Atlanta Out Loud

Politics and rantings and just stuff that catches my attention.

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.


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