Town Hall v. 3.0, Summerhill

This was the third and final scheduled town hall for Mayor Dickens. The location change was so abrupt that the pre-printed question forms still had “Zoo Atlanta” printed at the top. Unsurprisingly, it also had the lowest attendance. The discussion was moderated by Monica Kaufman Pearson, who made a comment in the beginning about there being more Atlanta city employees than there were citizens. I deeply appreciated her honesty in that moment- she calls it like she sees it and has a history of experience in forums like this that backs those observations up. Honestly, it would not hurt the Dickens Administration to have her moderate future town halls. She is an expert, a trusted source, and she has guided Atlanta through many trying times (and Mayors) before this one. Now that I’ve gone to all three town halls and there doesn’t appear to be any more scheduled, I’ll cover both a summary of this event and the series as a whole. I too will call it like I see it, yet will also give credit where it is due. And I think there’s a fair amount to be given here. 

First- bravo for hosting the event in a public high school! Hosting it here engaged students who posed questions, parents in the community, and community members who felt welcome enough to inquire about squirrel problems (not kidding). Second, like the Buckhead town hall, the format of rapid fire questions with short answers enabled all in attendance to have their questions posed, or, their statements worded as questions posed for the Mayor and his administration to hear. This is key. It’s the ability for citizens to be heard while effecting an immediate response from the Mayor and his team. We’ll see if anything actually comes of these town halls, yet I believe folks walked away with the feeling that the Mayor was truly listening to them. My bet is that if polling were done afterward, he’d score very high on the potential for re-election. And that’s what it’s really all about, right? 🙂 This town hall was the longest in duration. I looked at my watch at 7:51pm, and we were still going. I didn’t look at my watch again when I left, but I would wager it was 8pm. I was home by 8:24pm, and I stayed after to chat with friends who were in attendance. 

It was never said, but I remain firm in my conviction that Zoo Atlanta’s ban on guns played a part in the movement of the event. Guns came up as a discussion topic in a variety of spaces- crime, obviously, but also schools. I was sort of shocked by my own visceral reaction to the discussion of the training and preparation of APD and APS officers for active shooter situations. Tears had to be wiped away as I listened to Interim Chief Schierbaum discuss this topic thinking of all the kids I know in APS and teachers who work in the system. I can be honest and say I don’t ever think I’ll be over seeing child-size coffins in Uvalde. I’m a white woman who grew up with a dad who loved to bird hunt and a husband who likes handguns. I enjoy skeet shooting. I don’t have any issue with firearms but I have a FIERCE line in the sand when it comes to public spaces that involve children. I believe knowledge is power, and believe teaching gun safety is the best way to address it, yet I am in FULL SUPPORT of Zoo Atlanta’s stance and hope other public spaces adopt it as well. I have ZERO interest in having my city’s officers putting their lives on the line for children in school or visiting the Zoo. 

That’s just plain stupid and there’s no amount of NRA influenced legislation at the state level that will convince me otherwise.

As the Mayor introduced folks, I noticed the Atlanta Police Foundation President was sitting next to the Mayor’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Y’all don’t have to believe me on the APF calling the shots in this state and city, but I’d bet my bottom dollar this seating choice speaks volumes of why certain topics are pushed and others are off limits for discussion with the Mayor. In the midst of the active shooter discussion, Interim Chief Schierbaum said, “We also are integrating your cameras in your schools. We will be coming in to Connect Atlanta…”. Here’s a recording I made of the town hall and this portion begins at 1:04:34. As in, our city children will now also be watched by the APF controlled camera system- not just for adults anymore! We’re committing to teaching Big Brother tactics early here in the City of Atlanta. I’m going to need to see more book reports and costume throwbacks to 1984 in future APS Spirit Week celebrations around town!

The other prevalent conversation topic was taxes- there were a number of folks who asked questions that referred to gentrification and the tax burden that it brought, particularly in regards to seniors. This is a common theme in my neighborhood as well. Everyone’s glad to see better roads and sidewalks, but Arthur Ferdinand further lining his pockets doesn’t do any of us any good. The Mayor sort of deftly punted on the issue of taxes by emphasizing that Fulton Co. bears some weight of our expectations as well. While true the county should be held accountable, IMHO the Mayor should consider it a compliment that folks are asking for his help. It could just be me, but I don’t expect anything from my County Commissioner. I often find myself feeling sorry for the plants around her as she steals the oxygen they produce. 

