Public safety training center advisory committee responds to debate with ban on members talking to media
By John Ruch
News of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center getting a final site plan was hard to hear over the sound of political tensions bursting at a January Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) meeting. The chair announced a ban on members speaking to the media – a move one expert says likely violates First Amendment free-speech rights.
The ban was plainly aimed at secretary Lily Ponitz for talking to SaportaReport for a story that revealed the CSAC was straying off-mission with parkland planning and overlooking an area left out of a key environmental study. The CSAC and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the nonprofit leading the center’s planning, acknowledged the truth of those facts by course-correcting away from park talk and discussing amendments to environmental and historic resources studies.
Ponitz, an environmental engineer, remains unafraid of the ban, at least for now. Weeks after the meeting, she sent SaportaReport a written analysis poking holes in the APF-commissioned environmental study, saying it is overlooking possible pollutants and human remains.
Indeed, few members of the CSAC appear satisfied with the content or scope of the environmental study of the site at the former Atlanta Prison Farm. Among them is chair Alison Clark, who expressed concern that it does not include a current Atlanta Police Department (APD) shooting range near her neighborhood, which could be a source of contamination from lead bullets, but is not included because the new facility will not be built there. But unless APF or the City say otherwise – and they haven’t – the CSAC has no direct power to change the scope or content.
This is the latest stage of the CSAC’s ongoing confusion about its authority, tensions among members who support or oppose the facility, and transparency issues that now have the group scrutinizing its own members more closely than the site plan. But it’s hard to blame CSAC members, who appear to be doing their well-intentioned best at playing Alice in the internal logic of this Wonderland. Blame a City Council that set up this bizarre device where a private developer gets to run its own planning process in what amounts to a focus group rather than a formal review while ignoring a vast swath of the site despite public interest. It’s a fig leaf on what the City has acknowledged was a grossly secretive site selection imposed on a surprised community, and no wonder it keeps falling off.
The finalization of the site plan was mentioned only in passing by an APF official at the January 11 CSAC meeting. However, the new draft was presented, including a smaller driving course, main entrances shifted to Constitution Road to avoid the narrower Key Road and a potential 911 center. The plan has two construction phases, with the first expected within a couple of years and the second anywhere from five to 15 years or more, according to APF-hired planner Bob Hughes. The phase 1 budget is $90 million and phase 2 is $30 million. APF has surpassed its fundraising benchmarks for the project, according to spokesperson Rob Baskin, but he did not respond when asked how much has been raised so far.
In short, the APF is now ready to move into a design phase, but the long-term future has other political balls in the air. Early this month, a new mayor and City Council took over and have the ability to take a second look at the training center deal and details. And around March or April, a large visioning process is expected to begin for the South River Forest concept, a City-approved idea of creating and connecting 3,500 acres of parks and other green space in Southeast Atlanta and DeKalb County. That includes a large section of the Prison Farm.
The CSAC next meets on Feb. 15, when it is expected to unveil bylaws and a “media policy.” Clark also announced an email account where members of the public can send comments or questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The parkland and study area
Previous confusion over the scopes of parkland planning and the environmental study was rooted in APF’s initial, much larger site plan. The City Council in September approved APF’s lease of the site for the training center, but with some concessions to public controversy. That included shrinking the training center’s footprint to 85 acres. But an environmental study was already underway and has continued based on the original footprint.
Some CSAC members used the scope of that study as leverage to discuss the future of adjacent parkland outside the current footprint, and APF began playing along, openly soliciting a community brainstorming process. However, the CSAC has no legislative authority to review anything outside the current footprint, and it was unclear what the APF was doing with the park ideas. Ponitz previously called the discussion a “red herring” that was distracting the CSAC from its work.
At the January meeting, the park brainstorming talk disappeared. Clark, who has always emphasized the CSAC’s specific legislative mission, repeated that the adjacent parkland is outside the scope but could be up for review if the APF or City wants to include it. Meanwhile, the APF clarified that the parkland is not being included in any direct way. Marshall Freeman, APF’s chief operating officer, told the CSAC that he did not “want this to be lost in translation that we’re trying to build a park.” As for the existing brainstorm input, he said he would “take that information and drop that over to City Hall.” Baskin, the APF spokesperson, later clarified that merely means mentioning it in a legally required report to the City Council about the CSAC meetings and facility planning, not a submission to, for example, the Parks and Recreation Department.
