Atlanta Out Loud

Politics and rantings and just stuff that catches my attention.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

|| 9:47:07 PM
"It's Not Enough"

Well, they finally did it. The State of Georgia has stepped up to the plate to help the City of Atlanta with their sewer problems. Two things happened today:

Governor Perdue will ask the legislature to approve $50 million annually in loans to the city of Atlanta over the next 10 years. That totals a half billion dollars of the $3 billion Franklin says she needs.

At about the same time, Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson from Savannah announced that he would introduce legislation to allow the City of Atlanta to put a one cent sales tax on the ballot for approval by city residents. If approved, that would raise about another half billion dollars.

There are predictions that this may open up the purse strings of the federal government for some help.

Those two pieces put together would add up to about one-third of the cost of sewer repairs if you go by Franklin's figures. Almost half if you go by what is actually mandated by the courts. But Shirley, ever the broken record, still says she's standing by her original request to triple sewer fees and her standoff with the City Council. She's consistent if nothing else. How can we not be suspicious of this woman who refuses to budge no matter what prizes fall from the sky?

The residents of Atlanta would still take it in the pants. They would be the ones to repay the state loans and they will be the ones to pay the city sales tax. But both measures -- the tax in particular -- is the best way to spread the burden to everyone, not just those homeowners and business owners who pay sewer fees. It would also generate some of the costs from the tourists who will hopefully continue to flock here if we don't kill off the last beacon of hope for this city -- our nightlife.

Early responses from the City Council on the potential passage of the sales tax were lukewarm at best. Some say that it only puts a fresh coat of paint on a bad deal for the citizens. They might be right, but the benefit is that is spreads that burden. The sales tax will fly around here only if it is met with a decrease in the increase in sewer rates along the lines of what the Council passed earlier this month.

We'll see what happens on January 5th at the Council's next meeting.

Friday, December 19, 2003

|| 6:23:17 PM
The Showdown that Never Was

Today, the Mayor and the City Council met to help settle the score over the ongoing battle raging around the city's water and sewer rate increase. It appeared that one of two things would happen: (1) the two sides would even more clearly define their battle lines, or (2) the two sides would patch things up and reach a compromise. Neither was the case.

Council members supporting the package passed by the City Council on December 2 had invited Shirley Franklin to "come to the table" to discuss the impasse. They had hoped to get more information to back up the Mayor's plan.

Instead, Shirley simply presented, yet again, her originial $3.2 Billion package to fix the sewers, just in case any Council members didn't fully grasp it the first dozen times she's presented it.

Most disappointing about the meeting was the fact that some of the Mayor's most vocal critics sat silent throughout the entire meeting. I had hoped Derrick Boazman would make a spectacle of himself as he sometimes does to my amusement.

Franklin needs just one Council member to switch sides to pass her rate hike. Six of the eight who opposed her say their minds have not been changed.

"Did you hear anything different?" asked C.T. Martin.

In reference to impending missed deadlines mandated by the federal government, Councilman Boazman said, "If we miss that deadline, it ain't because we had to. It's because the administration chose to." Exactly.

City Council president Cathy Woolard says she will not call a special meeting before the next regularly scheduled meeting on January 5 to consider an alternative plan.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

|| 6:23:17 PM
Missed Deadlines

The City's Department of Watershed Management today released the letter they sent in the final minutes of Tuesday night to the U.S. EPA and the Georgia EPD.

You can read the text of the letter here.

The letter almost, but not quite, acknowledges that Mayor Franklin has created a worst-case scenario through her veto of City Council legislation. In true fashion, the administration projects that the City Council will do NOTHING at their January 5, 2004 meeting. That's what Fulton County Commissioners call "sandbagging"... presenting a case so ridiculous that no one would believe it. It is the Mayor, not the Council, who created this doomsday outlook.

Nothing surprising, really. Just lots of run-of-the-mill posturing.

The City says it will miss the January 2 deadline to advertise for bids to build the Westward Tunnel project (which will begin just north of Piedmont Park and run west in an arc across the city... it will store sewage as "overflow" until it can be treated instead of dumping it in the Chattahoochee). Derrick Boazman suggests that's a bogus deadline created because of a city policy (not an ordinance), which requires all funding to be in place for a project before it is advertised.

Very few other governments have such a policy, and the Franklin administration seems to invoke it when convenient (the Mayor's proposal wouldn't have had the money in place by January 2 either). Most governments advertise contingent upon budget approvals and funding. Even those within Franklin's administration can't seem to agree:

Jack Ravan, Commissioner of Watershed Management: "You've got to have the money in the bank."
Rick Anderson, Chief Financial Officer: "I know of nothing that says you can't advertise unless the money's in place."
Linda DiSantis, City Attorney: "There is no law against advertising for bids before the money is in place. On many big projects, the funding is in the pipeline but hasn't materialized. So such a law would make it impossible to get much done."
Shirley Franklin, Mayor: "[The deadline] creates an orderly process to ensure 'cream of the crop' bidders rather than 'mediocre' ones."

