CL last month asked Atlanta City Council candidates to fill out a questionnaire related to the 2013 municipal election. We asked each individual about his or her opinions regarding public safety, the Falcons stadium, the Atlanta Beltline, homelessness, ethics, and other key issues. Many responded and some didn't. We've compiled all the answers we received to give readers a deeper look at the candidates' views. Note: These responses are unedited and directly what respondents sent our way.
Name: Carla Smith
Occupation: Atlanta City Council Member, District 1
Neighborhood: Woodland Hills
Hometown: Moved to Atlanta from Cincinnati, Ohio. Originally from Texas
Name: Robert Welsh
Occupation: Budget Manager for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities
Name: Bill Powell
Occupation: Federal Grants Consultant
Neighborhood: Ormewood Park
Hometown: Tuskegee, AL
What is the most pressing issue facing your district? If elected (or re-elected), how would you try and address it?
Smith: Neighborhood stabilization is an issue that needs to be addressed in a holistic fashion. We have a lot of housing stock that has been abandoned due to the housing bust. Prior to that we were growing fairly well; but now we are dealing with abandonment and the need for affordable housing as well.
This is not an issue unique to District 1 or even just Atlanta. Stabilizing our communities with affordable housing is a national issue. In collaboration with Mayor Reed, we have utilized the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funding which provided emergency assistance to state and local governments to acquire and redevelop abandoned or foreclosed properties. We have restored and sold over 20 homes in District 1 with these funds.
There is still more to do. As our economy continues to recover and more funding becomes available, demolition of unsightly abandoned structures can be done. These structures can be a haven for criminals to hide.
As a member of the Atlanta City Council, I will to work with my neighborhoods to ensure we are keeping our communities looking good and desirable. I am very proud of the work I have done with Keep Atlanta Beautiful and our city's Department of Public Works. Together we have sponsored and hosted many community clean-ups. I will also maintain my annual tire round ups and encourage people to report dumping when they see it.
Welsh: It's hard to pick one issue, but creating economic opportunity and jobs across my district and south Atlanta has always been a true passion. To bring those opportunities, we need to improve our neighborhoods. I will work with City Council, Mayor, business, non-profits, and other governmental entities to create a social impact bond to improve at risk neighborhoods throughout the district and the city. I will also work with to bring the right developments to places where it would be welcomed. Most pressing in District 1 is our longstanding "food desert." We need a grocery store, and not just one, but grocery stores seeded throughout the district. Folks need access to fresh produce and meats. We also need to be mindful of location and the potential impact it may have on residents living there, of course. Growth needs to be smart with good outcomes for all residents. I will work tirelessly to bring the businesses, jobs and training opportunities to south Atlanta. 20% poverty in a district that includes some of the most desirable homes in the city is not acceptable. Not doing anything about it is deplorable. Grant Park or Thomasville Heights, we are all connected.
Powell: There two major issues in District 1: neglect of community redevelopment opportunities and increase in crime. Community neglect demonstrates a parallel pattern with increase in crime. Both resulting from conditions of economic strife and neither are easy subjects to tackle. I am particularly interested in an innovative community redevelopment program underway in another major US city that has shown an outstanding return of once blighted communities. I am eager to discuss the program's details with the Council to determine if the same approach would be applicable for Atlanta.
Mayor Kasim Reed has claimed that the crime rate in Atlanta is the lowest it's been in 50 years. But in many parts of the city, the perception of crime remains up. How would you address public safety in your district? What actions would you take as a councilmember to improve conditions?
Smith: Crime is an issue that affects all of us and threatens our city's prosperity. No matter what the numbers reveal, people will feel unsafe if they are victimized. That said it is vital that we continue to fund our police department and arm them with the tools they need to fight crime. That's why I voted to have our police force to add more than 800 officers in the last four years. This is now the largest police force we've had in our city's history. Additionally, I will promote the APD See Something Say Something and Clean Car campaigns to help eliminate crimes of opportunity and encourage reporting crime.
We are most successful when neighbors follow the perpetrators from beginning to end (arrest to conviction); District 1 is serious about criminals and we have been known to fill a court room to send the Judge a message. Some of the recurring crimes that can be the most difficult to eradicate are street level drug dealers and prostitution. Although many arrests are made in Fulton County, criminals have been known to sign their own bonds and these "non-violent offenders" are back on the street faster than the police officer can write up their arrest reports. There is a serious problem with repeat offenders and Fulton County. This revolving door is no solution. Our citizens deserve better.
