Atlanta mayor announces task force to merge training center and park input
By John Ruch
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens is forming a “task force” to merge input on the controversial public safety training center and a still-mysterious parkland plan. The move comes as an existing training center advisory committee is beset with mutiny, ethics and transparency issues.
The new South River Forest and Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force is to be formed in March with 40 members – named by Dickens – and issue recommendations by July. It will “supplement” the existing Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), according to a press release.
The task force is the latest unilateral move by Dickens as his administration attempts to counter the environmental protests underlying the widespread “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement, which has dubbed the training center “Cop City.” Last month, Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced a secretly signed “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) about various environmental reviews and standards for the training center and touted the CSAC as an effective public input tool into the plan, which also was created and its site selected in secret.
However, as SaportaReport revealed last week, the CSAC is beset with transparency problems – with the City not even in possession of a correct list of its members, along with legal questions about vacancies, administration, Christmas gifts and the removal of a skeptical member. Meanwhile, one CSAC member resigned over the police killing of a protester on the site, and another filed an appeal against the training center’s land-disturbance permit (LDP) – the issuance for which the MOU served as political cover.
A core controversy has been the training center’s impact on the South River Forest, a City-endorsed vision to create and connect approximately 3,500 acres of green space in the City and unincorporated DeKalb. The training center would occupy a large portion of the former Atlanta Prison Farm at the heart of the area while reserving green space – the exact extent of which is a point of controversy and the LDP appeal, as the City’s acreage calculation doesn’t match property records. A separate South River Forest visioning process was held last year by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) at the request of The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit.
On Feb. 24, the ARC issued the South River Forest process report, which includes a new, 445-acre park centered on the training center and former Prison Farm. The details of that concept are a mystery, as the ARC could not provide a specific map and the City did not respond to questions.
Recent training center maps separately circulated by the City, County and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) – the facility’s lead planner – in press releases and court documents show the site as including some of the adjacent green spaces referred to in the South River Forest vision report. But those spaces are not part of the official site plan from which the training center is being built. Those properties and such a park were not discussed by the CSAC, though several of its members served on the ARC’s South River Forest steering committee.
Now comes Dickens’ new task force to merge input on the training center and a vague, undefined “surrounding green space including the former Atlanta Prison Farm.”
The press release says the task force will provide community and “expert” input on “four key areas”:
- Parks and green space
- Visioning, memorializing and repurposing the former Atlanta Prison Farm Site
- Sustainability and resilience
- Police, fire and E-911 training curriculum
In addition, the task force will be asked for input on:
- Ongoing community engagement
- Additional community uses of the site
- Consideration of the site for potential memorials or other community recognition
A fundamental political tension of the training center is the location of its site – which is City-owned land, but outside City limits on Key and Constitution roads in unincorporated DeKalb. It was not immediately clear if the County would have representation on the task force or was aware of it. Bryan Thomas, the mayor’s director of communications, indicated that representation will only become public when the members are announced. “We’ll have more on the makeup of the task force when the mayor names the members,” said Thomas in an email. “He is soliciting input for the members from a wide variety of stakeholders.”
A DeKalb County spokesperson did not immediately respond to a comment request. But District 6 DeKalb Commissioner Ted Terry — a frequent critic of the CSAC and training center transparency — said he was aware of the task force. “It’s a positive development,” Terry said. “More opportunities for residents to have a seat at the table.”
The CSAC, which was created by City Council legislation specifically for training center review, “will continue to provide direct dialogue with neighborhoods adjacent to the site of the future Training Center,” the press release says. Thomas said the new task force will be able to address parkland, which is not the CSAC portfolio.
But the administration is plainly seizing more control of CSAC processes. The CSAC’s Feb. 21 meeting was abruptly canceled – a day after SaportaReport’s revelation about its transparency problems and originally the day the ARC intended to release its report before further edits delayed that, according to a spokesperson.
And the City has taken over the training center website, relaunching it in a redesigned format combining the content of the old training center website with new information on the park. The new site is called “The South River Forest and the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center,” but still uses the previous training center website URL. The administration previously claimed, incorrectly, that the website contained monthly meeting minutes. In fact, the CSAC and its administrator, the APF, had not posted minutes since late 2021 and never posted a video of the virtual meetings. Much of that information is still missing, though the new website includes videos of some meetings. It still lacks a list of members and any form of contact information.
That reflects the continued centralization of the process by the administration. In November, the APF said the mayor’s press office had taken over responding to media questions about the training center – even though the APF is a private entity and, by City Council ordinance, in charge of administering the CSAC.
Still unanswered are questions as to who exactly is on the CSAC, how vacancies will be filled, whether old minutes will ever be posted, and under what authority an Atlanta Police Department official ran the latest meeting. Thomas said the City has “addressed” those questions before, though the press office only has provided brief comments about the APD situation that did not explain its legality. “As you’ll see, we’ve posted a great deal of more information on the CSAC, including meeting recordings, and will be updating with additional materials as they’re available,” Thomas said of the redesigned website.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Bryan Thomas, the mayor’s director of communications, and DeKalb District 6 Commissioner Ted Terry.
So many questions, because it simply cannot be coincidence: Two pieces of abutting public land owned by neighboring municipal jurisdictions, both originally set-aside for parks and greenspace, and both in a metro region with a tradition of disinvestment and literal waste-disposal on the land and in the water. So, what is the relationship between DeKalb County’s agreement with Mr. Millsap to decommission Intrenchment Creek Park and the Atlanta Police Foundation and the City’s imposing a scheme to create a revenue-generating training facility for urban militias? If this were not calculated disinvestment, then why would today’s headlines suggest the Public Safety Training Center could be in jeopardy if the Buckhead cityhood movement gains a foothold? Would Buckhead really be building its own police training center? Or would Atlanta’s zeal to discourage uptown separatists no-longer rely on dumping the undesirable in southeast Atlanta?Report
This whole process has been so incredibly corrupt and secretive since the beginning, so of course there is no transparency, that was never the intention.Report