APAB: The Potential Bridge Atlanta Needs?

The Atlanta Planning Advisory Board. It’s such a long title and sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? *sigh* In some ways it really is. In some ways it’s so much more. The potential of this entity is great, yet like Atlanta as a whole, it is defined by the personalities within it, the will of the people, the exhaustion of meaningless process, and the remaining hope of what could be. There are cards, cranks, and dull moments! There are appointments, parliamentary process, and long presentations! The Board is both the voice of the city and its cry for help. Such is the experience in public service. I’ve sat within its midst for the last two years and I’ve learned much and lamented more. Such is the Atlanta way- not limited to sports teams! I started writing this piece in early September, yet had so many twists and turns to get here, I had to keep rewriting. The Board is a bridge, linking the city to itself- its history, its rebirth. Atlanta is the city represented by the Phoenix, and APAB is the bridge that could be the platform for her to walk forward into her destiny. 

Some history: Atlanta’s first Black Mayor, Maynard Jackson, was a larger than life figure. He changed how the city conducted business in very big and tangible ways through which banks held city accounts (moving bank boards to diversify instead of shutting Black members out) to how the city responded to citizens in planning what happens in their immediate vicinity (ever heard of a Neighborhood Planning Unit?). He was the OG man for the people and Black power. If you choose to Google Atlanta Child Murders you can’t miss the image of him with stacks of cash on his desk as a reward for information on leads. 

It’s my understanding that Jackson wisely took the campaign idea of one of his competitors for the planning process and integrated it into local neighborhood groups. You may remember my referencing Kevin Kruse’s NYT article in my previous post regarding traffic. Following I 20’s purposeful cutting of Black power neighborhoods in half, there was an additional highway that was to run through the Virginia Highlands area of Atlanta. Neighbors unified and protested to prevent this from happening. Out of this neighborhood outcry came the idea for more direct citizen involvement in the planning process. There are 25 of these neighborhood groups across the city, now called Neighborhood Planning Units. This system has never been reformed since its inception. I reside in NPU K, which has 5 neighborhoods grouped within it. The smallest NPUs (L & Q) contains two neighborhoods, yet NPU P has 32 neighborhoods within it. NPUs are governmental entities. In my NPU, citizens are elected among peers for the roles of Chair, Vice Chair, Recorder, and Assistant Recorder- in some NPUs other offices exist like Corresponding Secretary as well. Each NPU has its own bylaws, which have to be run through the City of Atlanta- sort of- basically the NPUs decide their own rules but the city helps them to troubleshoot what works and what doesn’t. Citizens- renting, owning, unhoused, business and nonprofits all have equally weighted votes and voice in the NPU system. Meetings can be wild and crazy, but NPUs can also be a BITCH to developers- and that’s why many residents engage. NPUs are the ONLY method for them to have an actual direct say in their surroundings. Groups of NPUs have an individual city planner assigned to them to record voting procedures and try to answer the questions the NPU members may have regarding the issues that come before it. The NPU votes have advisory (not binding) power over properties before the Board of Zoning (BZA) and License Review Board (LRB).

The City works with NPUs to both inform citizens of what’s happening in their NPU AND the city as a whole AS WELL AS receive recorded votes, conditions, and recommendations on liquor licensed entities, variances of private property within the NPU, AND some city ordinances. This providing information from the city is great, the fact that the city RECEIVES information directly from residents makes this entity pivotal- at least in theory. 

While in other cities the City Council member for the district would represent their constituents, the NPU system is purposefully divided across Council district lines so that (in theory) the Council members have to remember their district decisions affect their neighboring districts as well. The NPU leaders can also be a way around a particularly difficult or disinterested Council member. I reside on the border of City Council districts 3 and 4. While Councilman Antonio Brown has been very receptive to issues within the NPU (and NPU K largely exists within District 3), he and his staff try to work with Councilwoman Cleta Winslow and her staff to facilitate needs and share information. Councilwoman Winslow is my Council member. She is largely nonresponsive and her staff is either willfully ignorant or willfully disinterested in acting upon the constituents’ interests. I’m pretty sure I’ve touched on her inadequacies as a council member in most of the posts of this series. In the almost three years living within the district, the apathy of longtime residents speak to the lost hope she has sown in the area. She’s been in office for 27 years and while residents try to work around her, there is only so much we can do other than wait for the moment to vote her out. The challenge of the district in the last two election cycles has been the litany of candidates who’ve decided to run against her- any of which I would personally be happy to be her replacement.. 

