A founder of Sandy Springs’ privatized government advises Buckhead cityhood backers
By John Ruch
We wouldn’t be talking about Buckhead cityhood if it wasn’t for the landmark 2005 incorporation of its north metro neighbor Sandy Springs amid similar tensions over political unity and government services.
Oliver Porter is a big part of that conversation. An engineer and artist turned libertarian utopian, was the architect of Sandy Springs’ then-famous launch as an almost entirely privatized city. He has advised many other cityhood movements — successful and not, including the Buckhead-esque Eagle’s Landing — and helps run a privatized city-state in Honduras. And now he’s a paid advisor to the Buckhead cityhood movement.
Whether the Buckhead City proposal will involve the “outsource everything” model of city-running that Porter favors remains to be seen. Porter said in a recent phone interview that the concept of downsizing government was enough to draw his support.
“My one deep-seated belief that has helped me stay on course through all this is,bringing government closer to the people is a good thing,” Porter said. “And as I look around our country and look at the major cities, I have to question whether large cities make any sense at all. That’s where the greatest crime is. That’s where the greatest poverty is. If you go down the list of social goods, I don’t see many of them being fostered by large cities.
“It’s not Atlanta per se,” he added. “It’s just getting government so big that people can’t have a voice [is the issue] that causes problems.”
Sandy Springs’ incorporation from Fulton County came from a local movement complaining about zoning decisions, policing and corruption. The first new city allowed by the Georgia General Assembly in roughly 50 years, it sparked a wave of incorporations, starting in north Fulton and north DeKalb. A more recent form, as seen in Buckhead today and the 2018 Eagle’s Landing effort in Stockbridge, is deannexation from an existing city.
In Sandy Springs, Porter was a citizen volunteer on city organizing committees and became the first interim city manager, implementing the “public-private partnership” outsourcing model to start up the government. He says that what “drove Sandy Springs and other cities to want to incorporate are the exact same needs as are driving Buckhead.”
“The main similarities are the commonality of the need for it and the advantages of it,” said Porter. “The fact that it’s breaking away from a city as opposed to incorporating from a county doesn’t really have any effect whatsoever on whether it’s good for the community or not. It’s right for the community.”
What’s different, he says, is that “Buckhead is more intertwined with the City of Atlanta than, in a sense, the new incorporated cities were in the counties, but still there’s a lot more similarities between the two than there are differences. But there are some legal and financial entanglements in the, if you will, seceding from the city than there were in the incorporations within the city.”
Another difference in the Buckhead cityhood movement is the peculiar political situation of outside legislators promoting it while local legislators fight against it — the exact opposite of most previous cityhood campaigns. Porter says such politics are by “necessity” because of Atlanta getting involved. He said “the legislative effort to split Buckhead off is the most intense of any city to date because you have the full power and might of the political machine of Atlanta fighting it vehemently in the legislature….” On the other hand, he added, the advocacy movement is better funded than other cityhood movements.
Porter said that among the work for which the pro-cityhood Buckhead City Committee (BCC) paid him “a little bit” was drafting preliminary legislation about setting up a government and addressing some of its political concerns. A big one that bedeviled Eagle’s Landing — which failed as a ballot question — and now Buckhead City is the question of impacts on municipal bond debt and ratings.
“I think they failed basically on a total wave of misinformation regarding the bond issue,” Porter said of the Eagle’s Landing effort, which he advised. “… I think it’s an issue that may still haunt the Buckhead [effort] if it gets to a referendum.”
Unlike Eagle’s Landing, which had no plan to assume existing Stockbridge debt, the BCC has said Buckhead would take on some share. Porter said he proposed Buckhead City take on debt related to specific local revenues and properties and otherwise pay a share prorated by population. “That seems to be to be fair, because [of] general debt that Atlanta has accrued, the city of Buckhead has not only paid its share, but a disproportionate share of tax revenue to go its share already,” he said. “So why should it be saddled with that debt … when it’s already paid its share for anything that has served it?”
Another issue for incorporation movements in Eagle’s Landing, Buckhead City and Sandy Springs are the politics of a wealthy, majority-white area breaking away from a government that has Black leaders or a large Black population in a metro area whose demographics still bear the scars of racial segregation. Buckhead was annexed by Atlanta in the 1950s in part to keep the city majority-white, then tried to do the same with Sandy Springs, sparking the first cityhood talk with explicit segregationist stances. That’s one reason the Democrat-controlled state legislature long banned the formation of new cities.
By the time the newly Republican-controlled legislature allowed Sandy Springs cityhood, such explicit racism was gone and local control was the argument. Opponents like former state Sen. Vincent Fort said that argument was mostly coded racism.
