A Call to Serve

The City of Atlanta needs a lot of help right now. I’ve written previously about what makes me hopeful. There’s still some tweaking, and a lot of that depends upon the citizens who show up. I mean this very literally- the City of Atlanta’s main challenge right now is knowing how to process and meaningfully engage its public in honest and transparent ways to create the city they want. Cop City…Zoning…Affordable housing…Education. We don’t have the necessary process, and while that’s frustrating, the only place we can go from here is up, right? Some analysis of ourselves would be helpful if we’re willing to step up to that challenge. So I’d like to talk a little bit about how we’re doing that, and what it may mean for Atlanta and the state. I see change for the good happening all around me, and while it may not show up in the places I used to see it, we’ve got reason to be optimistic in spades.

The Dept of City Planning has completed its four Zoning Workshops.  I honestly think I know less about the Zoning Rewrite now than I did before. I thought I at least knew what zoning involved, some basic terms (“mixed-use” and “MRC zoning” are almost ubiquitous in any corner of the city Midtown and the Westside now), and the process of going before the NPUs and Zoning Review Board. But really none of that was covered. It was a lot of pretty pictures and “string zoning” which seems to simply mimic spot zoning along specific corridors to me. This seems like a really bad idea in a city that needs to densify now if we ever wish to get a handle on the affordability crisis, but I share this less to be critical and more to be frank- if after four years of service on the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB), a person who rarely misses an NPU meeting and who has engaged in the Zoning Review Board process doesn’t feel prepared, I have to think others in the city aren’t either. It turns out I’m not alone in my frustration with this within APAB and our members have asked directly for more training and technical support.  The response has been….less than ideal. 

While I love my city wholeheartedly, it hasn’t ever been because of the government here. We really miss the low-hanging fruit of transparency, ease of provision of information, and an equal application of rules and processes. I thought the challenge of city government was perhaps specific to previous Mayoral admins, but as I sit in more city meetings it’s becoming PAINFULLY obvious it’s a cultural issue here. Some city employees (and some Council members) do not feel beholden to the citizens here, and more than that we are beholden to them. It’s weird, but I strike it up to the silos the city departments exist in and the bloat of government/ the shell game/ loops of meaningless process city employees enjoy employing to hide any forward movement. I’d like to share with you what I have learned, and some juicy questions posed by others, and hopefully, by sharing the knowledge here, those of you who call Atlanta home or do business here will engage more in the process to let the City know how you want your city to function.

I’ll start closest to home in my city, and expand outward.

Some months back, after literally asking all last year for strategic planning, APAB was provided a third-party consultant (Contente Consulting) in February of this year to hopefully move us forward by going “Back to Basics” (this was a theme of the event). In what I would name a bizarre method of evasion of transparency (or maybe just harmless procrastination, hard to tell), the Director of NPUs sent out an emailed invitation to APAB members Tuesday, the week of the retreat. It is my opinion this was purposeful so that many could not attend. This challenge of attendance is a repeated pattern in APAB that the delegate and alternate designations of membership were created in an attempt to resolve. If one member cannot attend, then another can be present and engage on behalf of the NPU. And sure enough, due to DCP’s new interpretation of APAB’s membership, this meeting didn’t have full board attendance.

Anyone who knows about making a quorum also knows what that means- a few people gathered to make the decisions for the larger group- in this case, it’s for the board that advises the Dept of Planning for the entire city. Dear gentle reader, I’m sure you can imagine how this small group might be seen as a lackluster demonstration of meaningful engagement of citizen involvement, yes?

All that said, this is the report that was generated by Contente Consulting, and accepted by the majority of APAB members

While the board has approved this framework, there was some discussion that I’ll share and highlight here. A recording of the meeting is here, but the audio seems to stop at 47 minutes, so a second recording is here. Also, here’s my own audio recording of the meeting. In the video, it’s often difficult to hear and the camera doesn’t quite follow the discussion, but I’m hoping between all three you can follow along to a certain extent. I know, I know, it’s hard, but until the City provides APAB with better resources, let’s just be grateful for what we have, right?

While I have some personal concerns about this presentation, I didn’t question the team who did it. But Kevin Friend, NPU W Chair and APAB Public Safety Chair did at 37:18. It seems as if there are some questionable practices some of the team members have engaged in that landed them in the hot seat in the form of a lawsuit a time or two. While sitting in the meeting, it appeared the APAB President was wholly unprepared for his analysis and questions…and pretty annoyed with them. Let’s just say the woman probably shouldn’t play poker anytime soon.