Remember how the Franklin Administration trumpeted the downgrading of the city's water and sewer bonds as being a result of the City Council's irresponsibility? Moody's Investors Service shed some light on why they have BOTH the water/sewer bonds AND general obligation bonds on a "negative watch" today: The City's Audited 2002 financial statements have not yet been produced, while most governments completed them this summer. That's the responsibility of the Mayor's office.

Both the State of Georgia and Fulton County are now hinting that they just might be willing to pitch in to help Atlanta with its woes. State Senator Tom Price said, "What Atlanta has to realize is that if they want our help, we have to be involved in the process." City officials FINALLY delivered detailed plans for projects to the Fulton County Commission on Tuesday night. The Commissioners have denied three times a request for help from the City because they couldn't get answers to their questions. Shirley just can't understand why the County, State and Federal governments won't give her a blank check.

The City once again rejected a source of revenue to help with the sewer project (a la no privatization of the airport). Beggars can be choosers, it appears. The City owns some water lines that venture outside the city limits. Atlanta currently charges a surcharge on residents using those lines (which they had to reduce after being sued by the County). Fulton County has offered several times to buy them, for around $200 Million... nothing to sneeze at when you're broke. "You ready to sell us the pipes yet?" Commissioner Bill Edwards asked. "No sir," Jack Ravan replied.

Believe it or not, there are other things going on...

The Fulton County Commissioners approved a tentative budget Tuesday night, which will raid the County's savings and significantly raise property taxes. It was really a move to buy time. If it had not been approved, the County would have been required to implement cuts suggested by department heads, which would have meant firing hundreds of county employees, mostly at the jail, by December 31. Even Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel went along, even though she was elected just a month ago by promising no new taxes and sound financial management.

The Commissioners had asked Department heads to propose budget cuts for consideration. What they got was a laundry list of cost-cuts, most of which seemed ridiculous and impossible. "It was sandbagging at its best," Handel said. "They are testing me. I understand that."

More realistic alternatives will be taken up in January.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

|| 11:55:45 PM
Scandal Skandalakis

Mitch Skandalakis (what an appropriate last name), former Chair of the Fulton County Commission, will plead guilty today of what is almost sure to be charges related to accepting bribes during his term in office. This is, of course, three years after the fact. His administrative right hand man, Josh Kenyon, has already been indicted.

Does this mean that Bill Campbell can't be far behind? I suspect that Bill is shaking in his boots down in Florida over his hideous shenanigans as Mayor of Atlanta. Bill's a clever, underhanded SOB, so the investigators have their work cut out for them, but his time will come.

|| 12:13:14 PM
Shirley Franklin in Contempt of Court?

Today is the day that the City of Atlanta must inform the EPA and a federal judge which deadlines the City will be unable to comply with in accordance with the consent decree to repair our sewer systems. The Department of Watershed Management advised the EPA of our inability to comply two weeks ago (you can read that notification here, and I commented on it here), and now the EPA wants specific deadlines that will be missed.

You can expect Shirley Franklin and her minions to make a grand deal over this notification, although her Watershed Management Department (a fox in the henhouse if there ever was one), says the response won't be ready until the close of business today.

It's really difficult NOT to like Shirley Franklin. She's inherited a raw deal and has until now done a pretty favorable job in running this city. And, she's just so likeable. But, in this case, it is not her lack of leadership that is the problem... it's her absolute refusal to consider any alternatives other than the one her fat cat aides have convinced her to propose. Like a child in the sandbox, Shirley is crying to have it her way.

Shirley & Company will tell the EPA that the City Council are a bunch of irresponsible slugs who couldn't give a damn about the retributions from the feds. Truth is that the rate increase passed in the wee hours of the morning on December 2 does provide enough income to BEGIN the necessary repairs. Yes, there may be a need for further increases down the line, but we should cross that bridge when we come to it. So, it is Shirley's VETO, not the Council vote, which will lead to us missing the initial deadlines in January 2004. The Council expressed their willingness to consider additional hikes down the road if necessary to comply. But, the Mayor wanted her way or the highway.

In a city known far and wide for its cronyism and back room deals, there just seems to be something suspicious about Shirley's lack of flexibility. Some people have said to me that it may be that Shirley & Co. have done their homework, crossed every 'T' and dotted every 'I', and know what they're up against. I wouldn't make that assumption so quickly. Some members of the City Council went to the Fulton County Commission and essentially said, "We don't trust our Mayor or our Department heads. Will you help us with your engineers study this thing?" The County Commissioners then put together a "business plan" for fixing Atlanta's sewers, which resembles a phone book, complete with alternatives, charts, financial projections, etc. Ms. Franklin's plan, on the other hand, totaled 8 pages laying out in vague terms her approach to the problem. Her administration has provided vague answers and asked for forgiveness on some very key points of the plan. Something smells fishy about this, and it ain't the sewers.

