Public safety training center committee attempts to remove skeptical member while construction remains secret
By John Ruch
The advisory committee for Atlanta’s public safety training center has started a legally questionable process of kicking off a member for publicly criticizing its work. The DeKalb County official who appointed that member opposes the move and questions why the committee is not circulating information about the now secretive final site plan and construction permit applications.
The Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) at its May 31 meeting targeted member Lily Ponitz, who has written critically about the project’s environmental study in various media, including a SaportaReport opinion piece, and reportedly in a letter to the Atlanta City Council. CSAC Chair Alison Clark previously attempted to establish a ban on members talking to the media aimed at Ponitz for her accurate but apparently embarrassing criticism but backed off amid First Amendment legal questions. The motion to remove her is for the same reason, but cannot take effect for at least 10 days and may not be legal regardless, Clark acknowledged, because members are individually appointed by City Council legislation.
“Somehow millennials think they can write whatever they want to write in these little newspapers… and of course, they do have that right,” said CSAC member Anne Phillips, one of the proponents of removing Ponitz. But, she said, the group needs a way to deal with members who have “become rogue.”
Ponitz did not attend the meeting and did not respond to a comment request. But District 6 DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, who appointed her to the body, opposes her removal. He says he named Ponitz to the CSAC because of her expertise as an environmental engineer.
“I don’t think what an appointee does in their free time exercising their freedom of speech negates the validity of her appointment and her standing,” said Terry. “…If anything, she’s probably one of the most qualified people to be on this committee. Just because someone’s asking the tough questions, that shouldn’t be a reason to kick her off the committee.”
Terry said he spoke to Ponitz after the meeting and advised her to stay on the CSAC. “What you hope for on these committees is not rubber stamps,” he said.
Terry had criticisms of his own for the CSAC and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the lead developer who operates the City Council-created body, for not providing meeting notices or minutes, nor updates on a final site plan and the filing of a land disturbance permit. He said he believed some of that would be subjects of CSAC votes.
The CSAC indeed has a history of those transparency problems and more. And it indeed has repeatedly overlooked or not discussed key information. The announcement of the finalization of a site plan was made by an APF official solely as a passing remark at a January meeting that again was consumed with scrutinizing Ponitz. At the May 31 meeting, the CSAC again passively accepted the APF’s declaration that construction timelines and permit applications will remain secret due to security concerns related to recent protests — even though permits are public documents.
Meanwhile, suppressing Ponitz again consumed roughly half the meeting, where members also generally discussed “controlling the narrative” and attempting to get the City of Atlanta public relations department to write positive materials about the CSAC’s work, with little acknowledgment of its many self-created issues.
“The whole promise last year was we won’t move forward with building this thing until the committee comes back with an approved site plan,” said Terry. “I’m just kind of scratching my head… These should be, like, very simple questions to ask, and it’s not clear that anyone’s asking them.”
The $90 million facility, which would train police officers and firefighters from Atlanta and outside departments, is planned for 85 acres of the former Atlanta Prison Farm, a piece of property that is owned by the City of Atlanta but sits outside city limits on Key Road in unincorporated DeKalb County. The Atlanta Police Department has used part of the property for decades for a shooting range and explosives disposal. But its selection for the massive training center in a secret City and APF process revealed last year surprised neighbors and DeKalb officials, generating huge controversy.
The CSAC was created last year as a belated public review of the plan. By council legislation, the CSAC doesn’t get a veto on the project, but rather advises APF, especially on mitigations of local impacts like noise and traffic.
The CSAC has had some successes on those grounds, such as getting the main entrance moved away from Key Road, and continues to advise on such locally important issues as acoustical studies for a future shooting range.
At the May 31 meeting, it discussed the formation of two subcommittees for greenspace — for open space, trails and sidewalks — and educational programs of some type. A third committee for “focus groups” will come later, Clark said. The membership and public meeting process for those subcommittees remains unclear, as Clark and APF did not respond to post-meeting questions.
Security concerns and secrecy
Along with such local tweaks, the CSAC has had frequent confusion about its powers and scope, which are now reshaping again under the security issue. Protesters grouped under the umbrella term “Defend the Atlanta Forest” have been fighting the facility, which they call “Cop City,” on general grounds of police reform and nature preservation. Some protesters camped for months on the property in tree houses and other structures.
Despite raising the specter of the facility becoming a permanent protest magnet, such demonstrations were little-discussed in the first six months of meetings. But since April, they have loomed large and are an important context for the secrecy and the motion to remove Ponitz. The APF suddenly announced that construction details would be secret and that plans might unilaterally change due to protests, some of which have involved vandalism and sabotage, but many of which have not, with no one charged at the site with violent crimes.
APF Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman and planner Alan Williams gave a bit more construction detail on May 31 while repeating the security-secrecy argument. They said APF submitted a design to DeKalb for a site development permit, starting a feedback period with planning officials. Williams said APF expects to receive a permit to start construction in the third quarter of the year. Freeman said he would share the details of that application and design with the CSAC and the public only after the permit has been issued. Likewise, he would not discuss groundbreaking or construction timing. The aim is to have the first phase of the facility built and operating by fall 2023.
