Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook says Buckhead cityhood advocates need to provide more information on finances and public schools impacts, likening the current campaign to buying a car without knowing its sticker price. 

Shook, who has represented Buckhead’s District 7 for two decades, says he believes he is legally barred from taking a public stance on cityhood – more on that in a bit – but is allowed to offer educational information. In that vein, he said potential voters lack the full facts and spoke in disparaging terms about a cityhood feasibility study performed by Valdosta State University.

“The study done by Joe’s School of Podiatry or whoever did it, they just kind of took it up from the point of, ‘Let’s assume the city’s already up and running. Here’s what we think the annual costs would be,’” said Shook. “That’s like someone pitching you a new car but telling you you only have to pay for gas and maintenance instead of the actual price of the vehicle.”

Shook also referred to uncertainty as to whether Atlanta Public Schools could or would continue to operate within a Buckhead City. The Atlanta Board of Education is opposing the cityhood legislation, as is the local North Atlanta Parents for Public Schools. “The school board question’s still murky,” said Shook.

Shook said that from the public information perspective, “my position is, look, if this does get on the ballot and voters go to the polls to vote on the most important question in the history of the City of Atlanta, you need to have all the facts. You need to have all the pros and cons. And right now, that data isn’t out there.”

“I’m glad conversation has started,” he said. “But we need to see more.”

The pro-cityhood Buckhead City Committee has said it believes Buckhead and Atlanta would both benefit economically from the split and that any APS issue can be resolved. The BCC has said that more information on those and other issues lacking detail will come as the legislation goes before the Georgia General Assembly next month. The anti-cityhood Committee for a United Atlanta and the Buckhead Coalition have produced a counter-report saying cityhood would blow holes in the budgets of the City and APS.

The feasibility study was required by law, which also limited its scope to basics. Similar studies are usually performed by major metro Atlanta universities with experience in such research, but Buckhead’s ended up at VSU, a novice to incorporation work, after the normal candidates said no for reasons that remain largely unknown. The University of Georgia has said it was too busy with other studies, while some others have not answered questions, and the BCC alleges political conspiracy. Bill White, the BCC’s chairman and CEO, praised VSU’s work at a state Senate committee hearing last month and said the group would like to use the school again for a broader economic development study.

Like fellow Buckhead-area City Councilmember-elect Mary Norwood, Shook is avoiding a position on cityhood, but for different stated reasons. Norwood has said she is staying neutral through year’s end due to her position as chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and would not commit to taking a stance even after taking City Council office in January. 

Shook says the City Department of Law advised him that, under state law, public officials cannot advocate for or against ballot questions, but are allowed to provide information to educate the public. He could not cite the specific law and acknowledged that cityhood is not on any ballot yet. But, he said, he feels legally and ethically obligated not to take an advocacy position.

The City could not immediately confirm or provide comment on that legal advice. Some other officials are publicly stating positions. Mayor-elect Andre Dickens, who currently holds the council’s Post 3 at-large seat, this week appeared at a private CUA fundraiser as part of his publicly stated cityhood opposition.

Marc B. Hershovitz, a Buckhead-based attorney experienced in political and campaign law, said he is not aware of any such legal prohibition on referendum advocacy and that it would violate the First Amendment. He said there may be restrictions on the use of public funds and facilities in such advocacy, but not on a public official simply expressing an opinion or doing so at a private place like their own front yard. 

Vincent Russo is another prominent political and campaign attorney in Atlanta, having served as general counsel to the Georgia Republican Party, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign. Russo says he has not heard of such a restriction on taking a referendum stance. “There are restrictions on using public funds and other government resources, but I am not aware of any state statute that prohibits an elected official from publicly stating his/her personal opinion about a potential ballot question of this nature,” he said in an email.

Shook is a board member representing the Atlanta City Council on the Buckhead Community Improvement District, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners, which has stated its opposition to cityhood. However, that opposition position was stated in a mass effort with the allied organizations the Buckhead Coalition, the Buckhead Business Association and Livable Buckhead and was not signed or voted on by individual members.

In years past, Shook has used the specter of cityhood for his own saber-rattling in negotiations with mayoral administrations, and he expressed some empathy for the cityhood supporters. “I totally understand the frustration,” he said. “I live here. I completely get it.”

And he had thoughts for cityhood opponents as well. “My frustration with some of the entities that have sworn total allegiance to City Hall is, at least I hope in private you’re banging a fist on the desk saying, ‘In return for that, here’s the deliverable metrics we want to see in terms of improvements,’” said Shook. “We’re not battered spouses. In some ways, we act like it.”