Shirley also continues to shout out the price tag of compliance at $3.2 Billion. In reality, the cost of actual compliance will be about $2.14 Billion. But, hey, what's a billion bucks when you're talking about taxpayer/ratepayer money? The other $1.04 Billion is "optional."

The federal judge in this case has hinted that he may charge city officials with contempt of court. That contempt rests solely with Shirley Franklin and the Department of Watershed Management, not with our City Council. There are plenty of reasons to think the Council is filled with a bunch of buffoons, but this is not one of them.

In the meantime, City Council President Cathy Woolard has called a peacekeeping meeting between the Mayor and the City Council this Friday. Damn, what I would give to be a fly on the wall in that meeting! Should be a chilling encounter.

Update: The folks at City Hall now say that the answer will be delivered to the feds by midnight tonight. That would give the impression that they are busily working on crafting just the right message to put the City in the best possible position with the federal judge. I would suggest, rather, that the City continues to be unorganized and unable to meet deadlines in a professional manner.

|| 10:49:03 PM
Up in Smoke in Gwinnett

The Gwinnett County commissioners passed a ban on smoking in public places including bars and restaurants. Although I have no love for people who smoke and force their nasty habit on me in public places, this is no place for government involvement. Instead, let the free market determine what is best for each business. In Atlanta, where no smoking ban exists, some businesses have found a niche for themselves by going smoke-free on their own.

The commissioners supporting this measure (all but one) will tell you that it's a matter of public health. Is it only a matter of time, then, before they ban fried foods, salt and other things that are bad for us?

The Atlanta bar owners predicted that with earlier bar closings in Atlanta people will head for the 'burbs to continue their late night drinking. Will this keep them from fleeing for Gwinnett in droves?

None of the doom and gloom that was predicted when New York enacted their smoking ban has actually come to pass. I just think there is no place for Government to be telling us how to live our lives.

There is currently a similar measure being held in committee with the Atlanta City Council. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

|| 2:01:19 PM
Creative Loafing's Weekly Scalawag

As always, another gem from Scott Henry at Creative Loafing

C.T. Martin
For being a divider, not a uniter

by Scott Henry, Creative Loafing

In the City Too Busy to Hate, conspiracy theories nonetheless abound, most of them having to do with the ever-present issue of race. Numerous local politicians -- black and white -- have made a point of playing the race card whenever they're unable to prevail through logic or consensus-building.

Then there are guys like Atlanta Councilman C.T. Martin, who uses racial attacks so casually and reflexively that, half the time, it seems like he's doing it just to stay in practice.

Case in point: As a recent council work session on the city's sewer plan was dragging on, white council member Debi Starnes implored her colleagues to abandon their speechifying and return to discussing possible solutions to the crisis. Martin stood up to inform her that, given their respective ethnic heritages, he would not allow her to be his "slave master." Wouldn't it have been easier just to say he'd give a speech if he wanted to?

Last year, during the city's rancorous budget discussions, Martin attacked the mayor's plan to slash the payroll by asking, "Who are you cutting when you cut the work force? The descendants of the slaves." Now there's a conversation stopper.

You might imagine it'd be difficult to turn Atlanta's present sewer woes into a racial issue, but where there's a will, there's a way. Which brings us back to conspiracy theories. One that's surfaced recently holds that the mayor's proposed rate hike is part of a scheme to tax black families out of their homes so that whites can more quickly gentrify intown neighborhoods. (Almost as moronic: Radio agitprop loudmouth Neal Boortz is claiming Franklin's real strategy is to push the sewer rate hike knowing that it will fail. Then the only solution would be to raise property taxes. Since north Fulton (i.e. white) areas have the most high-value homes, Boortz says Franklin's goal is to make whites pay for the sewers.)

It's a shame that politicos like Martin are working to make the already-torturous ordeals of rate hikes and fiscal belt-tightening as ugly and divisive as possible by encouraging racial bickering.

Scott also tells us The Weekly Scalawag is now accepting nominations. E-mail Scott Henry.

|| 9:23:17 PM
Public Meeting on the Beltline & C-Line Projects

Tonight was an Public Open House of "Atlanta's Inner Core Transit Feasibility Study" -- that's a real formal term for the Beltline and C-Line projects. This was #4 of 5 of such meetings and was held at the Ponce de Leon Library Branch. If you want to attend, the next one is at 7pm on Tuesday, December 16 at the Peachtree Library Branch.

For more in-depth information on the Beltline, go to Cathy Woolard's Website. There you'll find maps and a video about the project.

The Beltline is one of the most refreshing new ideas to come along in this city in years! Cathy Woolard has really pushed this idea and she needs to be congratulated for moving it forward. There is virtually no opposition (well, maybe just a little stumbling block from some of the rail companies around town, but not really any opposition per se... they just want to know what they're going to get out of the deal). The only real brick wall to this is the money.

