Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed 21 bills, the most in any single year since he first took office in 2011. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Georgia governor signs bill that would split Stockbridge into 2 cities

Gov. Nathan Deal signed a measure Tuesday that would carve out land from the existing city of Stockbridge to create a new and more affluent municipality, despite threats of litigation from opponents who say the unprecedented move could lead to other breakaway efforts.

The governor approved the bill to allow creation of a new city of Eagles Landing on the final day of the 40-day legislative signing period. He also issued 21 vetoes — the most since Deal was elected in 2010 — to nullify measures that would crack down on hacking and create a new health care council.

The cityhood proposal, however, was by far the most controversial of the measures awaiting his signature. And Deal seemed torn over the issue after a recent meeting with the mayor of Stockbridge — who staunchly opposed the effort — and Eagles Landing advocates.

In a statement, Deal said the cityhood measure was unlikely to influence the state’s AAA bond rating. But he called on lawmakers next year to come up with a “comprehensive, detailed and uniform process” to guide the formation of new cities in the future.

The Legislature has cleared the way for more than a dozen cities since Republicans won control of state government in the early 2000s. But the push to create a new city of Eagles Landing would set a precedent by gutting an existing city and using it as a staging ground for a new one.

Stockbridge officials have threatened to file a lawsuit to block the legislation, which would remove 9,000 of the city’s 28,000 residents and take half its revenue, according to a report from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute.

The bill’s supporters say Stockbridge has long neglected to provide services such as parks and roads, and that piecing together a more affluent city will attract higher-end options.

“We want amenities that we’re paying for now but that we’re not getting to benefit from,” said Vikki Consiglio, an Eagles Landing advocate. “We just want to seek out world-class corporations to come to our area to provide high-income jobs so citizens don’t have to drive outside our county to go to work, eat, shop or play.”

But opponents of the measure say the move is racially motivated, as the new city would be whiter and wealthier than Stockbridge. They also based their opposition on an economic basis, saying Eagles Landing would rob the city of its most lucrative properties.

“It’s not over just yet,” Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford said. “We will continue to fight on. We want to keep the city complete and do great things for the city and all its citizens.”

Among the sharpest critics is Capital One’s public bonding arm, which owns the majority of $14 million in outstanding bonds owed by Stockbridge. It warned Deal that the legislation could create “unprecedented risk” for firms that hold municipal debt in Georgia. Deal, too, said he faced similar questions from bond analysts.

Deal’s signature means residents in the area of Stockbridge and unincorporated Henry County that would become Eagles Landing could cast ballots on cityhood as early as November.

‘White hat’ tipped

The governor’s Stockbridge decision came as he vetoed several other high-profile measures.

Perhaps the most noteworthy involved a proposal to create a new crime of “unauthorized computer access” that drew rebukes from tech giants and cybersecurity experts across the nation.

The measure, Senate Bill 315, was backed by Attorney General Chris Carr and other Republicans to give law enforcement officials new powers to pursue hackers who probe computer systems but don’t swipe any data.

It was spurred in part by a security researcher who alerted Georgia election officials of a vulnerability at Kennesaw State University’s elections center, which was handling the data for the Secretary of State’s Office.

But critics worried the legislation could outlaw so-called “white hat” hacking by benevolent researchers who then report security weaknesses to those operating the computer system. And a group of security experts and tech firms warned Deal it would “chill security research” and debilitate the state’s growing cybersecurity industry.

In his veto statement, Deal said the measure might “inadvertently hinder the ability of government and private industries” to protect against online breaches, and he urged security officials and lawmakers to go back to the drawing board.

Deal also vetoed a measure that would create a new 18-member health care council and a director of policy and planning. The measure, supported by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, was framed as a way to help Georgia grapple with the opioid crisis and other epidemics. And it sailed through both legislative chambers with little opposition.

The governor, however, said he was concerned that Senate Bill 357 would create a new government body to coordinate health policy when several state agencies already have similar missions. He said in his veto message that it should be left up to the next governor to shape his or her executive team.

‘All sides’

Over his two terms in the state’s top office, Deal has shown little aversion to using the red pen. He usually vetoes about nine measures a year, though in 2016 he nullified 16 measures — including a broad “religious liberty” bill and a campus gun measure.

But this year’s round of vetoes — 21 in all — was the most he’s nixed in a single year since he took office.

It came after an election-year session where lawmakers reached a broader consensus on some of the most consequential measures of the year, including a $26.2 billion budget, a measure that cuts the state’s income tax, a bill that allows for a significant expansion of mass transit and an update of the state’s decades-old adoption rules.

Speaking broadly about his vetting process, Deal said he prefers to give lawmakers the “benefit of the doubt” but that the crush of bills up for votes in the final days of the legislative session can sometimes breed unintended consequences.

“I try to listen to all sides. Unfortunately, sometimes the suggestions to what could have been done come too late,” he said. “I try to get as much concrete information — not just opinions — on the effects if legislation is signed into law.”

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