Trading Backbone for Political Expediency

Peach Pundit has a fairly robust history of speaking truth to power from the inside, and who am I to alter that? I’ve never held elected office, yet have worked in the offices of a few folks enough to know that I wanted to talk about what happens at the Capitol, how the system works, the personalities involved and how they alter the landscape. This last point is of not insignificant importance. Personality can count for a LOT of why things happen the way they do- good or bad in politics. Knowing who’s friends with whom also counts. Most individuals monetize this knowledge and leverage it to become your government affairs folks who you never see or hear of in the papers but always seem to get legislators’ time. I figured out a while back that when it comes down to it, there’s not much difference between Republicans and Democrats in practice. They may have certain levers they pull, but they all want to maintain their seats, they only somewhat listen to their constituents, and basic goals of prosperity and safety are their foundations. As a result, I gave up any party affiliation years ago. At this point, it’s becoming almost impossible for me to discern the difference between some of my Democratic city council members and suburban and rural Republican state legislators. That’s not necessarily even bad in some cases (the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project comes to mind), but in other cases, it is problematic. That’s what I’ll talk about here with my own part to play at the end.

Legislation is a game of inches that usually takes a few years to navigate through the process. I really enjoy finding common ground of causes and policies that bring folks together. I don’t really understand pettiness, yet it’s ever present. People take various things to heart VERY quickly. Pride goes before the fall, amirite? During lunch with Scot a couple of weeks ago, we agreed we both found that making change was easier than one thinks in some ways at the Capitol. Instead of keeping knowledge of the system to myself, I wanted to share it. My hope has always been to empower Georgians to decide their own futures. I don’t just quote Ayn Rand bc she’s a convenient idol among conservatives. Over time I’ve written about Chairs of Committees, Governors, the Speaker, and many others. I think most of them don’t care what I write nor have even the time to read it. Hopefully some do. I am truly always surprised to find when folks know who I am when I walk in the room. I’m only 5’3”, and at 156 lbs, the biggest thing on me is my mouth.

I use it and my pen to point out what I see.

What I see happening in Georgia is the opposite of what its past has held. It’s a renewal of cities, downtown hearts of urban centers, the push for more walking, community policing, and more political engagement. Most of this I would say is genuinely for the better. Even if you and I are diametrically opposed politically, I’d still prefer for you to be involved. Disengagement, to me, is the greatest sin. Integrity and autonomy are probably things I hold as the highest. I look at my hometown area and see how its growth is inclusive, focused on longer term planning, and like many of Georgia’s communities, it takes a firm stance on what’s right for everyone else may not be right for us. Standing firm isn’t always easy, especially when going against the grain.

Suburban and especially rural spaces in Georgia don’t want to be urban. I believe these differences are healthy and give citizens clear choices on what options they have to make their homes, lives, and live out their dreams. 

What troubles me is when I see few differences between the two.

This week in Atlanta, the City Council passed (by 10-4) a lease on its jail to Fulton County. I deeply appreciate Torpy’s pointing out the Mayor’s flip on this issue and the history behind it. In rural areas, your biggest employers of ‘good’ jobs are your hospitals, schools, and prisons. There’s been LOTS of discussion over the past decade about prisons in rural settings as economic development, systematic racial oppression through the judicial system, and the school to prison pipeline. There are many more intelligent minds than mine that have written about and discussed these topics in far more depth than myself.  But thankfully we don’t look like Pennsylvania. As a white, Protestant, CIS gender woman in the South, I can scratch the surface of what these things mean, but only that. My lived experience will always be in need of education on how life is experienced by others not like me. 

However, I can talk about how urban centers are quickly becoming more affluent, densifying, and dare I say, white. The children and grandchildren of the white flight from my neighborhood in the 50s and 60s are coming back now as the Black and brown folks who left the rural settings during the same time are now returning (sometimes voluntarily) to their suburban and rural roots. The legislators in the midst of this have to be responsive to maintain their seats, and deft enough at communications to thread needles without dog whistles and coded language traps.

That’s why I think the jail vote in Atlanta and what I see our Mayor doing is a bit of a bellwether-here in Atlanta and for the state. 