In essence, this idea has been thrown around for years and was the focus of Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel's masters thesis. Ryan was actually at the meeting I attended. The concept is pretty simple... Atlanta has a network of mostly unused/abandoned railways dating back to the Civil War which essentially form a loop around the city. The Beltline project aims to reclaim those areas, improve them, and put some sort of either European-style tram or streetcar or an express bus service (removed from traffic congestion) on those tracks. Plans also include putting bike paths along those rail beds in addition to the transportation.

The C-Line on the other hand is a project that was spearheaded by US Representatives Cynthia McKinney (former US Rep, that is, thank goodness) and John Lewis (current US Rep, thank goodness). It is a project that will connect the Emory area and go west through downtown, over to the Atlanta University Complex, and out east to south DeKalb County. No, the C-Line will not go further south into Decatur. A resident of Decatur naively asked about this at the meeting and was told that any effort to do so had long since been blocked by the homeowners of Druid Hills. As one person representing the ARC put it, "Lots of people there with large checkbooks made some threats and killed it."

Originally these were separate projects. The Atlanta Regional Commission combined two proposals for feasibility studies into one study at $2.5 million. Both of these projects would connect to 5 MARTA stations and 34 bus routes. It would also connect to Cobb Community Transit and Gwinnett Community Transit bus lines, as well as various private shuttles.

There are projects underway to invest $183 million in capacity and operational improvements to Atlanta's roads, including the I-20 West HOV Lanes (which has a low priority and will probably never happen), I-75S and I-85N ramp improvements, Atlantic Station/Williams Street ("The Yellow Bridge"), and other arterial improvements. Despite those projects, travel in congested areas will increase from 58% to 67% in the area served by the Beltline and C-Line by 2030. So, we can't build the roads fast enough and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

As I said earlier, the Beltline project has virtually no detractors. There is a distinct impression that the C-Line project is being thrown in only to appease those in power in Washington. It is duplicitous in many ways. But, for some reason I can't help but think it is too good to be true and that Atlanta will somehow screw it up. Call me a pessimist.

Much of this discussion is academic. Given the Atlanta Regional Commission and Georgia Regional Transit Authority timelines for getting things done, a conservative estimate for actual implementation of these projects is 10-25 years. We should look to Portland, Oregon for some pointers. They built a similar, albeit smaller-scale, project in 18 months using private and local public money. The feds just slow things down and muck up the process.

My experience with MARTA leads to the pessimism. MARTA is often referred to as "an X in the road" and it is said that MARTA "doesn't go anywhere you'd want to go." The other problem is that MARTA is unpredictable and unreliable in terms of schedules and efficiency. The current MARTA rail system was designed to have a train arrive at every station every 90-seconds. Right now a train arrives on average every 8 minutes. I don't know about you, but I've waited a hell of a lot longer than 8 minutes for a MARTA train. I don't have statistics to back it up, but I'm not convinced anyone takes the current MARTA system because they want to... only because they have to... unless they're heading for the airport. There seems to be an assumption that MARTA will run these two projects, which makes me dubious of them. Should they be given to some other management group... perhaps a privatization (oh, what a bad word to the politicians)?!?

We have a lot to learn from Europe and Asia about public transportation. I've spent a fair amount of time in Japan. If the train was to arrive at 3pm, and my watch said 3:05pm, I knew my watch was wrong. Station Managers in Tokyo actually hand out written notes if a train is indeed late for riders to give to their employers. The excuse that the train was late is so far fetched in Tokyo that employers would almost certainly think their employees were lying to them.

Another example is Finland. It's cold as hell in Finland. People in Finland also have some of the highest use of cell phones in the world. Who knew? Finlanders can get real time updates on trains and buses on their cell phones via text messaging. The crazy thing is that it's actually accurate! The cell phone will tell you if that bus is 3 or 13 minutes away. So, the Fins sit in their warm cozy homes and coffee shops until just before the bus arrives. It works like a charm.

I'm not convinced MARTA has the ability or technology to achieve such precision.

We also have to overcome the stigma of public transportation in this city. Let's face it... Atlantans love their cars. That is not meant to be a racial comment, but everything in this city seems to be a racial comment. If the target of this project is to open up mass transportation to the masses, we've got to be careful... about scheduling, public outreach, and making people WANT to use the thing. In my opinion, trams are less stigmatic than buses... put rubber tires on this thing and no will voluntarily ride it. That's why the European-style tram is so intriguing.

Make it fun, attractive, reliable and predictable. Clean and affordable would be good too.

This is a golden opportunity for Atlanta. Let's don't mess it up.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

|| 11:06:14 PM
Shirley's VETO

As expected, Shirley Franklin vetoed three pieces of City Council legislation dealing with the sewer/water issue. Being the drama queen that she is, the Mayor of course waited until the 11th hour (literally) to do so to show that she is trying to work with the Council. She knew she would VETO this legislation the day after it was passed.

You can read the text of her veto letter to the City Council here.

Nothing real surprising there.

