Gatekeepers & the Birth of Buckhead City

EDIT: A previous version of this post indicated Sherry Williams was an APAB member, appointed by NPU R. Instead, she was an ACRB member, previously appointed by APAB. This post has been edited to reflect these points.

Ever wonder how Atlanta got here-Cop City, the Buckhead City movement, etc? I do, often. 

Did the systems just break and they were repaired with off-brand duct tape and bubble gum or did they just morph over time into what we have here on their own? I’m not entirely sure, but what I am sure of is it’s not limited to one dept or agency. I’m also certain that all of us have to be involved in the repair. Last year I wrote about the NPU system and its bylaws, and how they continue to reflect racial lines in the City of Atlanta based on the red-lining of the past. Today I want to talk about patterns I’ve seen and how the NPU system functions in tandem with the seating of Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB) members and the Public Safety Commission- you know, that citywide commission that is supposed to address public safety and includes Cop City as a portion of its purview? Yep, that one. I would wager all of these things have contributed to the origins of the Buckhead City movement. The system (whether intentionally at the behest of someone or not) self-selects. It’s gatekeeping gone wild! I’d wager this is probably part of the reason why the City of Atlanta hasn’t really had any of its systems meaningfully evolve since the advent of the computer. Any voice that speaks outside of maintaining the status quo gets weeded out, one way or another. There’s this implicit aspect of respectability politics within the City of Atlanta that sort of smacks of privilege and class that often drags race into it for good measure because we’re WAY more comfortable debating things in terms of race than class here. And after about half a century of that, here sits the City of Atlanta with its aging population wringing their hands about traffic and crime and a Mayor that is focused on the “Year of the Youth” as a stark contrast. It would be entertaining as a Netflix drama if I didn’t live here and the City had better roads and watershed management.  

This is my fourth year of service within APAB, and I’ve watched as passionate citizens- people who are involved in their community and positive about making meaningful change sort of fizzle out. The pattern is this: Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) Chairs in some NPUs change over quickly and the city doesn’t meaningfully maintain any records for them. It isn’t because NPU Chairs haven’t asked for maintaining those records- the City just expects their unpaid workforce of NPU leaders to do it. Chairs may last for a year and then move on, taking any relationships and institutional knowledge with them. The constant shuffling of incoming chairs depend more and more on the Dept of City Planning (DCP) as a guide because even though the NPU leadership at DCP has been in place for less than 5 years, the resources of the City and the information DCP has is helpful to an inexperienced chair. 

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. 

This pattern has been demonstrated in ACRB, and NPUs W and J-probably others, but these are the ones I can think of off-hand that are likewise experiencing rapid gentrification and change. I wrote about the ACRB last year. One of the previous ACRB representation was a strong and vocal advocate named Sherry Williams. Miss Sherry has a sunny personality and is a tenacious advocate for better transit within the City of Atlanta and transparency in meetings I’ve shared with her in APAB. She also ran for the Post 3 citywide district in 2021. Miss Sherry is a cancer survivor. I remember her knocking my door, double masked, personally in her election. She wasn’t waiting for someone to come and save her or her city- she leaned in when much of the city was shut down. APAB did not reappoint her. Personally, I remember Miss Sherry trying to speak at APAB meetings last year and being told by the DCP representation that she was not a member of APAB and could not speak except during the period of public comment-true, yet IMHO that should have been a directive given by the presiding officer, not DCP. But APAB isn’t the only place city employees dictate things on Boards, Authorities, Commissions, Etc. (BACE)s-CSAC, the weak attempt at an oversight committee for Cop City, is run by a member of the APD

It seems Atlanta has an inmate running the prison problem-like whoa– despite ironically being police-led. Welcome to Arkham! Our boards have become more of a rubber stamp for the city than any meaningful feedback generator that would force us to update our systems.

