By David Pendered
This story was updated Dec. 29 to include responses from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s spokesperson.
There’s money and then there’s politics. Both are likely on the agenda of the Atlanta City Council’s Jan. 3 meeting.
The council is under pressure from Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration to approve more than $3 billion worth of airport concessions deals. The same day, the council is expected to vote to create new boundaries for council districts – an exercise in balancing black voters in a city that recorded a significant drop in estimated population in many historically black neighborhoods.
Both votes are for legislation that will stand at least a decade.
The concessions contracts last 10 years, with a renewal option, for food and drink establishments. Retail contracts last for seven years, with a renewal option.
The new boundaries for council districts will last until 2022. The boundaries could give rise to new political constituencies that may be able to wield new-found influence on matters ranging from pothole repair to development of the Beltline, even to unforeseen areas regarding the state of Atlanta’s public school district.
The concessions deal represents money for both the city-run airport, which collects rent from concessionaires, and for politicians, who reap campaign contributions from the concessions industry. Nine food and drink contracts have been bundled into one piece of legislation, rather than as nine separate contracts. Retail deals are now in a separate measure, although the administration initially wanted all the contracts packed into a single piece of legislation.”
According to Reed’s spokesperson, Sonji Jacobs: “The Department of Aviation and the Department of Procurement structured the bid in that manner based on the advice of industry experts who counseled that doing so was the most fair and ethical manner in which to handle the procurement. Had the bids been split, some retailers would have received contract extensions. Vendors then would have been up in arms about who received extensions and who didn’t, and for how long. There would have been even more concerns about fairness. Starting from a clean slate for everyone was the most fair way to handle this process.
To rush the concessions deal through the council, the administration offered to meet one-on-one with each council member to answer questions about how the administration chose the slate of vendors it has asked the council to approve.
Jacobs said: “I take exception to the characterization that that administration is rushing the concessions deal through council. This has been a long process that had to be re-started…. As (airport manager) Louis Miller has repeatedly explained in public, it is in the best fiduciary interest of the city to open the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal on time this spring. That is the driver of the timeline, and should be noted in the story. ”
There was no mention of notifying the public about these meetings; whether the public could attend these meetings; or whether the meetings would be televised, or taped for later broadcast.
Airport General Manager Louis Miller simply offered to do all he could to be helpful during the council’s formally adopted two-week recess before it reconvenes Jan. 3.
“We will meet with each council member,” Miller said to the council’s Transportation Committee at its Dec. 14 meeting. “We ask that the committee move it forward … then we can spend time with council members and respond to your concerns.”
The committee overwhelmingly approved the legislation, though not every member was happy with Miller’s offer to meet out of the public eye.
“It’s disturbing,” Councilman Michael Julian Bond said in a conversation last week.
“It should never be the accepted practice of any government to have private meetings,” Bond said. “I understand if it’s human resources or real estate, but when you make it a practice for the government to knowingly scuttle the law [on public meetings] so you don’t have to comply with the law, that is a huge problem for me.”
Jacobs said: “It is simply flat-out wrong for anyone to suggest the administration was attempting to scuttle the law on public meetings. Louis Miller’s offer was simply to answer questions and provide information to individual council members, especially those not on the Transportation Committee who will vote on Jan. 3, 2012. Council members meet with department heads and staff all the time for explanations and updates on city business and ordinances. That is not unusual and represents no breach of or attempt to breach the open meetings law.”
The new boundaries for council districts result from the official decennial count of Atlanta residents by the Census. Boundaries are changed, or redistricted, to ensure that each district has about 35,000 residents – a twelfth of the population.
In August, the council started its formal process to revise boundaries. There was a series of small meetings that convened in various locations around City Hall where council members or their representatives addressed a very real challenge:
The city’s population is smaller than most folks had expected. These population numbers have been known for some time, but the reality finally sank in.
The Census showed Atlanta’s population to be 420,003. That figure is just 3,529 persons more than the 2000 Census report and a far cry from the population estimate of 480,700 delivered in 2010 by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Don’t even talk about the “official” estimate of more than 500,000 that was floating around during the height of the construction boom, in the mid 2000s.
In this real-life scenario, every incumbent had to worry about protecting a base of votes while allowing for population shifts that were small – but statistically important enough to significantly alter the profile of a voting age population in each council district.
The vote on new boundaries for council districts was originally scheduled for Dec. 5. By Dec. 20, the city attorney’s office was to have submitted the new boundaries for approval by the federal Justice Department.
But the council members kept tweaking the original proposal. Compared to that original map, the final version now proposes to raise the proportion of black voters in four districts and to reduce it in four districts.
The plan calls for the formation of eight districts where black voters make up the majority, and four majority white districts.
Compared to the initial proposal, this map raises the black population in:
- District 1, now held by Councilperson Carla Smith;
- District 2, now held by Councilperson Kwanza Hall;
- District 5, now held by Councilperson Natalyn Archibong;
- District 12, now held by Councilperson Joyce Sheperd.
Compared to the initial proposal, this map decreases the black population in:
- District 3, now held by Councilperson Ivory Lee Young;
- District 6, now held by Councilperson Alex Wan;
- District 10, now held by Councilperson C.T. Martin;
- District 11, now held by Councilperson Keisha Bottoms.
A final public hearing on the plan is scheduled for Jan. 3 at 11:15 a.m. at the Committee on Council meeting. If the legislation follows the track outlined previously, it will be on the council agenda for the 1 p.m. meeting.
The airport concessions deal will be on the same agenda.