But Her Emails….
Not Hillary’s…mine. As a general rule, I don’t write about things until well after they’re complete, but today I’m going to make an exception because it seems to be a pivotal time, and I’m going to use my own FOIAable emails to do this. This pandemic has really exposed many of the chinks in the armor of the City of Atlanta, and I would wager, we’re beginning to see there is room for policy disagreement between the Mayor and City Council. I’m pretty sure I’m caught between the two, unfortunately, by virtue of the volunteer board service in which I am engaged. An extra layer of this is the current absence as a result of an abrupt resignation of a Commissioner of the Dept. of City Planning, sort of a big deal in the city that tells us it’s “too busy to hate”. As we all know, when there is chaos, there is often chaotic vying of power. In absence of leadership, the lower ranks assert themselves. There’s typically greater success to punch up than down. Fortune favors the bold, as they say. So it’s really been interesting to watch things come to a boiling point (APD’s recent Facebook post comes to mind). It’s even more interesting when it appears multiple departments seem questionably functional at this point and yet will be presumably asking for more money in the budget. Atlanta is having a moment. It’s really both feeling itself and finding itself. I’m hopeful on the other side of all of this it’s going to be positive. We’ve changed City Council, the Mayor, and we’ve had the highest citizen engagement in probably decades. I am totally in support of all of the above in contrast to the previous Mayor, Council Members, and lack of citizen engagement. Lately, I’ve been publishing an on-going series on the Atlanta Police Department and how things play out in my neighborhood. But this isn’t actually the city department with which I have had the greatest amount of interaction, nor is it the greatest challenge to citizens’ voices. And before you label this “an Atlanta problem” I’d like to explain why it matters to the state.
I’m going to go into some detail here, so if you’re looking for a quick read, save this to Pocket for when you’ve got more time and patience, and possibly bourbon. I’m going to be as thorough as I can in this for documentation purposes.
A little history…Back in Maynard Jackson’s original run for Mayor, he had an opponent who was talking about engaging the Atlanta city neighborhoods in an organized manner to speak on their own behalf on city issues. There was this HUGE pushback on I-485 and the neighborhoods basically raised hell in opposition. It is my understanding this idea of the planning system is based on that of the District (not Atlanta) and was organized here to engage citizens on a hyper local level. While Mayor Jackson was the victor, good politicians borrow and great politicians steal. Jackson grouped neighborhoods into Neighborhood Planning Units and the Board where all those NPU leaders come together as the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB). It is the one place where citizens come together to talk among themselves about issues that are important to them- not the city telling them what to take up. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. APAB also directly impacts the Comprehensive Development Plan, which is the city’s literal plan for how they’re supposed to develop. I’ve written about the CDP previously.
Just FYI- the structure is a reflection of the NPU system itself, as each NPU is an independent quasi-governmental entity that is able to set its own agenda and bylaws. Despite what many think, these individual planning units are not all the same. Some, like mine, prefer direct democracy and others take a more representative approach. This distinction is important to current day activities within the city. In its original creation, Mayor Jackson assigned the NPU System and APAB their corresponding city department as the Department of City Planning (I mean, it is in the name). At the time, it’s my understanding that the DCP Commissioner served APAB directly, not just another staff member. This intentional framing of the DCP Commissioner and THE BOARD that speaks for CITIZENS in the city working together solidified the relationship that Mayor Jackson favored of the citizens’ voices being THE AUTHORITY over their own neighborhoods and the planning therein. You can find references to APAB and DCP in a series of places in the code. Sometimes DCP shows up as ‘Bureau of Planning’ and perhaps a few other names in the City Charter as well. Over time, depending upon the Mayor, and the Council, this system and Board had fluctuating support of personnel and finances, which directly either supported the citizens or lacked adequate support to fully empower them.