For all of these reasons, NPUs in Atlanta are meaningful organizations in which to engage. The challenge of the individual NPUs is somewhat leadership, somewhat understanding voting rights within the body, and somewhat downright malicious intent. I was astounded to learn while discussing the bylaws of NPU K that many folks (landlords) were opposed to renters having equal voting rights! As if we were still relying upon property ownership to define voting eligibility! It was incredible! And if you’re thinking this was divided along racial lines, you would be incorrect- many issues in Atlanta are more often divided along lines of class, with the haves aligning regardless of race or ethnicity against the rights of the have nots. 

Every NPU is also a voting  member of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board. Here’s a link to the city page with each NPU, and if you click on the APAB link, it’ll give you the list of delegates. While I write here under my middle name, you’ll see my first listed on the roster.  If you’re unsure of which NPU someone resides, you can even type the address into a search, and you’ll find all the necessary info/ contact information for the NPU AND the neighborhood associations or liaisons. NPU chairs may either serve on the board or they can designate a delegate and alternate that serves/ votes in their stead. Anyone can attend these public meetings. They are on Zoom now. No matter who serves, there is only one vote per NPU on APAB. This is the one place in the City of Atlanta where citizens’ voices are heard and come together across the city. Within this body, there is an Executive Board, along with a Parliamentarian, as elected from the body, and it has a committee system in which work on resolutions occurs. APAB has its own bylaws with an addendum and its resolutions are (in theory) submitted to the Mayor and Council. 

Effectively, it’s like a bigger city council with less power and no money that pushes paper to shame the Mayor and Council into doing or not doing something. This isn’t how this is supposed to work, but depending upon leadership at the helm, any organization is at the whim of the folks who show up.

For all of this process, APAB is only an advisory board. Nothing the board recommends actually has to be implemented. It is effectively a litmus test for the Mayor of issues and I suppose a pulse of sorts of the city. In the past I would wager it might have been a reliable source of information. Now though, the entity seems to be so far removed from the actual populace- few of my contemporaries know about it, and many only participate because it enables them to vye for a $5,000-$6,500 grant the city provides for improving the NPU. More or less, it has become a bit of a fiefdom for retirees who use it as a bit of a social hour with titles. Its relevance has waned over the decades and it seems that while the generation in leadership still thinks of it in its level of importance in its heyday, many citizens see it as more headache than what it’s worth.

The origins of APAB, I gratefully learned from Kyle Kesler of Center for Civic Innovation, was for economic development and planning purposes. APAB doesn’t really focus on that now though. It’s sort of this weird mix of long presentations by city departments that could be more effectively sent out as an email and a reporting of committees that seem to do little actual work. The Public Safety Committee, facilitated by Chris Brown is a welcome contrast, as is the Zoning Committee, chaired by Jim Martin, and the LRB Committee, chaired by Terry Ross. I’ve found that for some it’s a bit of an unwritten rule that APAB is looked upon as their job post retirement, so the majority of their work is done during the week despite many of the members working full time jobs and doing this volunteer work in the betweens. There are many “younger” folks, like myself (I’m not young, we’re just talking in relative terms here), that are mainly folks in their 30s and 40s who (from what I can tell) are leaders in their own communities and work. Like many organizations, APAB’s culture depends upon those that show up. I’ve seen it venture toward one of passive aggressiveness and pettiness that is kind of astounding for such a low level of power. On the other hand, I came to it to learn more about the city, and I have! I’ve personally received a lot of knowledge about how the city works, the personalities at hand, and how its processes are defined from others on the Board. The hivemind has been helpful, as I had hoped it to be. 

There are downsides as well, as with any organization. A lot of APAB leadership are really keen on their titles, without actually delivering any work. Maybe they did in the past, but from where I sit it isn’t clear there’s much done here now. I could see this as meaningful or worthy if I thought the resolutions we vote upon are taken seriously by Council and the Mayor’s office. However, it isn’t even clear to me that the resolutions we take up get delivered to anyone outside of the body.  It’s sort of like we all work on something that never goes anywhere. To be fair, even if the resolutions from APAB went to someone with some level of authority within the city, it appears to me that the resolutions are more regarded as paper airplanes that the city bats away without any consequences. They have no teeth in enforcement capability, which is kind of the first rule of policy making- otherwise you’re just making suggestions.

