On July 16, Jim Durrett gave his first “State of Buckhead” address as the new president of the Buckhead Coalition, a position he took in an unprecedented dual role while still serving as executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District. But the state of the Coalition, a legendary local nonprofit, was on some attendees’ minds.
Durrett had no answer beyond saying the Coalition is rethinking its vision and mission, adding later in an email, “All I can tell you… is that we are in the middle of making changes about how everything operates.”
One practical change is already happening — a merger of the CID staff into the Coalition, an unusual move that an attorney with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation says may open the long private and exclusive nonprofit to state Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
Durrett has spent over 10 years as executive director at the Buckhead CID, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners that funds public safety, transportation and beautification projects in the business district. Its board includes several powerful figures in the Southeast’s real estate world and the manager of the Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls.
The Coalition is a private, invitation-only, nonprofit community group of 100 members who pay a $9,000 annual fee, plus ex-officio members. Among its current membership are legendary business figures Ted Turner and Charlie Loudermilk; Jeffrey Sprecher, head of the firm that owns the New York Stock Exchange and husband of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler; and the chief officers of Piedmont Healthcare, the Cathedral of St. Philip and the Atlanta History Center.
Former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell was its founding president and led the organization for more than 30 years until his retirement in June. Under Massell, the Coalition acted as a kind of economic development agency for Buckhead, publishing an annual book of detailed information about the neighborhood. Its programs ranged from a newsmaking annual luncheon which drew mayors and other important figures as keynote speakers, to contributing volunteers and donations to small community improvement and charity efforts. The Coalition was the vehicle for Massell’s sometimes whimsical efforts at neighborhood boosterism; his unfinished last project was an attempt to get Buckhead an honorary designation as a “township.”
Massell also used the Coalition as a platform to call for social and racial unity in Atlanta and to speak out against occasional talk of Buckhead leaving to become its own city. Durrett’s first act as Coalition president echoed that position, as he arranged for a joint statement against the latest cityhood talk along with the CID, Livable Buckhead and the Buckhead Business Association.
But what else, if anything, Durrett and the Coalition intend to preserve from the previous three decades is unclear. The main theme of Durrett’s brief comments on the subject is change.
In his “State of the Buckhead” address to the BBA, Durrett focused on information from the CID. When asked about the Coalition, he said he and the board were still discussing “what our vision and our mission and our priorities should be going forward.” Part of that, he said, is “coming up with exactly who we need to be for today and tomorrow and not just continuing to do what has been done for the past 32 years.”
Also remaining to be seen is how the Coalition position relates to still other important roles Durrett holds. He sits on MARTA’s board of directors and serves as treasurer for the conservancy planning HUB404, a long-planned park capping Ga. 400 between Lenox and Peachtree roads atop the Buckhead MARTA Station. The park project is in “hibernation” due to the pandemic essentially halting its fundraising, Durrett said. He called it an “effort that is not on the back burner, but it’s not on the front burner.”
Durrett has said that he is still learning the ropes at the Coalition. When asked about the Coalition’s governing board or executive committee, he at first said the identities of the group’s members are kept private before Coalition staff corrected him that they are publicly disclosed upon request.
The CID and the Coalition will remain separate organziations, said Durrett and Lynn Rainey, an attorney who advises the CID. They already had a significant informal tie that may become more important, as Thad Ellis, a senior vice president at Cousins Properties, is both a Coalition member and the chair of the CID board. But the new arrangement brings a new and unusual interconnection beyond Durrett heading both organizations.
The Coalition has long had two staff members who will stay on: executive vice president Garth Peters and research director Linda Muszynski-Compton. But now, according to Durrett, the CID’s three staff members have joined the Coalition payroll as well. They include financial and office manager Rebecca Stokes; Tony Peters, the director of capital projects and programs; and Matt Gore, the projects and programs manager. Stokes already does some work for Livable Buckhead as well.
“Tony, Matt and Rebecca have become employees of the Buckhead Coalition who will be managing and administering the CID projects and programs under my leadership,” said Durrett.
“Most of my salary is paid by the CID, and all of Tony’s and Matt’s salaries are paid by the CID. Rebecca is paid by CID, [Livable Buckhead] and a tiny bit by [the] Coalition, in proportion for [the] amount of work done,” he added.
That staff merger raises questions about public accessibility to meetings and documents about local projects. The Georgia Attorney General’s Office has expressed the opinion that CIDs are subject to the state Open Meetings and Open Records acts, and the CID has generally operated that way. Those laws do not apply to private nonprofits like the Coalition. But what happens when longtime CID staffers suddenly become Coalition staffers, but still work on such projects?
Durrett said that he would defer to Rainey on that question, but added the expected “the answer will be that Coalition meetings do not have to be and will not be open to the public and subject to the same requirements.”
Rainey in an email emphasized that the two organizations are not merging and “will remain totally separate legal entities and each will continue to be governed by its own board. The Coalition remains a private organization.”
But he did not respond to questions about the merger of the staff and whether their work will remain open to the public.
David Hudson, a media law attorney who sits on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the Coalition may indeed fall under the laws in this unusual situation.
“I do not know of any situation where a merger of that nature has been the subject of a court case,” he said. “However, there is a general presumption in the Open Records and Open Meetings acts that they apply broadly, and any exceptions should be decided narrowly. So unless the merged entity somehow still maintains separate meetings and separate records, the fact that the Buckhead Coalition is being operated in conjunction with the CID, I would argue that the records and meetings have to be public.”
Like everything else at this early stage in the Coaliton’s changing future, it remains to be seen.