You may remember me writing about my election to this board last year. I serve on the Executive Committee as the Correspondence Secretary. I’m basically everybody’s bitch. I’m supposed to convey correspondence from APAB to the City of Atlanta and some of its departments, on the determination of the General Body and at the direction of the President. Also, in absence of a city supported website, I send all NPU Chairs, delegates, and alternates (75 in total) their meeting notices. I have found there are a lot of folks in Atlanta who like meaningless titles for work they should be doing anyway, and I would count my current position as one of them. To this end, I requested to be added to our Bylaws Committee so that I may eliminate the position. This isn’t faux humility, it’s literally a position that should be carried out by the City, if they would more concretely define the “administrative support” DCP is required to provide us in regards to the Board’s work. Somewhat recently, (2017 sticks out in my mind) City Council passed legislation regarding all Boards, Authorities, Commissions, Etc. These are referred to as BACE. There are 125 give or take a few that may or may not be functioning.
In my service, part of some of the work I’ve done is to find out which BACEs are active, and where are appointments needed from APAB. Through this work, I learned that the City’s mechanism for knowing a BACE is active is the BACE’s provision of records, bylaws, etc. Without these, the city doesn’t seem to know we exist. I’ve tried to ask questions about what I’m required to do, what DCP is supposed to do, and what requirements does APAB have regarding meeting notices to the public. This has been more difficult to discern than one might imagine. It seems there is a general aversion to putting things into writing with the City of Atlanta- open records are scary. This was something I specifically tried to understand (and asked in writing) in reference to how DCP’s mandated administrative support could aid APAB’s ability to poll NPUs, in reference to the Mayor’s recent Executive Order, regarding BACEs going back to in-person only meetings.
There’s a lot of things that I deeply love about my city. One of the things I abhor anywhere though is bad policy. Policy that IMHO, particularly flies directly in the face of the stated goals of the entity it governs. Many of the city’s BACEs are served by volunteers. They/we do free work of engagement of other citizens, on the city’s behalf, and our administrative support is….highly context dependent. I should say though- longer term members of APAB tell me that it’s LOADS better than what the city has offered in the past. To which I guffawed, wondering how it could be any worse. APAB’s Committees have also in the past received no provision of city resources for meetings. You read that correctly- a professional city board has to find its own meeting locations, despite having mandated provision of “administrative support” from DCP. They’ve met in restaurants and in individual homes. It’s almost like we’ve been a club or something instead of an acting professional board. There have been questions asked about how Open Meetings requirements were met at that time, but that answer seems to remain forthcoming.
It’s fascinating that the city that seems to like to emphasize its “One” City dynamic, as THE citizen driven board, we’re treated like the red headed step child.
The one tool that allowed governments and private business across America some convenience, safety, and greater accessibility, through this
global trauma pandemic was the ability to meet virtually. If there was one good thing that came out of us being required to be home, it was the corresponding movement of meetings to virtual rather than in-person.
And as a result, our numbers in NPU engagement as well as APAB engagement skyrocketed. This seems in line with the goal of serving as the citizens’ voices, yet the EO put an abrupt end to that. And, I’ve learned belatedly, that the City of South Fulton has gone in the opposite direction – mandating all their meetings are only virtual . Both options suck, yet also demonstrate the ability to interpret open meeting requirements of the state.
Speaking of various interpretations of state policy, I asked the authority in our state about this very issue, via twitter. GMA delivered, in writing. Keep reading.
Now a lot of city policies have no real enforcement mechanism (that’s not unique) and therefore the repercussions aren’t something most people really worry about. But I asked about that as well and you might be surprised at what DCP told us.
“If a City BACE (boards, authorities, commissions, etc.) conducts a meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Act that means (1) the actions taken at that meeting are invalid, (2) the people conducting the meeting could be subject to fines under O.C.G.A. § 50-14-6 (see below), and (3) any refusal to comply with the Open Meetings Act could result in BACE members being removed from a City BACE under Section 3-401 of the City’s Charter.
Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $1,000.00. Alternatively, a civil penalty may be imposed by the court in any civil action brought pursuant to this chapter against any person who negligently violates the terms of this chapter in an amount not to exceed $1,000.00 for the first violation. A civil penalty or criminal fine not to exceed $2,500.00 per violation may be imposed for each additional violation that the violator commits within a 12 month period from the date that the first penalty or fine was imposed. It shall be a defense to any criminal action under this Code section that a person has acted in good faith in his or her actions.”
That’s right- if I choose to do free work for the city, in the way we’ve been doing free work for the city, I have the opportunity to be guilty of a misdemeanor and fines if I don’t go back to in-person only. That’s a nice THANKYOUVERYMUCH from a Tech grad currently occupying the Mayoral office.
The unfortunate reality of this and the city’s inability to disseminate this message effectively came into clear focus when those who missed the last APAB General Body meeting were informed in writing that these were the repercussions of their virtual meetings, because you see, it was nowhere on the APAB General Body agenda that is shared both by me and by DCP on their website, nor was it even DCP’s knowledge at the time of the APAB General Meeting. I know; I asked directly (there’s a video somewhere). APAB’s President did all she could to give DCP a chance to find the answer on the spot, but it seems as if the City of Atlanta didn’t expect its authority questioned. Surprised? Not really. We just received a statement of here’s the EO, and you have to follow it…or else. To date, two committee meetings have not taken place because of the arbitrary timing of this and the delay in response of DCP to questions regarding the repercussions.
Now why would the Mayor do this?
I have a few working theories, in order of greatest optimism to greatest cynicism:
- The Mayor genuinely didn’t know. He wrote this EO and just wanted business to return to the way it was conducted before without thinking about the necessary modern pivot we were making in the city as a whole. And why would he know this? In the last three years of my service on APAB, none of our passed resolutions went before the Council, Council members only recently were invited to come before the board, and unless someone was providing the city with any record of our existence, how could we expect them to know we exist or that we represent the NPUs across the city that (like mine) would prefer hybrid meetings?
- This is a political bone the current Mayor threw at the sitting Governor to smooth over previous rifts left by KLB. Governor Kemp has pushed hard for the “back to business as usual” mantra of the rural areas, making the more densely populated areas of the state (i.e. cities) have to make decisions about falling in line or maintaining their virtual meetings. When the EO came out, I specifically asked the Georgia Municipal Association about this, and because we remain under a federal emergency mandate, the requirements of open meetings are able to accommodate virtual meetings. Here’s the tweet from Tom Gehl. I absolutely understand the push to get us back to a place where we feel is ‘normal’. But I also see the opportunity of increased civic engagement with hybrid meetings. This is a meaningful engagement of Atlanta’s citizens, and it seems a poor choice to miss this opportunity. Further, I don’t particularly like my health and time being a political football for local and state leaders.
- The city doesn’t want further engagement. Maybe the decrease in citizen engagement is actually a goal of the new administration. The NPU System is a bit like herding cats, and perhaps like raiding the Dept of Public Works to create ADOT, maybe the Mayor is stripping the NPU system and APAB to redirect to neighborhoods rather than NPUs. I know a LOT of folks I know (white, moderate, apathetic to community needs and able to pay for the city services they want through private entities) want to get rid of the NPU system. I don’t know. I do notice that DCP has just recently had their President’s Summit. And they’re having meetings they’re calling “Corner Conversations”
“Next month, we are taking our team meetings into the neighborhoods with our Corner Conversations series. Once a month, we’ll set up shop at an outdoor location in various neighborhoods across the city (parks, intersections, outdoor dining areas) and invite neighbors to come visit with us so we can give residents information about their NPU, answer any questions they may have and connect them to the folks in other departments who can answer the questions we can’t. We hope that this will allow us to engage more residents who don’t know about the NPU system, or encourage people to get involved. Worst case scenario, we get to have our team meeting outdoors and enjoy some fresh air. Hope to run into you!”
