OPINION: The latest crime in Buckhead is ‘the City of Buckhead City’

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

A crime is underway at the Georgia state capitol, where lawmakers from Cataula, Tyrone, Grovetown, and Newnan are engineering a multi-billion dollar theft against taxpayers all over Atlanta. It’s either unlawful, unconstitutional, or both.

They’re dressing their crime up as two bills, Senate Bills 113 and 114, to allow voters to de-annex the Buckhead neighborhood away from Atlanta and then create a separate city. They have lobbyists and fundraisers and legislation that sounds legitimate, but what they’re doing is stealing all the same.

When I first heard about an idea for a separate city of Buckhead about two years ago, I wasn’t completely opposed. People were being shot in the neighborhood every day and in every way. A jogger. A little girl. My friend’s mother dodged bullets in front of our grocery store on a Friday afternoon. It wasn’t all in our heads.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was literally phoning it in during her last year in office. How much worse could a new city be?

The answer, we’ve learned over the last two years: It could be a lot worse.

The numbers inside the legislation are laughable- there’s no other word — starting with the $225,000 starting salary the ostensibly conservative lawmakers set for the hypothetical mayor of Buckhead. That’s more than the governor of Georgia makes.

Then there is the lawmaker-mandated garage sale of Atlanta city assets in the neighborhood — $5,000 for a fire station, which cost $13 million to construct; $1,000 for every city building; and parkland for $100 per acre when an acre of land in Buckhead often sells for $1 million or more.

Why stop at $100? Why not sell it for a penny if you’re letting people take for themselves what the entire city has been paying for for decades?

Finally, the water and sewer systems would go for $100,000 each. Who says shopping in Buckhead is pricey? Those systems are currently being paid for with bond obligations worth $3 billion.

Along with the fire sale, the legislation would also stop the construction of the city’s planned police and fire training center, since it would require the sale of the land underneath it. All while promising Buckhead residents that crime will go down, taxes will be reduced, and homelessness will be eliminated “pronto!”

It’s all being pushed by the secretive Buckhead City Committee and the not-at-all secretive Bill White, the occasionally charming, always bombastic, friend-of-Trump bullhorn running the committee and likely candidate for mayor of “the City of Buckhead City” if this thing goes through.

The sponsor of the bills, Cataula Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson, argued this week that the people of Buckhead at least deserve to vote on his legislation.

But what the people of Buckhead deserve first is the truth — about who is behind the effort, how it would work, what it would really cost, and which schools, if any, residents of the new “City of Buckhead City” would drop their children off at on the first day of school.

And how would all of those changes reduce crime when criminal cases in Buckhead will still go to the same Fulton County prosecutors? All of that remains unanswered.

Despite every reason they should have voted no, the Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee passed both bills earlier this week.

The next move belongs to the newly installed Lt. Gov. Burt Jones. The Republican from Jackson has been a largely quiet second-in-command since taking office in January. He co-sponsored the Buckhead bill last year and was the beneficiary of lavish fundraisers and donations of the Buckhead City Committee after that.

At an October fundraiser for Jones, White lamented the state’s last lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, who killed the Buckhead separatist bill in 2022 almost as quickly as it was introduced.

“We found out what a lieutenant governor can and can’t do,” White said of Duncan, with Jones to his right. It will all be different the next time around, White promised, when Jones is the lieutenant governor instead.

In his new role, Jones now has the power to decide which legislation gets a vote on the Senate floor and, in many cases, which bills pass or fail.

He has said Buckhead City isn’t his priority. That may be true, but its future in the Senate his responsibility now.

A serious blow to the effort came late Tuesday, when Gov. Brian Kemp’s Senate floor leaders received a memo from Kemp’s executive counsel, David Dove, outlining serious constitutional questions he believed the two Buckhead bills raise. He also warned the legislation could reshape local governments in ways that “ripple into a future of unforeseen outcomes.”

Behind the scenes, GOP senators say they know the Buckhead legislation is bad policy. Business leaders have warned it would unleash “chaos.”

And the precedent lawmakers set in Atlanta today would open the door to similar efforts from Midtown to Macon to Savannah and all across the state.

But the GOP politics are tough, too. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a friend of Bill White’s, tweeted at lawmakers Monday to “vote FOR freedom.” Can a Trump Tweet be far behind?

People who know Jones from his days as an iconoclastic state senator say they still don’t know what kind of statewide leader he will be, and specifically whether he’ll lead the GOP Senate caucus -- or whether the increasingly conservative caucus will lead him instead.

As one Senate leader said to me recently, “I’m really hoping the lieutenant governor becomes the Lieutenant Governor.”

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Jones said that Jones “has been consistent in 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 he believes in allowing the legislative process to take place.”

So will Jones stop the crime of Buckhead City or be an accomplice? Will he lead his Senate caucus or be led by it? If nobody else intervenes first , we’re about to find out where Burt Jones goes from here.