In some ways, I feel for Mayor Dickens. KLB left the city in shambles, it’s clear. CM Amir Farohki literally ran on getting basic city services delivered as a campaign. CM Matt Westmoreland’s Board of Education vote years ago to accept an almost $100,000 no bid contract from Nathan Deal’s right hand lady tells me these men aren’t looking to rock any boats. Status quo and pay to play seem to be perfectly fine ways of doing business in Atlanta…and most of Georgia, tbh. People looking for corruption at the federal level will find it far harder than just asking after your council members in church or the grocery store. Everybody dies famous in a small town and corruption is fairly commonplace. Ask Newton County. Or Glynn County. Maybe Oconee as well

Meanwhile, Buckhead’s opposition to densification along with their fear of the poor/ less rich folks in my neck of the woods and Midtown’s ever-growing list of developers’ permit requests give folks north of North Avenue a sense of self importance that mimics the swagger of some members of the Capitol Boot Caucus. Both need to assert their extremes- old school nature of the boot caucus and the wokeness of the Midtown elite becomes a caricature that plays out all over Georgia. In reality I can’t often tell the difference other than this performance art for their spectators. IMHO, many at the Capitol are all hat and no cattle. Midtown condo dwellers are just as unlikely to know their neighbors as the racially divided opposite ends of the outskirts of my hometown county seat. 

I’m just not sure that repeating all of his predecessors’ successful plans are enough to differentiate Mayor Dickens and some city council members from their OTP Republican colleagues. Listen, I’m all FOR the reinvention of the pothole posse, but I’d like to leave Ambassador Young’s ability to never meet a building permit he didn’t like in the past. In contrast, could we send those developers to my hometown area? I would have LOVED more restaurant and theater options in my hometown area growing up. In a recent visit to Tulsa, OK, I was impressed with the Mayor and state legislator there that spoke about approaching policy from a regional perspective. He emphasized that big box stores and factories weren’t right for Tulsa, but they were for his surrounding communities, and if they were prosperous, their residents brought their prosperity into his city. It was the kind of longer view planning that was frankly refreshing to hear. I don’t find that in Atlanta, sadly. I’m also not sure who believes that jailing folks in Fulton County vs another county is solving any long term crime challenges in the state. 

I’ll be honest and say I expected more from graduates of Tech, Princeton, and Duke. 

The jail is only one indicator to me. Planning and transportation in Atlanta are others. It speaks volumes to me that the Mayor, who put Commissioner Rowan at the top of the newly minted Atlanta DOT, lost him to MARTA, which has no direct city oversight and spans into the suburban areas. Bravo to Rowan- he may be Deputy, but he’s now operating on a regional level, rather than a city level. I think that’s sort of telling after the Mayor met with the U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg in Jan of this year (or December of last) and then Rowan quit. I would have assumed a connection to federal money would have provided some buoyancy to Rowan’s step. The fact that he exited stage left tells me there was a divergence there that only time will probably tell.

Losing Commissioner Keane is also an indicator to me. I really appreciated this quotation from the article I linked here: “There’s a relationship between the physical city and the prosperity of its people. We don’t in my opinion as a city even acknowledge that,” Keane said. That tells me that when the Mayor came in, he made it clear to the Dept. of City Planning densification wasn’t happening, even though Keane clearly saw the prosperity of the city was on the line. Buckhead didn’t want it, the Mayor catered to his haters, and Keane left. Pretty simple and politically expedient, albeit kicking the can of necessary and effective city management down the road. 

May Keane find a receptive audience in Boise, which appears to be growing by the day.

I’m just not sure how making Atlanta look like Alpharetta is going to solve our challenges of water management, roads, traffic, and skyrocketing housing costs. But maybe that’s the point? Opposition to building out transit and density (which both would work hand in hand with one another) makes us far more like 1990’s Cobb than Atlanta. Maybe if this is all we’re expecting our city leaders to do, then I can just move back to Gwinnett. I mean, if I’m going to have to park everywhere I go and we’re putting a Chick Fil A in Midtown, I can just buy a suburban lot in Gwinnett, get better schools, less taxes/ home price, and I can hire a private company to pick up my trash reliably. 