I remember having a conversation with the ADOT Commissioner some time back about neighborhoods vs. NPUs, and my husband remembers him not being a fan of neighborhoods. I remember him saying he wasn’t a fan of NPUs. Either way, it was something about there being some issue around the Edgewood corridor and the business leaders there vs the NPU leadership vs the neighborhood leadership. I know there were many that haven’t been happy in the past with the way some of the streets and management of nightlife were handled last year, and I wonder if that experience isn’t molding some of the changes we’re seeing now before the big TSPLOST vote on May 24th and the federal infrastructure bankroll coming down to municipalities.
Interestingly enough, I also remember having a phone conversation with a member of DCP staff in which it was shared with me that the Mayor didn’t care about APAB. It was shared with me that a room full of 60ish or so people was not enough for the Mayor to care about and that this member of DCP staff wanted APAB to decide what it wanted to be to make strategic requests of the Mayor. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps the Mayor only sees NPU leadership as a group of cats to be herded and appeased when it comes down to election time.
So I guess we’ll learn together.
Some additional aspects of this situation are sort of amusing, albeit more because of APAB than DCP. I point these out because to date, the City of Atlanta has not enforced in any way that of which I am aware of all the below elements of code regarding BACEs that APAB is currently in violation. I always find what governments choose to enforce to be telling. So I asked about this as well, and here’s the response I got for asking about defining DCP’s role. You may notice first that there’s no answer to that question, but more importantly, you’ll get a list of code that APAB should be following, yet isn’t. You see, APAB is required by city code to fulfill the following:
Chapter 4 Boards, Authorities, Commissions, and other Similar Bodies. Section 3. 402
(c) Chairs or Designated Contact Persons.
- For each BACE, there shall be a City Department identified by City Council resolution or ordinance which shall provide City staffing, administrative support, and/or City advisement and connectivity. (This neither exists for APAB and doesn’t exist for many BACEs at all. It’s like the Council created this change in code and forgot to fill in the blanks for the actual legislation.) Said Department shall provide to the Municipal Clerk all necessary recordkeeping information regarding the BACE’s purpose; the membership list; any existing by-laws, governing structures or mission statements. It shall be the responsibility of the BACE chair or designated BACE contact person to update the Municipal Clerk of changes to any of these by December 1 annually. To my knowledge, this hasn’t happened in the three years I’ve been a part of the organization and when I asked about this in the General Body Meeting, the DCP representative seemed to be unaware that these things were to be submitted to the Municipal Clerk. It’s as if they don’t actually work together. Strange.
- The BACE chair or designated BACE contact person shall prepare and provide to the Municipal Clerk an annual report outlining activities and accomplishments via annual submission no later than December 1. Again, to my knowledge this has never happened in the three years I’ve served.
- The BACE chair or designated BACE contact person shall keep an attendance record of every meeting for each member and submit to the Municipal Clerk following each meeting. If I’m (as the Correspondence Secretary) supposed to be doing this, I neither have ever received an attendance roster nor have I ever sent one to the Municipal Clerk’s office. A comprehensive attendance report of every meeting for each member should be submitted to the Municipal Clerk by December 1 annually.
- The BACE chair or designated BACE contact person shall provide to the municipal clerk a newly completed and signed BACE information form, or a signed statement indicating that there are no changes to the form currently on file in the Office of the Municipal Clerk for each member by December 1 annually. As members, we file Ethics Reports, but not fill out BACE information forms. We do this for our appointees to boards, though.
- The chair or designated BACE contact person shall promptly notify the Municipal Clerk of any membership vacancies, resignations, excessive absences, no-shows, tardiness, or failure to perform. The Clerk, shall then accordingly notify the designated appointing authority. Pretty sure this has never been done either. We notify DCP of changes, but where that information goes beyond DCP or whether it gets to the Municipal Clerk, is a mystery to me.
- The Municipal Clerk shall serve as the point of contact between each BACEs chair or designated contact person for purposes of receiving, managing, storing and retrieving BACE records. APAB not only doesn’t do this, we have members who’ve asked DCP about this for years.