It’s really sad to see the city I love so much in such arrears and the citizens so poorly organized in what was designed to be a system to give their voices power. Unfortunately, in trying to assert their own individual power, some APAB members further divide instead of unify. This division dissolves the power of the body, sadly and capitulates the forward movement the Board could have.

There are folks who are trying to help. God bless them for that! 

While I have personal concerns regarding the Center for Civic Innovation’s receipt of Blank and Blake funding finances, their recent NPU report offers nothing but the truth- there needs to be alignment of APAB, the Mayor’s administration, and the Department of City Planning for facilitation of the NPU’s leadership in planning and recording the plans of the city. The citizens’ voices need weight and teeth in enforcing what they want (versus the wants of either the Mayor or City Council) and those wants should be facilitated by our city departments. 

In theory, this really shouldn’t be that hard nor ground breaking. It really just requires a few tweaks from the Council and individual NPUs as a matter of process. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Require NPUs to evaluate their policies regarding the Comprehensive Development Plan annually. I wrote about the CDP previously. It’s the plan that is re-evaluated every five years in Atlanta that sets our citywide zoning. It’s impact is economic and power distribution. It should not be entered flippantly. We’re discussing density right now, and there’s LOTS of opinions about that. It would be helpful for NPUs to review their own policies annually to ensure they are up to date with what citizens want AND (perhaps more importantly) to ensure the city has a written record (for which they can be held accountable) of these wants.
  2. Require term limits of NPU leadership– this has pros and cons, to be sure- you run the risk of lack of succession planning and turnover that happens so quickly that the people who have the institutional knowledge to make change will have little time to do it if the terms are too short. That said, you also impair the ability for individuals to camp out in leadership as some do and you see new blood, new ideas, and new skill sets on a regular basis. 
  3. Meaningful ethics reform is needed across the city. The ethics disclosure I have to fill out for APAB is a joke and the fact that my city council member has repeatedly misfiled disclosures means there’s no meaningful enforcement mechanism. The unfortunate consequence of the city “too busy to hate” is the cronyism all the politesse invites.In Atlanta the process of building consensus seems to be lining errybody’s pockets. I’m not here for it.
  4. Removing the silos of the city. A previous idea (not mine) was for Atlanta Watershed to provide NPU information on all Atlanta water bills, yet this was never put in place. While this can’t guarantee engagement, it’s an easy way to blanket single family, detached residents citizens. Unfortunately, it doesn’t encompass apartment buildings, as many of them do not receive individual water bills from the city. I’d go further and place it on gas and electricity bills. If you want the business of Atlanta, this should be one of the hoops businesses could easily jump through. I’d ask Coca Cola if they’d print a basic QR code with the address search function on their bottles. What could be more Atlanta than that?
  5. Plan for the next generation. Like City Council, all APS Board of Education seats are elected offices with districts that go across the NPU boundaries. As a part of the high school curriculum, how hard can it be to include a segment on how to engage in local civics? Zoning is one of APAB’s and the NPU’s biggest issues and property taxes’ biggest impact is on our schools. Why not bridge these gaps and invite in the next generation? 
  6. Provide APAB a greater online presence. Why are our recorded meetings not offered as a live feed from all of the city’s web presence? Other city meetings are. Why does APAB not have a city-facilitated website? Why are the resolutions passed not housed online with open access for all citizens? Open these up, and transparency will follow. My bet is engagement shall as well. 

There also has to be a want for things to change for change to happen, and there is division on that as well. 

Dear reader, I know what you’re thinking: why doesn’t she try to make these changes happen herself? I have tried, oh optimistic soul!   I don’t just sit with my Scotch and shake my fist in defiance at the proverbial man.