And if we’re looking for Atlanta to profit through prisons, I’m certain rural legislators can give the Mayor some pointers to maximize his agreements. 

I see other ways Mayor Dickens kisses the rings of the past as well. He caters to Buckhead and Cascade- white and Black wealth. If there is any better demonstration of the ‘Atlanta Way’ I’m not sure what it is. Watching the appointments he’s agreed to from APAB has been interesting. Watching various folks being blocked has also been telling. This certainly could be the APAB President acting on her own, but from what she told the Executive Committee in our meetings is that the Mayor’s office is very interested in what’s going on at APAB and last weekend’s meeting I was informed the legal department is now involved in my ethics investigation (discussion begins at 1:19:01 and the reference to the law department’s involvement is at 1:38:51- for writing about things discussed in public meetings (discussion of the emails begins at 2:22:14 of APAB’s General Body meeting), and the documents that support them. To be clear, I’ve received nothing so far, despite requesting the original complaint and any documentation of it, but the Ethics Office also informed me that their “office is unable to comment on the existence/status of any ongoing preliminary review or internal investigation pursuant to the City’s Standards of Conduct (Code of Ethics), we can confirm at this time that the Ethics Division has not received a formal ethics complaint against you, nor has our office rendered any decision finding you in violation of the Code”. Either way, it seems there’s no dearth in the near future for things to write about in Atlanta! Stay tuned!

As an aside, I appreciate the emphasis of the phrase “fiduciary duty” mentioned as grounds for the ethics complaint that is being pursued. It’s listed in five places in the code, but all refer to oversight of pensions or the city paying outside counsel. The emphasis is some sense of fidelity to the Board and the City that speaks to my swearing in. I went back to double check my oath. Here’s the link for the video of the swearing in process if you want to hear the oath repeated over and over, individually, by each of our Board members (talk about a poor use of our membership’s time). Interestingly enough, the oath includes a provision to “be governed by my conviction” before any fidelity to the state, city, and lastly the Ethics Code. 

In case it isn’t yet clear: it is my conviction that the APAB President is a pawn in the Mayor’s game regarding Cop City and her removal and blocking of individuals on other boards are motivated by this involvement. 

I do appreciate though that the Mayor has learned that the media are like moths to the flame and will flit to whatever is the biggest story of the day. One would have thought this lesson was already known thanks to Kasim Reed. So the Mayor times his accomplishments to be released on the same day as his struggles with city council and thus, hopes we’ll all focus on the economic development pipeline brought by those rather than the school to prison pipeline perpetuated via leasing of jails. This media management is furthered by the fact that Atlanta has very little independent media anymore. 

The AJC and Axios are now owned by Cox Communications. Those are your biggest news outlets here and Cox is a supporter of the biggest millstone the Mayor has- Cop City. They are such big supporters that the AJC embeds disclosures in its articles about Cop City, if the AJC writes about it at all. Atlantans are having to turn to NYC to get reporting about their own city. Thankfully, a writer for The New Yorker, who resides here in Atlanta, published a piece recently highlighting the Mayor’s stance on Cop City and the railroading that’s happening here by the Atlanta Police Foundation. Here is what he wrote:

Recently, I spoke with Dickens about the facility; it was his first interview specifically devoted to the project. He seemed frustrated by the way in which it’s being discussed, describing the project’s opponents as a “bandwagon on the Internet” who had largely been misinformed. When I referred to the facility’s construction site as a forest—which seems consistent with an A.P.F.-commissioned assessment of the site as “wooded and/or grassed land”—he said, “If you stood there, you would see lots of building foundations, lots of asphalt from where the parking lot was, et cetera. There’s still a forest, it’s just not a forest where this is right now.” He also noted that any downed hardwoods would be replaced, as the A.P.F. has also claimed.

Could he envision the facility being built anywhere else? “No,” he said, adding, “There’s nothing else that we own of scale.” Dickens believes that the plan’s eighty-five acres is a reasonable footprint. “We looked around,” he said. “And experts that are really involved in real estate did that, too.”