- The Municipal Clerk shall maintain a record of all BACEs and appointees thereto. This is an issue about which one of our previous APAB members inquired. He FOIAed the Municipal Clerk’s office and found that in the last 15 years the Municipal Clerk’s office has record of only one APAB resolution. Not sure where the others went, but it isn’t clear that if they’re turned over to the Municipal Clerk’s office the records are not maintained either, sadly.
These requirements of BACEs have been around for years, and APAB doesn’t adhere to them, so why is the city taking up this Executive Order now so seriously? To the extent of threatening a misdemeanor and fines?
I mean, shouldn’t the city be consistent in its enforcement of its laws?
It could be because this is arguably the “administrative support” that DCP was supposed to be providing to us, but hasn’t in the past. But surprisingly, after I’ve posed these questions, there was a plan composed to resolve at least the backlog of the past three years worth of resolutions that were never passed onto the Municipal Clerk. Funny how DCP recognizes they didn’t do something in facilitation of the Board work and then doesn’t threaten a misdemeanor nor fines. Weird.
As Napoleon would tell Boxer, some laws are more equal than others.
As for me, I wanted to document some of this so that if I am charged with a misdemeanor and am fined, for you know, doing free work for the city, you all will know I did so with the full cognizance of the repercussions. I say document some of this because, well, there’s always more to the story, but I’m purposefully leaving out names and some GREAT Facebook screenshots that correspond with a city employee’s responses to my emails. I don’t think that’s particularly professional, and I’m already going to piss enough folks off with this piece as is. Hell, at this point I’ve basically written a New Yorker length article.
The greater concern I have with this poorly written Executive Order, and the incongruent nature of the Council legislation, is that it will impact the work of BACEs across the city just as we are being called upon by Council to do some real work. And I believe the Mayor and City Council members see that, albeit they have different views on whether engagement is a good or bad thing. You see, Council Member Byron Amos resides in Vine City. One of the NPUs in his district (L) is one of the smallest in the city and has been more or less dominated by developers who’ve essentially created a poll tax to disenfranchise long term residents. I remember discussing this last year or maybe year before with an English Avenue resident on a Partnership for Southern Equity tour. I learned from her about what was happening as Brock Built developed their townhomes in the area. I wrote about it previously here. I also remember a representative from Brock Built pitching their townhomes in my previous real estate office, in Midtown, pre-pandemic. Their definition of “affordable housing” was sort of laughable for the area if it wasn’t so clearly going to displace long term residents. As a result, Councilmember Amos has introduced a resolution calling upon DCP to “work with” APAB to determine “best practices” for the NPU System.
And we’re supposed to do it in 90 days following the passage of the resolution! Whew! Ok! I can’t even get all things currently covered in our meetings on the printed version of the agenda, but ok! LOL!
Oh, but that’s not all! Council member Andrea Boone also recently proposed this piece of legislation, requiring audio and video records to finally be kept by the City of Atlanta-BRAVO to both of these Council members! This requires all BACE committees to do the same, which is fascinating as all BACEs (and committees) are required currently to meet in person only and (to my knowledge) have no plan of provision of support from DCP to make this happen.
It would appear the Council and the Mayor are not totally in agreement on how to make BACE work and Open Meeting requirements function. And it appears APAB and its administrative support in DCP are left to twist in the wind between the two.
While this may bother me on a personal level, here’s why this should matter to you: this has real ramifications on development in the city and the surrounding suburbs because the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board’s main task is offering citizen feedback on the Comprehensive Development Plan for the entire city.
This is why I care about this volunteer work in my city. The General Body of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board could be the citizen’s bridge to resolving these challenges in NPUs across the city but we never will be until the Mayor and City Council dictate that DCP serves citizens, not the other way around. If APAB were consistently served by DCP, as originally intended by Mayor Jackson, we might be able to both give the Council members the political support they need along with the NPU stakeholders across the city the means to make tangible political change that would support neighborhoods and neighbors, not just whatever DCP
developers comes up with next. But this takes engagement of our board, our members, and a willingness of DCP to serve us, not just tell us what to do. It also requires defining DCP’s role by the City Council. And this will all take a tremendous amount of work by our members, that would be best facilitated by virtual and hybrid meetings.