I do wonder, however, if the Mayor knows that there are three branches of government. She VETOED the piece of legislation granting a senior citizen discount based on the opinion of her Law Department that it would be unconstitutional. Isn't that an issue for the courts to decide? The Law Department actually gave that same opinion during the Council Meeting, but it was dismissed as being loaded with the ulterior motive of just throwing up another roadblock to strong-arm the Council into giving the Mayor her way.

Friday, December 05, 2003

|| 3:19:23 PM
The Battle Rages On

Yesterday the City's Department of Watershed Management notified the EPA that the City would be unable to comply with the consent decree(s) mandating repairs in the City's sewer and water system.

You can read the letter from Watershed Commissioner Jack Raven here. There are a couple of issues with this letter...

1. Franklin's administration, and this letter, makes an erroneous assumption that the $25 Million in cost savings necessitated by the Council's actions needs to come exclusively from Watershed Management. Not true... those budge cuts can be spread citywide. But, after hearing Councilman Derrick Boazman read the salaries of every person in the Department, I would agree that it is as good a place as any to start. Administrative assistants making $150,000 per year, accountants making $300,000, etc.

2. Remember, prior to the Franklin administration we didn't even have a Department of Watershed Management. We lived for years without it (granted that may have led to some of our current problems), but now this overblown bureaucracy with overpaid politicos in its current form is absolutely essential to the operation of this city. It's another example of the administration's "all-or-none" mentality.

3. The letter states, "One immediate consequence of the ordinances passed by City Council is the inability of the City to issue new bonds in 2004." Not true. We may be splitting hairs here, but the recent downgrade in the City's bond ratings affect only water and sewer bonds. Other bonds -- general obligation, airport, etc. -- remain stable and highly rated. Plus, the City can still issue new bonds; they're just going to have to pay a higher rate of interest to service the debt. I know what the Commission meant, but it just seems to be another example of the administration stretching the truth like Chicken Little saying the sky is falling. This statement is even more ironic given this clarification that the City's credit is not on the ropes, which appeared on the Mayor's website only one day before the Commissioner's letter was sent.

4. The letter later states, "A specific failure is the West Area Tunnel project." There is significant debate among well-qualified engineers over whether the West Area Tunnel project is even necessary to comply with the consent decree. There are other alternatives, which again, the administration refuses to even consider.

The Mayor's management team seems to enjoy airing our dirty laundry, pointing fingers at the City Council and raising a ruckus everywhere they can. Yes, this notification was necessary... what was not necessary is the hell-fire-damnation tone of it. It is required within 15 days of any obstacle becoming apparent to the city. A lot can happen around here in 15 days. Instead, the Commissioner decided to fuel the flames in this fight without delay.

Another example of this mentality involves the City Attorney, Linda DiSantis. She represents the City, the Mayor and the City Council as clients. But, she marched over to the federal judge's office without consent or knowledge of her "clients" to ask, "What if the City Council doesn't rubber stamp the mayor's plan?" That was the first official on-the record signal to outsiders that there was trouble in paradise. The next day, the first of three rating agencies downgraded Atlanta's water and sewer bond rating. Coincidence? Could that have possibly been a warning shot to the City Council? This lead Council member C.T. Martin to remind Ms. DiSantis that he is "the only Council member to ever move for the firing of a City Attorney." Ms. DiSantis quickly left the meeting after that comment.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

|| 3:21:57 PM
Creative Loafing's Weekly Scalawag

Any mention of Atlanta City Council Member Mary Norwood's misguided efforts to "lead" this city always gets my attention.

Creative Loafing does a fantastic job of exposing some Norwood-typical politics in their "Weekly Scalawag":

Mary Norwood
For making a painful process even more so

by Scott Henry, Creative Loafing

Some folks oppose the prevailing winds because of their unbending principles, some because of their overblown egos and some because they don't know what they're talking about.

Freshman Councilwoman Mary Norwood would seem to fall in that last category. In recent weeks, she's gone around Atlanta telling anyone who'd listen that Mayor Shirley Franklin's sewer plan is one big, expensive bundle of cronyism and corruption.

Her backroom efforts have contributed almost as much to the council deadlock on the issue as the proposed rate hike in question, even though she says she's only trying to see details of the plan. She's not an engineer, Norwood concedes, but she says she knows more than Franklin about large-scale public works projects.

Now, we've got our own reservations about the mayor's tunnel-vision approach to solving the city's sewer crisis. However, the half-baked alternative Norwood has been flogging would turn a westside quarry into a huge open septic tank, would probably cost even more and would provide lucrative work to the engineer and wannabe city contractor who's been acting as Norwood's sewer consultant.

Another irony here is that, as a Buckhead homeowner activist in the early '90s, Norwood helped derail the city's Utoy tunnel plan that could have spared Atlanta from much of its current sewer predicament.

And what evidence does she have that Franklin's plan is full of graft? None that anyone can make out. In fact, the mayor recently released an open letter inviting Norwood to report to the feds any sewer-contract wrongdoing in which Franklin or her administration is engaged. To paraphrase the final sentence of Herroner's letter: If you have no evidence to support your allegations, then shutdafuckup!