Soon after taking office, Dickens created a green-space advisory council, with whom he said he would discuss the environmental impact of the Public Safety Training Facility. A member of the green-space advisory council told me recently that, although the council has met twice, neither the Mayor nor the Mayor’s office has asked the council for any input on issues related to the facility’s location or environmental impact; the city had leased the property to the Atlanta Police Foundation before Dickens was elected.

Dickens pointed me to a different group, a community-advisory committee, and said that there’s still “a lot of room for input.” He invoked “the Atlanta way,” an aspirational term that—like “the city too busy to hate”—seeks to cast Atlanta as a place where Black and white leaders have historically put aside their differences to pursue mutual economic interests. “That’s what makes Atlanta special,” Dickens said. “All throughout our history, we take the input of citizens carefully.” The sixteen-person advisory committee does not include any members of environmental groups, but it does feature representatives from the Atlanta Police Department, the Atlanta Fire Department, and the Dickens administration. A few weeks earlier, Lily Ponitz, an environmental engineer who wrote an op-ed critical of the facility for a local online publication, was removed from the committee. (Echols, of the South River Watershed Alliance, said that the composition of the committee should prompt an ethics investigation.)

I appreciated the coverage by The New Yorker, namely because our own news media outlets won’t cover it. But I think the article’s representation of the Mayor being pulled between Buckhead and the rest of Atlanta is missing a larger pull, and, of course, the APAB connection with appointments.

The Mayor and city council is being pulled by the state- namely the Governor- to create this training facility. In the state’s ‘backing the blue’ efforts following Atlanta’s protests (of which I was involved), this is the bridge that is bringing Governor Kemp and the new mayor of Atlanta together. It’s my understanding that the relationship between the state and the city was deeply harmed during KLB’s administration, and like Reed, Mayor Dickens is wisely looking for a project to unify the two offices. Again, I can admire Dickens ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to policy by repeating what’s worked by his predecessors. The difference here is Reed leveraged DC to widen the port in Savannah, (which Savannah largely wanted) he didn’t ransom Atlanta’s land (which many of us do not). 

Dickens and city leaders don’t have that hand to play, or at least they haven’t been creative enough to come up with another approach, sadly. So Atlanta leaders are sacrificing our own forest and history to serve as a playground for Kemp’s law enforcement buddies, who will continue to back him for re-election. It seems unlikely that they’ll be able to vote for Mayor Dickens, as Atlanta home prices and rent are too high for most LEOs to reside in the city. That’s a SWEET deal for Kemp and a poor gamble for Atlanta. But the Mayor’s press team is going to keep generating those press releases timed to drop whenever someone wants to remind people of this.

This is why I write.

I sit in a unique place steps from both the Capitol and City Hall, seated within APAB’s Executive Committee, and behind a blog that has a history of speaking truth to power. My home rests in a quickly gentrifying area that was once the epicenter of white flight. My Capitol experience has rendered me fairly cynical enough to ask questions. Trust but verify- and it has been VERY TELLING who gets upset or changes the subject when I ask my questions here in the city. I am neither paid for any of this nor motivated by anything other than transparency and dot connecting. And I’ve been doing this for a while at the state level. I also gave up any party affiliation years ago when I realized there’s little difference between Republicans and Democrats. While there’s no ethics investigation of the CSAC dog and pony show the Mayor trots out to cover himself for the ransom he’s paying in the form of Cop City, the APAB President informed me this past week that an ethics investigation is under way for sharing documents and knowledge that I received consent from the individual they directly involved. I think it’s somewhat amusing that out of all the state folks I’ve written about, this is where the ethics threat comes from. It just goes to show, the less power folks feel they have, the harder they cling to it…And a hit dog will ALWAYS holler.

I look forward to the ethics investigation. If I ever wish to run for office, making me a martyr for transparency in the face of Atlanta’s Police Foundation and city leadership selling off the red clay, pines, and buried souls of wage slavery via the Prison Farm is definitely the way I’d like to go, frankly.

I traded my party affiliation for a backbone years ago. I wonder if the opposite is happening in Atlanta. The real question is whether this political expediency is worth it.

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