Shook, who just won re-election unopposed, also had some advice for his freshmen colleagues as January approaches for what he thinks will be a tough political year.

“Everyone needs to tell councilpeople running for office, deciding you want to run for City Council is like planning a trip to a nude beach. It’s a great idea until you get there,” said Shook. And what’s the view on that beach in 2022? “Ugly,” he said. “A lot of it – yeah, it’s not gonna be pretty.”

Update: This story has been updated with comment from attorney Vincent Russo.

Legislation that would have allowed more accessory dwelling units and eliminate many residential parking requirements died in an Atlanta City Council committee Nov. 29 after controversy in Buckhead and other neighborhoods around town. Councilmembers on both sides of the debate say the ideas may return next year, depending on if and how the new Dickens administration continues to pursue the underlying goals of boosting housing affordability.

“The same housing shortfall that exists in 2021 will exist in 2022 and beyond,” said District 2 City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who sponsored the legislation and chairs the Zoning Committee that killed it. “The proposals that were put forth, which are not radical, remain on the table and will likely be floated again.”

City Councilmember Howard Shook of North Buckhead’s District 7, who moved to kill the legislation, described the possible return in terms of a horror movie — call it An ADU on Elm Street. “I hope it’s gone for good, but we’ll see,” said Shook. “It could be a Freddy Krueger situation.”

Farokhi’s legislation was intended as a relatively small head start on a variety of ideas that came from the City’s “Atlanta City Design Housing” policy concept and are incorporated in a new Comprehensive Development Plan, a five-year policy document that underlies zoning decisions. Much of the controversy related to how the policies would allow more density in single-family neighborhoods. This year’s CDP update in general was controversial for packing in a lot of detail, leaving the City to promise more public input and detail in a “Phase 2” that essentially will be the 2026 version.

The gist of all the proposed changes — also including such ideas as allowing small apartments near transit stations — is to handle a projected population boom, to deal with a housing affordability crisis, and to address historic income equality and segregation.

On the day of the vote, Farokhi blasted his own committee, saying it “chose exclusion over inclusion.” In an email, he said the issues targeted by the legislation and related policies are not going away.

District 2 Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi.

“As Atlantans, we must acknowledge that we need more housing and we need to make changes to allow for that,” said Farokhi. “That doesn’t mean what we love about our city or our street changes. It means we choose inclusivity and economic competitiveness over exclusion and pricing folks out of the region. That’s not incompatible with history, trees, or character. But it does require acknowledgement that cities are not static and we are either growing or dying.”

Farokhi said there are many benefits to people living near where they work and shop.

“But to do that, we need more housing and more types of housing at all price points. We need high-rises, townhomes, basement apartments, ADUs and duplexes,” he said. “And that’s true for nearly every part of town, Buckhead included. So, we need to work together on how we welcome more neighbors to the city. To turn folks away or make it too expensive to live here means we lose out to other cities.”

Shook said Farokhi’s legislation was well-vetted over many months by the public and councilmembers and met an “overwhelming” vote to kill it. He attributed that to input from “very knowledgeable” citizens serving on boards and commissions said, “There’s no way you can add units to a heavily forested area without loss of tress. This looks like a boondoggle that will benefit developers.”

District 7 Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook.

Shook also referred to the CDP’s identification of many vacant or underused parcels, some City-owned, that could be redeveloped. “And what was most important to me was the reality, if this a lack-of-density issue, which some people framed it as, there’s hundreds of millions of square feet of latent, unrealized density already in the CPD,” Shook said. “You don’t need to take it out of the single-family neighborhoods.”

City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane is driving the policies. He also has developed an acrimonious relationship with Buckhead’s neighborhood leaders in particular, who helped promulgate a letter accusing his department of deception about the CDP, among many other issues. Keane in return made scathing comments about Buckhead in a September interview with Atlanta Civic Circle, accusing critics of operating on bad faith and with the cityhood secession movement in mind. “There’s no way to get them off of that because their only interest is in creating fear and confusion. … No amount of truth matters,” he said in those remarks, which won’t be soon forgotten.

Mayor-elect Andre Dickens made housing affordability a pillar of his campaign, but it remains to be seen how his policies play out and whether he will retain Keane in his cabinet.

“I think the planning department, as currently constituted, is totally devoted to moving these policies forward one way or the other,” said Shook. But as for what its administration looks like two months from now, “nobody knows,” he said.

Another X factor is the cityhood movement, which could draw political attention away from such policy-making or spark changes in its content, especially given that Dickens has said he intends to do more listening to Buckhead concerns than incumbent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration has.