Rule under fire: the canary in the coal mine

By John Eaves

In America, states often grant home rule to cities, counties and municipalities within their borders either constitutionally or legislatively. This means local governments are free to pass laws and ordinances as they see fit to further their operations within the bounds of state and federal constitutions. Georgia is, theoretically, one of those states. However, in my opinion, recent legislation proposed and passed by the 2013 Georgia General Assembly violates the principle of home rule and should stand as a dire warning to other cities and counties that value their autonomy.

Fulton County is home to the city of Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs.  Politically, it is majority Democratic. This year the majority Republican state legislature made attempts, some of them successful, to usurp Fulton County’s ability to maintain its tax base, classify its employees, elect its County Commissioners, appoint transportation board members and name an election board chair. These county functions should be rights that fall under the principle of home rule.

Much of the problem lies within Georgia’s own wobbly definition of home rule. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the core principle is that local authorities or populations should be able to seek a measure of freedom from the state legislature. Since states are unitary systems (all powers reside at the state level), such freedom, however, is often an illusion. The reality is states may require local governments to perform certain duties and revoke the charters of those who refuse to fulfill these directives. At its most basic, then, home rule is only the ability of local governments to draft and adopt their own charters. 

What local home-rule governments may or may not do is also a source of contention. Georgia's list of areas that local governments must avoid and areas that they are permitted to regulate is quite broad. In addition, what about situations not covered by those lists but that materialize as conditions change? A more principled definition of home rule would better serve all parties involved.

In this age of hyper-partisanship, there are few issues that solicit agreement across the political spectrum.  Home rule; however, seems to be one of them.  Most citizens support the idea that local municipalities and counties should be allowed to govern themselves without interference from federal and state legislatures. 

These recent actions by the Georgia legislature have caused grave concern among Atlanta’s other urban counties. One county that is majority Republican even felt compelled to pass a Resolution in support of Fulton County’s struggle against this interference. And others are considering gestures of support as well.

John Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners for Fulton County, Ga.

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