No wonder Norwood hasn't had time to document her insinuations; she's been too busy leading the charge to shut down city nightclubs at 2 a.m., even though the Buckhead Village isn't in her district. Her misguided contention is that folks will quit shooting each other if they have to settle up their bar tab a couple hours earlier.

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

|| 4:38:07 AM
Atlanta City Council Meeting

Note the time on this post.

Yes, it really is just past 4:30 in the morning. I have just returned home from YESTERDAY'S Atlanta City Council Meeting. Boy, what a hoot that was!

There were essentially three highly charged controversial issues before the City Council tonight. None could be delayed because this is the last meeting of the year.

  • An increase in water and sewer fees over the next five years to comply with a federal government mandate that we fix our stinking sewer system;

  • A proposal to order all bars closed at 2am, instead of the current closing time of 4am;

  • The establishment of an East Side Tax Allocation District.

  • First, some general comments about the City Council... You have to either love or hate the individual members of the City Council. There's really no ambiguity in emotion here. They are, as a whole, with a few notable exceptions, some of the most arrogant people in this city. During the public comment phase of the meeting, which lasted well over 3 hours, Council members regularly strolled in and out of the meeting, giving only passing acknowledgement to the packed chamber where hundreds of Atlanta residents came to let their voices be heard.

    Natalyn Mobly Archibong deserves special mention as the only Council member who avoided the entire public comment period. City Council President Cathy Woolard noted Ms. Archibong's presence "in the wings" out of view of the public but she was certainly not devoting her attention to her constituents. She quickly took her seat after the last citizen had spoken. Jim Maddox also gets attention here for sleeping during the majority of the public comments. Carla Smith and Debi Starnes chatted casually most of the time as if they were trading recipes for a peach cobbler. The arrogance of these people is amazing. In the interest of fairness, Felicia Moore and Anne Fauver (I'm proud to say, as my Council representative) deserve credit for listening to every comment by the public and at least acting attentive, often nodding in agreement.

    The public continued to point out their frustrations with Council members to Ms. Woolard. She'd regularly try to rope in the troops, but with little success. With some of these characters in the audience, I don't know how in the world Ms. Woolard keeps a straight face up there!

    Some of my favorite moments of the meeting....

    One of my favorite quotes from a fellow Atlantan to the City Council: "Shirley Franklin told us 'Make me Mayor and I'll make you proud.' But she's making us tired!"

    From a scruffy looking middle-aged man who reminded me of Fred Sandford: "You are looking at the next Mayor of Atlanta. Because I'm gonna run, and just like the po-lice, you can't catch me!"

    "Vote 'yes' for these earlier bar closings, and vote 'no' for your re-election!"

    One citizen cut up his Delta Skymiles card in front of the Council and said, "I have flown my last mile with Delta Air Lines. Delta has told this city to go to hell, and now they can go to hell." [more on that later]

    Some of the best jabs were between one Council member and another.

    Cathy Woolard to Derrick Boazman: "Please make it brief."
    Mr. Boazman: "If I want to sit here until 10 o'clock..." [wishful thinking, maybe]
    Ms. Woolard: "I know you can..."
    Mr. Boazman: "That is disrespectful."
    Ms. Woolard: "I know it was, and I apologize. Go ahead."

    C.T. Martin to Atlanta City Attorney Linda DiSantis: "I would remind you that I am the only Council member who has ever moved to fire a City Attorney."

    Derrick Boazman to Debi Starnes: "I represent the only district where a landfill might ever be located. If you want to hurry things along, let's just vote to put it in District 2 [Ms. Starnes' district] and we can all go home."

    I'll write more on the specific topics later today....

    || 11:29:49 AM
    Now on to the good stuff...

    Them Stinkin' Sewers

    As most Atlantans know, the City of Atlanta is under a federally mandated consent decree to fix it's sewer system from nasty runoff. Past administrations have neglected the city's infrastructure because it got in the way of other political goals. But, now the federal government has had enough. Shirley Franklin inherited a mess. In the early days of her administration it appeared that she might handle this problem responsibly. Instead, she has handled it like most Atlanta politicians would: Hire a bunch of overpaid consultants and engineers, hold some public hearings and pretend to care what the public thinks, tell a few lies and then try to strong-arm the City Council in doing it your way. Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

    Shirley put forth a proposal to fix our sewers which places the entire financial burden on the backs of Atlanta's taxpayers (and "rate payers" as is the case with those who pay water and sewer fees). Her estimate for the cleanup is about $3 Billion, give or take a few million. But, what's a couple of million when you're spending someone else's money?

