Buckhead cityhood hangs in the balance as session nears

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The three most powerful Republicans in Georgia have declined to endorse an effort to create a new Buckhead City, but each also wouldn’t shut the door on legislation to split Atlanta into two municipalities.

Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they were not yet ready to take a stance on the contentious legislative push to carve a new city from Atlanta’s wealthy, mostly white northern neighborhoods.

It means Buckhead City advocates begin the legislative session with a chance, however slim, of passing a measure to allow residents to vote in a November referendum on whether to secede from Atlanta.

It also raises the pressure on newly minted Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who won a mandate in part because of his aggressive promise to curb the city’s violent crime rate and keep Buckhead in the fold.

Dickens will face a test when the legislative session opens next week as backers of the cityhood initiative intensify their efforts to persuade state legislators from beyond Atlanta to back the split.

That’s because every state lawmaker who represents the city of Atlanta opposes the measure, along with a bipartisan coalition of political and civic leaders.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Even many critics of Buckhead cityhood, however, have demanded more action from Atlanta leaders to combat crime. Atlanta police data shows the overall number of serious crimes declined in Buckhead in 2021 compared with 2020 and 2019, though violent crimes such as homicides were up.

Kemp said in an interview this week that he’s not yet taking sides, but he credited the secession push with provoking urgent new efforts to crack down on violent crime in Atlanta.

“There’s a reason the movement has snowballed,” he said. “It’s healthy for this debate to be going on. People need to demand that the leadership get something done about violent crime, street racing and the insanity going on.”

Ralston, too, blamed a “failure of leadership” at City Hall for the Buckhead fissure. But he also raised concerns about breakaway movements that could threaten other cities if Buckhead is allowed to bolt.

“At the end of the day, what we do will set a precedent. And it will be a precedent we’ll be called on to follow, whichever way it goes, in a year or two, or 20 years down the road. And I want us to get it right,” he said.

Duncan was the most skeptical of the trio. He said he’s yet to hear a “compelling argument” from Buckhead cityhood supporters about how they would better curb crime. And as the president of the Senate, he can bottle up legislation he doesn’t favor.

“The details matter here. The financing issues. The education issues. The governance issues. These are all issues that must be fixed before — and not after — a referendum is passed,” Duncan said. “My hope is that we’re able to figure out a way to help all of Atlanta significantly cut crime.”

‘Doesn’t have much time’

Eager to reset city-state relations, Dickens has met with the three GOP leaders and other influential state politicians to detail his plan to combat crime. He’s also embarked on an outreach effort to blunt the Buckhead secession movement.

Dickens tapped Sam Massell — the former Atlanta mayor who founded the Buckhead Coalition — as an honorary co-chair for his administration’s transition team. His allies are reminding residents that the leader of the Buckhead cityhood effort, Bill White, recently amplified a racist tweet from a white nationalist group before deleting it.

City Hall is also preparing to open a new police precinct in Buckhead’s “West Village” area that will be staffed by 24 officers. The city plans a press conference next week to discuss the project, an Atlanta Police Department spokesman said.

The precinct is expected to focus on traffic issues that prevent officers from handling more pressing emergencies. The Neighborhood Planning Unit that represents Buckhead also said a police bike crew will patrol the area to target quality-of-life offenses, such as drinking, loitering and drug use.

And newly elected Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who has stayed neutral on the effort to split from the city, introduced legislation that could offer another route to address Buckhead’s concerns without a nasty breakup. It would create a public safety task force for Buckhead that would develop plans to deter crime on the Northside.

Still, the pressure is mounting on Dickens, who has pleaded for the chance to implement his strategy. Kemp said he’s had several productive conversations with Dickens, but he also relayed an important message to the new mayor.

“I’ve made the case to him he doesn’t have much time,” Kemp said. “Everyone deserves to have a little bit of a transition. But this is one of the most important transitions in the history of the city of Atlanta because people are so fed up.”