Is Buckhead cityhood a necessary “divorce” from a city that has “exploited the beautiful people of Buckhead”? Or is it “the most expensive, slowest and least efficient solution” to crime concerns? 

Such were the stances in a brief pro-and-con forum about the cityhood proposal during a May 13 meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. The discussion had Bill White, the new CEO and chair of the pro-cityhood Buckhead Exploratory Committee, squaring off with Linda Klein, an attorney and former American Bar Association president who is a member of the Buckhead Coalition, a longstanding nonprofit that opposes cityhood.

A page of the legislation seeking to create the city of Buckhead City, as shown in a photograph provided by the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, the group advocating for cityhood.

Emerging last year from concerns about crime and city services, the separatist movement for a new “Buckhead City” has become a political thorn in the side of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. The BCN has not taken a public stance on the issue, and neither has its chair, Mary Norwood, who is also a City Council candidate and a former mayoral candidate who lost to Bottoms. Norwood introduced and led the virtual mini-forum but did not offer commentary.

The BEC’s cityhood 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. It is also opposed by some of the local Democratic state legislators whose approval would be necessary to see it through. However, the BEC succeeded in getting initial cityhood legislation filed this year via Republican state legislators who do not represent Buckhead.

The BCN said a technical glitch limited attendance at the virtual meeting to 100 people while many more tried to get in. The BCN has made a video of the meeting available by clicking here.

The pro-cityhood pitch

The BEC has largely operated privately and offered scant details about its process, backers and other basics in two public forums. That continued at the BCN forum, as White alluded to unnamed experts and a lobbyist and did not explain how “Buckhead” would be geographically defined in the proposed city. One detail he offered was that BEC has raised nearly $500,000 toward $1.5 million it believes will be needed to see the cityhood process through to the point of a Buckhead-only ballot question next year — assuming legislators and the governor approve it.

Bill White, CEO and chair of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, speaks at the May 13 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting.

Another clear point is the motivation of cityhood: “We have pretty much one major issue that we’re focused on, and it’s crime, crime and crime,” said White. 

However, the pitch from White and BEC president Sam Lenaeus was often more about what the cityhood movement is not, as they attempted to frame the concept as not a knee-jerk response to temporary conditions and politics. It’s not new but rather a sentiment nursed for three years, they said, and it’s not about the current mayor. And “it’s absolutely not about race … I think those terms are extremely divisive, hurtful and unwarranted,” said White. He equated the Buckhead movement to the recently formed city of South Fulton, which is majority-Black and, he said, similarly one of the best-educated and most affluent places in its area.

U.S. Census data analyzed last year by the Atlanta Regional Commission estimated that Buckhead’s population of 100,000 is nearly 72% white while Atlanta’s total population is roughly 51% Black. 

“They have taken advantage of our spirit, our work ethic and our generosity. The city of Atlanta has pushed us to the point of no return.”

Bill White, CEO and Chair, Buckhead Exploratory Committee

However, White and Lenaeus also described the past year’s crime wave — part of a nationwide increase — as fires fueling the cityhood movement. Lenaeus claimed that “Atlanta city [government] handcuffed all of our police officers and the criminals knew that there was no enforcement and they could just take over our streets. That’s when things really went to hell.” White said he was the victim of an unnamed crime, recounted a recent meeting with a police officer who had fled Atlanta’s force for Brookhaven’s, and described the BEC as “working to protect our homes, our families, our fellow neighbors, and indeed our livelihoods.”

Buckhead Exploratory Committee president Sam Lenaeus at the BCN meeting.

In sweeping terms, White described Buckhead as victimized by Atlanta’s government and the cityhood decision as inflexible. 

“The city of Atlanta, we believe, has exploited the beautiful people of Buckhead for way too long and for so many years, in fact,” said White. “They have taken advantage of our spirit, our work ethic and our generosity. The city of Atlanta has pushed us to the point of no return.”

With the cityhood movement, he said, “we have filed for divorce. The divorce is final. There is not another solution for us.”

