OPINION: The Buckhead City movement heading for the Georgia legislature

Bill White is leading the Buckhead cityhood movement. (Photo courtesy of Bill White)

Bill White is leading the Buckhead cityhood movement. (Photo courtesy of Bill White)

If Donald Trump had a smoother, better dressed, gay younger brother, it could be Bill White, the man driving the speed train behind the effort to create a new city out of Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.

Like Trump, White is a high-energy, fast-talking New York businessman, confident to the point of brash, and newly engaged in a wildly complicated political process he’s never been involved in before.

Also like Trump in 2016, who was underestimated by leaders of both parties until the day he won the White House, White and the effort to create a new Buckhead city as an answer to the neighborhood’s spiraling crime had been largely dismissed, too.

Until, that is, a vote on the last day of the 2021 legislative session formally began the process and put opponents on alert that White and his fellow members of the Buckhead City Committee may actually know what they’re doing.

White compares the effort’s momentum to a meteor, “And there’s no stopping the meteor.”

With lines like that, he has become the voice and face of the effort to explain that a “divorce” between the city and the neighborhood should happen, although he no longer likes the divorce metaphor.

“I’m a marriage guy,” he said.

Layers of complications make de-annexing one city and creating another difficult at best, but one of the biggest questions surrounding the Buckhead City movement seems to be, “Who is this Bill White guy?”

I reached out to White to find out and by Tuesday we were sitting at Buckhead’s OK Cafe (his suggestion), literally under a massive money tree.

When I arrived, White was surrounded by a group of Buckhead residents who were smiling at the gigantic map of the proposed city that he takes with him to meetings on the subject.

“Are you on the map?” he asks curious passers-by.

Another couple walks by and the man calls out, “I saw you on Fox this morning,” giving White a big thumbs up.

White grew up on Long Island and attended Fordham University in the Bronx, where he worked during the summers as an EMT for the New York City Fire Department.

He went on to start several businesses and become a well-connected donor to both Hillary Clinton and, later, Donald Trump.

White and his husband, Bryan Eure, moved to Atlanta in 2018 to be closer to Eure’s parents after White’s own parents died.

The couple bought a house in Buckhead and White moved his financial services and fundraising businesses to Atlanta.

But why is White now spending so much effort to change a city he just moved to?

Is it for the money? In 2010, White agreed to a $1 million settlement in New York in connection to an investigation of an illegal fundraising scheme. He said he did nothing wrong, wishes he had never settled the case, and is getting no money for his work on the Buckhead committee.

Instead, he said got involved with the Buckhead effort because he doesn’t want his own family to leave Atlanta over fears of crime just as he and his husband have settled in.

“I want my sister-in-law to be able to put gas in her car with her children and not be afraid of getting shot,” he said.

The Buckhead City Committee now consists of White as the CEO, dozens of volunteers on advisory councils, and a hired team of well-known lobbyists and staff working toward a planned 2022 vote in the Georgia General Assembly.

Although exceedingly difficult to secure, success there would put the question of a new city to a referendum on the November 2022 ballot that only registered Buckhead voters would decide.

A poll conducted by Rosetta Stone Communications paid for by the Buckhead committee showed 62% of Buckhead voters favor having a referendum on the ballot. The July poll had a margin of error of 2.7%.

But how would a new city work? A feasibility study is examining everything from the possible city’s tax structure to bonding requirements. The future of parks and schools in Buckhead remains deeply unclear, since the City of Atlanta would still own the park land and children in Buckhead would no longer be eligible for Atlanta Public Schools.

On the schools question, White insisted that children in Buckhead will not only attend APS schools, but that their families would make them better by continuing to pay taxes to attend them.

“Overall Atlanta public schools are in the toilet. They’re 165 out of 198. I don’t know how much worse you could get,” he said. “But I think it would be great if we stayed in. That’s the goal. And I think we’d have a stronger voice if we stayed in.”

White has not spoken to APS about the plan, but said, “I would hope that the Atlanta Public School system would not throw our children out of our schools that we pay our taxes for.”

Rep. Todd Jones, a Republican from Cumming, sponsored the House legislation this year that began the process and plans to lead the effort there again in 2022. He said Buckhead residents should have the right to choose how they’re governed.

“If there’s a question if this is just an academic exercise or an actual legislative event, it is absolutely the latter,” he said.

But it also faces major opposition, especially from the Atlanta delegation and Rep. Betsy Holland, the Democrat who represents Buckhead in the House.

“I think this is a complicated and potentially harmful solution to a problem that we can address in other ways,” Holland said.

She said she’s worried about violent crime in Buckhead, too. But a move to chop a portion of one city off over the objections of the representatives of the city itself would also set a dangerous precedent.

Is it possible to imagine the Republican General Assembly moving on a measure, however unprecedented, in an election year that the City of Atlanta opposes?

Yes. But Kaleb McMichen, the chief of staff to House Speaker David Ralston, said it’s not a simple process for anyone at any time.

“The process is ongoing, will be considered by the Government Affairs Committee in due course, and is a complex process that cannot be rushed,” he said.

White said he’s not interested in rushing the process, although he’d start a new city tomorrow if he could.

“To the naysayers, I say, listen, have an open heart. We’re going to get this done for you. I believe it’s 100% happening,” he said of the referendum. “It will be great again here...and you won’t have to go to the gas station with a gun in your pocket.”