The group advocating for separate cityhood for Buckhead says it has raised enough money to conduct opinion polling and has responded to the stinging criticism of such officials as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms with some zingers of its own. And in the quest for cityhood, the group suggested, it is even willing to give up the Buckhead name.
Sam Lenaeus, a real estate agent who is president and CEO of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, declined an interview request, but agreed to answer questions in writing. Along with the answers, he added some snapshots of long-unfilled potholes on local streets.
“The city of Atlanta has gotten too big to take care of all of us,” Lenaeus said. “We believe it’s time for us to have our own police department and a closer government.”
BEC emerged last year among concern about crime and uneven city services. While advocating for cityhood, the group says it is also open to annexation into such adjacent cities as Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, or simply issuing complaints to Bottoms. BEC’s members long operated anonymously, but its website at becnow.com now identifies some key officers. Besides Lenaeus, they include Ryan Manthey, vice president and treasurer; Leila Laniado, secretary; and Bill White, vice president of fundraising.
In a virtual meeting in January, BEC members asked the public for $10,000 to $15,000 in donations so they could conduct opinion polling to see if people agreed with the cityhood advocacy.
“Thanks to initial donations, we are proceeding with the poll as planned,” Lenaeus said, adding that results were expected this week.
BEC in February registered two government lobbyists with the state. They are Cynthia P. Garst and John G. Garst, according to state registration records, and they are tasked with lobbying for a “potential cityhood effort.” The law firm where they are registered did not return a phone call. Asked what the lobbyists are doing, Lenaeus said only, “At this time, we are consulting with multiple experts on the subject. If we do this together, we will hire the best people in the field.”
BEC’s effort has been strongly criticized by Bottoms and Buckhead’s major business community organizations as divisive at a time when they are working on social, economic and racial unity. Jim Durrett, who heads the Buckhead Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District, has likened the effort to a child ceasing to share toys with others and warned that separate cityhood could bankrupt Atlanta.
Responding to those criticisms, Lenaeus referred to the notorious killing of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie in an apparently random shooting near the Phipps Plaza mall in December.
“In terms of Mayor Bottoms’ efforts, we commend any existing focus on social, economic and racial unity. Those are serious issues that deserved to be tackled,” Lenaeus said. “However, we also consider safety a basic right for every resident, regardless of race. No 7-year-old should get shot. Not in Buckhead, not anywhere.” He wrote those last two sentences in boldface.
“In terms of Jim Durrett, does he actually live in Buckhead?” Lenaeus continued. “We don’t think he has been a victim of a violent crime in Buckhead or that his business has to decide whether to close doors or move away. He would feel different if he did. Issues aside, we hope to work with all Buckhead organizations, as each has valuable knowledge and something to bring to the table.”
On the idea of separate cityhood taking away an anchor of Atlanta’s tax base, Lenaeus pointed to a recent Department of City Planning housing report, which provides statistics about significant, ongoing population increase, as a sign of a broadening revenue base. And Buckhead’s problems are driving taxpayers out to other cities, he said.
“Based on that [city report], tax revenue will continue to go up. There are plenty of new neighborhoods improving the city’s skyline,” said Lenaeus. “The way we see it, the city would have had to reassess our taxes anyway.”
Among the practical hurdles to separate cityhood for Buckhead is the existing city of that name in Morgan County. Already irritated by the identical names, locals in the Morgan County Buckhead are said to be responding poorly to BEC’s effort. Lenaeus indicated that the name Buckhead is not a hill BEC would die on.
“We are very respectful of Morgan County citizens, and we know they are very proud of their heritage. We would never take that away from them,” said Lenaeus. “There are plenty of options when it comes to names.”