Of course, the “divorce” is not anywhere close to final, with a long legal process ahead and many opponents to the split. In a brief acknowledgement of that, White said it is “distressing” that the “loudest voices do not even live in Buckhead.” A frequent target of BEC’s ire is cityhood archenemy Jim Durrett, president of the Buckhead Coalition and executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, who does not live in the neighborhood.

The anti-cityhood view

Klein’s opposition counter-presentation was advertised as coming on behalf of the Buckhead Coalition, though she cautiously claimed to be speaking for herself as a Buckhead resident with no input from anyone at the Coalition. Klein is a shareholder at the powerhouse legal and lobbying firm Baker Donelson. She is also a member of the Coalition, an invitation-only group of business and community leaders. 

Klein said she agreed with the BEC’s concerns but that cityhood is the worst solution and specifically is likely to increase crime by removing a wealthy part of Atlanta’s tax base. The best solution, she said, is voting in the fall elections that will bring in a new mayor and City Council.

Linda Klein, an attorney with Baker Donelson and a member of the Buckhead Coalition, speaks against cityhood at the BCN meeting.

“The election is this year. It’s the better, faster and least expensive way to be heard, and we can be heard,” said Klein. “Separating from the city of Atlanta — it’s not the answer. It’s the most expensive, slowest and least efficient solution.” 

“And I submit that this cityhood proposal is a dangerous distraction at a critical time,” she added.

It could weaken political engagement in the Atlanta races and allow other areas to “use Buckhead as a scapegoat” to elect candidates uninterested in the neighborhood’s issues, she said. And, she suggested, the process of establishing a city could take a decade or more.

Turning the tables on the BEC’s criticism of outsiders, Klein noted cityhood’s political support comes from non-Buckhead legislators. And she cited the lack of such details as the map of the area that would be included in the city. “Every neighborhood deserves to know now whether it’s going to be included,” she said.

Cityhood would mean another “set of bureaucrats” and a bevy of financial challenges for both cities, Klein said. Buckhead would have to buy its parks, police stations, fire houses and other facilities. The schools could no longer be in the Atlanta Public Schools system. The new city likely would have to cut a deal with Atlanta for water and sewer service. “Please ask the people in the city of Sandy Springs how that worked out for them,” she said, alluding to a decades-long legal and political battle there over surcharges, fees and maintenance of the system. 

“Separating from the city of Atlanta — it’s not the answer. It’s the most expensive, slowest and least efficient solution.” 

Linda Klein, Buckhead Coalition member

Atlanta could face lawsuits from municipal bondholders and financial default due to the loss of collateral to a new city, Klein said. The loss of a wealthy tax base would hit Atlanta and could worsen crime, including in Buckhead, she said. “We can’t build a checkpoint at the Buckhead border and keep people out,” she said.

Cityhood could be damaging to business and development locally and across the state, Klein said, as “breaking up our capital city will impact everyone and everyone will take this seriously.” 

“Even talk of Buckhead separating itself from the city of Atlanta is costly to our business reputation. Businesses and investors hate uncertainty,” she said.

Klein also touched on “division and race.” She said she agrees that the cityhood movement is not motivated by race, but added that given Buckhead’s demographics, “the racial implications will be obvious … We cannot ignore the fact that sometimes perception becomes reality.” She said that, considering Atlanta’s status as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, the city is at its best when it comes together.

Rebuttal answers

In a rebuttal period, White accused Klein of “inaccuracies” and “misinformation,” but could not cite a single example. Norwood said both sides would be allowed to provide further written comments that would be emailed to attendees. 

In an acidic press release issued shortly after the discussion, the BEC dismissed Klein as a “PR person” replacing Durrett and accused her of “scare tactics” and telling a “lie” about municipal bonds. The BEC said the new city could take on the bond debt, and responded to the concerns about economic impacts by saying crime is driving businesses out of Buckhead now. The BEC acknowledged Sandy Springs’ conflict with Atlanta over the water system, but cited that as further evidence of the latter government’s “corruption and lack of transparency.” 

The press release returned to crime concerns as a metaphor in responding to Klein. “Buckhead Coalition’s solution is to wait for elections and hope someone better comes along,” it said. “Imagine suggesting that to someone who just got robbed and waited on hold for 30 minutes before 911 picked up the call.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.