NPU W has a new NPU Chair, and he has been named the new APAB Public Safety Committee Chair after the APAB President removed Chris Brown, who was initially blocked from appointment to the Public Safety Commission by the APAB President last year. I wrote about that previously here. It isn’t clear to me yet who the APAB President is carrying water for on these Public Safety Commission matters, but it has been amusing to watch her repeatedly put the Mayor’s Nightlife Czar, Michael Paul, up for APAB appointment to the Public Safety Commission, only for the man to not show up to our meetings- twice. Remy The Rumor Mill tells me Mr. Paul was advised by Council member Keisha Waites to not take the appointment. Meanwhile, the APAB Public Safety Committee Chair is an automatic appointment position to the City’s Public Safety Commission, so NPU W’s Chair has gained not only an NPU Chair seat, an APAB Public Safety Committee Chair seat, AND an automatic seat on the citywide Public Safety Commission. 

Pretty sweet for a man who’s never served in his NPU or APAB previously. But I’d bet my bottom dollar it solidifies a good relationship for the current APAB President, don’t you? Nepotism seems to be an integral part of the Atlanta Way politics.

And if nepotism is an integral part of the citizen-led system, within a city with the widest gap of income inequality, how do we think that plays out?

I would assert this is where the specter of Buckhead City originates like a ghost in Atlanta’s background. In neighborhoods where folks have the means or connections, neighbors can resolve their own challenges. Like the affluent neighbors in my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, they can buy their own way out of most problems-they don’t have to interact with the Neighborhood Association or the NPU. But where affluence and connections are missing, the neighbors are dependent upon the city services to resolve/ improve various challenges around them. APAB is the entity where citywide problems are to be discussed but possibly because of both self-selection of the system and the busy lives of folks who would rather pay for the convenience of going around rather than through APAB, the voices that could make change get removed or leave because they get tired of trying. When I first came to APAB, my NPU chair saw it only as a checked box for getting grant money to bring back to the NPU. He told me I only had to attend a few more meetings before the end of the year and he apologized to me for what a waste of time I would find them to be. My guess is this is how Buckhead and Midtown also see APAB. While they have representation on the board, they aren’t terribly active and have otherwise organized themselves into a 501(c)4 in order to advocate at the City level. I don’t blame them one bit!

I think Buckhead and Midtown took a look at this system and chose to leave it. And now Bill White is capitalizing on this separation. I often wonder if the City of Atlanta realizes that if it just listened to its citizens and fixed problems instead of dodging them and hiding from the public Bill White wouldn’t even be able to raise money nor would the Police Foundation be finding sponsors for de-annexation bills. So while the Police Foundation’s inside guy is leading the charge on that issue within the General Assembly the Governor, Speaker, and Lt. Governor have been quite clear they’re not interested in intervening within Atlanta’s de-annexation challenges. Meanwhile, Cop City is costing Atlanta taxpayers $41,500 PER DAY in security costs

That’s a LOT of budget ink that Atlanta COULD be putting toward affordable housing as a shared interest between the Governor and the Mayor, no? Or maybe paving Dekalb Ave in the Eastside? GDOT? ADOT? Anyone? 

Meanwhile, within the City systems, the preceding NPU W representation to APAB, Leslie Ramirez, is currently appointed as chair of the APAB Utilities Committee. Leslie has offered thoughtful questions in APAB’s meetings and has advocated for community voices- APAB members or not. As a Latina, she also demonstrates the growing involvement of Latin leaders in Atlanta’s political spaces. I personally admire Leslie for her tenacity. She previously attended APAB’s Strategic Planning session as a member of the public because of DCP’s new interpretation of their own decades-long practices. Despite the fact that DCP and the APAB President did not convey this information through APAB’s own email nor was it shared with all officers and committee chairs, Leslie remained undaunted and took notes to bring the information back to her NPU in her Chair’s absence. Leslie often brings her three sons to public meetings with her.  She knows the importance of modeling for her boys how citizen engagement in the system is paramount. She reinforces the images I’ve seen of Councilmember Jason Dozier, Amir Farokhi, and the Mayor himself bringing their children to meetings across the city. Miss a meeting, and you miss out! 