Welsh: Despite Mayor Reed's claims, crime in our district is still a huge problem. In fact, while there are peaks and valleys, measured over the last 12 years, the crime rate here has hardly improved at all. Clearly, much more needs to be done. My comprehensive plan to stop crime includes the implementation of Operation Ceasefire and Predictive Policing, stopping overt drug markets, adding a robust camera system in residential neighborhoods, adding more police officers walking the beat, starting more random security check points and roadblocks, adding 911 Emergency boxes and making sure every street in District 1 has sufficient lighting for walking safely at night.
I also support the veteran courts, a relatively new concept in Fulton County and around the country. It's an idea that shows great promise to get veterans the help they need – for addiction, mental issues, homelessness – that may have led to crimes. The idea is being applied to other types of non-violent offenders as well. We give them a shot at fixing what's broken; they commit to doing it. Recidivism for those who finish this rigidly administered program is almost nil. Those who fail, however, do the time – as they should.
Powell: I would advance community policing practices and increased video surveillance. I wish I could offer a new approach here. But unfortunately, neighborhood crime is a result economic disparities heighten by drug use and/or mental health concerns. Voters have expressed concern over abandoned properties used havens for illegal activities. The City has at its disposal eminent domain authority. It's a cumbersome and lengthy legal process, but we must do something to eliminate abandoned properties in our neighborhoods or the problem with continue to grow. I want to re-establish communities that promote a strong sense of neighborhood pride, and to discourage the intrusion of all criminal activities.
If you're an incumbent and you voted for the proposed Falcons stadium, why did you do so? If you're a challenger, how would you have voted and why?
Smith: The tourism tax must be used to improve tourism. Legally, it cannot be used for infrastructure needs in residential neighborhoods, improving our traffic or any other initiative. All in all, it's a good deal for the city. We're funding this with a fee that is paid solely by tourists and the amount of jobs created from the construction will add a much-needed boost to our economy. The surrounding neighborhoods will also benefit from the thirty million dollars being made available to them. What's better is that once finished, we will have a world-class facility that will be the envy of the NFL.
Welsh: As it stood, I would have voted no. I don't believe that six hours is enough time to make an informed decision whether to commit 50 years of hotel tax costing $200 million. Moreover, there was no binding, legal agreement with the community to transform the surrounding neighborhoods. A billion dollar stadium cannot exist in a vacuum. It needs to be integral to the community where it's situated. It needs to help that community become and remain successful. Now that it seems to be a done deal, I hope they will learn from the lessons of Turner Field and attract businesses that benefit not only the Falcons, but also surrounding communities with jobs and supply chains. Super Bowl possibility or not, my position would ultimately depend on how those communities fared, not Arthur Blank and his investors.
Powell: I do not think we need a new stadium. However, I would have voted in support of this development project. Leadership requires a rational assessment of the facts. Emotions should never affect your decision making. As Council member, my job will be to represent the best interest of the City, first. Not to service my own personal agenda or interests.
What I personally "feel" will have no bearing on any future vote. As an experienced City Planner working with major development projects, I will require that proposed development projects do three things: (1) create jobs, (2) generate local revenue, and (3) adhere to all statutes and requirements of the identified funding source and proper zoning requirements for the proposed project. The latter item includes a thorough review of the environmental impacts to the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed development.
Last year, metro Atlanta voters rejected the T-SPLOST, which would have raised billions of dollars in funding for large-scale transportation projects throughout the region and smaller projects inside the city limits. Mobility remains an issue in Atlanta. What ideas do you have for improving transportation?
Smith: The failure of last year's T-SPLOST was personally very upsetting to me, but I was hopeful to see that it passed in the city of Atlanta. That tells me that our citizens recognize that our traffic woes must be addressed. I would support an effort to bring this back to the ballot on a possibly scaled down version for residents of Fulton, Dekalb and the city of Atlanta. We already have a vetted project list that could solve many of the traffic concerns. I believe that if we offered it up for a vote again, it would pass.
Additionally, I support any efforts to remove the 50/50 handcuffs permanently for MARTA. Our city's transit agency needs the autonomy to decide how to operate and maintain the system. Residents and visitors alike rely heavily on MARTA and we need to continue to invest in it.
