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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Why Some States and Cities Want to Secede

The push to form new governments is heating up in places from Georgia to California.

Stockbridge city hall
The city hall in Stockbridge, Ga., a city that could be split in two by voters this fall.
Vikki Consiglio wants amenities. To be precise, the Georgia woman wants fine dining, a Whole Foods and an upscale hotel. And she and many of her neighbors are willing to form a new city to get it.

Consiglio is the head of the Eagle's Landing Educational Research Committee, a group that's pushing to form a new city out of the unincorporated portion of Henry County, Ga.

That on its own isn't especially controversial. But to form a city with a high median household income, Consiglio and supporters of the Eagle's Landing incorporation want to bite off a chunk of the city of Stockbridge in the process. A referendum on whether or not to secede will be on the ballot in November.

Consiglio lives in Henry Country. But she is surrounded by the tentacles of Stockbridge, a city 21 miles south of Atlanta, that through successive incorporations over the years has taken on the shape of an amoeba. That irregular configuration is just one of the arguments Consiglio and her supporters are using to drive their effort to form Eagle's Landing, a new town carved out of the south end of Stockbridge and other unincorporated fingerlings of Henry County.

Their other argument is money. Consiglio wants to incorporate Eagle's Landing by combining the most affluent sections of the city and the county. Doing so, she says, will entice new high-end restaurants, retail and hotels to locate there.

“When we drive out of our neighborhood, we see dollar stores and Walmarts. We know we can do better and have a Whole Foods. We asked why, and the answer is we don’t have high enough household incomes,” Consiglio says. “In order to control our destiny and control our economic development, we [have] to create our city.”

The appetite for a more upscale community -- and the desire to redraw jurisdictional lines to get it -- is nothing new, says Emory University political scientist Michael Leo Owens.

“People behind these movements often don’t believe they are receiving their value for their tax dollars,” Owens says. “There is often this idea that these affluent areas are getting cheated, that they are not getting what they are paying for.”

Some of those sentiments are fueling an enthusiasm for redrawing state lines in California.

A citizen proposal to split California into three separate states last week was approved to appear on voters' ballots this November. The sponsor of the initiative, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, who previously has championed efforts to divide California into as many as six different states, has said that splitting up "will get us better infrastructure, better education and lower taxes."

Separately, a proposal for California to secede from the United States altogether -- the so-called "Calexit" vote -- is a perennial topic of conversation, perhaps as a ballot initiative for 2020. (Those longshot measures are, as the Los Angeles Times has noted, only the latest of more than 200 attempts to split up or secede since California joined the Union in 1850.)

At the municipal level, secession or "de-annexation" (which refers to efforts by a municipality to cast off neighborhoods far from the city's core) are often fueled by political resentment, the feeling that City Hall is overlooking certain areas or failing to deliver proper services.

The San Fernando Valley, with its 1.3 million residents, tried to secede from the city of Los Angeles in 2002 when residents felt they were being neglected by city leaders. In 2015, the well-to-do, largely white neighborhoods on the southern side of Baton Rouge, La., attempted to carve out a new city and a new school district for themselves; that effort may be back for another vote this year. In Memphis, Tenn., a sprawling jurisdiction that has struggled to deliver services like public transportation and adequate law enforcement, Mayor Jim Strickland has introduced two bills that would shrink the city through de-annexation. 

In many ways, a secession is like a divorce. And just as in an acrimonious divorce, the biggest question is who gets what.

In the case of Eagle's Landing, in Georgia, the newly formed town would take $8 million dollars from Stockbridge’s general fund and leave that city with $13 million in municipal bond debt. Almost all of the 70 census tracts in what could become Eagle’s Landing would have a median family income of more than $74,000, while the remaining 253 census tracts in Stockbridge would have a median family income of less than $56,000, according to Moody’s.

Unlike a divorce, however, only one party gets any say -- at least in that Atlanta suburb. Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed legislation that allows residents in an area marked for secession to vote in November on whether or not to form a new city. Stockbridge residents who don't live in that part of town don't get a vote.

Stockbridge city officials filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the vote, claiming the secession is unconstituional. The matter goes to court next month. 

As in Baton Rouge, secession proponents have been accused of racism. Currently, African-Americans outnumber whites 2-to-1 in Stockbridge, and last year the city elected its first black mayor and first all-black city council. The Eagle's Landing secession movement gained steam in the wake of that election; the new town would be less than half African-American.

“I don't think [the proposal] is racially neutral at all,” says Dan Immergluck, professor of urban studies at Georgia State University. “This is an issue of the power shifting in Henry County. I think there is a political fear of who's rising into power.”

Georgia state Sen. Emmanuel Jones, who represents a large section of Stockbridge, said the deal would set “a dangerous precedent” and would “undermine the existence of cities.”

After signing the new law that could make it easier for Eagle's Landing to break away from Stockbridge, Gov. Deal said state lawmakers should create a more consistent framework for the process going forward. 

“I call on the General Assembly to take up de-annexation reform in the next session so as to ensure a comprehensive, detailed and uniform process in the future,” Deal told the financial publication Bond Buyer.

The notion of seceeding and forming a new government can seem to some residents like an attractive way to create a new community. But in general, splintering an existing municipality can make it harder for government to deliver services equitably, says Owens, the Emory political scientist.

“It’s people picking who the winners and losers are going to be."

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