Buckhead cityhood movement calls it quits ‘for now’

Legislative session day 27 on Thursday, March 2,  2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

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Legislative session day 27 on Thursday, March 2, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

The leaders of the effort to split Atlanta into two municipalities have called it quits “for now” after their Buckhead secession movement was crushed in the Georgia Senate.

The Buckhead City Committee announced its “farewell” to supporters in an email late Sunday that assailed Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans who raised concerns about the breakaway push.

“In a nutshell, Governor Kemp and his team coordinated behind closed doors to kill the Buckhead City bills before they even had the chance for an honest vote in the Senate,” wrote the committee, which is led by Bill White, a wealthy New York transplant.

“Unfortunately,” it added, “now that Governor Kemp has displayed that he does not support our right to vote, there is no path forward for a cityhood referendum while he remains governor until the end of his term in 2026.”

The Senate’s 33-23 vote on Thursday to put down the pro-Buckhead rebellion was a defeat for supporters of the divorce, who said they would be better able to fight crime and provide services by splitting the wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood from the rest of Atlanta.

The cityhood effort was opposed by every elected official in Atlanta and a broad coalition of local leaders who said it would irrevocably weaken Georgia’s capital. Some major businesses even pledged to secede from Buckhead if the cityhood push somehow prevailed.

Even supporters in the Senate, who mostly came from rural or exurban areas, privately acknowledged the measure never had the votes to pass the Senate, let alone clear the House to make it to Kemp’s desk.

But Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who endorsed the split as he campaigned to be the Senate’s leader, advocated for the measure to advance in his chamber. Some of his allies, too, privately called for a vote to bring “finality” to the festering issue.

Sen. Randy Robertson (R-Cataula) looks on as Senate members discuss the Buckhead Bill on day 27 of the legislative session on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

That set up a tug of war between two of the state’s most powerful figures. Kemp’s executive counsel, David Dove, issued a memo ahead of the vote that raised nearly a dozen questions about the constitutionality of the proposal.

Among them were unresolved concerns about how a split could trigger a “possible widespread default” of municipal bonds by restructuring how billions of dollars of debt is handled.

Other critics noted the punitive terms of the breakup attempt, which would force Atlanta to sell public facilities, such as schools and infrastructure, at rock-bottom prices to the proposed city.

Jones pressed Republicans to back the measure Thursday at a closed-door caucus meeting, senators said. But ultimately two GOP senators made some of the most forceful cases against the cityhood initiative.

Sen. John Albers (R—Roswell) was one of the most forceful opponents of the Buckhead secession movement.  (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

State Sen. Frank Ginn warned “Atlanta would die” if Buckhead is removed from its limits. And state Sen. John Albers was even more pointed: “This makes no sense politically, operationally or financially.”

They were among 10 Republican senators who voted against the measure, sending a clear signal that the secession push is sidelined.

In the email, White acknowledged that reality as he blamed Kemp and his aides for the measure’s failure. He also took a sunnier view of the defeat: “Against all odds, we were only six votes away from our bills passing the Senate.”

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