*checking my own property tax bill* 

The “Atlanta General” portion of my latest tax bill is only $7 less than the Fulton operational portion of the same bill. To be clear, that isn’t the schools, parks, or bonds portion of the city’s bill. Nope. $149.65 goes to the “Atlanta General” fund alone and $157.45 goes to Fulton Co. Operational with a whopping $1,376.78 going to APS and $220.26 going to Atlanta Bonds. This is all for a couple without children in a 3/2 and on less than a 1/3 of an acre. Please do not infer from my statements that I don’t support education- I just wish APS could be called upon to be better stewards of it with less overhead and more investment in the classrooms. Additionally, Julian Bene of Invest Atlanta tells me that the Mayor shares his assertion that Fulton County should have to make high-value commercial property pay its fair share. I agree. The challenge is whether or not Mayor Dickens can persuade Fulton Co. to do what they know they should.

The issue of mental health and the Atlanta Medical Center closing came up again, and for the third time the Mayor pointed out that south of I 20, there is not a hospital at all. His response to the issue of homelessness and challenge of mental health was better polished this time, as he spoke of ‘morality’ and the methods the City is using to address encampments (discussion begins at 57:34). I have not yet had a chance to inquire with Mad Housers about how they feel about the Mayor’s approaches, but recognizing that relationships have to be built before service delivery tells me that they’ve had some conversations. This is all encouraging to me.

As an aside, I hope all of us are reading fellow Peach Pundit contributor, The Grumpy Old Man’s posts on the AMC closing. His insight there is invaluable and I’m so grateful he’s sharing it with all of us. 

So too was I delighted to have my suspicions confirmed when Ms. Kaufman-Pearson referred to our Deputy Sustainability Officer’s mamma in recognizing his love and knowledge of all things environmental. Capitol folks and Atlantans-alike know Laura Seydel and errybody knows his grandpa. But clearly the kid knows his stuff and has a passion for sharing it- much like his mother. He was sort of infectious for the crowd and clearly doesn’t shy away from microphones. Like Kaufman, his family name is part of the Atlanta story I’d bet gives many of us a sense of continuity. I’m sorry to say my recording began after his contribution. He talked about the savings the city is finding in using solar. This is an advantage a number of schools took in Georgia following the last E SPLOST when someone wisely pointed out to them that most of a building’s operational energy costs are incurred during the day and a solar installation can dramatically cut a school’s (or any building’s) energy bill. This is also why the Steel industry is a major user of solar power. I would have LOVED to ask him about his thoughts on Cop City, the removal of Lily Pontis, and the loss of the forest in the Old Atlanta Prison farm, but my bet is his current boss would advise against answering those types of questions. 

I began the recording when the Mayor began discussing nightlife and nuisance laws. He received a particular question about a specific business located in the neighborhood. I was interested in his response for a few reasons I’ll list here:

I want to say that the Mayor did well in each town hall to point out that we Atlantans appreciate our nightlife and that it is an essential portion of our city identity. He also accurately pointed out that unlike NOLA and Memphis, we don’t have one specific entertainment district, but several pockets around the city. This is not only true, it’s also one of the things I LOVE about Atlanta- I could slip into a club with music producers doing shots in Fairlie-Poplar as easily as I could hang out with artists at Beep Beep or Zucot and have completely different experiences within the same city. Capitol folks know the Speakers’ bar isn’t flashy and the need for creative spaces to mingle is how Atlanta’s real hustle works. To lose this would mean to lose Atlanta’s edge on influence. And it seems Mayor Dickens is trying to thread the needle to make this happen. 

“It’s not our desire to take anybody’s business. It’s our desire to make sure that good actors stay active and bad actors become good actors or they exit the system”-Mayor Dickens.

That’s a stance that makes sense to most people. It’s my hope he sticks to it. 

The best question of the night IMHO came from Henry Lee (23:53).

“…My name is Henry Lee. I noticed in your an inaugurational address that you mentioned that one of your goals was to improve the relationship between the city and the state. You know, I’d look around and I see our state routes are still killing people like every other week, someone on Moreland, just this week was killed and GDOT is doubling down on these dangerous roads. Our hospitals are closing and the state doesn’t do anything to support them. And Buckhead cityhood, it might be dormant, but it is not dead, you know I’m hearing people in our own city council talking about these things. Do you feel like you’ve succeeded in that goal? And if so, you know, what is it worth if the state won’t support us on our most essential issues?”