    Throughout this entire process there have been various proposals batted around for alternative ways in which to pay for the sewer mess. Some of them include the crazy notion that perhaps the City of Atlanta could cut some costs here and there. But, to hear Shirley and her cronies tell it they are operating on a shoestring already. Thanks to Derrick Boazman, though, we know this is not the case. The City Council called the entire staff of the Watershed Management Department down from their plush offices at City Hall to attend the Council meeting and answer a few questions. The staff looked demoralized by being forced to come down with us common folk... and then to have to sit in the audience with the general public to boot! When they towed the party line that there was simply no place else to cut in the budget, Mr. Boazman helped them brainstorm a bit by reading off the salaries of every one of those officials. $147,000 per year for an administrative assistant. $109,000 per year for a clerk/secretary. $300,000 a year for an accountant. I wonder if there are any citizens of Atlanta who are very well qualified to do these jobs and who would do it for less money than that? According to Shirley & Company the answer is a resounding "No."

    Another idea that's been suggested is selling or leasing the busiest airport in the world, which just happens to be owned by the City of Atlanta. Selling the airport causes a bit of a problem because it eliminates the possibility of issuing government-backed tax-free bonds. So, the best bet is to lease the thing. Plenty of airports have achieved massive efficiencies and profits under such a plan. A company that operates about a dozen airports, including the one in Sydney, Australia told the City Council that they would estimate annual revenue to the city under a lease agreement to be in the neighborhood of $2.6 Billion. Boy, that sounds awfully close to the number Shirley tells us it will take to fix our sewers.

    But she ain't gonna have no part of it! What could possibly be bad about the City raking in a couple of billion, and what Mayor wouldn't want that? Atlanta politicians live and breathe on the ability to grant favors and cut deals with various interest groups and political supporters. If a private company were to take over "Hartsfield-Jackson Airport," the folks at City Hall would no longer be able to dole out any of that cronyism. Plus, Shirley Franklin's former husband, David Franklin, currently operates 10 -- count 'em, 10 -- concession outlets at the airport. Every one of Shirley's children still earns their living managing those outlets. Shirley Franklin ain't about to risk giving up that gravy train. She would rather stick it to the taxpayers of Atlanta. I was sad and disappointed when Shirley Franklin lied at a public hearing a month or so ago when she told an audience at North Fulton High School that any proceeds derived from the sale or lease of the airport could be used only back into the airport. That's not true -- the FAA has a specific program allowing those monies to be used for any city function -- and she knew it wasn't true. But, she was counting on the citizens of Atlanta NOT to know it wasn't true.

    Some of the heat was taken off of Shirley for that little lie when Delta Air Lines said they would veto any efforts to privatize the airport. In order to give the FAA the ability to establish privatization, the nation's airlines gave "dominate carriers" in any city veto power. Delta certainly doesn't want the airport run like a real business. Landing fees in Atlanta are some of the lowest in the world, and would almost certainly be raised. They've sucked the Atlanta public dry for years on fares and eliminating good old competition. Now, they are once again telling the Atlanta taxpayers to go to hell. The next item up for the City Council should be a repeal of every tax break Delta Air Lines currently enjoys.

    Anyway, back to the sewers.... Mary Norwood was the first out of the box with an amendment to the Mayor's plan which would have brought rate increases down to 28%. But don't be impressed with Ms. Norwood... the bill also allowed the city council to adjust the rate at anytime for any reason to cover the debt service on the bonds. That effort originally passed the Council 8-7, but would soon be trumped by Felicia Moore.

    Ms. Moore offered up a plan to maintain the 45% increase the Mayor wanted, but with a caveat. The average customer would only have a 13% increase because the rate increase would be tied to usage. Those flushing their toilets less often would see no increase. This plan would require a $25 Million reduction in city spending. The Department of Watershed Management was the assumed victim, leading to many Council members lamenting the fact that the "numbers just don't add up," as Debi Starnes put it. I wonder what Ms. Starnes thinks happens when the average citizen gets their paycheck and the numbers don't add up? You and I know they cut expenses. The City can't imagine such an injustice. Ms. Moore's initiative passed 8-7.

    C.T. Mitchell would strengthen the final product with a unanimous victory requiring that the rate be rolled back annually based on any cost savings and requiring that the Mayor document efforts to save money. Good try, Mr. Mitchell... but do you really trust this Mayor who refused to even discuss or consider anything less that the full monty of 45% to actually give you accurate information about efforts to live within the City's means?

    A few other proposed changes didn't make it. An effort to provide stronger oversight on how every dime of the money is spent for the sewer project failed. Clair Muller, who has been on the City Council for 14 years, opposed that effort. She, as much as anyone else, is responsible for the mess this City is in.

    The final measure, as amended, was approved 8-7. Do you see a trend in these votes? It's always 8-7. That tells us this deal was done way before the 1pm start of the meeting... and it certainly didn't have to go for 15 hours. There were those who were marching in lock step with the Mayor and would not consider anything less than complete victory defined as a 45% gouge to the citizens of Atlanta.

    || 1:21:36 PM
    Bad Boys of Buckhead

    The next big issue was the Buckhead bar closings. Mary Norwood has led the fight on this one, even though Buckhead, the site of the behavior which prompted the legislation isn't even located in her district. Harold Shook, the Council member for Buckhead, expressed some frustration over every other Council member telling him what would and would not work in District 7.