FYI-this is the way the delegate and alternate system within APAB is supposed to work. When the NPU Chair is busy serving the city in other ways (free work, for the city, by the way), delegates and alternates step up to be present in their stead.

I personally value transparency and the dissident voices transparency evokes. They often speak to the problems the system wishes to ignore or downplay. The problematic part of all of this isn’t just the lack of transparency-this self-selection of removing critics from the NPU system alone, it also runs counter to the very mission of the advisory role APAB is supposed to have- from our bylaws: “[APAB] shall serve as an advisory board to the City on citywide problems, issues, goals and objectives including the Comprehensive Development Plan.” From the municipal code:

  • Sec. 6-4003. – Functions.

The Atlanta Planning Advisory Board may:

(1) Prepare its own bylaws, not inconsistent with state law or city ordinance;

(2) Serve as an advisory board to the city on city-wide problems, issues, goals, and objectives relative to the preparation and updating of the comprehensive development plan;

(3) Advise the city on matters relating to citizen organizations and participation in the planning process;

(4) Perform other functions required by federal law relative to citizen participation where federal law does not mandate assignment to a specific agency; and

(5) Perform other duties as assigned by the mayor or the council.

(Code 1977, § 6-4003; Ord. No. 2004-08, § 11, 2-10-04)

We are literally supposed to be engaging our citizens in participating MORE in our city in order to advise it on how to best serve us. And if this self-selection process of removing the very people who are trying to advise the city on what problems it has isn’t a problem- whew– I don’t know what is!?!

Another challenge I see is public meetings somehow becoming more hidden from the public eye. It’s so similar to the subcommittee process under the Gold Dome, where the committee meetings are public and watchable online, but the subcommittees- where the real work is done- are often scheduled last minute and not online at all. 

Atlanta does this too, although Atlantans will LOVE to have you think they don’t do anything those under the Gold Dome do. Facts: same ish, different day/ party. Both the Neighborhood Summit and the APAB Strategic Planning Session were public meetings, but the City of Atlanta has this really interesting way of not publicly sharing the details of these meetings on their websites or in the APAB General body meeting. But it’s not just these two instances- CSAC also hasn’t listed its meeting minutes since 2021 and abruptly canceled its last meeting and hasn’t rescheduled a new one. As further membership confusion, the CSAC has not publicly posted meeting minutes since 2021 and those available contain misspellings of some members’ names and use first initials instead of full names. The CSAC meets only virtually via Zoom.” (h/t to John Ruch of Saporta Report)

I mean, APAB doesn’t currently have a membership list either, but at least CSAC gets to meet virtually! 

The current APAB meeting location discussion led by DCP is that APAB will stop meeting in the current council chambers (which are wired for live stream, Zoom, and virtual presentations) to move to the Old Council Chambers- an architecturally beautiful room (my husband and I had our wedding reception there)- but terrible for recording purposes and for sharing really anything since the dawn of the digital age. We’re effectively going back in time, not just metaphorically, but in a physically older space that beckons to a time when you could smoke inside and Coca Cola still had cocaine in it. The meeting room used for the APAB Strategic Planning session was on the 15th Floor-small, cramped for the 13 people who were present, and similar in its modern appointments to the box-like condo buildings that have been popping up along the Beltline for the last twenty years. Capitol folks could think of an updated version of the little Mezz and they’ll have a sense of what the room size was.

It’s almost like the City is trying to hide something but this hiding public meetings isn’t exclusive to APAB and DCP. The Neighborhood Summit was run by Courtney English, not City Planning. CSAC seems to technically be run by the APD or APF-so it’s not just one entity or department. 

This seems to be how the Mayor wants to run his city, and that’s a really bad look. I don’t know who is advising the Mayor on his Public Relations, but I’d encourage the man to hire someone new. 

It’s so fascinating to watch the City do this dance of maintaining Georgia’s Open Meetings Act without sharing the details with the public. I personally find this shell game sort of amusing. It’s a whole hell of a lot of effort to avoid the public and you know, doing what taxpayers pay the City of Atlanta employees to do. It seems so much easier just to post things on a website and send an email to everyone, doesn’t it? 

