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: Howard Shook
Occupation: Atlanta City Councilman
Neighborhood: Ridgedale Park
Hometown: Dayton OH
Name: Abid Haque
Neighborhood: North Buckhead
Name: Bobby Montgomery
Occupation: SEO Marketing Manager/ Real Estate Broker
Neighborhood: Pine Hills
Hometown: Stone Mountain, GA
What is the most pressing issue facing your district? If elected (or re-elected), how would you try and address it?
Shook: Buckhead's greatest challenge is to find a way to fit a fifth quart into a gallon jar. Nodes with very intense zoning classifications (which cannot be repealed) abut beautiful but not invulnerable neighborhoods. Commercial/Retail Buckhead must continue to develop & redevelop in conformance with the smart-growth policies (shared parking, attractive sidewalks, mix of uses, etc) that have been created in detail by our various community & neighborhood organizations. Such policies will also help traffic congestion, a problem for us that can be further mitigated by continuing the re-engineering & beautification of Peachtree Road and doing the same with Piedmont.
Haque: After years of waste and mismanagement in City Hall, District 7 – like the rest of Atlanta – has seen a rise is property taxes and an 81% increase in Water/Sewer rates in the past four years alone. After stopping the financial waste in City Hall, I will work on our 4 P's: building Parks; building Pools; building our Police force; and increasing Pedestrians. I will do this by ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used efficiently and work to secure funding from other sources for these projects in order to avoid more property tax rate increases.
Montgomery: Crime. People do not feel as safe in Buckhead as they once did in the past. I want to start several grassroots campaign that calls on neighbors to actually be neighbors. We must not take this very seriously. Our families and children should be able to be safe in their own homes. I will create avenues for neighbors to share ideas they have, concerns in their neighborhoods, and work closely with local police to insure that no trouble areas go unpatrolled.
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?
Shook: APD does a great job of arresting crooks. But what happens AFTER the arrest? The same crooks seem to beat the cops back to the neighborhood. There are probably 500 people addicted to breaking the law that if we kept locked up would likely drive the crime rate down significantly. There are many reasons why this fails to happen, and closing the revolving door could only happen if the Mayor committed to convening a multi-jurisdictional task force and convinced everyone to leave their egos & turf consciousness at the threshold.
Haque: I would work to build our police force and ensure that Atlanta attracts and retains skilled and motivated police officers. In addition to increasing the police presence in my district, I will work with residents to inform them about how to implement safety habits in their daily routines and work to ensure that each street is well lit and patrolled.
Montgomery: We must tackle the simple things first. That number one task is "Safety." In Buckhead there are areas where many residents do not feel safe due to the lack of lighting under bridges, no sidewalk space in busy communities, or lack of police presence in the area. I would initiate community task forces to identify high-risk areas. Then act accordingly, whether it is replacing a bridge or street light bulb, or having overgrown brushes trimmed for increased visibility. These are things we can do now to help create that sense of safety. Traffic in Buckhead is also a huge safety problem. I would like to add more bike lanes and also work with employers on creating greater incentives for those who carpool, bike, or use low emission vehicles to travel to and from work.
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?
Shook: I was a NO vote.
Haque: I would have voted against the Falcons stadium. While some believe that the stadium will help revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods, it is not clear that such revitalization will occur. Proponents of the Falcons stadium claim that its construction will result in living-wage jobs for local residents. Similar promises of economic improvement were made to residents near the Georgia Dome before its construction. However, no noticeable improvements resulted. The claim that living-wage jobs will result is also problematic in that "the most active NFL stadium is used but for eight home games a year." Including other events, the stadium is used, at most, for 100 days out of the year. Thus, the stadium stands unused (by the public) for 265 days a year. Such seldom use of the stadium can hardly create a significant impact on the local economy. I do not think that a $1 billion stadium can be justified when the costs clearly outweigh the benefits.
While the Falcons are paying 70 to 80 percent of the funding, 20 to 30 percent of the funding is coming out of Atlanta's hotel-motel tax. Although this tax is paid by visitors of Atlanta, the funds from this tax could be used for several alternate purposes that create a more positive and significant impact on the city. Because the benefits of the stadium are not worth the costs and because there are several projects the city could be spending these funds on instead, the new Falcons stadium does not represent the better interests of Atlanta.
Montgomery: It is hard to vote for a stadium with failing classrooms, school closures, city employee furloughs, and teacher lay-offs. It just does not seem rational. While in the long term, I believe the stadium will prove itself worth the investment. I must say that I do believe the timing for such a project was not now, unless there was a way to create a surplus to funnel back into funding educational agendas and securing a more solid long term city budget. So to answer the question directly, I would not have voted for the stadium under the present agreement.
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?
