This week, as Sandy Springs nears its eighth birthday, voters there will do something that for decades seemed unimaginable: They will select someone other than Eva Galambos to guide the community’s future.
After two terms as mayor and nearly 40 years in public life, Galambos, 85, will step down at the end of the year. Two men — Rusty Paul and Bob Brown — are vying to succeed her as the top elected official in a city of nearly 100,000 people. Replacing her will be more difficult.
Galambos led the community’s drive to incorporate, suffering defeat after defeat until a dramatic political realignment at the state Capitol cleared the way for Sandy Springs in 2005. She created and nurtured a shadow government of community leaders that was ready to step in once cityhood became a reality. And she embraced a radical vision of largely privatized government.
Along the way Galambos’ efforts inspired other communities — most recently Peachtree Corners and Brookhaven — to gain their independence from county governments. The forces she set in motion will shape metro Atlanta for decades.
Such a movement is not a one-woman show. For years community activists, business leaders, politicians and ordinary residents fought hard for Sandy Springs. But supporters say it was Galambos who organized and drove the effort. Now she leaves office enjoying the kind of popularity any politician would envy.
Galambos, a retired economist, thinks Sandy Springs will prosper without her at the helm. A key reason: an engaged citizenry she helped create.
“We worked for years to build a desire for a city,” she said. “Once they got it, I think they cherished it.”
‘A very, very, very faithful following’
The incorporation movement sprang from discontent with Fulton County government.
Tens of thousands of residents moved to Sandy Springs in recent decades seeking a small-town atmosphere. But as years passed they found their community becoming a mishmash of expensive homes, apartments, office parks and strip malls.
Residents complained bitterly about county zoning decisions but felt ignored. Many said Fulton tapped them for property tax revenue but provided few services in return. Some feared annexation by the city of Atlanta.
Galambos served as president of the Committee of Sandy Springs — which advocated for incorporation — beginning in 1975. She also co-founded other community groups that fought against illegal signs and for such causes as recycling.
“She had us all working together,” said Trisha Thompson, first vice president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods. “She developed a very, very, very faithful following.”
A 1977 effort to incorporate Sandy Springs failed. But Galambos and her colleagues continued to lobby state lawmakers for decades.
Fulton County and Atlanta lawmakers, worried about lost tax revenue or harboring ambitions to annex Sandy Springs, easily thwarted the movement. Defeat in the General Assembly became an annual ritual for Sandy Springs advocates.
But Galambos proved a tenacious advocate.
Paul, the mayoral candidate, served in the state Senate and remembers returning home weary in the middle of the night at the end of legislative sessions, only to hear the phone ring at 8 a.m.
“It would be Eva saying, ‘All right, what do we need to do to get ready for next year?’ “ he said.
That persistence, along with a historic realignment of Georgia politics, ultimately cleared the way for Sandy Springs to incorporate.
In 2002, Republicans seized control of the governor’s office and the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. Two years later, they won control of the House. And in 2005 — more than three decades after the first stirrings of incorporation fever — the General Assembly permitted Sandy Springs residents to vote on the issue.
A resounding 94 percent of city voters approved the measure. On Dec. 1, 2005, the city celebrated its birth — a few weeks after electing Galambos mayor.
A model for other communities
What followed was nearly as dramatic as the city’s incorporation. Though Sandy Springs created its own police and fire departments, it hired a private firm to provide most other services. It was a substantial break from the traditional model of city government, which employed battalions of public workers to deliver services.
The Sandy Springs incorporation and its business model soon inspired other metro Atlanta residents. Brookhaven, Chattahoochee Hills, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Milton and Peachtree Corners have incorporated in recent years, and other efforts are under way.
“She stood up in front of our group and talked about what it took,” Peachtree Corners Mayor Mike Mason said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Metro Atlanta leaders have occasionally complained that the proliferation of local governments has made regional cooperation more difficult. Galambos dismisses that concern.
“I think planning and governing closer to the people is more likely to reflect what people want,” she said.
Many Sandy Springs residents agree. Thompson said controlling its own tax revenue has allowed the city to pave streets and sidewalks and to create excellent police and fire departments.
“It has been wonderful,” she said. “There’s a sense of accomplishment.”
But the city’s actions have also drawn criticism. In 2007, residents protested a tree ordinance that allows more cutting than many would prefer. And some believe a city founded to protect local neighborhoods has become too friendly with developers.
“The city has not regarded developers as what they are, guests in our community,” said longtime resident Dick Palmer, who recently moved away. “They have a responsibility to follow our rules, not make their own.”
Brown, the mayoral candidate, agrees the city bends over backward for big developers. But he thinks it’s too hard for small businesses to navigate city rules, and he wants to create an ombudsman’s position to help them do it.
Like Brown, Paul said he wants to protect local neighborhoods as the city develops, and he hopes to earn the kind of voter trust that Galambos enjoys. He cited a poll from last summer that showed eight residents viewed her favorably for every one that that didn’t — a margin most public figures can’t touch.
“Her integrity is impeccable,” Paul said. “You may disagree with her decisions, but you can’t question her motives.”
One of Galambos’ last major initiatives was to gain public support for a $100 million plan to redevelop a mile of Roswell Road and create a new downtown. The City Council approved the plan in December.
As she considers retirement, Galambos said it’s not her place to discuss her legacy. But she agrees with Paul’s assessment of her integrity.
“I don’t think (residents) see any shenanigans going on,” she said.
ONLINE VOTER GUIDE
Before heading to the polls, you can look through a voters guide to see how your candidate answered questions and create your own customized ballot by visiting ajc.com/voterguide.