I fear that without this necessary defining of DCP’s role, the acting Commissioner’s timidity in the face of changes around the city enables other staff members to assert themselves. Last month, the acting Commissioner made her very first presentation EVER to Atlanta City Council. Commissioner Sidifall has served in her Deputy role for five years and two months, according to her LinkedIn page. I personally loved the highlight where Councilmember Hillis asked her (I’m paraphrasing) ‘What have you been doing for the last eight months?’ after she handed everyone a very crisply printed report. They wanted a discussion- a pulse on the city. And she couldn’t provide this because I would kindly assert, that’s APAB’s role. But we’re never invited to present to Council. The citizen’s voice is never requested, and at this point I have to wonder why. I guess I can start showing up for the public remarks portion of Council meetings that the City Council members typically ignore. In situations where leadership isn’t strong, I have found that bold moves by staff are not as quickly addressed. We are entering into budget presentation time, where we will hear from departments across the city about why they deserve more of our tax money. There will be LOTS of justifications of meaningless measurements and asserting why they are SO ESSENTIAL. A typical practice in governments and nonprofits is to use it or lose it. My hope is that while these budget discussions happen, so too can discussions of expectations, definitions of roles, and genuine focus on achieving citizens’ goals, not just the Mayor’s and Council members, via DCP’s “guidance”.
Currently, it doesn’t appear with this EO that the Mayor cares about us, or engagement. But then again, maybe staff haven’t done their job to tell him this is a point of contention. I really don’t know.
What I do know is, I’ve never once before considered being charged with something in court over my rights to attend a meeting. But I’m kinda there, y’all. The city ‘too busy to hate’ is really not making me feel the love right now. It’s busy doing something, but its Mayor is not listening to its citizens.
These policies and the city’s current practices are not in fact the ‘best practices’ APAB is being tasked to offer to the Council and NPU system. The empowerment or disempowerment of APAB and the NPU system impacts how our city develops now and into the future. And if suburban legislators and communities are not interested now, they are living under a rock. All that discussion of affordable housing the city of Atlanta loves to talk about but doesn’t really ever hold developers or the Beltline accountable for providing? Guess where it’s coming. If it follows historic patterns, it won’t be coming to Buckhead, but it will be redistributed in previous areas of redlining so that the patterns of crime and poverty just keep repeating and then it will flow over the perimeter. No one believed me when I said previously Gwinnett would go to Hillary and I can bet that Snob County isn’t super happy about the influx of folks into their systems. If the change in politics isn’t commanding enough attention in Cobb & Gwinnett, I wonder what shall. One can lead a horse to water, but she cannot make it drink.
Do you think this is random? Because I’m here to tell you it isn’t. This is urban planning that focuses on business and not people. This is planning that has repeated neighborhood and NPU meetings with Microsoft that still can’t somehow answer whether or not MS will be seeking tax abatements of any kind. And this lack of commitment to requiring businesses to pay their fair share will impact the kids that Atlanta and APS says they want to save and keep off the streets.
It appears that Atlanta isn’t ready to think deeply and listening closely to its citizens about planning and its impact, so I hope surrounding cities and counties are. While my qualms won’t be felt by the Governor and FLOGA in their ivory tower in Buckhead, they probably will see an increase in population growth in Oconee County as Morgan, Walton, and Newton folks move farther out.
I hope whenever APAB does get around to being asked what we think, the Mayor will hear us and heed our recommendations. So too, I hope DCP will happily take a backseat to the NPUs they so proudly say they “serve”. In the meantime, I await my ability to attend meetings (in whatever form the Mayor and/or Council decide is just and right), to do unpaid labor for
them the city. If you see my name in a court docket anytime soon, just remember you heard it hear first.