Shook: We can do so much more to mix uses and re-engineer problem streets. Giving people more options, like BeltLine & streetcar, will also help. But there are no 'world class cities' I know of that aren't traffic-choked at least in the am/pm, so I'd love to know what the public would consider as a realistic goal to shoot for.
Haque: By spending funds on transit now, the City of Atlanta will save future costs. Public transportation allows for less traffic congestion and reduces household travel costs. Less traffic means less need for road improvements, freeing up funding for other projects. There are also ways by which to reduce traffic in less expensive ways. By adding turn lanes and by improving the timing of the signal lights instead of expensive projects to widen highways and the like, Atlanta can lessen traffic and save costs.
In funding transportation costs, federal policy states that the local government must cover all operating costs. In addition, if the federal government provides funds for a local transportation project, it typically requires that the local government match 50% of those funds for transit capital projects (20% for highway projects). There are, however, several ways in which the local government can cover these costs. Buses provide revenue through the farebox, which is the fee paid by the rider.
Funds can also be raised through special fee arrangements (like business improvement districts) or by foundation grants and parking fees." Funding for high-priority transportation projects will become more readily available as Atlanta improves its efficiency in spending.
Montgomery: Finding a way to get more people to consolidate their transportation efforts is a major challenge. I believe we have to look outside our current circle and research places where they have championed their transportation challenges. I would like to look at way to create a special condition that encourages people to ride bicycles and scooters more often in the city. I want to look at creating special routes for cyclist and scooters during peak hours, similar to HOV on highways, but in the city for 2-wheeled vehicles. This would be to encourage more people to drive these types of vehicles, which emit low or no emission, saves money on gas, and are very easy to maneuver.
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?
Shook: As you point out, in a perfect world the County would be taking the lead in combating this serious problem. That doesn't seem to be happening, which is why I have reluctantly supported very focused City efforts to move that needle. The real answer is to force those responsible for this to do their jobs.
Haque: Georgia has more homeless people than any other state in the U.S., and by working to end homelessness, Atlanta will save ample resources. Atlanta's "Unsheltered No More" is part of a national movement to house the homeless. Atlanta joined with the group last year with the goal to house 100 people in 100 days. The city housed 131 people. The city should work to with relevant organizations in order to address the underlying cause of homelessness in individuals – whether it is mental health or unemployment. One resource in preventing homelessness is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program. This program provides the homeless with rental assistance and clinical services. Other sources of homeless prevention include non-profits. For instance, Atlanta Mission, the city's biggest and oldest provider of homeless services, provides the homeless with emergency and temporary shelter, programs for recovery, transitional housing, and aid in job attainment. Atlanta Mission is mostly funded by individual donations. The city can work with similar nonprofits in order to combat homelessness.
Montgomery: We must begin with changing how homelessness is viewed. Treating the homeless as residents and not a plague, will open more creative ideas for helping the disenfranchised. I have worked with many homeless individuals before, and some are only an "address" away from being off the street. What do I mean? Many are approved for disability benefits, but cannot receive them because they have no physical address. They have no physical address, because they cannot receive their benefits. This problem can be solved by partnering with local programs that offer these types of services. Also I would like to create partnerships with small business owners to create a database of ready and willing laborers to help get the skilled homeless off the street. They may have simply lost a job, a family member, or their will. In most cases, many just need a little help getting on solid footing.
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?
Shook: I am Council's biggest supporter of this program, which in other cities has been absolutely transformational. If executed property--which also means ACTING on unflattering data instead of HIDING it--this will be Mayor Reed's greatest accomplishment, regardless of what else he may do. It is also our last best hope to shine a light on those who work hard & well without adequate compensation, and those who have been floating for years. Council offices will be able to follow on-line the status of constituent complaints and the effectiveness of those responsible for addressing them. The charade known as employee evaluations, in which less than one-half of one percent of employees are rated as Needing Improvement, might finally end.
Haque: I will always remain available to residents and businesses in District 7.
Montgomery: I believe it is still important to be connected to the residents and business owners in your district. Hopefully the transition will be smooth, but I never want to make myself unavailable to the residents that elect me to represent the district's best interests. Sometimes simply returning a phone call or email gives that resident the assurance that it is fine to rely on the new system because they know it is being monitored. It does no one any good to implement a new system if things still never get done.
What can you bring to the Atlanta City Council that it currently lacks?
Shook: I assume this question is for challengers.
Haque: As an Atlanta native who has grown up in District 7, I will bring a fresh perspective to the Atlanta City Council that will focus on the needs and desires of the residents.