Welsh: I believe that a well thought through public-private partnership can be part of the solution. The Atlanta Beltline is a wonderful example of how an infrastructural vision can be jointly achieved through a public/private partnership. A number of inner city housing developments here and elsewhere have achieved likewise. The days when huge developments are imposed on neighborhoods without their consent needs to end. These developments, while good for business in the short term, must take into account a longer vision for the area where they develop so all may enjoy. Again, the Beltline is a wonderful example of this, which is why I strongly support it's implementation. It unifies the city in ways superhighways never will. It builds ridership for MARTA and supports bike and pedestrian-friendly pathways, all of which I believe in. It is also friendly to development which brings a welcome stream of fresh energy, money and jobs into our city. Due to lawsuits and the failure of the T-SPLOST, we need to do everything we can to support and expedite construction of the Beltline. To that end, I would support reviving a modified T-SPLOST at some point in the future. I would also look seriously at any proposal that rewarded users of mass transportation and discouraged the use of single driver vehicles.
Powell: T-SPLOST was a brilliant tax proposition with one major flaw. It should have omitted suburban communities. The proposed referendum placed before the voters included all transportation projects taken from the Atlanta Regional Commission's (ARC) adopted Federal Transportation Improvement Program (FTIP). However, the FTIP document implies that everyone within the metropolitan region think alike. This is a complete fallacy and major obstacle with regional planning efforts in general. It's a challenging task not only in Atlanta, but for several metropolitan areas around the country.
I have little interest in what goes on outside 285. Likewise, I am sure there are those in suburbia that feel the same way about the City. These distinctions were made most clear during my tenure as Principal Planner with ARC. There were serious disagreements between counties over available project funding.
The urban counties may have wanted a much need street improvement or bridge project while suburban counties upset at the lack of trees for a highway median project. Both are valid concerns, yet terribly polarizing for one metropolitan area required to establish a priority set of projects.
I am hopeful that T-SPLOST II will segment communities with similar objectives, and not throw everyone into the same pot.
Homelessness in Atlanta remains a pressing problem. However, the city's charter limits what it can do to fight the issue. What realistic options does the city have when it comes to tackling homelessness?
Smith: We are already making great strides in partnership with homeless agencies like Atlanta Mission and others. Even thought it's not in our charter, we must continue to find ways to get people off the streets and into housing and stable jobs. That's why I support the city's Unsheltered No More initiative. Through this effort, we have housed more than 700 homeless individuals. I have great hope that the city will see much success with this initiative.
We must also forge a stronger partnership with Fulton County and find collaborative, innovative solutions for our homeless population.
Welsh: If you want to deal with homelessness, we must deal with the undergirding issues. Many homeless people have a problem with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance issues. They've fallen through the cracks of the mental health system. We need to be partnering with agencies and community institutions that are providing those services, and make sure they available to those who need them. If the city charter holds us back, then basic humanity should be our guide. But we certainly can be more efficient in how we administer and deliver programs. Combining monies and the streamlining the numerous overlapping silos of government (city, state and federal) agencies might go a long way toward maximizing help for people who in so many ways cannot help themselves. That is the least we can and should do.
Powell: I was once homeless in Atlanta for a few days (story for another time). The experience was a challenging and uneasy time. It was the blessings and goodwill of the people at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center I was able to find decent housing along with a gradual productive return to the society. Because of this experience, I volunteer time and donate to the Nicholas House organization, a housing charitable organization for homeless families located in District 1.
I applaud the Mayor's pan-handling ordinance and requirement of street vendor licensing. I will continue to work with the Mayor in support of small steps towards in resolution of the homeless situation. Forever mindful that was once me, and always providing assistance to those in need of help.
Councilmembers are policymakers; they're technically not supposed to serve as liaisons between constituents and city departments (for example, failure to pick-up trash or broken traffic lights). Yet they often fall into that role. How would you handle your job once the 311 call center, which is designed to address residents' and businesses' complaints, comes online?
Smith: I support and am very excited about the 311 call center. However, when a constituent calls, I or one of my staff will answer. Until the 311 call center proves to be effective and efficient my proven record of working for constituents will continue.
Welsh: I welcomes it's implementation and hope it works as promised. It should help end the excessive favoritism some council members have shown to certain constituent individuals and groups and allow our respective offices to focus on initiatives that benefit all the people of our district, not just a select few.
Powell: Constituents have placed a heavy reliance and comfort with frequent calls to the Council Representative first for every issue. The involvement of 15 Council Representatives directly addressing every issue and problem with the Department Chiefs only weakens the City staff morale and accountability.
My campaign platform includes a strong interest in Transparency and Accountability. My plan is to return control and accountability to the City Departments to handles service delivery and repairs of all residents. All constituents will be directed to work through the Department's procedures on complaints/problems. If unsatisfied with the outcome or problem continues, then as Council Representative I will intervene in resolution of the matter.