Spoiler alert: there are more people like this guy in the City of Atlanta than her, and DCP can’t ignore all our questions :). I am sad to say that he has stepped down as APAB Public Safety Chair, and despite the previous APAB Public Safety Chair, Chris Brown’s willingness to serve, the APAB President is now back to square one (again) to seek someone to serve as Chair. As a reminder, whoever serves as this chair gets an automatic appointment to the citywide Public Safety Commission, which also oversees the Public Safety Training Center aka Cop City. Mr. Friend’s stepping down is after the public resignation of our APAB Utilities Chair and the private resignation of our APAB Recording Secretary. Folks are dropping like flies at APAB, so I hope if there are any Atlantans out there reading this and looking to serve- step on up through your NPU- we’ve got opportunities!

But back to the strategic planning… 

Since the APAB President won’t allow me to speak in meetings, I’ll share my concerns here, with you all kind readers, so that whoever might wish to pose these or their own questions to DCP, their Council member, or APAB representation, they’re empowered to do so. You can check the DCP website and the APAB one, you won’t find this strategic planning document on either. And if you think having two websites is confusing, dare I share with you that in April’s meeting, our 2023 Finance Secretary, Jereme Sharpe, debuted his website plan in our General Meeting and the Director of NPUs announced that DCP would be creating a second of their own website for APAB!?! So if anyone’s counting at home, that’s one website that APAB members have created and two created by the Dept of City Planning! Sounds clear as mud, yes? After months of the Finance Secretary’s threading his work through repeated loops of meaningless processes redirected by the APAB President who stalled him, only for DCP to steal the rug out from under him! The opposition to this APAB website, I should also point out (if you watch the video at timestamp 22:58) was that APAB had a website a decade ago and it was “embarrassing” to the Board that it wasn’t updated regularly. Do tell! It might be helpful to mention that the person who offered that complaint was my predecessor in my elected role, and he told me (when I inquired what his duties had been) that the only thing he really did was show up to represent Buckhead in APAB meetings with formal representation from the city.

I don’t fully understand this member’s fear of accountability, but I can tell you it’s very prevalent in Atlanta. It seems from the comments from the member from Buckhead we would rather sacrifice progress and transparency for the sake of maintaining egos. Why? Do we really want to prop up folks not doing the duties they signed up for? 

If any of y’all can make that make sense, please feel welcome to share it with me. I’m truly lost.

Now, I’d love to share that DCP website with you all since it has been a month since that announcement was made to the body, but unfortunately, like many promises made by DCP representation, it has not yet come to pass. Here’s hoping! Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on the Commissioner of Planning to grace us with her presence as well! I don’t take it so personally as much anymore though, as at the end of the last Zoning Workshop, she left early rather than take her one moment to engage with the public in this series. So maybe the Commissioner is just shy around cameras and crowds-maybe it’s not just APAB. Either way, the Director of NPUs made a statement in our recent Ex. Committee meeting that seemed to be a half-hearted attempt at an apology of sorts and promised that DCP would have this website ready for APAB by “summer”. 

LOL! The City of Atlanta loves seasonal designations of timelines rather than actual dates! Accountability is NOT our city’s strong point! Noting that in Atlanta summer lasts from April to October, I won’t be holding my breath any more than when the City named the MLK Jr. Dr. Corridor project would be finished in the summer of 2020. Famous last words.

My biggest concern about the strategic planning content can be found in Activity #3, defining that APAB “serves the City”. This is literally in direct contrast to the above statements made in Activity #1 and Activity #2, …and most notably the purpose of the creation of APAB by Mayor Maynard Jackson following Virginia Highlands’ protest of a highway that was supposed to plow through it in the 70s. APAB was created to be a voice for the citizens to have direct input on zoning issues so that DCP can’t literally mow our neighborhoods down as the City of Atlanta did with the heart of the Black Community and the Connector. 

This is why history is important, kids!