Montgomery: Atlanta's current leaders lack the people's trust and have no passion. First and foremost I am not a politician. I am man who said enough is enough. The time for political games and posturing is over. Voters are tired of hearing empty promises, witnessing back-hand deals, supporting leaders with severe character flaws. I have vested interest in seeing my community prosper in all areas. I am a concerned husband, father, businessman, and resident of Buckhead. There is a saying that goes, "be the change that you desire to see." I am running to voice the real concerns of my neighbors, business owners, and most of all, families, in District 7. We want safer streets, better opportunities for entrepreneurs, and to be able to work with the School Board to create a better educational experience for our kids and future leaders of this city. It is my belief that if we want to create a better city, we must start with family. Cities and Districts are made up of families, if families are prospering socially, financially, and in all areas, they become overall healthy contributors to the city. The healthier families become as a whole, the more viable the city and districts become. We must get back to the basics of community and spearhead efforts that contribute to that goal. This goal is my passion, and my District 7 friends and supporters deserve to have a voice in City Hall that does not desire to do politics as usual, but a person with sincere care and love for the people he represents.
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?
Shook: I believe it is the tenuous nature of our water supply. The intense interest in this created by a long drought and the 'Water Wars' lawsuits seems to have completely evaporated. We should be using this time on behalf of Atlanta's future to lock in access to a dependable and legally bullet-proof water supply.
Haque: Creating safe, pedestrian friendly environments in Atlanta is key to ensuring sustainable growth in our city. Atlanta must address the $152 million backlog of damaged sidewalks as well work to ensure that our citizens are living in safe environments across the city.
Montgomery: I believe if people really paid attention to how much trash is on the streets they would be appalled. No one wants to live in a dirty house; we have to clean our streets. We may be home to the "dirty birds" but that does not mean we should not keep the nest clean. We have to take pride in our neighborhoods, one home at a time. I would definitely address this, and am actively creating an opportunity to hire high school students to teach them responsibility and service by keeping their city clean.
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?
Shook: This is a very long-term project, which should be obvious now if it wasn't ten years ago. The #1 challenge for BeltLine 'deciders' is to keep the public behind it, which can be done only if the City styles it as a ring of projects driven by the community and not developers. As an investment tool this TAD has clearly been successful, as the numbers attest.
Haque: Did not respond.
Montgomery: I would create open forums to breakdown the complexity of the plans to make them easy to understand. Most of what usually gets agreed to in these kinds of projects gets lost in translation. Current administration has not done the best job keeping its residents informed. It will take a concentrated effort, but we owe this information to the people it will affect and benefit. I will be the District 7 spokesman, it will be my job to make sure everyone in my district is invited and understands the conversation.
What's your favorite part of the district you want to represent? What's your least favorite part that you hope to change?
Shook: Although a crucial route, Piedmont Road has always been treated as a plow mule (with Peachtree Road being a thoroughbred). Plans have been drawn up to re-engineer and beautify it, which would in turn activate the live-work-play character envisioned for it. The best part is my street, from which we can get to all sorts of cool bustling places in 10 minutes, yet on which a kid can learn to ride a bicycle.
Haque: District 7 is home to an amazing group of families and individuals. I look forward to representing their interests on the Atlanta City Council while making our District more accessible and family friendly.
Montgomery: I love the bustling and beautiful area around Lenox mall. I look forward to making it more walk/bike friendly. Also, I am looking forward to creating a more community based environment in the area. My least favorite is the amount of trash and debris that riddles our beautiful neighborhoods and streets. I want to get on top of that starting Day 1. I am already actively sponsoring initiatives to clean up around Pine Hills where I live. Also making sure common areas stay mowed and manicured is important to the overall feel of the area. If we are to be the Beverly Hills of the South, we need to at least keep our grass cut!
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?
Shook: The City & State require a number of annual forms disclosing personal & professional financial data, and political campaigns have their own reporting requirements. None of it matters if: you are by nature a crook; if the media doesn't monitor it; or if the public doesn't care. As one who ran in no small measure as a reaction to the Campbell years, and representing a district once held by someone sent to federal prison for airport-related corruption, I believe that folks here consider ethical behavior to be very important, even though it worries me that they are overly reliant on a lazy press to report it.
Haque: Atlanta has been exposed in the press multiple times due to mismanagement of personal information, federal grants, and taxpayer dollars. This continued mismanagement stems from a lack of transparency in the City and how it operates. Atlanta must place and follow proper protocols while its employees and officials are held responsible for misuse of City resources. If elected to City Council, I will work to ensure that the City becomes more transparent and strict with regards to its ethics practices.
Montgomery: I believe ethics and transparency are the key pillars to separating yourself from the ranks of the dishonest leaders of present and past. A city is only as good as its leaders, because they make the decisions that affect the people. I recognize that public service is a very demanding and difficult job. Your every move is on stage and every remark highlighted. Although in light of the current sentiment of the majority, which believes many elected officials are unscrupulous individuals, we must tighten up our transparency practices and set clear expectations for our elected officials. The people deserve better.
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