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Columns John Ruch

Public safety training center review committee begins testing its powers

The revised site plan with its legend identifying the proposed locations.

By John Ruch

Nicole Morado of DeKalb County’s Starlight Heights recalls the moment earlier this year when her community learned that Atlanta’s covertly planned public safety training center would be built on the neighboring Atlanta Prison Farm property.

“We didn’t know about it all,” she said. “It was [Mayor] Keisha [Lance Bottoms] announcing, ‘There’s gonna be this Cop City thing.’ We were like, ‘What?’”

Now Morado is a member of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee that began reviewing the plan this month. She and the other DeKalb neighbors on the team are getting a lot more information now from the Atlanta Police Foundation, the nonprofit leading the plan, but they’re also generating questions about the facility and their own powers. What exactly is the scope and leverage of the committee? Who is in charge of planning the giant park space that is a big selling point of the plan? Can they get all the internal documents they want?

“It’s like we just find out a little bit more what our expectations are at each meeting,” says Morado.

The answers would be clear if the training center were going through DeKalb’s normal redevelopment review or if City of Atlanta planning staffers ran the meetings. The confusion is only a small part of a much larger problem, though. The training center is an example of Atlanta’s tradition of outsourcing certain public and park planning to nonprofits to whom transparency laws do not apply and which may or may not have expertise in gathering public input.

In this case, the APF is operating the City Council-approved committee, putting the nonprofit in the position of attempting to arrange its own public scrutiny. The APF is probably best known for running the “Crime Stoppers” reward program and co-running Atlanta’s massive system of surveillance cameras, all of which is done with little or no public input beyond asking neighborhoods to participate. When problems arise, like roughly 250 of those cameras being down for months, the APF’s tendency is to stay quiet unless asked. Another recent public safety program closely involving the APF — last year’s “Buckhead Security Plan” — was plotted out in meetings with the general public and the media excluded, and failed politically as an answer to the neighborhood’s burgeoning cityhood movement.

With the training center committee, the APF is clearly struggling up a learning curve on transparency. The first meeting likely violated the state Open Meetings Act’s requirement for public notice, and the APF has been far from eager to share such info as an environmental report fundamental to the plan. As of this writing, it remains unclear what exact elements remain in the latest draft of the site plan or even what the facility’s formal name is, a controversial “Institute for Social Justice” bit having vanished in recent discussions.

However, the APF is promising more transparency, including a website with project documents and information provided to committee members before their meetings.

Committee chair Alison Clark was instrumental in this increased transparency. She said in an interview that she remains bullish on the committee’s potential.

“I am excited by the possibility of what I think this body can ultimately do to impact the development that’s coming to the area,” Clark said. “I think we’re the right group of people to make sure the development is a benefit to all of our communities and beneficial to our communities.”

Still, she has her points of concern, too. Like other committee members, Clark said she was surprised by the City Council-authorized formality of the group and the size of the workload in a review process that could go on for years. The council chose to pare the committee down to immediately adjacent neighborhoods, some basically just a single subdivision in size, in an area with other development pressures to consider.

“Once I was elected as chair and once I saw what the workload looked like… It’s entirely too much to put on one individual,” said Clark, who quickly — but so far unsuccessfully — moved to elect a co-chair and other officers.

“It just felt like too much for one person,” Morado agreed. Her neighborhood got a backup representative, Amy Taylor, out of workload concerns.

In another transparency issue, the City Council resolution naming committee members incorrectly identified Taylor as the DeKalb County Commission District 6 representative and left off Lily Ponitz, who actually holds that position despite her lack of official naming.

That’s not the only membership concern. The South River Forest Coalition (SRFC), a community group that opposed the center, in an earlier draft was supposed to have committee representation but was later removed. SRFC co-manager Allen Doyle said the group is still “considering the ways to get subject matter experts onto the committee who understand environmental factors, as well as the landscape of the former Atlanta Prison Farm.”

Meanwhile, the committee is in the position of conducting its review largely from the perspective of self-interested local residents, while also being the general public’s only way to view the inner workings of an intensely controversial plan.

Morado said that APF told committee members early on that a question was, “how do we manage this? How do we keep the very broad and vocal opposition… from stepping on these specific neighborhoods and how their houses are impacted?” Some residents, she said, indeed have the sentiment, “‘don’t tell us what to do with our neighborhoods. You don’t live here.’”

“And we’re just stuck in this hard place of, if it’s gonna be done — which, I don’t want to it be done… we kind of have to fight for what we can best get out of it,” she added.

Clark said it’s important to “set some ground rules and some expectations on what this committee can and cannot do,” and that the APF nor the City have given her guidance beyond what is in the legislation. She said that from her perspective, “we are not the people that are actively deciding how the buildings are going to be structured, et cetera — at least, I don’t believe it. We are not contractors.”

“We are supposed to listen and learn and gauge the impacts on our community…” Clark said.

Ponitz, however, said she is concerned. “I’m not seeing where the process is really going to have any accountability from us in the way that was promised back when that [committee] was approved… This committee definitely needs some kind of final benefits agreement that we all sign onto.”

Ponitz, along with others, is worried that APF is not taking responsibility for an environmental assessment of the entire Prison Farm site or other details of how it would become a public park.

“It’s a really complex process that they’re asking us to partake in and give feedback,” said Ponitz. “And I feel like the development specifically that we are being told to focus on, the 85-acre [training center] development — I just don’t think it’s possible to look at that in isolation from the whole program, and especially when dealing with a stakeholder committee that is primarily interested in using the park space.”

Clark is among those supporting a City process on the park element but parallel to the APF’s training center work. A City spokesperson acknowledged a SaportaReport question about a site-wide environmental review but did not provide a response.

Morado said that so far, she has found APF’s planning consultants to be “reassuring.” However, she said, the committee is going to need to get far more information about the site’s operations and maintenance and figure out how to process such a mountain of data.

“Because whatever people don’t know, they’re going to assume,” Morado said. “And they’re going to assume the worst.”

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