The difference between the environmental study boundary and the new facility footprint raised another issue. In response to CSAC input, the APF redrew the site plan to move entrances and some significant facilities closer to Constitution Road. However, that change expanded the site plan into a large area that was not included in the environmental study and which raised such challenges as a stream crossing. The CSAC did not appear to notice or discuss the discrepancy until SaportaReport revealed it last month.
In the January meeting, Clark and Freeman emphasized APF was aware of the issue and that the area would be included in amendments to the environmental study and a study of historic and cultural resources. It was unclear whether that process began before or after the SaportaReport coverage. However, a final, “phase 2” environmental study report released after the meeting continued to use the original footprint, and the resources study had been delayed from the early estimate of a release by the end of 2021.
Media ban and free speech
Ponitz’s comments to SaportaReport about both of those issues drew Clark’s ire, as did her inclusion in meeting minutes of critical opinions and links to opposition articles. An underlying tension is that Ponitiz is a public opponent of the training center, while Clark and co-chair Sharon Williams are willing to support it in exchange for mitigations – which is the stated function of the CSAC.
Clark announced a crackdown that would restrict both the meeting minutes and discussions with journalists, policies that the CSAC approved by a vote of 10-2-3.
“In no way is this intended to censor anybody,” she claimed, instead suggesting that any expression beyond the “consensus of the committee” is inappropriate. Clark said she wanted to “make it clear any comments to the media should be channeled through the chair” or co-chair. Bylaws and a “media policy that all members will be expected to adhere to” are coming in time for the next CSAC meeting, she said.
Restricting the free speech of independently appointed members of a government body is rarely seen and likely runs afoul of the First Amendment, according to David Hudson, a media-law attorney who is on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. In an email referring to his opinion in an earlier, broadly similar case, Hudson said that “membership on a board or a council does not strip the elected official of First Amendment rights to speak on public issues.” He added that he is unaware of any court case that litigated such an issue, but that “it seems a stretch” to say a government body can strip its members of the right to communicate on behalf of their constituency.
Further complicating the legal situation is that CSAC membership includes such officials as a City Council member answerable to a much larger constituency, and police and fire officials whose departments may have their own media policies.
Clark told the CSAC that she was drafting the bylaws and “media policy” at the advice of Kristen Denius, the City’s chief transparency officer. Denius later told SaportaReport that she did not speak with Clark and that “my involvement in this matter may have been misconstrued.” She said she mentioned bylaws and a media policy in passing in response to someone else asking her “about the committee’s proper conduct of executive sessions in compliance with the Georgia Open Meetings Act.” There has been no public notice of such executive sessions, and Denius says she does not know if any have been held.
Denius said she is not aware of any other City body that restricts the ability of its members to speak to the media.
Clark and the APF did not respond to questions for the earlier SaportaReport article and also did not respond when asked about the legal basis for and the possible unconstitutional nature of the media ban.
The issue regarding the minutes hinged on Ponitz wanting elaborate documentation of discussions and promises, while some others wanted concise notes about consensus and decisions – though the CSAC rarely, if ever, takes votes. Another transparency issue arose as member Nicole Morado suggested a compromise of maintaining two sets of minutes: one “publicly viewable document” and another “back-end” version for the CSAC’s “reference.”
As for Ponitz, she contacted SaportaReport after the meeting with new commentary about the environmental study. She said she believes the APF and its consultant “have misused language related to regulated environmental assessments to feign legitimacy of their due diligence efforts.” She claimed the study has data gaps and that APF may be avoiding deeper environmental review by moving building sites away from questionable spots that would remain contaminated.
Ponitz said she wondered about the legality of the ban on talking to the media and issued the commentary to get ahead of its imposition. “For now, I’m not worried, since there is no agreement in front of me, but as far as I know, it’s still the plan to make us sign one,” she said in an email. “If I were to sign it, then I would be worried about getting kicked off the committee for speaking out. I also have a lawyer friend-of-a friend lined up to check it before I sign it, whenever we receive it.”
Update: Since the publication of this column, the next CSAC meeting date has been changed from Feb. 8 to Feb. 15.