I realize this is a very different approach and I am certain will meet with some dismay. However, the role of a Councilman is to (1) create policy; and (2) direct strategy moving the District forward.
What can you bring to the Atlanta City Council that it currently lacks?
Smith: I bring my energy, institutional knowledge, common sense and District ideals to every meeting I attend.
Welsh: 1. Strong Program and Fiscal management skills. I am currently the budget manager for the State Division of Mental Health where I manage a $350 million budget, funding over 20 programs serving at risk adults and children across the entire state. I also managed implementation of economic stimulus projects totaling $250 million.
2. Job Creation Program Management Experience. I was the Director of Implementation and Accountability for ARRA for Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS). Managed the implementation of economic stimulus projects totaling $250 million which created 17,000 adult and teen jobs, provided meals to 13,000 seniors and child care services to over 15,000 children.
3. High Level Legislative Experience. I was an analyst for the Georgia Senate Budget and Evaluation Office (SBEO) and Georgia Budget and Policy Institute , advised senate leadership on budget and policy matters and the appropriations for a $4 billion budget for the Department of Labor, and the Georgia Department of Veterans Affairs.
4. Highly Relevant Educational Background and Organizational Memberships.
B.A., Seton Hall University, Master of Public Administration from Rutgers University, Board Member of Neighborhood Nexus, First Church Community, Development Corporation, Inc; Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation, Inc; 303 Community Coalition, Inc; and Georgia State University, Institute of Public Health, Center for excellence for Health Disparities Research-Community Advisory Board.
Powell: City Officials continually overlook available Federal dollars for local projects, opting instead to used and increase local taxes. I will seek every available Federal opportunity, providing an outstanding return for your local tax dollars. I bring to the Atlanta City Council a thorough knowledge of federal programs and available funding sources for local projects.
What is a city issue in Atlanta that, in your opinion, very few people have paid attention to? Could you — and would you — address it?
Smith: In the past we have had complaints of trucks getting lost and driving through neighborhoods. They pull down power and cable wires, knock down signs and break curbs and sidewalks. With the increased use of GPS, trucks are increasingly finding their way into neighborhoods. I will be researching ways to work with GPS companies regarding updates specific to the trucking industry. My goal is to eliminate trucks cutting through residential neighborhoods.
Another big issue that many of us have considered is the much needed revision to the City's zoning code. Not many people think about that, and yet it impacts everyone in the city, every day.
Welsh: I will fight for occupied houses. The great recession has left District 1 with too many vacant and abandoned homes. I firmly believe that occupied homes lead to stable communities and stable communities lead to safe communities. In the final analysis, safe communities lead to educated communities, and educated communities lead to economic opportunity for all. I would aggressively solving the vacant/abandoned homes problem by attracting, incentivizing and educating families with tax abatements, financial literacy, and downpayment assistance.
Powell: Water. An article a few years back, the NY Times, I think. "Water the new gold," or something like that. Water is the most vital resource for communities. If you look at the urban development grew in proximity to abundant water sources. If ever there where to be a moratorium placed on new housing development in Atlanta, it will be due to a limited water supply.
The State could fight for the corrective action of Georgia boundary designation into the Tennessee River. This would be a case decided by the US Supreme Court required to hear cases between States. I think we should do it!
Southeast Atlanta residents recently raised concerns about a big-box retail center along the Atlanta Beltline. As the Beltline continues along in its development, what steps would you take to make sure its vision — specifically, the one residents laid out in planning meetings — is fulfilled?
Smith: The Atlanta BeltLine is a transformational project for our city and its vision is something we should keep intact. I do not support any efforts of developers to deviate from the Atlanta BeltLine's grand vision. This is a very long term project. We need to support the proactive zoning and we need to do it now.
Welsh: We need to clarify what the actual legal standing of the Beltline Overlay is and how it relates to the current zoning it encompasses. The recent BZA ruling does clarify this to some degree, though not the way the impacted residents hoped it would. This may be a setback for the Glenwood residents, but not necessarily for the Beltline as a whole. What it did reveal was the need for district councilpersons to take a much more proactive role in guarding the Beltline vision.
