Atlanta’s legacy damaged with lack of public voices in key decisions

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.

DeKalb vote

DeKalb residents – not allowed to comment at Commission meeting – speak to reporters (Photos by Maria Saporta)

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.”

Cobb Braves vote

Cobb residents on Nov. 26, 2013 objecting to Commission voting on new Braves stadium after just two weeks

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.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

24 replies
  1. EltonAlexander says:

    We are a republic not a true democracy in that we elect leaders to make decisions in the best interest of the public. In the Dekalb County deal we are talking about $12 million dollars to plant a seed for a blighted area not $362 million in Cobb County a whole different ball game! In Cobb there was no urgert need in the Cumberland area for building the stadium & the process could have been slowed down with that much money at stake. The Atlanta United don’t have a training facility time was of the essence where the Braves could have elected to stay at Turner Field another year to give the public more time on such a huge deal. It is pretty clear the Cobb deal was completed in complete secrecy because they knew their electorate would be up in arms & the sell a tough one. In the Dekalb case Mr Blank did what was in the best interest of not just Dekalb but the entire region because he made the point clearly they wanted to be near public transit not out in Marietta with no real transit option! The Dekalb decision was in the best interest of the region restoring a blighted area & supporting transit a win for $12 million dollars. Cobb on the other hand made a decision far beyond a few years & current leadership  & they potentially mortgaged the future of the county should things go south. I understand your point but believe the amount of money matters in how much input the public should have. Leader should lead not do what is popular & take a poll on every issue!Report

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  2. Harvey Davis says:

    The question Maria is did you equally criticize the Cobb County Commission for shoving the Braves Stadium down the throat of residents without a public voice there?Report

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  3. Chad Carlson says:

    The city of Atlanta tried putting a homeless shelter in our neighborhood’s historic fire station, which faces the Beltline, without telling anyone. We found out through a third party and were able to stop it. And here is what happened with Ft. McPherson: The community spent seven years formulating a Master Plan and it was scrapped by the mayor when Tyler Perry showed interest in the property. The Master Plan called for a dynamic, OPEN, interaction with the neighborhoods. Tyler Perry will have Ft. Mac fenced off from the community with only one security entrance. Tyler Perry, at the advice of his lawyers, won’t share his plan with the public. The lone voice of dissent on the Mayor’s redevelopment Board (MILRA) was kicked off the Board. The last three meetings of the MILRA Board were held on weekdays; the meeting in June had a “public comment” on the Agenda for 2:00 PM, when that time came for the public comment the Board cancelled it; when I objected, the head of the Board, Brian Hooker, told me that the Agenda was a “draft” and the public comment slot had been “changed.” As soon as the deal with Perry was cut, MILRA then stated that $500 K will be needed from taxpayers to build a road parallel to one that already exists because the one that already exists will be behind Perry’s fence.Report

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  4. GeorgeChidi says:

    EltonAlexander Elton Alexander, member of the Henry County board of commissioners, defending decisions to ignore the public will. Lovely. 
    Yes. We’re a republic. But this wasn’t some emergency where democratic input couldn’t be managed. It’s half the surplus, spent in eight days with no public discussion and weak economic analysis. It’s money spent while there are significant ethics questions bedeviling all the decision makers in the process at the county. And it’s money spent on something that has a long track record of economic development failure both locally and nationally — private sports facilities.
    That last point is important, because it puts the lie to any claim that this was meritorious economic development. If the commission intends to hold onto that argument, it should have been able to demonstrate it with facts that refute the consensus view. They had no facts, so they shut out public comment to avoid criticism. The claim that this was “in the best interest of the region” has no merit. There’s no data backing that assertion. 
    Shame on the DeKalb Commission. And shame on you. You’re an elected official. You should know better.Report

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  5. Burroughston Broch says:

    EltonAlexander  The fix was in and we all know whose palms were greased by Arthur Blank. I hope the voters of South DeKalb remember this sordid affair when they next vote for County Commissioners, and throw the rascals out.Report

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  6. John Hutcheson says:

    Thanks Maria — same ole stuff — Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988 — Clarence Stone’s book on Atlanta is just as relevant today as it was in the early 1990s.Report

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  7. Real World says:

    The urgency is artificial and planned. It’s an old sales technique: BUY NOW!, before it’s too late.  DO NOT THINK ABOUT IT, or someone else will buy it.  In the Cobb case, the “business community” was  a party to the scheme by “occupying” meeting space to help shut out dissenting voices. The Commissioners were OK with that.

