By Maria Saporta
Stand down. Don’t talk.
A dangerous trend is afoot within our local governments.
The public is being shut out of the decision-making process on major deals involving millions and millions of tax dollars. Usually the argument is that a key project must move forward at a super-fast speed. That means there’s no time for the public to have a role in the process.
Take Aug. 4 when the DeKalb County Commission held a specially-called meeting to vote for a Memo of Understanding with the Atlanta United Football Club on the building of the team’s headquarters, training facilities, a 3,500-seat stadium and three additional soccer fields.
The deal involved the county investing about $12 million in tax dollars on county-owned land near I-285 and Memorial Drive for the $35 million project.
When the DeKalb Commission convened at 9 a.m., Commissioners Jeff Rader, Kathie Gannon and Nancy Jester all tried to get their fellow commissioners to let the public – in the standing-room only meeting room – speak about the deal.
The other four commissioners refused to allow the public to talk.
The Commissioners had just been given the details of the deal seven days earlier, and there were many people present who believed that neither the DeKalb Commission nor the public had had a chance to analyze and scrutinize the agreement.
Needless to say, DeKalb residents did not participate in the decision-making process.
But DeKalb is not alone.
When the Cobb County Commission was asked to vote on Nov. 26, 2013 for an agreement with the Atlanta Braves – one that at the time was supposed to involve $300 million in tax revenues – the secretive deal had only been in the public realm for two weeks.
Despite countless calls to slow down the vote to give the public and the commission a chance to really study the deal, the Cobb Commission voted 4-to-1 in favor of the monumental deal that led to the Braves move to the county.
Although public comment was permitted, people in favor of the deal were able to get most of the speaking slots.
At least one resident who spoke out against the deal was incredulous.
“We spent two years discussing whether we could have chickens in our backyards, and we are spending two weeks on how we’re spending $300 million,” the resident told the Commission – describing the deal as “taxation without representation.”
By the way, today Cobb taxpayers will be contributing $392 million for the new stadium – while the Braves are only contributing between $230 million and $280 million for the new baseball park.
Then there is the City of Atlanta, which has rushed through the decision-making process several times – first with the new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons and most recently on approving a $13 million letter of credit to facilitate the sale of 330 acres at Fort McPherson to filmmaker Tyler Perry.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told the Atlanta City Council on April 20 that they had to approve the $13 million letter of credit that day – saying it was necessary so they could close the deal as early as April 30.
“We are at a moment where we need to close, and I’m asking for your help to close on an entrepreneur who believed in south Atlanta when nobody believed in south Atlanta,” Reed told the City Council.
Councilwoman Felicia Moore requested more time so the City Council could study the proposal. She was out-voted 11-1.
State Sen. Vincent Fort criticized the last minute vote and complained about the lack of public participation.
“That kind of secrecy, last-minute secrecy, is a continuation of the kind of lack of transparency that has been reflected from the beginning (of the deal),” Fort said.
For the record, the Fort McPherson sale closed June 26 – more than two months after the mayor pressured the Atlanta City Council for a same-day decision.
These three examples from of key votes in three different jurisdictions show a total disregard for the role that citizens are supposed to play in shaping their communities.
When people are shut out by their local governments, it is an affront to the democratic process. It alienates engaged citizens, and it kills their ability to actually improve a proposal with the incorporation of their ideas.
But it has a far more chilling effect. It prevents a next generation of leaders from fine tuning their diplomatic and public policy skills. It actually sends a message that our politicians act more like little dictators rather than public servants representing their constituents.
On the annual LINK trip this year, we visited Toronto where Mary Frances Turner, president of the York Region Transit Corp. and an experienced urban planner, described how first a community needed a vision and refuse to compromise for an expedient or mediocre outcome.
She then described the hard work of reaching community consensus. People would start with differing points of view- sometimes creating passionate discord. But eventually a common vision would emerge with buy-in from the public.
“It’s a joy – I call it singing – when they agree,” Turner told the metro Atlanta delegation. “The outcome and the result can be so much more special when people value it.”
In Atlanta, we almost never hear the people sing. We often don’t even let the public speak.
How sad is that?
Atlanta – a city with a legacy of resolving conflicts between the races – has become a place where our political leaders – black and white – tell their citizens: “Stand down. Don’t talk. And definitely – don’t sing.”