Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration raised sharp concerns that the Buckhead cityhood effort could violate a range of Georgia laws, delivering a devastating blow to the secession movement as lawmakers consider a renewed push to split Atlanta into two municipalities.
Kemp executive counsel David Dove outlined nearly a dozen questions about the constitutionality of the two bills that cleared a Senate panel this week, warning in a memo late Tuesday that they could reshape local governments in ways that “ripple into a future of unforeseen outcomes.”
Writing that they “demand evaluation for the unique constitutional and statutory challenges they pose,” Dove challenged lawmakers to “meaningfully” resolve the issues before taking further action.
It was the first time Kemp’s office raised serious issues about the breakaway push this year, and it could damage the effort‘s chances ahead of a vote on the cityhood measures by the full Senate chamber that’s tentatively set for Thursday.
The memo came just after supporters of the Buckhead divorce achieved a minor victory. With the blessing of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Senate committee approved Senate Bills 113 and 114 on Monday, giving Buckhead City boosters their first legislative success.
The rapid-fire votes set off alarms among the coalition of Atlanta officials, corporate leaders, community activists and lawmakers who staunchly support a unified city. They have long highlighted many of the concerns that Kemp’s administration raised in the two-page letter.
Among the issues, Dove questioned whether the proposed Buckhead City would trigger a “possible widespread default” of municipal bonds by reconfiguring the way debt is handled, and he indicated there were other areas where the pending legislation could flout the state constitution.
Dove’s memo also noted that supporters of the secession have failed to determine whether students in the proposed city could enroll in the Atlanta Public Schools system even though the new jurisdiction sits outside Atlanta’s limits.
“If students are not able to remain in the Atlanta Independent School System, are Fulton County schools able and equipped to manage the influx of students that would then be added to their rolls?” Dove wrote in the memo, one of 11 legal questions he posed.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Cityhood sponsors have long refused to offer detailed responses to those concerns and other unanswered questions. That has left frustrated opponents to predict it will cost millions of dollars in litigation to hash out the logistics in the unlikely event a breakup is successful.
Buckhead City supporters also won’t answer other pressing issues, such as detailing how the new city would meet its budget and debt obligations, whether it could disrupt financing for MARTA and other taxpayer-funded projects, and what would happen to a public safety center that Atlanta has long planned.
State Sen. Jason Esteves, a Democrat who represents parts of Atlanta, said the memo reinforces his stance that the proposed breakaway measures are “at best half-baked plans that would endanger the livelihoods of all Georgians, especially my Buckhead constituents.”
“I remain committed to fighting for a united Atlanta,” he said, “and I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will take the Kemp administration’s concerns to heart and put a stop to the dangerous ‘Buckhead City’ legislation.”
Buckhead cityhood supporters dismissed each of the governor’s concerns listed in the memo that went out Tuesday.
In a letter from Bill White, CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, the pro-secession group pushed back on issues such as repaying Atlanta’s existing general bond debt and other line items where the bills may violate the state constitution.
The Buckhead City Committee said it had consulted with rating agencies and bondholders throughout the legislative process “to ensure that there will not be any adverse impacts on ratings.”
It also asserted that Atlanta Public Schools will be required to continue to serve the students of Buckhead — or be subject to losing $300 million per year.
”As you can see, we fully and succinctly answer each of the points outlined in David Dove’s letter,” White wrote.
‘This shouldn’t happen’
Though the pro-Buckhead push isn’t expected to pass the Legislature and reach Kemp’s desk, its preliminary success in a Senate committee on Monday served as a wake-up call to residents who say a unified city is key to a prosperous region.
Last year, House and Senate leaders smothered the pro-Buckhead movement before it reached a committee vote. With new politicians in charge of both chambers, opponents this year leaned on Kemp to intervene before the push gained new momentum.
Many worry that an effort to separate a wealthy, mostly white enclave from the city at the heart of the civil rights movement would deal long-term damage to Atlanta’s image as a vibrant, diverse center of economic opportunity.
“This shouldn’t happen anywhere — the wealthy part of the city leaves a poorer part of the city behind, which is exactly what would happen,” said Humberto Garcia-Sjogrim, a co-founder of the pro-unity Neighbors for a United Atlanta. “But it cannot happen in the home of Martin Luther King Jr. It would be a stain on our city’s history.”
Atlanta City Council members say they, too, are working to highlight other concerns embedded in the legislation, including provisions that set sky-high salaries for the proposed city’s elected officials and call for Atlanta to sell its property to Buckhead for rock-bottom prices.
“I appreciate the memo’s clarity, and it aligns with what many of us working on this issue pointed out — these bills are unworkable and likely unconstitutional,” City Council President Doug Shipman said, “and would cause damage to the lives of our kids and our financial stability as a city and state.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has worked to repair the once-fractured relationship between City Hall and state GOP leaders. On Wednesday, his office expressed appreciation for the points Kemp’s team made on “the many ways that deannexation would destabilize our state.”
“The capital city is strongest together, and we will continue working with the Legislature and state leaders to end this shortsighted and destructive legislation,” said Michael Smith, a spokesperson for the mayor.
Still, the divorce effort retains key supporters despite its dim prospects. Jones’ public stance remained unchanged shortly after the memo’s release, and his spokeswoman, Ines Owens, said Wednesday that “he is not shutting down issues and believes in allowing the legislative process to take place.”
The GOP sponsors — all of them from districts outside Atlanta — have largely framed the issue as part of an ongoing quest to heed locals who feel their concerns about crime rates and services they say have been ignored.
State Sen. Randy Robertson, whose Cataula-based district is more than an hour’s drive southwest of Atlanta, said the threat of Buckhead cityhood should serve as a reminder to elected officials who “forget who they work for.”
“So when movements happen that remind the elected officials who the real bosses are,” Robertson said, “then I have to support that.”
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC