Budgets, Backbone, and Backlash

In the past few weeks, I’ve attended (in person) many of the budget presentations of the City of Atlanta’s departments. I did not attend the Committee yesterday in which the proposed additional $31M for Cop City was recommended to the full Council. In some ways, I wish I had, but I followed the Atlanta Press Collective’s live tweets on Twitter (you should too). Watching the budget is the responsibility of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB)’s Financial Secretary and Budget Committee (not my role), but in light of the APAB President’s continued reluctance to connect the APAB Financial Secretary to the fiscal agent and being sworn in by the Municipal Clerk’s office, (and dare I say) in the absence of any meaningful work being done at APAB, I decided to sit in on the presentations myself. I always wonder where my tax money is going, and the meetings are open to the public, even though they do not allow for public comment. These presentations can be viewed online, but there’s really an extra element of sitting in the chambers that cannot be beaten. Often the audience tells me more in these situations than the electeds before me. While I learned a few things, which I’ll share here, the greater knowledge of Council members, their questions, praises, etc. was the greater win for me. I’ve watched a fair number of city and county (sometimes combined) governments across Georgia, so I value seeing how Atlanta stacks up. I have said before that Dickens will be a single-term Mayor, and with yesterday’s meeting and what I’ve seen lately, he may not be the only casualty offered on the altar of Cop City. That said, this piece is my analysis of what I saw in the presentations I attended and should not be the totality of anyone’s decision-making about the Council members. Atlanta’s decisions affect the rest of the state (good or bad) and I’d like to share here in a more tangible manner why we MIGHT want to care. TLDR: I didn’t know you could stack excrement this high.

Some highlights or TLDR with links to videos of presentations and timestamps denoting when statements were made:

Other valuable points to learn were that Council members Bond and Waites were not present for any presentations I saw. Calling it in isn’t just a practice of state legislators or Washington. I think Farohki was present for one early on, but then I never saw him again either. Waites and Bond were nowhere to be seen. This isn’t to say they didn’t watch online, it was just striking to see others who did appear and ask questions while they didn’t. Council member Boone didn’t ask any questions, just offered praise and thanks for each department. 

I have mixed feelings about Council Member Lewis. First, I have a soft spot for any man who dons a bow tie. I also know he was a friend of the late Rayshard Brooks- and not a “sort of know him” friend- but a close friend to the family even now. Yet in these presentations at times he seemed to have difficulty putting together a coherent thought (he seems to process while he speaks) and other times he asked questions that demonstrated he had already done the work before posing it aloud. I particularly appreciated his questioning the dept vacancies. He asked first about them in the HR dept presentation and pressed them to close the 30-day window of hiring. He further pressed the APD on vacancies. He told the Chief he’d personally sought and pushed men and women from his district to serve- and they had been turned down for employment. I completely agreed with him when he asserted (I’m paraphrasing the exchange) that if we have vacancies, and people apply, they need to be hired (barring anything that might preclude their employment). My hope is that with a few more years on Council, Lewis will be able to better harness his personal experience to ask questions and advocate even more meaningfully for his home district. 

Hillis asks good questions and will forever live in my memory of when I watched a previous presentation from DCP when he unflinchingly said (again, paraphrasing) ‘…This is a nice report, but what have you been doing for the last eight months?’ He’s like that. He cuts to the chase, which I appreciate. I have friends who live in his district and know he is well-liked. Based on his questions during presentations, he clearly is advocating for his district in meaningful ways and knows how to close the gaps in what is needed. He can be gruff, but I for one appreciate the questions he poses. I would say he and I differ on Public Safety in Atlanta, but I appreciate the contracting out EMS services to AMR which will hopefully enable us to reduce our response times in emergency situations. He seems to be a problem solver, and that is something I appreciate. 

In the same vein, I appreciated Council member Bakhtiari’s questions (she’s the person who kept asking the ones I would have posed) like ‘How many employees from your dept live in the city?’ ‘How does this affect x,y, or z other dept?’, etc. If I could have my choice, I’d want Bakhtiari as my Council member. You can see her mind makes connections faster than others about root causes and how to address them. She sees the points made in presentations and drew out further conversations to seemingly solve bigger city challenges. She seems to understand the nexus of policy and procedure, which makes her a consummate policymaker. She’s made me think of reaching out to the DPG Executive Board to suggest they consider her for a House or Senate seat in the General Assembly. Atlanta’s loss could be the state’s gain. We need more folks like her-she has a backbone, which seems to be noticeably missing on Atlanta City Council currently. 

