ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia senators torpedoed an effort to let the affluent Buckhead neighborhood secede from Atlanta on Thursday, with 10 Republicans breaking ranks and voting with Democrats to doom the measure after Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration questioned its legality and workability.
“If we jerk the heart out of the city of Atlanta, which is Buckhead, I know our capital city will die,” said Sen. Frank Ginn, a Danielsville Republican who chairs the committee that sent the bill to the full Senate.
The 33-23 vote to reject Senate Bill 114 could end the multiyear movement to create the proposed Buckhead City, driven by conservative residents who claimed the Democratic-run city wasn’t doing enough to fight crime and provide services, especially considering that Buckhead makes up less than 20% of the city’s population of 500,000, but about 40% of its tax revenue.
“These people are being ignored,” Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican who sponsored the bill, said just before the bill was defeated. “And I think the response that we’ve seen has been just enough and then they hope it will go away.”
If the bill had succeeded, it would have set up a referendum on creating a new city that could have cast a harsh spotlight on efforts by a richer, majority-white neighborhood to divorce itself from the poorer, Blacker city at the heart of the Deep South’s largest urban area.
“We cannot cavalierly decide when we are united and when we let our divisions break us,” said Sen. Sonya Halpern, an Atlanta Democrat who represents parts of Buckhead.
Atlanta’s overwhelmingly Democratic legislative delegation and the city’s business leadership had long opposed the measure, arguing that not only was it a bad idea, but that it was legally unworkable. Practical arguments revolved around questions of whether a new Buckhead City could still send its students to Atlanta’s freestanding school district, whether Buckhead would shoulder a fair share of Atlanta’s debts and whether it was legally possible to disentangle all the obligations of the city.
“Constitutionally, it’s not possible to divide the city of Atlanta, with its schools, with its debt obligations,” said Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat who represents part of Buckhead.
Kemp, a Republican who has forged a close working relationship with Democratic Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, added his voice to those questioning the legality and practicality of Buckhead City on Tuesday.
Kemp’s chief lawyer sent out a harsh memo attacking the plans. Executive Counsel David Dove, like many, also said that the split could wreck the ability of all Georgia cities to borrow money. That’s because bond markets would fear that cities could default on their debts if they broke into pieces.
“Have proponents of Senate Bills 113 and 114 considered what greater impacts this precedent may have on municipal bond ratings, underwriting considerations, the further de-annexation and incorporation of cities, and the possible widespread default that could occur?” Dove wrote.
Democrats say supporters of Buckhead City are a noisy minority of residents in the area. No Atlanta lawmakers are sponsoring the bills.
While the legislation was bottled up last year, new Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones supported it while serving as a state senator and has allowed the bills to move forward. He and other Republican leaders of the Senate brought the bill to a vote Thursday even though it was clear, after Kemp weighed in, that Republican support wouldn’t be united.
Several senators praised Jones for fulfilling a campaign promise, although the defeat could allow Jones, a possible gubernatorial candidate, to move beyond advocacy of an issue that pits him against many business leaders.
“Moving forward, I intend to continue to be a strong and engaged partner with all parties — including the city of Atlanta — to ensure accountability so that all residents of Fulton County feel safe in their community,” Jones said in a statement after the vote.
Several supporters of the vote urged city leaders to listen to the concerns of Buckhead City proponents.
“This issue will not go away until they first listen, and then start to seek solutions,” said Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican and close ally of Jones. “City of Atlanta, if you’re listening, listen to them.”
Dickens called Atlanta “one city, with one bright future” in a statement after the vote, thanking lawmakers for rejecting the bill and pledging further improvements in crime-fighting and other city services.
“To my fellow Atlantans: whether you support or oppose deannexation, I will continue working with you to improve our services, to invest in our communities and ensure a safe city for all,” Dickens said. “Atlanta is a group project, and we will work every day of the week with you, on your behalf, and hearing your voices.”