In the first year of service, I signed up for the Education Committee, chaired by someone who was otherwise already very busy. There was both some lack of clarity of who was in charge- I wasn’t, but it seemed like either my co-chair wasn’t either or maybe she just wasn’t accustomed to  communicating as she did things- either way, at some point I asked the Dept. of Planning what had existed prior (some APAB members remembered a program similar to mock commission/ councils in other cities and I saw no point in reinventing the wheel if we could draw from a previous template), but there wasn’t any knowledge of a previous program existing (not surprising when records aren’t well kept) and my co-chair emphasized moving forward without the city.

 This has been a recurring pattern within APAB about which I’m unclear: there is a preference for separating from the city rather than working together. I’m not sure why. It seems counterintuitive to me. And while I have plenty of cynicism regarding the city, the Department of Planning is the one office that I think is exceptional in its execution of duties. I feel fairly certain if Leah LaRue ran our city, we’d be in a better place than we are.

I am in the last months of my second year within APAB, as the service year follows the calendar year. My name was mentioned in the Nominating Committee and I was notified that a couple of leadership roles were open at the time. Unsurprisingly, when I said I would do one or the other, those open roles were quickly filled. I don’t take it personally; systems like to perpetuate themselves, even if they aren’t very effective.  “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”, or so said Oscar Wilde. I’ve also found generationally Boomers really want younger folks to engage- but only to do the work they were doing in the same way, even if that is more time consuming and doesn’t actually have any meaningful impact. I may have experienced this exercise multiple times more than once in multiple settings in more than one setting. At this point in my life I don’t need more titles, but I’m also not willing to work in an uphill situation. Atlanta is a mess, and this is part of the reason why. While I can try to raise awareness, there’s not much I can do without a critical mass of votes. Years of lobbying taught me how to count, recount, and count again. The good ‘ol boy system that I have lamented in the Gold Dome exists here in APAB as well. Ironically, the folks at APAB would probably consider themselves more ethical and transparent than legislators, but in truth a lot of leadership is cut from the same exclusionary cloth. The unification here is the reluctance for change and the need to hold onto whatever power those titles represent to them.

So what’s the resolution? 

Mine was originally resignation. I resigned from the body instead of taking leadership because it didn’t appear that I was welcome at the table and this was compounded by the presence of the friend I wrote about in the previous post regarding Georgia’s budget. I think most of us have better things to do with our Saturdays than listening to people bicker over issues that never even make it to the elected officials they seek to influence. This body won’t change until the leadership does and there correspondingly exists a critical mass of individuals who are engaged in the process of working to improve the city rather than occupying self-congratulatory titles without any real work.

To be forthright, this was a sad conclusion for me to come to, as I love my city dearly and I am typically an optimist. However, I cannot ignore the folly of trying to navigate this foolishness any further without some toehold on forward movement. In any political realm, one is wise to know when one is beat so that they may rise to fight another day.  

Yet, a deus ex machina moment arrived of sorts bringing me back to the table.

So here I am now, the lowest proverbial (wo)man on the totem pole as the “Corresponding Secretary” of APAB. But that’s where one has to start, right? The elections were yesterday, and I ran unopposed, as did the majority of the other positions. The main gist of my upcoming work shall be to in fact do what I have largely written about here- deliver the resolutions and letters to the Mayor’s office and City Council. I hope to be effective in bridge building and at least attempting with the new Mayoral administration to demonstrate that APAB’s voice is meaningful. APAB can be a place of resource for the elected officials as well as the voice that calls those elected officials in to discuss the city’s challenges. Lord, everyone around the state wants to call us out- here’s the opportunity for the city to call ourselves in, if we’re willing to take one another seriously. It’s at least worth a try.

So here I am, offering myself up again to try to do the work. We’ll see if I get anywhere. I’ve never felt I could complain if I wasn’t willing to do the work myself. So I shall try and welcome the constructive criticism that awaits me.

My heart is held by my city. She deserves the discernment of her citizens-especially those with which I disagree. She also deserves the reverence of bridges that stand no matter how many times she burns. And that is the link that APAB provides- a unification of the citizens when they come together. While I’ve discussed various silos across the city departments, here’s one entity that was created to specifically address bringing citizens together. For all of APAB’s messiness, it’s debate is meaningful and the citizens who’ve been around take it seriously. Atlanta is the city of the Phoenix and her people have always been resilient. From all 25 NPUs, they come together each month to decide how she steps forward. I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to sit at the table. I hope in my little part, I’ll serve her well.

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