Porter has long maintained that race played no role in cityhood. In a letter to the editor of the local paper last year, he criticized Mayor Rusty Paul for acknowledging race as a factor on both sides of the cityhood debate and said a new City program of racial dialogue meetings would open the door to “divisiveness and violence.”
“You know, from Day One in my involvement in Sandy Springs, race was never an issue in the cityhood,” said Porter in the interview, adding it is the same in the Buckhead City movement. The one way race played a role in starting up Sandy Springs, Porter said, was difficulty in getting information to “racial groups, minority groups” due to insufficient local media coverage. “I had to mount a campaign going through the Black churches… “So in terms of any racial activity, that was the main thing, was us trying to reach out and find a way to inform the minority groups,” he said.
The privatized government model
Porter’s main job was figuring out how to start Sandy Springs’ government on a very short deadline, with no ability to cut deals and no tax revenue flowing. The solution was contracting out virtually every City service to the engineering firm CH2M Hill on a handshake deal and, the moment government began, a $10 million loan. The City attempted to make that start-up necessity a long-term virtue, touting itself as a pioneering modern of a libertarian government outsourcing almost everything besides police and fire departments to gain efficiency and cost savings. Porter became a guru of the movement, which many other metro cities followed, and wrote a book called “Creating the New City of Sandy Springs: The 21st Century Paradigm: Private Industry.”
But the privatized model has shown some cracks. Most cities that launched with scaled back over the years and brought many departments in-house. Sandy Springs itself had complaints of higher costs and lack of control over hiring and salaries, among other issues, and in a dramatic 2019 move reversed most of the outsourcing. Porter continues to believe that’s the wrong move and the path to “bureaucracy,” but says he can live with it for now.
“What’s gonna be the trigger for me to go crazy is if they come back and ask for a tax increase,” he said. “As long as they continue to keep taxes low and provide good services, it’s fine.”
For Buckhead City, Porter said he believes privatization is also a start-up necessity and the best long-term model. But, he said, his draft legislation included a “novel approach” of allowing City officials to be elected well before incorporation takes effect to give them more time to set up the model of government they choose rather than having Sandy Springs-style pressure.
Bill White, the BCC’s chairman and CEO, said in an email that the group indeed expects to propose outsourcing for the startup and a mixed model for the long term. He added that the proposal is expected to be based on a mayor, City Council and city manager form of government.
“Presently it is anticipated that major components of Buckhead City services will be contracted,” said White. “We will draw upon the vast experience of the maturation of other cities, heavily outsourcing for initial startup, and quickly rebalancing, taking those pieces in-house where it makes the most sense to us. Finance and administration, including our clerical staff, meet the in-house criteria.”
Other private-city efforts
Meanwhile, Porter is helping to run a purer version of privatized government in the form of a quasi-independent city-state called Próspera on the island of Roatán in Honduras. Funded by venture capitalist and tech entrepreneurs, it is run by a corporate-appointed council — with Oliver as a member — and where private contracts dictate many terms of resident services and business operations.
He said Próspera, since its founding last year, has been going “great guns” with its first commercial building, acquisition of a shuttered resort, and attracting a hotel and a bank. But late last month, Honduras elected new leaders who Porter says are opposed to economic zone laws that allowed the self-operating city to be created. He said they cite “nebulous” and inaccurate complaints about Próspera’s leaders being foreigners and intent on seizing property from others.
According to a recent media report, Próspera also has come into conflict with the neighboring community of Crawfish Rock over various local issues, including a dispute where the new city provided water service in an emergency, then billed for it, then shut it off. Porter said the water controversy has not come before the council but he suspects it is a “tempest in a teapot.”
“In an effort to be community-oriented, we dug a well and provided a water system to the area,” he said. “And I don’t know — frankly, I didn’t hear the issue of it being charged for. But they had no water supply and we gave them one. As far as I know, that’s the sum total of our guilt — we gave them a water system. By the way, it’s tiny; it’s a community of less than 100 people, so it’s not like a world-breaking issue.”
Porter said he is also involved in an international group promoting similar “free cities” around the world. Europe is not welcoming to such privatized cities, he said, but African nations and “smaller countries that were in the former Soviet system” might be.
Sandy Springs remains a cornerstone example of municipal privatization in all of those efforts, and for Porter himself as he advises the Buckhead City backers.
“I think it’s good for the people and I don’t think it is, in the long run, harmful for Atlanta,” he said of Buckhead cityhood. “One basis for that last statement is, every county up ’til now have claimed they were going to be ruined [by incorporations] and none of them have.”
He estimates that Sandy Springs removed about 11% of Fulton County’s service costs, but claimed that a year after incorporation, the county government still had the same number of employees.
“I began to say, ‘Hmm, bureaucracy lives,’” he said. “…So I imagine Atlanta can suck it up and get along OK, too.”