    This is another area where the City has no business telling people how to live their lives. There are current laws on the books to deal with the illegal behavior which has gone on unchecked for years in Buckhead. If those laws are not working, why in the world do people like Mary Norwood think that new laws will be any different?

    Some Council members contend that "Nothing good goes on after midnight." Others labeled the young revelers as "foolish."

    This is really a quality of life issue. Rich Layton, of the Georgia Hospitality & Travel Association, called Atlanta's nightlife the City's #1 industry. Atlanta often talks of becoming a world-class city. In fact, Shirley Franklin promised us a "24-hour City" when she was running for Mayor. It will be hard to achieve that with bars closing earlier. I suspect that there are plenty of people in Las Vegas who do not agree with gambling on either moral or lifestyle grounds. There are probably about the same percentage of people who hate Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But, those cities know that certain activities create a vibrant and thriving city in terms of economics, diversity and quality of life.

    Atlanta is known far and wide for its nightlife. We have to admit, there's not much else to do in this city for young visitors or conventioneers. As one citizen put it, "The World of Coca-Cola and a soon-to-be-build fish tank doesn't attract people to this city."

    It's interesting to note that only TWO of the public comments heard on this issue were from citizens who identified themselves as Buckhead residents. The highbrow folks of Buckhead are confident that the Buckhead Coalition is going to take care of everything for them. The Buckhead Coalition is a group whose primary purpose is securing the investments of Buckhead homeowners. Membership is by invitation only, limited to 75 of the wealthiest movers and shakers, and requires dues of $5,000. Funny how these noble men are so concerned about the public welfare of the ENTIRE city now, but didn't give a damn about years and years of killings in and around southside bars.

    The problem in Buckhead is not a lack of laws. It is the Atlanta Police Department's inability to enforce those laws due to lack of manpower. The City Council is in part to blame for the current state of affairs. They, at various times, approved all of the zoning variances, building permits, relaxed parking regulations, etc. for Buckhead to become what it is today. In fact, the most recent incident involving a shooting by patrons of a club known as Chaos never had to happen if the City and Council were doing their jobs. Chaos has been operating for over a year without a valid liquor license. That small detail escaped the current administration, despite a very strict law already on the books that would have put Chaos out of business. (The City has since shut the club down, realizing the error. How nice.)

    Even an offer by the Atlanta Licensed Beverage Council, a consortium to bar owners, to pay for additional police officers for the City didn't appease Council members with an axe to grind. The Guardian Angels have been contacted about setting up shop in Atlanta. There has been no increase in police presence in the City in 18 years. None of this mattered to the Council, which was determined to slap the entire city with a hidden agenda due to a few high-profile cases.

    One citizen even brought along moving boxes and offered any Council member voting for earlier closings help in packing their belongings, predicting their certain demise in the next election.

    Council Member Felicia Moore presented some interesting statistics gathered from the Atlanta Police Department. She should be commended for doing her homework. There has been much rhetoric about the "9 Buckhead slayings which have occurred between 3:20AM and 4:20AM this year." Take a look at these citywide statistics:

    Homicides (HOM) & Pedestrian Fatalities (PED)
    12AM-4AM, 1999-2003*
    City of Atlanta

    * Through October 2003

    Study those statistics carefully. Note that there are only three instances where incidents from 2AM-4AM exceed incidents from 12AM-2AM: (1) 1999 Pedestrian Fatalities, (2) 2002 Pedestrian Fatalities, and (3) 2003 Homicides. In no year did BOTH Pedestrian Fatalities and Homicides increase after 2AM. And, frankly the jury is still out on the last one since 2003 is not yet over. This just goes to show you that politicians like Mary Norwood will spin any statistic they can to achieve their goals, counting on the ignorance of their constituents.

    C.T. Martin pointed out that some Council members talked at length about the bars' obligation to protect the customer and that it seems we are always trying to pass the blame. "What about the City's obligation?!?," he asked, pointing out the need for more police officers.

    Ultimately, we ended up with a bill that allows last call to be at 2:30AM and closing the doors by 3:00AM. Various amendments removed the restriction from grocery and convenience stores selling beer and wine after 12 midnight (they still can). None of this, of course, applies to "private clubs" such as the Crystal Palace or Backstreet (they have their own separate court battle going on over the definition of a private club).

    The Council agreed to revisit this issue no later than one year from now. It'll now be in the hands of the bar owners to show what they can do. The $6 Million to hire 146 more officers (the number Chief Pennington claims he needs) would go a long way and is a drop in the bucket for the consortium of bar owners as a whole. "You can't write me a check for $6 Million today," said Mary Norwood. Who knew police officers got paid their entire annual salary up front?

    Ultimately it has to be the citizens, not the Council members who decide which direction this issue goes. It seems to me the Blue Laws have become archaic gauges of morality whose time has expired.

    The Committee on Public Safety is also working on restructuring the requirements for alcohol licenses, so the fun will no doubt continue.