Assuredly, this will not be the last time that vision is challenged. Property development is a long process. Dropping a last minute rezoning bomb, as our councilperson did, without demonstrating harm or standing is a sure way to guarantee that process blows up in your face. The lesson here is this: the entire Beltline needs to be reviewed and problem areas identified long before development disputes emerge. Incentives should be provided for property owners to comply with Overlay zoning or convert to compliance. We cannot continue to treat something so important as the Beltline to piecemeal, incongruent implementation. And we must find better ways to respect the needs of both property owners and residents as we do so.
Powell: I have watched my opponent mismanage and bungle the Beltline Project at every step. In my opinion, she has managed to make "every" situation worst using crafty tricks that simply won't work. Changing parcel code during negotiation of a land purchase, I would like to know in what community has this approach proved successful.
It's not an approach I would have taken. There is a much cleaner method for resolving such issues, and without the threat of litigation. It's something one knows from having real experience in government. This sneak approach to government business is not my style. Your government works when you know how it works.
What's your favorite part of the district you want to represent? What's your least favorite part that you hope to change?
Smith: I love every part of District 1. The neighborhoods of District 1 are like my children, you love them all. However, like children there are qualities and characteristics that we love and those we would change. In my District, I love seeing the years of planning with residents and other stakeholders come to life. For example, I like what is happening with the Memorial Drive Corridor. It has been 15 years or more in the making and it is still changing; I like the Pryor Road Corridor, we have the Villages at Carver, a beautiful new streetscape and a YMCA and there is still more to come. Having just completed the Lakewood Livable Centers Initiative (LCI), I look forward to the implementation.
What I'd like to change is the type of development that sometimes comes to District 1. We need homeowners, more density with an affordable housing component and new urbanism commercial development.
Welsh: The people who comprise District 1 are its biggest asset and I will be proud to represent every single one of them. From Lakewood to Peoplestown to Grant Park and Ormewood, we are the perfect embodiment of Atlanta: so much that's good and dynamic and forever changing; so much incredible history that needs to be remembered and preserved; ever seeking, ever hopeful; a work in progress that keeps on getting better and better. My least favorite part is crime and the poverty that engenders it. I envision a day when every street in District 1 is safe to walk at night and every resident receives a living wage. But it's going to take a lot of work to get there. Let's get started.
Powell: Grant Park. I love that park. Pretty shrubs and trees, and plenty of activities.
I have great concern for the Summerhill and Peoplestown communities. There are far too many abandoned homes encouraging criminal activities. I have seen similar neighborhoods in other major cities complete a major transformation from challenging crime and despair to vibrant active desired communities. I am hopeful that the same approach used by other cities proves applicable to District 1.
How would you feel about Atlanta's current ethics and transparency practices? What, if anything, would you do to improve the current rules? If nothing, why?
Smith: The ethics and transparency legislation is strong if you follow it. If you read the code it states that elected officials cannot accept gratuities from a prohibitive source. The definition of a prohibitive source is "any person, company, or entity that is doing business or seeking to do business with the City, is seeking official action from the city, etc." I define that as everyone that pays a water bill or gets a license, contract or permit of any type. Outside of my colleagues, I don't let anyone buy me a cup of coffee let alone my lunch nor do I exchange gifts with anyone except of my family.
The City requires disclosure of personal financial data; the State requires campaign financial data. The City also requires disclosure of any abstentions which have a financial or personal interest. Fines are imposed if these disclosures are not made on time.
Welsh: If we aspire to be a world class city, we can't continue to govern like a corrupt, third world one. I find the role of money in city politics to be astonishing and shameful. So much "pay-to-play" in city vendor contract awards. Far too many no bid contracts awarded. What happened at Hartsfield-Jackson is scandalous. Same goes for zoning actions that largely benefit developers and not residents. Money talks; council members walk...to its tune all too often. I find the recent actions of the Ethics Board heartening. A slap on the wrist may not amount to much in the long run, but it at least it puts some chilling effect on members playing fast and loose with taxpayer and city money. I would favor mandatory competitive bidding on all city contracts, no exceptions. I would favor strengthening the Board of Ethics by increasing its budget, staffing and independence (currently it's appointed by the Council, the very people it has had to investigate). Constituents need to know that city operations are beyond reproach. City officials, elected and otherwise, need to know that the rules cannot be bent.
Powell: Transparency is the foundation of accountability to constituents. Taxpayers have the right to know where their tax dollars are being spent and should have access to the information. Likewise, all public servants (elected and non-elected) should be held accountable for the decisions made and funds squandered.
I constantly hear voters speak of things my opponent has did years ago. That's great. But, "What has she done lately?" In fairness to my opponent it difficult to delivery projects when much of the District's funds are used for litigation on poorly executed projects.
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