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‘Best Practices’ send NPU system on the road to badly needed reform

Atlanta City Hall. (Photo by David Pendered)

By John Ruch

Badly needed reform of Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) system is finally on the way, with the final draft of a “Best Practices” document headed to the City Council for likely approval and a “Bill of Rights” for all residents coming soon.

Drafted by the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB), an NPU umbrella group, the Best Practices aim squarely at some NPUs’ bizarro behavior: secret gatherings, disputed elections, hijacked files, residents barred from speaking or attending and disregard for open meetings and records laws. They also contain upgrades for the NPUs’ monthly work of advising the City on virtually any issue or policy.

The big asterisk is that the Best Practices are nonbinding recommendations — the same hands-off deference to NPUs that got the system into the need for reform in the first place. NPUs could still act crazy and residents would still have no recourse, with the upcoming “Bill of Rights” actually being based only on suggestions.

The Best Practices also offer strong peer pressure and public leverage. Rather than top-down changes that often chafe the populist system, the recommendations came from the NPUs themselves via APAB, putting everyone literally on the same page. Actions that clash with the public input suggestions can be pointed out informally, and if someone finally sues, the document offers a powerful new legal interpretation for courts and the Georgia attorney general’s office in interpreting the council’s intent to have a transparent system.

“We believe that, when published, the Best Practices for NPUs will promote engagement practices that strengthen and empower neighborhood planning units to fairly represent the collective voice of the community,” said DCP spokesperson Paula Owens.

The final draft, approved unanimously by APAB at its Aug. 20 meeting, is winning praise from some key reformers. They include District 3 City Councilmember Byron Amos, a former chair of English Avenue and Vine City’s NPU-L, who earlier this year filed a resolution seeking the Best Practices and a Bill of Rights.

At the APAB meeting, Amos described the NPU concerns he heard on the campaign trail last year and how he simply wanted to bring everyone involved in the system together “and come up with a document that everybody can agree on.” So convinced is Amos that the final draft is solid, he asked NPU reps to call on council members to approve them as-is rather than making changes “thinking they are smarter than you.”

Also watching carefully is Kyle Kessler, NPU-M’s representative on APAB and the policy and research director at the Center for Civic Innovation, a nonprofit that last year suggested NPU reforms after years of study. Kessler said DCP and APAB should be commended for the collaborative work that led to the latter body’s unanimous support for the Best Practices.

“That’s not to say the document is perfect,” Kessler said, “but having this ‘first edition’ of good ideas published is a great step forward.”

The draft now heads to the council’s Community Development/Human Services Committee for review. Meanwhile, DCP is working on the “Bill of Rights,” which is intended to lay out the participation rights of NPU members — meaning anyone 18 and older who lives, works or owns property in an NPU territory.

Originally intended to be paired with Best Practices, the Bill of Rights is taking more time to sort out what Kessler calls “differing understandings [and] expectations.” Owens said DCP tentatively aims to send a Bill of Rights draft to APAB by the end of September.

The system and ‘Best Practices’ details

Mayor Maynard Jackson created the NPU system in 1974 especially to get public input on the City’s long-term comprehensive development plan. Today the 25 NPUs — each named for a letter of the alphabet — provide nonbinding comments to the City on virtually any issue, from liquor license applications to trash collection to major zoning code rewrites.

The NPU system is a jewel of Atlanta and really of the nation’s civic participation. Several other major cities created similar bodies in the same era, but Atlanta’s NPUs are among the few — maybe the only — that survive in such a robust state. There’s a lot going right with the populist NPUs, and they deserve more of the civic limelight in a city often overly focused on the top-down decisions of money-muscled corporations and charismatic politicians.

There’s also a need for reform after decades of under-resourcing and other neglect that are at the root of the transparency and power-struggle issues in some quarters. Amos is part of a newly elected City Council that is much more reform-minded and populist, and the quick action on NPUs after decades of disregard is remarkable. His call for the Best Practices was tough love from a fan with faith in the NPUs’ capacity for self-reform.

The Best Practices draft leads by emphasizing its nonbinding nature: “In short, it is designed to document ‘what works best’ for NPUs, and should not be considered a mandate or directive.”

A notable line in the intro refers to many reformers’ calls for better City support of the system: “The Department of City Planning is committed to providing the technical support and resources NPUs may need to align with these practices.” When asked if DCP could handle that now or might need more staff or funding, spokesperson Owens referred only to the “40 training classes and access to technological tools” already offered by the department.

The Best Practices recommendations are organized into four categories: “NPU health,” communications, meetings and ‘application review and recommendations.’”

“NPU health” is about the general operations of the bodies, such as bylaws, elections, public participation and board member training. Some recommendations are aimed at a power struggle at NPU-R, where competing leaders have argued over lockouts from online accounts and the banning of dissenting members. Those recommendations include ensuring a smooth transition of power after an election and to “avoid revoking members’ ability to participate.”

“Communications” addresses the publicizing of information about the NPU, its members, and its meetings. The section also recommends how to keep records of meetings and file them with the City.

“Meetings” is focused on how to run a meeting and do so with transparency. Despite NPUs plainly being government-created bodies whose entire purpose is public input, legal confusion remains as to whether the Georgia Open Meetings Acts apply to them, as SaportaReport has seen first-hand. The Best Practices recommendations aim to end-run the confusion by stating: “NPUs embrace the spirit of the Georgia Open Meetings Act as much as possible.”

“Application review” refines the details of how NPUs provide feedback to the city. That includes providing information about minority opinions when the NPU has a divided vote on a topic and details the reasons for a recommendation of non-support.

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1 Comment

  1. Dana Blankenhorn September 6, 2022 11:27 am

    During my time working with NPU-O, as secretary and president, the biggest problem we had was developers flooding meetings on behalf of their projects when they saw opposition from one of the neighborhood groups. I don’t see anything here preventing that in the future.Report

    Reply

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