Public safety training center review committee makes debut with transparency concerns
By John Ruch
An advisory committee intended to finally provide community input into Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center had a rocky start Oct. 12 with transparency concerns.
The City’s same-day notice of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee’s virtual debut gathering took some observers by surprise and may have violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act. In the meeting itself, committee members pushed the lead planner, the Atlanta Police Foundation, for far more detailed information and questioned a timeline that shows a final site plan being unveiled in November despite ongoing environmental reviews that a consultant said could delay or even kill the project.
That timeline seems “too rushed, especially knowing this project is going to be here for decades and decades and decades,” said Nicole Morado, a committee member from Starlight Heights.
“If there’s something really, really bad, it could kill the project. But it also could kill it being a park or anything else,” acknowledged Bob Hughes of consulting firm HGOR, which is helping APF design the project, about the ongoing environmental review of on-site pollution. “So if there’s something really bad, it could torpedo everything here… until it’s cleaned up.”
Meanwhile, major environmental groups that opposed the training center due to the impact it could have on the South River Forest green space plan are expressing concern about a legislation change that booted them from membership on the committee — though it’s unclear whether they would have joined. And confusion voiced by committee members over what exactly is happening at the site right now has sparked another opposition group, Defend the Atlanta Forest, to announce an Oct. 18 protest near the site.
The debut meeting included an initial schedule of monthly meetings jam-packed with reviews of such major topics as pollution cleanups, neighborhood traffic and noise impacts. At APF’s suggestion, the committee elected Alison Clark of the Boulder Walk subdivision as its chair. But APF Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman continued to run the meeting, leaving it unclear what the chair’s role will be and how independently the committee will operate.
The APF said it aims to have a groundbreaking on the site in the first quarter of next year and open at least basic classroom facilities by the third quarter of 2023.
The City Council in September approved the police and firefighter training center for the former Atlanta Prison Farm, a City-owned property along Key Road within unincorporated DeKalb County already used as a shooting range and once hosted the police academy. The site was selected by APF and City officials behind closed doors and with most documentation still not publicly available. The site choice remains controversial and protests continue with the goal of getting the next mayor to trigger a contract clause allowing the City to back out of the lease.
Aside from council committee hearings, the public process consisted of three virtual meetings, two of which did not allow questions or comments. In response to some of the concerns, particularly from the South River Forest Coalition (SRFC), the council reduced the size of the plan and required the creation of the advisory committee to oversee the work.
The draft legislation originally required that committee to include the SRFC and other environmental groups, which likely would have meant inviting another critic, the South River Watershed Alliance. But the final legislation — for disputed reasons — removed that language, instead saying the committee only had to consult environmental groups. The actual membership was specified as consisting of local neighborhood associations and City and County representatives, as appointed by the council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee.
City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland introduced the amendments involving the advisory committee. “They asked to be taken out,” he said in a text message about the removal of the SRFC. “It’s my understanding they didn’t want to appear supportive of the legislation… But if you tell someone there to email me, happy to work to get them added.”
Allen Doyle of the SRFC declined to comment at length but indicated the group was surprised by the debut meeting and his group being left out. “We had no idea this happened, and are none too happy about it, in short,” he said in an email, adding that the SRFC is working on a response about “this unfortunate miscommunication and lack of inclusion of environmental expertise.”
Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, said she got “no explanation for why the [committee membership] language was changed, but I think it is pretty obvious. Members of the Public Safety Committee wanted to do all they could to stymie broad public involvement in the Prison Farm review process.” She said her group might have participated if it were clear that it could have “meaningful involvement” and “not a perfunctory exercise for the sole purpose of rubber-stamping and further legitimizing the singular expressed goal of the APF — to build the police training facility on that site, regardless.”
Councilmember Joyce Sheperd, chair of the Public Safety Committee, was not available for comment until later this week, according to a staff member.
As for who is on the committee, its membership is arranged by DeKalb County and the City of Atlanta. The members include:
- Alison Clark of Boulder Walk
- Nicole Morado of Starlight Heights
- Patricia Culp of Cedar Grove
- Sharon Williams and Shaun Billingslea of East Side Walk
- Tory Tucker of Gates at Bouldercrest
- County Commissioner Larry Johnson
- Jerrie Bason, DeKalb Parks and Recreation
- Amy Taylor, DeKalb County District 6
City of Atlanta
- Anne Phillips of Neighborhood Planning Unit Z
- Shirley Nichols of South River Gardens Community Association
- Ophelia Lee of Thomasville Heights Civic League
- Jacquelyn Rainey of Stonewall Heritage Community Association
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum
- First Deputy Chief James McLemore of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department
- Councilmember Joyce Sheperd, the Public Safety Committee chair
- City Deputy Chief Operating Officer Jestin Johnson
The advisory committee is a government body subject to the state Open Meetings law, which generally requires such groups to give public notice of meetings a week ahead of time, or 24 hours in the case of emergency gatherings. A notice of the Oct. 12 advisory committee meeting was posted at midnight that day on the City website and circulated by City Council email at about 10:30 that morning.
The APF and a City Council spokesperson point at each other as responsible for issuing public notices about the meetings. The proposed schedule for the next few meetings is Oct. 26, Nov. 9 and Dec. 7.
A similar confusion about who is responsible for public materials — the private APF or the public City — surrounds an initial environmental assessment report for the site that was a key discussion point for the advisory committee. The APF privately commissioned that study and would not provide SaportaReport with a copy, with spokesperson Kelsey Hull calling it the “City’s document” that would have to be obtained through a Georgia Open Records Act request. A group called the Atlanta Community Press Collective says it already obtained the document and posted it online here.
The report indicates the site may have contamination from fuel, burned tires, a nearby landfill and other sources.
Committee members said they wanted more information about the most recent, second stage of the environmental review along with many other details about current work and each step of the process. “Sure,” said Freeman at one point.
“Those of us that live practically across the street see vehicles coming in and out of there all the time and we don’t know what’s going on there, really… We still feel like we’re in the dark,” said Taylor, the DeKalb District 6 representative. “…Everybody needs to be transparent about this at every phase.”
Sheperd also suggested a site visit for the committee, which Freeman said APF will arrange.