No CSAC member challenged the inability to review the design before it is permitted. Terry says he was unaware of the final site plan being set in place and has heard constituent complaints about word of the permit application. He said he believed the CSAC or APF would provide such information, but has not. He said he last heard from APF in January.
“My expectation is that there’d be some sort of more formal report or formal vote from the committee,” said Terry. “That’s what I was really looking for.”
On the security issue, several CSAC members indicated they have been worried about the protests, particularly a May 17 police raid that startled the community with road closures and a helicopter. Clark and some other members said they had been targeted with some type of critical public communication — what she called a “nasty-gram” — that apparently referred to concerns about the Native American and Black prisoner history on the site.
Clark mocked the complaints that “I am anti-Black… and apparently, a hundred years ago, I was up to some bad stuff.” But she also questioned whether CSAC members are safe if, for example, they conduct a site visit.
Co-Chair Sharon Williams dismissed all protesters as “ecoterrorists.” The majority participating in public demonstrations plainly are not committing terrorism, though some sabotage and vandalism may qualify and the FBI is investigating, likely on such grounds. “These are people who don’t even live here trying to tell us how to live,” she said.
That echoes part of the spin from APD and APF about protests being outside, violent forces that could spoil the community vision. Newly named APD Interim Chief Darin Schierbaum, a CSAC member, repeated to the group on May 31 that no one arrested so far is from the neighborhood, without acknowledging that intense Atlanta and DeKalb controversy is why the CSAC exists in the first place. In a previous meeting, Freeman blurred illegal protests with legal ones in suggesting that some unnamed CSAC members might support violence and should disavow it.
The member removal attempt
Ponitz is among the CSAC members who were opponents of the facility before the group’s formation, and her skepticism has caused repeated controversy. Early on, she and Williams tied in a vote for the co-chair position. Ponitz then became the group’s secretary but drew the ire of Clark and Williams for seeking to include details of conversations and outside information apparently relating to criticism of the plan. Ponitz resigned as secretary, accusing Clark of “bullying,” but remained a member.
More controversy emerged from Ponitz’s advocacy for a deeper environmental study than was conducted by AFP’s consultant. That came to a head when Ponitz, as an expert on the subject, confirmed a SaportaReport observation that the study left out a large area of the facility’s site. That was indeed true and APF amended the study to include the area. Clark responded with the proposal that only the chair could speak to the media, though she had not responded to the same environmental study questions in the first place. Clark dropped the idea after questions about the legality of such a ban from an attorney with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Meanwhile, the CSAC adopted bylaws that allow for the removal of a member for any or no reason. That is the weapon now being deployed against Ponitz for the same free-speech reason.
Williams raised the idea of removing Ponitz, saying she had asked Freeman to compile press reports about the CSAC and was unhappy to see critical writings from her among them. “Should someone like her be a member of this committee?” asked Williams.
Williams, Clark and some other members complained that Pontiz’s writing appeared to reflect the entire CSAC’s opinion. But there was no evidence of Ponitz misrepresenting herself as a spokesperson or of anyone being confused, nor why anyone would think writings critical of the CSAC were that body’s official opinion. There also was no discussion of Ponitz’s professional expertise on the topic and no direct contradiction of her claims. When Phillips asked if there was any truth to the complaints, APF officials spoke broadly about their honor and the quality of the consultants, who had responded to any questions in writing.
Phillips and Williams nonetheless made a motion to remove Ponitz, setting off an unusual process that caused confusion. Because the bylaws require a 10-day notice, Clark said, she would allow the motion but not a vote, though she also did not explicitly table the decision. It remained unclear when a vote would happen. Member Amy Taylor expressed concern that the process was “witch-hunting” unless Ponitz could respond. Clark said Ponitz would have that chance, but timing again was unclear.
Despite seconding the removal motion, Phillips also questioned its legality, noting that the members are appointed by council legislation, not by the CSAC itself. Clark acknowledged that she was uncertain of the legality and would need to consult a City attorney as yet another step in the process. First Amendment implications were not discussed, but presumably would be similar to the earlier media-talk ban proposal.
A City spokesperson told SaportaReport that night he would “look into” the legal question but did not respond by publication time.
Clark also said she was writing a rebuttal letter to the City Council.
Terry, the commissioner who appointed Ponitz, said he believes her expertise and skepticism are reasons to keep her as a member. Likening the CSAC and APF to a human playing chess against a supercomputer, he said the committee could be “outmanned and outgunned and out-educated” without such expertise. If there’s a dispute about the study, he suggested, the CSAC’s proper move would be to get an outside consultant to provide a second opinion.
Concerns about “fringe and radical elements” is no reason to cut back an input process, and disagreement on the big picture is no reason to remove someone from a committee, Terry said.
“Welcome to democracy…” Terry said. “Any sort of additional lack of transparency or kind of demurring or obfuscation of transparency and what’s going on, in my opinion, it just further inflames people that might be more on the fence. And it’s certainly going to inflame the ones saying it’s not transparent enough.”