But dear reader, why would the city value transparency in the midst of a nationwide scandal over the contested building of the largest training center in North America for law enforcement and concurrently the first Zoning Code rewrite in 40+ years in the country’s 35th largest city???

Me? I’m personally grateful for the grit of the folks around me. In a city where the media is owned by investors of this controversial moneymaking scheme for the Police Foundation, (upside: your Home Depot stock should go up when they start building, amirite??). I hope more Atlantans recognize the citizens who are doing the good work of building collective knowledge. These folks shouldn’t have to take so much of their time and talents when, as I dunno, these are perfectly reasonable things to demand of our taxpayer-funded employees. 

Finally, NPU J I’ve written about previously– DCP and APAB intervened in NPU J’s election. NPUs are autonomous entities, but elections are the one instance that the city has the ability to intervene and conduct within the NPUs. Dear reader, you may find it interesting to know this is also the NPU that the DCP Assistant Director of NPUs calls home so you can see how the thin line between a public job and a private citizen can be blurred here. During my time at APAB (2020- present), NPU J’s delegate, Keona Jones, was elected to serve as an officer of APAB but like NPU R’s Miss Sherry, she was not reappointed in the year of APAB officer service. Because NPU chairs may appoint anyone as their alternate or delegate without residency requirements, the delegate was moved to serve under another NPU Chair’s appointment. Keona has raised her children, and her leadership of the APAB Education Committee is her way of giving back to the city that has loved her family. She has seen how the education system impacts youth and instead of opting out when her children graduated, she hunkered down in her community. I was peripherally aware of this because my husband was NPU K’s Chair at that time and he received various emails regarding this. It didn’t come into focus as a system-wide challenge until this year for me when I added up all the folks that have been silenced in my short period at APAB. And these are only the few I know of in the four years I’ve been here. I’ve not mentioned Ben Howard, Jack Gruendler, or Steve Carr, although they are also among those the system has eliminated.

To be clear- DCP did not remove these people- their chairs didn’t reappoint them. I don’t even know that DCP has actively advocated for their removal, I just know that the folks who have been optimized out are those who have been outspoken advocates for changes that would have improved our city’s transit system, education, and spoken about the need for density and the negative unintended consequences of the Beltline before they happened. While the city publicly talks of being ready to grapple with these challenges, the very people who tried to bring these things to its attention were lost rather than empowered in the loop of process. I would wager, the departure of Buckhead and Midtown from APAB to create its own Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods marks the origination of the Buckhead city movement.  

I wonder what our city would look like if the NPU system gave dissident voices a means of speaking up rather than opting out. I wonder if the Buckhead City movement would even exist if these voices had been heeded. I also wonder if what has happened to women in the workforce during the pandemic has also happened to women in the community, and what this might mean for the future of Atlanta. I guess we’ll learn, as SB 113 and SB 114 make their way to the Senate Floor. My hope is that like the gentleman from Blueridge before him, this Speaker will be more discerning about the dissolution of an entire Capital City. 

Also, if you haven’t noticed, the grit I’ve discussed here is also demonstrated particularly with a throughline of women and specifically Black and brown women. There are certainly men who’ve spoken up as well, but I chose to highlight the women whose voices have been challenged because I’ve always known women to have a greater ability to hang in when it comes to changing systems. Women have long had to navigate influence in spaces where they had no direct power. Ask any Junior Leaguer. Women know how to take it on the chin with a smile on their faces- even though they should not have to. Women are accustomed to sitting silently in meetings and exerting influence indirectly. Often you hear of ‘mothers of movements’. These women are not looking for charity, but for a system that gives them space to resolve their own challenges. So I tell you of these folks so you know there are women in Atlanta’s midst who are trying to do what women have always done- speak up for the vulnerable. Why? 

Because they are the ones who are left to care for them when the City opts out.

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