I understand the cost of having a backbone and a strong sense of what I define as morally right and wrong. I don’t party affiliate for a reason, after all. The cost of sticking to these firmly held beliefs is what robs lawmakers of further influence in their circles. Council member Bakhtiari wisely said as much in an interview with Rose Scott I listened to on WABE’s Closer Look with Rose Scott a while back. In it, the Council member shared what most Council members have been saying- that Cop City is a “done” deal and that to go against it as a single vote could cost her district other gains they hoped to acquire. This was the most astute political observation I’d heard thus far and the most forthright. It spoke directly to the potential retaliation members of the Council fear from the Mayor or any other powers that be. 

This is a point that should be concerning to all of us. If a group of Council members doesn’t feel that they have adequate power over the purse with a clear ability to vote without fear, what does that say about our system? There are literally more of them than there are of the Mayor. Additionally, there are more citizens depending upon the voices and votes of our Council members to be the check to our Mayor’s capitulation to the political purchasing power of names such as Cox, Home Depot, UPS, Coca-Cola, etc. 

If these folks don’t feel like they can vote their conscience for fear of the ability to move the city forward on other issues, then I think we recognize who really is controlling the City of Atlanta, and it doesn’t appear to be Council or the Mayor. Previous state Senator Josh McKoon’s words about not letting business dictate one’s morals rang true for me during the religious liberty legislation debate and its echo is heard loudly now. 

Speaking of echo chambers, I haven’t been able to put my finger on Council President Shipman. His assertions about Medicaid expansion and the Atlanta Medical Center’s closing rang so hollowly for me as a mere clanging bell for the DPG’s talking points. And let me say- the DPG has AMPLE things to throw at Republicans in our state, and their shrill cries in Georgia fade almost imperceptibly at the steps of Capitol Hill in DC where their national counterparts stole defeat from the jaws of victory by letting perfect be the enemy of good in regards to Medicaid expansion.  

In terms of Council, Shipman consistently demonstrates he knows how to analyze a budget and how smaller components work together to achieve larger goals. I also appreciated his question about providing daycare for the City of Atlanta employees. Honestly, there are a number of Council members with small children. I wonder very honestly if Council member Farohki’s absence was to care for his child. I’m probably in the minority of this opinion, but like in church, I’ve never minded babies and children being present among adults making decisions. I have always hoped it reminds all of the longer-term effects of the decisions made.  Also, caring for other humans (whether children or aging family members typically falls to women, so a day care for city employees would probably offer one of the most tangible hands up to our city employees in the workforce. While this was outside of the FY 24 budget, it is a consideration the HR department had considered. They probably know better than I the ramifications of that decision. This is an issue close to my heart. Daycare is a making or breaking issue for women in the workforce and oftentimes in education settings (if you think women only have children post-high school and college, I will kindly ask you to come back to the reality of Georgia’s teen pregnancy rate). And I’ll ask you to stretch your brain a bit further to conceptualize how that rate will react to the sweeping restrictions on Roe going on across our country. We’re going to need a LOT more day care, and not just in the City of Atlanta’s workforce, y’all. 

I can be honest and say I did not support Shipman as Council President and frankly wondered why the man wanted the job- it seems more a step on the way to his presumably ultimate goal of Mayor. Now though, in the shadow of a Mayor who seems to be more interested in his camera angle than meaningfully managing our city out of its mire, I am beginning to change my mind about Shipman. Dare I say, he’s growing on me. 

Atlanta politics seems to reside solidly in the land of the lesser of two evils.

I’ve long had mixed emotions about Norwood. She’s too disengaged from the reality my side of town faces regularly for me to see her as a viable source of meaningful change and yet she also has a historic knowledge of Council that I value. She also shows up to EVERYTHING. You really can’t attend a meeting in the City of Atlanta without seeing her and her little Nancy Reagan suits in the crowd. I admire that and her authenticity- she’s not trying to be something she isn’t. She’s got a brand, and she’s consistent in that. It’s just that brand isn’t consistent with an entire half of our city that is the hustling side. I can appreciate her genuine advocacy for the DPW sanitation workers yet it does come across as a bit paternalistic. I can’t love her, but I hesitate to despise her as well. 

I would liken it to being a Falcons fan- you want to love them, but they keep breaking your heart. 

I would probably relate most to the earnestness of Council member Shook, who seems to be historically knowledgeable, and sincerely grateful for the departments (he was one of the few I noticed who walked down from the dias to talk to the City of Atlanta employees without the mic), and he was the most straight forward in his questions. To the APD, he offered a list of things he needed to see- 3 years of data for trend lines, L & Ps, and he was particularly interested in the camera maintenance costs (the Atlanta Police Foundation covers the first three years, and the fourth year begins the maintenance costs for which the APD is responsible). This request prompted Chairman Wan’s interest in the same, although Wan was more interested in licensing and permits (probably related to his BACE, ATAG III’s work on alcohol licensing procedures). I too have been interested in the cost of these cameras. In a roundabout way, Shook ALMOST said Atlanta Influences Everything in his exchange with the Aviation Dept, when he asserted he took a little pride when he saw Laguardia airport making improvements, stating that he felt Atlanta had a ‘little to do’ with that. 

A point of female privilege I’ll take here-I love Overstreet’s penchant for Lilly. I would also like to note that for Bakhtiari, Norwood, Overstreet, and Boone, the expectation that they show up with a full face of makeup and be smiling at 9:30 AM along with their male counterparts does require more effort- especially for Boone and Overstreet, whose hair is impeccably coiffed and takes more time than anyone else’s on Council. Any woman who’s worked a 9-5 (or partner of one) knows how much prep time goes into a morning meeting-especially one with cameras. They are rising earlier and oftentimes are walking the same walk as their male counterparts in heels. Their smiles through tense discussions doesn’t convey to me compliance, but more a grit of determination I’ve seen in the face of every woman in any situation where mansplaining occurs. 

That said, Council member Overstreet’s questions and comments didn’t really add anything to the conversation. Council member Boone seems more like a cheerleader than anything else. Her penchant for repeating herself in her comments to emphasize points reminds me of the influence of churches she and I both more than likely grew up in. Council member Winston was largely quiet, although he did get in a question once or twice that I too would have asked. Westmoreland didn’t ask any questions that I remembered, and Dozier and Amos’ questions didn’t offer much or clarify more. I trust all of the members ask questions throughout the year with their monthly reports, it just seemed like this was a good time to advocate for specific plans. 

But that seems to be what is so clearly missing from this Council- aside from a backbone to stand up to the Mayor and his financial influencers- a plan for moving Atlanta forward. I could entirely be wrong, but what seemed to clear to me sitting in these presentations is that we’re literally just trying to catch up to the cities and counties around us. We’re running on paper and personal relationships rather than a standard policy and procedure. If any of us are thinking that this city is run on more than personal pettiness and purchasing power of corporations, I’m here to avail you of that myth. 

Now you could walk away from that last paragraph thinking that all is lost, but I see it differently.

When there isn’t a plan you (and an organized group of like-minded citizens) can (and should) offer one. Good heavens they clearly need some good ideas brought to Council! If you’re waiting for these members, I wouldn’t hold your breath! And, when council members are this beholden to the Mayor, you can trust citizens won’t settle for this for long. Scot and I may differ on policy points, but we both believe deeply in a meaningfully engaged electorate making their voices heard at the polls. While I think the ongoing MARTA dispute with Council is a good distraction from Cop City, (as “disingenuous and disappointing” as it may be) I happen to believe citizens can recognize when something shiny is dangled before them. I said as much in a twitter exchange earlier this week in response to a boneheaded idea from Council member Amos. I, for one, am tired of the performative acts of Council. From the turn out consistently showing up at Countil regarding Cop City, I’m not alone.

Noting Bonds’ absence and the changing median age of the electorate in the city, I expect him to either decide to not run again or, if he does, a loss. I haven’t yet met anyone in Overstreet’s district who likes her as their council member, so my bet is, if she had meaningful opposition, she’d be unseated. Council member Amos gained his seat via squeaking by with 44 votes. That’s an awfully narrow margin. Winston and Bakhtiari’s latest votes tell me they know their districts are watching them. Westmoreland’s vote tell me he’s banking more on a future run for higher office than meaningfully caring about values he claims he has. The confidence he and Farohki have in calling it in at Council tells me Midtown and north aren’t watching as closely, so as long as Farohki keeps implementing ideas like the participatory budgeting and maintains a higher level of service delivery, he’ll continue to skate on. I’m not so sure about Westmoreland, but I’ll keep those thoughts to myself. Like Shook and Norwood, Wan has been a part of this circus for a while and the power gays in Midtown and book clubs in VaHi are more interested in making money like Shook’s and Norwood’s breeder constituents than worrying about the tree canopy they all say they value in the South River Forest area. Waites is waiting for her chance to run for Congress. My guess is the city council paycheck is decent enough while she bides time. Like Bonds and Winslow, maybe Shepherd as well, she’s doing the least while claiming the most. Shook and Norwood won’t change until Buckhead values something more than money and the suburban lifestyle. The greatest opportunity for gains in the city are where folks are moving into- Midtown, the westside and southside. The changes in these district demographics will be reflected not just in the buildings you can literally drive by, but also by representation at Council. With the speed of how the destruction of the forest is happening in the construction of Cop City to meet the end of 2024 expected move-in date, my guess is Council and the Mayor are hoping this can happen and voters can forget about it before their term is up. My bet is that environmental groups (and sympathetic elected officials) are going to slow the process down as much as possible to make it the political millstone it should be for all the folks who voted for it. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the budget presentations remain and votes are coming up again soon (6/5). Don’t be a stranger- I’d welcome the company in the audience to watch them, if you’re game. Otherwise, don’t be surprised with the backlash you’ll see in the ballot box in years to come. 

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