Now, let’s skip ahead to the recommendations section, and see how this “serving the city” plays out in reality. On page 23/26, under Goal #2, there’s the ascertain that DCP will provide administrative support to the Board. Technically I would assert it’s already supposed to, based on the name of the Board, but it’s also implicit in the municipal code according to the BACE ordinance passed back in 2017, yet as one of the APAB members shared with me- there was clearly “a meeting after the meeting” and like DCP’s approach to the NPU Best Practices document they created last year, DCP just edits out what they don’t want to hear. Ironically, administrative support was a point I made REPEATEDLY throughout the NPU Best Practices document process last year. LOL. I guess this is the year DCP decided to take it up! But don’t take my word, if you listen to Kyle Kessler, of NPU M and APAB Bylaws Chair, in the audio at timestamp 44:29, you can hear what was actually requested in the strategic planning meeting- technical assistance. He tries to correct the record. Alas, the framework passed unaltered. 

Bless Kyle’s heart! he tries to push for better, yet the tendency of APAB members not to read nor to closely read much of what’s presented before them leads to a continued lowest common denominator approach, sadly.

….And this is the real meat of what APAB COULD (dare I say SHOULD) be doing- educating our NPUs on the technical aspects of zoning so we can make informed zoning decisions and votes. To be fair to DCP, they do have two NPU University Zoning classes. Here’s a video of Zoning Fundamentals Class 1 and Class 2. In both of these classes, I particularly appreciate their reference to the Atlanta City Design book, which was completely disregarded for the creation of Cop City, but you know, what’s accountability for plans we make between friends?

Fascinatingly, this strategic plan didn’t deal at all with any of the appointments APAB makes and the timelines therein. Nor did it deal with any process discussion of the biggest issues of agreement between the Governor and Mayor- affordable housing or education, which in Atlanta dovetails with the discussion of housing. Thankfully, at least a group of students from Georgia State seems to be trying to help Atlanta help itself. 

Their project, Structural Improvement on the City of Atlanta’s BACEs, (Boards, Authorities, Commissions, Etc.) provides insight into the challenges of the 130 active BACEs within Atlanta. I sat in on their well-researched presentation, along with the Chair of the ACRB, Dorothey Hurst, the recently retired Municipal Clerk, Foris Webb, Council President, Doug Shipman, and members of the DCP staff, among others. What I was surprised to hear was that not only was the Municipal Clerk’s office aware of the inadequacy of the information shared with the public, there was a purposeful choice made (presumably by the Municipal Clerk) to share the list of BACEs, their appointments, and empty seats in the form of PDFs so as to “not embarrass” the City Council members who were not appointing people to these seats and hadn’t created legislation that directly applied to the creation of the BACEs at all. See how that “embarass” word shows up again- keep following along, and you’ll see it again. For those frequenting the halls of the Gold Dome, you might be surprised to learn that the creation legislation of these BACEs (if it exists) often had no sunset dates and none of them have any fiscal notes to accompany them. Council President Shipman was kind enough to affirm my remembrance that municipal budgets are not constitutionally required to have a balanced budget, so the need for fiscal notes does not exist here. So basically, we can’t track staff time devoted to these BACEs, we can’t quantify resources or even account for the physical space that these BACEs may gather. For reference- APAB Committees have previously met at restaurants instead of a formal public meeting place- I kid you not

I wish I was kidding about all of this, y’all. We’re hiding information to preserve the egos of Council members here in our fine capital city. The ensuing discussion thereafter gave me insight into how fragile the system here in Atlanta is. Egads!

We’re sort of this city that holds itself up as a model of racial tolerance, and so to expose that our city leaders aren’t fully doing their jobs in some way, it’s sort of not done here. This is somewhat heartbreaking in that our Governor and Mayor seem to be aligned on an issue that is challenging Georgians across our state- affordable housing and we’re not even willing to provide citizens with the information on how they can easily step up and serve- much less a process to ensure their voices will be heard. I’ve noticed this aversion to questioning in discussions throughout my life on boards, in politics, etc. that questioning something is seen as a personal attack, rather than a call for better. I can be honest in that Georgia intertwines her personalities so much with the policies they create that it’s hard to tell whether the cult of personality we’ve created around people and “the way it’s done around here” is specific to Georgia culture, or age demographics of the electorate/ certain groups or spaces. 

What I do know is that for all the devoted Trumpsters out there, we have citizens in Atlanta would are just as devoted to their city leaders. And I’m not allowed to question either in Georgia. These may seem like opposite sides of the aisles, but I’ve always seen the lack of willingness to question and prod for better is ubiquitous in Georgia politics. And it’s harming all of us. 