    The worst of it was that our County Commission chose to ignore plain language in the Georgia Constitution that stipulates the public is to VOTE on new debt.  Instead of a referendum, our leaders hired a bond lawyer to lead them through the slippery path around the words of the Constitution, avoiding  the referendum of the pesky voters. The Georgia Supreme Court accepted their argument, based on a Court decision from 1952, but clearly had to hold its nose to do so.Report

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  8. Equitable says:

    It is indeed sad that Atlanta business leaders and political leaders so routinely ignore the opportunity to teach and learn from the public. Atlanta is an urban planning disaster in large part because of these “deals” that invariably put the financial interests of business leaders over broader community interests for a functioning metropolis. It is the politician’s obligation to consider the needs of the broader community – especially those who aren’t in the room – in the face of greedy ego-driven demands by sports teams and movie moguls.Report

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  9. The Boges says:

    The taxpayers are treated as one grand piggy-bank by elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.  Since there is no accountability of officials in government they have no incentive to monitor the credulity of their decisions to see that even what was approved comes in on terms and conditions approved.  When was the last public project that ever came in under budget?  Public unions and their corresponding elected officials are in cahoots with each other to feed their respective coffers with total disregard of the people who work hard each day to pay the bills.  The chickens will come home to roost sooner rather than later. Who is John Galt?Report

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  10. jtuckeratlanta says:

    Maria …. Point On!!!!  I am still saddened by the
    “ramrod” of the Fort Mac transaction.  As I have said before in
    your publication and others, Fort Mac could and would have presented a unique
    opportunity to provide a one-of-kind mixed use development for a “live,
    work & play” project.  It could have possibly become a “one
    of a kind” mixed-use development in the United States. 
    Infrastructure was already in place for a nice start of iconic residential
    homes from yesteryear, some infrastructure for commercial office space (easily
    expandable), some infrastructure (easily expandable) for retail, existing green
    space and existing golf course and recreational facilities.  The ideal
    opportunity for the millennial and baby-boomer generation living for a
    much more simple life experience.  The great opportunity of geographical
    area improvements could have been realized much easier than having a movie
    studio with no public access.  This missed opportunity for Atlanta is one
    that could and probably would have been a “build it and they will come”
    reality.  Long-term, it would have been a much better financial
    windfall for Atlanta than the low-budget $30 Million expedited deal with Tyler
    Perry.  Sad, Sad, Sad!!! ……….. Jeff TuckerReport

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  11. SpaceyG says:

    “In Atlanta, we almost never hear the people sing. We often don’t even let the public speak.” 

    True enough, but Matthew Cardinale used to sing (rap actually) at Atlanta City Council meetings when it was his turn for public commenting. You can go look up the “songs” on YT if you feel so inclined. I do not. 
    But Cardinale’s on the West Coast now, going to law school there. On a full scholarship, of course; obtained by arguing, and winning, his own case (“pro se” as the lawyers say) in front of the Supreme Court of Georgia. Against, wait for it, the Atlanta City Council. 

    When he gets back to town with his law degree in hand, well… Katie bar the door.Report

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  12. SpaceyG says:

    Mr. Davis: I did a quick crunch of the available data, and Ms. Saporta pretty much quite evenly distributed WPR (words-per-region) in this column. It breaks down this way: DeKalb (172), Cobb (190), and COA (216). Say what you will about the author, but she seems to have been remarkably fair and balanced with her CDM. (That’s what professional journalists call Criticism Distribution Methodology. It’s taught at all the finest J-schools across the land. Or would be, if I taught journalism.) 
    Now about that bridge land I’ve got for sale…Report

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  13. SpaceyG says:

    I’m having my people run “entrenched political class of backscratchers and wheeler-dealers, people dependent on government largesse for their foundations or churches or charitable groups … or are contractors of government services” through the machine right now, but I still don’t think I’m going to get my co. to squeeze into any of the categories. Pity. I’ve got at least one very elderly relation with no known obvious heirs sitting on some fabulous DeKalb County land. Right this minute! 
    Could you keep going with the listings, George?Report

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  14. Chad Carlson says:

    All the while trashing the 7 year community plan and shutting down any public comment. Thank you to councilwoman Felicia Moore, who had the political courage to stand up for the citizens. We owned that Fort. Let us not forget.Report

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  15. Deb Beacham says:

    Thank you, Maria. This has been my experience in observing the courts in Georgia as well.  It’s not just “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.” We need to keep waking everyone up, or our next generation will not have leaders; it will have only puppets. Please write more on this, SaportaReportReport

    Reply

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