Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration jumped into the Buckhead cityhood fray by raising serious doubts about legislation that could lead to the affluent neighborhood seceding from the city of Atlanta.
David Dove, executive counsel to Kemp, sent a Feb. 28 memo to lawmakers, the day after two Buckhead cityhood bills cleared a Senate committee. The bills “demand evaluation for the unique constitutional and statutory challenges they pose to the skin of the body politic,” Dove said.
The memo includes a series of questions that, unless resolved, could drastically change how Georgia’s municipalities are governed “in ways that will ripple into a future of unforeseen outcomes,” Dove said.
The memo was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This is Kemp’s first acknowledgement of the GOP-backed Buckhead cityhood push in the General Assembly. Last year, Republican leadership quashed the Buckhead cityhood movement.
But the Buckhead cityhood movement was revived this year under new Republican leadership, namely Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a co-sponsor of last year’s cityhood bill who received financial backing from the Buckhead City Committee, the group that has used crime as its primary motive to secede from Atlanta.
Ines Owens, Policy and Communications Director for Lt. Gov. Jones, said in an email that Jones “has been consistent on his belief that Senate members have the right to introduce legislation they believe is needed. As the presiding officer, he is not shutting down issues and believes in allowing the legislative process to take place.”
Senate Bill 113 and Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Republican Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula, about a 100 miles south of Atlanta, cleared the Rules Committee March 1 and are headed to the Senate floor on March 2 for a vote. Robertsons told the committee the bills were about “voters’ rights.”
The bills must be approved by a majority of the Senate by midnight of Crossover Day, March 6, to be then be considered by the House.
The questions from Kemp’s administration mirror many of the same constitutional concerns Buckhead cityhood opponents have asked for years. They include where would thousands of students attending Atlanta Public Schools go if de-annexation of Buckhead from the city of Atlanta is approved to how is bond debt constitutionally divided when a city is de-annexed.
The influential Buckhead Coalition came out against the bills in a letter to lawmakers, saying breaking Buckhead off from the city of Atlanta “will choke off economic development.” And Neighbors for a United Atlanta, a group working against the bills, said, “proponents of these bills are playing with fire.”
Democrat Sen. Jason Esteves, who is serving his first term and represents much of Buckhead, said he was “pleasantly surprised” when he read that Kemp’s administration had serious concerns about the Buckhead cityhood bill.
“I think that the memo underscores what I’ve been arguing and questioning the bill sponsors about for the last couple of weeks,” he said. He sits on the State and Local Government Operations Committee, where the Buckhead cityhood bills were approved this week along party lines.
“It also highlights concerns that all of us have had for a couple of years now,” he said. “The sponsors and proponents of a Buckhead City still don’t have answers to those questions. And the reason they don’t have answers to those questions is because it can’t be done.”
The majority of Buckhead residents do not want to secede from the city of Atlanta, Esteves said.
“I want to make sure that we’re honing in on who’s really pushing this movement and it’s a smaller group of deep-pocketed donors,” he said.
That doesn’t mean there are legitimate concerns residents about public safety and public works in Buckhead and across the city, he said. But he said he is committed to ensuring his constituents’ concerns are addressed by working with the city and state.
“You address these issues by working together rather than focusing time and resources on a half-baked a plan that has no authority in the Constitution,” he said.
Bill White, CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, sent an email March 1 discounting each of the questions raised in Dove’s memo. The email included a paragraph that said, “The rating agencies, large institutional bondholders and numerous industry professionals have been consulted throughout this process to ensure that there will not be any adverse impacts on ratings, etc.”
The email also said Atlanta Public Schools would continue to serve the children of the proposed Buckhead City or would lose $300 million per year.
This story has been updated with information that SB 113 and SB 114 were approved March 1 by the Rules Committee to go to the Senate floor for a vote and a response to Dove’s memo from Buckhead City Committee’s CEO Bill White.