A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

By John Ruch

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has named some members of a new task force in his attempt to merge input on the controversial public safety training center and the South River Forest green space concept. But the task force’s exact role, authority and transparency remain unclear, including to some groups with seats on it.

Some major figures in Atlanta’s civil rights and environmental worlds, as well as neighborhood residents, were among the 42 people announced on March 24 as members of the South River Forest and Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force. The membership has some confusion, however, as a press release described the 42 without explanation as “initial members,” and the list had at least one incorrect name and some other errors and omissions. SaportaReport could not immediately confirm the identities and affiliations of all members.

The task force will begin meeting in April and deliver recommendations by July, according to the press release. Still unknown is whether the meetings will be open to the public, where the recommendations will go and for what purpose or leverage and how input on the actual training center plan and the merely conceptual South River Forest will be distinguished. The training center is already in an early construction stage by the private Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), while the South River Forest remains only a concept. The City did not respond to questions, and APF referred questions to the City.

“These are all great questions and I’ll be able to answer them after the task force meets for the first time and we receive a formal briefing as a group about our role and how it will operate,” said one of the new members – Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

The Georgia chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has worked on the South River Forest concept for years and will have representation on the task force. But the Mayor’s Office incorrectly announced the representative as Executive Director Monica Thornton rather than board member Linda DiSantis, according to TNC Georgia spokesperson Jeremiah Olney.

“With the hope that work developed by the Parks and Greenspace sub-committee of the new task force will inform the development of this broader master plan for the South River Forest area, we will serve in the role of advising on that specific issue,” said Olney. “City officials have not yet articulated details regarding how meetings will be formatted or how recommendations will be utilized.”

“I have no answers to your questions,” said Donna Stephens, named to represent the Descendants of Chattahoochee Brick Company Coalition. “I have not received any information. I wish that I could answer your questions.”

The task force comes amid other political maneuvering from the City and APF as they attempt to counter the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movement that opposes the training center, in part because of its effect on the South River Forest plan.

The Mayor’s Office continues to tout the effectiveness of the existing Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), an APF-run, City Council-appointed group reviewing the training center plan. But, beset with transparency and ethics problems, the CSAC has canceled its past two monthly meetings without explanation and its status is unclear. The City, APF and CSAC chair Allison Clark did not respond to questions.

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office on March 20 publicized a door-knocking tour of DeKalb County’s Boulder Walk neighborhood, near the training center site, that featured Dickens, Atlanta Police Department Chief Darin Schierbaum, DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson and Clark, who heads the neighborhood association, among others.

“Residents were already well-informed about the project and told the mayor they appreciated the extensive community outreach over the last year,” claimed the publicist who wrote social media posts about the tour. “They supported several key elements of the site plans and greenspace that improves their quality of life.”

The City did not respond to questions about how input from that tour was recorded, what “key elements” were supported by how many residents, and whether similar tours will be held in other neighborhoods.

As for the new task force, the Mayor’s Office publicity continues to use vague and undefined references to “surrounding green space” that do not distinguish specific training center plans from general existing and potential areas in DeKalb and Southeast Atlanta. That has practical importance already because, as SaportaReport previously revealed, APF and the City appear to be counting properties outside the training center’s legal boundaries to meet a lease-required amount of green space.

Likewise, many basic details of the privately planned training center remain unknown, including its current budget. Recent reports from the Atlanta Community Press Collective indicate APF is cutting back on its initial phase due to funding and has main work on hold pending some type of anticipated conspiracy indictments against unidentified protesters.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our vital public safety needs and establish the largest park the City of Atlanta would own,” Dickens said in the press release. “I want the community at the head of the table, sharing their expertise and aspirations. I look forward to receiving recommendations that will continue to inform the training center and the parks, trails and community spaces our communities can be proud of.”

Most of several members who responded to some SaportaReport questions declined or did not respond directly to requests for their opinions about the training center plan, the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests, and controversial policing with domestic terrorism charges and arrests of journalists. Those included Savitt, Stephens and Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple. Olney at TNC Georgia weighed in with a partial response: “We condemn all violence taking place in the South River Forest and support peaceful protest.”

The press release says the task force will have four “subgroups,” though it does not say which members will be on which:

  • Parks and green space
  • Visioning, memorializing, and repurposing the former Atlanta Prison Farm site where the training center is slated to be built.
  • Sustainability and resilience
  • Police, fire and E-911 training curriculum

The following list of members is largely as provided by the City, with some corrections and explanation:

  • Linda Adams, community member
  • Samuel Bacote, community member and former Development Authority of Fulton County board member
  • Jay Bassett, “Retired EPA and Master Connector”
  • Rabbi Peter Berg, The Temple
  • Tsedey Betru, BeTru Consulting
  • Douglas Blackmon, Georgia State University media professor and author of “Slavery by Another Name”
  • Michelle Blackmon, executive director, Grant Park Conservancy
  • Marc Bolden, community member
  • Christopher Bruce, attorney and policy and advocacy director, ACLU of Georgia
  • Rev. Gary Burke, Lakewood Church of Hope
  • Janese Coleman, community member
  • Nina Cutler, community member
  • Greta G. deMayo, executive director, PATH Foundation
  • Linda DiSantis, board member, The Nature Conservancy Georgia chapter
  • Dr. Gerald Durley, retired pastor and community activist
  • George Dusenbury, Georgia state director, Trust for Public Land
  • Susan Evans, program manager, Atlanta Housing Authority
  • Blake Fortune, community member
  • Stacy Funderburke, regional counsel and Georgia and Alabama associate state director, The Conservation Fund
  • Cicely Garrett, community member
  • Gerald Griggs, attorney and president, Georgia NAACP
  • Sheffield Hale, president and CEO, Atlanta History Center
  • Michael Halicki, executive director, Park Pride
  • Robbie Hunter, Graymont Drive Neighborhood Association
  • Bonita Johnson, senior physical scientist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and officer of White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council
  • Morieka Johnson, community member
  • Sabir Khan, artist
  • Dr. Bryant Marks, Morehouse College psychology professor and founder and chief equity officer at National Training Institute on Race and Equity
  • Dr. Yomi Noibi, executive director, Environmental Community Action, Inc.
  • David Paull, chief impact officer, CompostNow
  • John Prevost, community member and “retired GSP”
  • Lynnette Reid, director of planning, Atlanta BeltLine Inc.
  • Rashad Richey, media figure in radio, TV and digital news outlet Rolling Out, and professor and director of institutional advancement and corporate relations at Morris Brown College
  • Jill Savitt, president and CEO, National Center for Civil and Human Rights
  • Samyukth Shenbaga, managing director, Community Development Group, Atlanta Regional Commission
  • Leo Smith, “Interfaith Public Policy” (could not immediately identify and confirm)
  • Donna Stephens, founder and chairperson at Descendants of Chattahoochee Brick Company Coalition
  • Bishop Kevin Strickland, Southeastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • Volkan Topalli, Georgia State University criminology professor
  • Lisa Tuttle, board member, ArtsXchange
  • Dr. LaToria Whitehead, CDC senior public health advisor with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and senior advisor for environmental justice and health equity at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Lewis Woodson, community leader and park advocate