Thankfully this isn’t true of everyone, clearly. This is a mark of the Old Guard that seems to be crumbling around me. Along with the examples above, the state seems to be developing a keen troupe of media that is asking the questions our elected leaders and bureaucrats seem to be unable to pose. From the analysis of what havoc our God-awful Tax Commissioner has wreaked on generational Black wealth in Fulton County to a two-part series (this is just part one) on how student transportation funding in our state leads to significant challenges for our students of safety, missed classes and meals. For Capitol folks, you may recognize Joy Walstrum’s face on the Editorial page of the last story’s link. They’re looking at systems from a long-term and aggregate perspective, along with personal anecdotal stories that provide more depth to the numbers. 

Give me more of this, y’all! 

Instead of our state or city departments doing this work, or BACEs in Atlanta, it’s instead these outside forces- third-party consultants and organizations (who presumably are either paid to have an agenda or already have one). Or, in my examples, students or the media. People like to paint me occasionally as a member of the media, but I’m not. I’m just a citizen who cares and has some strong opinions. I just share all this here so y’all with power can call your friends in high places and make the changes you want to see. I don’t have faith in the leadership of APAB nor the Director of NPUs. They seem to be too focused on personal vendettas than the work of the board. While this is sad, it’s just another reason why APAB hasn’t gained much in relevancy. And why more citizens need to step up and ask their own questions.

Until APAB focuses on the work of the Zoning Rewrite, affordable housing, and education, and is more willing to appoint people to boards without getting lost in the weeds of personal vendettas (and why the four all affect one another), we’re going to continue to miss the mark. 

So that’s where you dear gentle readers come in!

As I’ve said in previous pieces, some of the older ways are falling away. Georgians aren’t kissing the rings of leaders as we have for so long in the past. I think we’re all tired of it. Too many people are asking questions and trying to do the work that our city and state leaders have kicked the can on. We see the ramifications for our families, generational wealth, and the future of our state. Aside from it being a morally right thing to do to adjust failing systems, we finally seem to be recognizing that not doing something also has long-term economic implications. 

This doesn’t seem to be limited to Atlanta, either. The D.A. in Athens, Deborah Gonzalez, is getting a lot of heat for not doing business the way it has been in the past. Even though she rightfully won her election, the Governor is going against the traditionally held conservative value of home rule and coming after her. After Donald Trump, what are principles in the Republican Party anymore, anyway? While Scot probably would assert this is meaningful accountability, I’ll respectfully say this appears to be grasping at straws to continue to push the tired old “tough on crime” mantras I grew up with in the 90s and early 2000s. They didn’t work then, and they don’t work now. But they do keep prisons full in rural communities, which is one of your largest providers of “good” jobs across our state, although some studies show its long-term effects aren’t all that rosy.

And that’s what a lot of this is really all about, right? It’s how money is made on the backs of others in newer and varying methods of exploitation. If we zone Atlanta in a way that keeps density from occurring then we keep property values up and keep the socio-economically less-advantaged out. If we don’t focus on affordable housing, we’ll soon be busing kids in from more homeless shelters. Watch our school stats drop then. And if we expect teachers to make up the difference in their classrooms without more pay, we will continue to see more leave the profession. If we continue to pad the egos of our city council members, vs encouraging more citizens to step up, then they’ll continue to pass laws that keep the wealth gap increasing rather than addressing poverty as the root cause of crime and interaction with the judicial system. And if we keep prosecuting folks on minor charges, we’ll keep those prisons full and the incomes of rural voters steady to vote in the next guy to repeat the process all over again, right? And if you think the money made in this cycle is exclusive to Georgia, I’ll kindly point you to the Pulitzer Prize-winning podcast of Anna Wolfe, from MS, who exposed the $77M embezzlement of federal funds in the Magnolia state. A great deal of money has been made off of poverty for a VERY long time in the South.

Maybe this is what some Peach Pundit readers want. But I’m betting not all. 

So the question I hope my own writing leaves readers with is: what part in this cycle do you want to play? If you’re in Atlanta, step up to serve. Come join us at APAB! We have vacancies on boards! If you’re not in Atlanta, please consider serving on your local board of zoning, housing, or even a board of education. Our cities and counties need all of us to maintain high standards, accountability, and transparency.  I will continue to love my city, despite its government. How will you love yours?

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