Whew. Henry knows how to get to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he? Damn, son!

The response was kind of a mix of ‘kinda, sorta….’, and then handing the mic over to the DCOO, Mr. Atta, who explained that GDOT was basically listening to Atlanta more and meeting with the city leaders more. I mean, that’s good, but I think Henry’s question gets at much of what I’ve been writing about here for the last year or so.

Is this all worth it for the Mayor?

  • Cop City
  • Having your budget and policy be dictated by the Police Foundation
  • Navigating appointments to get the Nightlife Czar as another vote for this farce of a Public Safety Commission that has yet to do anything

The Mayor is doing an AWFUL lot of work to get the Governor to give us 184 beds in a hospital to which the state already should be providing regular support. And frankly, without which, our medical system (as a state) would candidly fail. There’s a lot of policy debates around things, but I mean, the turd in the punch bowl is that all of our cities work together to keep everyone happy and our economy moving. Without Atlanta’s hospitals, airport, and roads functioning at optimal capacity, the rest of the state is going to stagnate if not contract economically. Goodbye to that Site Selection #1-State-to-do-Business-award we love to tout! The other dirty secret is we are always thankful for Alabama and Mississippi helping us look better by comparison. And nothing against those states (except for the football team in Tuscaloosa). But if we aren’t careful, the Capital of the South will look a lot more like Jackson, Mississippi. 

All of Georgia benefits when our Governor and Atlanta’s Mayor work together.

But I personally don’t think this has to be at the sacrifice of Atlantans’ resources of land, paving contracts, and budget. The city needs to address these things because they help Atlanta and further our own interests. It just also happens to significantly impact the rest of the state when we can’t pave roads or build adequate and affordable housing (I define affordable at 20% of AMI, which is virtually never the case in any of our new-builds).  

I didn’t write about the development and planning questions that came up in this piece, but they were captured in the recording. Namely I’ll draw your attention to Howard Katzman’s question regarding his work on the tree ordinance. He poses his question at 36:05 and the new Commissioner of Planning promises him an announcement on the DCP website soon. It seems the governing via press release is a practice that won’t die with the Bottoms Administration, unfortunately. I did, however, appreciate the reference to George P. Burdell in the question posed about the permitting process at 51:03 (the fellow Yellow Jacket was a year deep in the permitting process to build their home). And the recommendation from another Jacket on bounty hunting those who parked illegally in bike lanes across the city at 50:05. (His wife had an EXCELLENT idea for a public-private partnership with Chick Fil A for an incentive. Because really, who wouldn’t report bad actors for a chicken biscuit in our city??) 

Overall, these town halls did more good for the Mayor than bad. He eliminates the gatekeepers and hears directly from his citizens and that is ALWAYS a good thing. I hope he does more in other parts of the city as well. I would be curious about what I’d hear in Lakewood Heights, Poncey Highlands, and of course, Forrest Cove. 

For me, Summerhill is neither a long drive nor a foreign space. The Little Tart Bakeshop competes with Daily Dose off Bill Kennedy and Aprés Diem off Monroe for best coffee shops in the city IMHO. I used to love Amélie’s before it closed, sadly. But the importance of visiting different spaces isn’t just about proximity and ease of traffic. It’s also about exposing Atlantans to their own city. If there was one thing I could force Atlantans (and Georgians) to do more of is see the city and state around them. Not just a touristy thing, but walk the streets, talk to folks, engage in random and real conversations with people you wouldn’t normally talk to. 

Feel the city from their perspective and recognize its beauty and grit deserve equal respect. 

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus explains to Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Until Atlantans are willing to walk around in the skins of our neighborhoods and neighbors, we will continue to feel divided and work apart. The more folks seek out the spaces in our city they don’t know and situations with which they’re unfamiliar, the greater the likelihood of our understanding one another. 

I think ultimately this is some of what the Mayor probably would like. I just don’t think he’s going to get that from the Governor, at least not until he gets it from his own city first. I hope Mayor Dickens chooses to model more of this in the future. 

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