Republican state lawmakers prodded by Buckhead City Committee and its leader Bill White are again trying to push through legislation to carve out the affluent and mostly white northern community from the city of Atlanta.
Last year’s efforts to pass legislation to give Buckhead residents a vote to secede from Atlanta were blocked by then House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R-Cumming). They wanted to give Mayor Andre Dickens time during his first term to address crime.
But White, the controversial leader of the BCC, said the fight for Buckhead City would not stop. He continues to push crime as the main motive for the wealthy enclave to secede from the city of Atlanta. Dickens said recently he didn’t believe Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns would back a Buckhead City bill this session. Jones supported Buckhead cityhood as a state senator but has backed off that stance in his new role.
On Feb. 16, the Senate State & Local Governmental Operations committee (SLOGO) heard testimony on Senate Bill 114, one of two Buckhead cityhood bills. Senate Bill 113 is the other Buckhead cityhood bill. The lead sponsor of both bills is Sen. Randy Robertson, a Republican from rural Cataula in South Georgia. The co-sponsors are also not from Atlanta. No vote was taken.
The bill faces stiff opposition from Buckhead’s influential business community and groups such as the Buckhead Coalition and Buckhead Community Improvement District who favor working with the city to resolve issues such as crime, city services and zoning. Atlanta Public Schools is also against Buckhead cityhood.
“I’m not here today to talk about crime. I’m not here today to talk about potholes. I’m not here today to discuss zoning. Nor am I here today to talk about disgruntled citizens as related to the city of Atlanta,” Robertson said at the committee hearing. He was the only person to speak in favor of the bill.
SLOGO Chair Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) asked Robertson why sponsors of the bills were not from Buckhead or from the city of Atlanta.
Robertson said he doesn’t believe state lawmakers are relegated to legislate only the districts they represent. Incorporating cities is something that dates back to the 1950s in Georgia, he said. De-annexing a portion of a city is no different than incorporating a city from a rural county, he added.
“The fact is that there are a group of citizens who are asking to have their voice heard, period,” Robertson said. He also said the issue is about “equity” — a word that he said has been “hijacked” in recent years.
“I think the right thing is to give the citizens of Buckhead the opportunity to express themselves through a referendum,” Robertson said. “I think the campaign against it or for it starts after the referendum … I don’t think the campaign starts inside this building.”
Democrat Sen. Jason Esteves, who sits on the SLOGO committee, said Buckhead residents have voted — for him and for those including Democrats Sen. Josh McLaurin and Rep. Betsy Holland, who all oppose Buckhead cityhood. A poll commissioned last by the Committee for United Atlanta and Neighbors for a United Atlanta showed candidates supporting Buckhead cityhood were unpopular with likely voters. The candidates supporting Buckhead cityhood all lost.
Edward Lindsey, a former Buckhead state representative, a partner at Dentons law firm and co-chair of Committee for United Atlanta, stressed de-annexation has never been advanced in the General Assembly by people who do not represent that particular area. He said voters living in Buckhead have voted on the issue by electing representatives who oppose Buckhead cityhood.
He also said it is bad policy to “tear apart a city” by only allowing those living in Buckhead to vote on the issue rather than allowing the entire city to vote.
Humberto Garcia-Sjogrim, chair of Neighbors for a United Atlanta, said if Buckhead City was approved, he and his fellow residents of Garden Hills would immediately petition to secede from Buckhead City and rejoin Atlanta.
“And you’re gonna see that bloody mess happen all around our state, including in your backyards, because we’re opening a Pandora’s box here,” he said.
Erica Long, senior policy adviser for Atlanta Public Schools, said a new city of Buckhead lacks the authority to collect property taxes on behalf of any school district.
“And APS is not interested in participating in one that allows for the collection of city school taxes from homeowners and property owners outside the city of Atlanta,” she said.
Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman said last year Buckhead and the entire city saw significant changes come to fruition under the leadership of Mayor Dickens as well as many new members of the City Council, including his election as council president.
“Crime is down, graduation rates are up with our partners at APS, unemployment is at an all time low and we have secured many major economic winds and have major events on the horizon,” Shipman said.
“We have tremendous momentum. We need to grow the pie with that momentum. We do not need to divide it into smaller pieces,” Shipman said.
Kenyatta Mitchell, director of intergovernmental affairs in the mayor’s office, wanted to point out that “births are different than divorces” — meaning the incorporation of cities like Sandy Springs do not compare to de-annexing Buckhead.
“Consequences matter,” she said. “All of these municipalities were born from a county. This is a divorce. And this is a divorce asked for by neither of the two parties. This is a third party asking for the two parties to have a divorce.”
The argument that there is no harm to let people vote on Buckhead City is wrong, Mitchell said. The removal of the Buckhead district from the city of Atlanta would cause significant financial implications, including potentially affecting the city’s current and Buckhead’s future credit rating, and the potential need of restructuring the city of Atlanta’s obligations, she said.
There is no evidence public safety would improve if Buckhead broke off from Atlanta “because criminals do on respect boundaries,” she said. Plus, a Buckhead City police department would still have to deal with the challenged Fulton County judicial system, she added.
Divorcing Buckhead from Atlanta would create a “downward spiral” of deep resentment against a Buckhead City, she said, and likely lead to an increase in crime in the new city, Mitchell said.
Ginn said another hearing on the Buckhead City bills is planned, but no date was given.