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: Aaron Watson
Occupation: Corporate attorney, Atlanta City Council Post 2 At-Large
Hometown: South Bend, IN
Name: Mary Norwood
Occupation: Business owner
Neighborhood: Tuxedo Park
Hometown: Augusta, Georgia
What is the most pressing issue facing your district? If elected (or re-elected), how would you try and address it?
Watson: During my first term on Atlanta City Council, our executive and legislative bodies have worked in a collaborative manner to address the central issues of financial management and public safety.
Atlanta was the first major city nationwide to resolve its pension liabilities – a savings of nearly $20 million annually. Our operating expenditures have been reduced by approximately 16 percent and we have substantially increased operating cash reserves.
Not only are we a fiscally prudent city today, we are also a safer city. Over 800 police officers have been hired since 2010, bringing the force to nearly 2,000 officers. Crime is at historically low rates. The City must work in concert with our residents, local businesses and our public schools in tackling the perception of crime in our communities.
There is no doubt we have made tremendous strides in just one term, and there is more that must be done. As a citywide Council member, I believe there are three issues facing the City that we cannot afford to ignore.
Transportation and Infrastructure
The City of Atlanta must simultaneously tackle its aging transportation infrastructure and invest in alternative modes of transportation. We must invest in making Atlanta a walkable, bicycle-friendly and transit-centric city for everyone – students, senior citizens, and our expanding workforce. Next year, the City will seek to purchase approximately $250 million in bonds to repair crumbling bridges, worn roads, broken sidewalks and other infrastructure needs. My office is researching the feasibility of implementing a parking levy that would bring in $40-60 million annually to the General Fund that could provide for an aggressive timeline to address the needs outlined in Connect Atlanta, the City's comprehensive transportation plan.
Cities across the country are currently debating the notion of urban affordability and its correlation to our quality of life. While on the board of the Atlanta Housing Authority, I supported replacing public housing facilities that functioned as isolated silos that bred crime and discouraged family advancement.
The Atlanta BeltLine and the creation of Tax Allocation Districts have allowed us to rethink affordable housing and reduce the risk of creating concentrated pockets of poor and low-income housing. As we encourage residential development in the city, we should not be artificially restricted to the common practice of 20 percent of units designated for affordable housing. In determining what kind of City we want to leave for the next generations, I support exploring the possibilities of higher percentages of affordable housing units as the economics allow.
Education and Workforce Development
For Atlanta to retain its college graduates and attract high quality jobs we must improve the quality of K-12 education system. The City's legislative and executive branches need improved collaboration, shared accountability and consistent communication with the Atlanta Board of Education and the administration of the Atlanta Public Schools.
Norwood: Since I am running citywide for Post 2-At-Large, I feel that the entire city of Atlanta is my district. Safety remains the most pressing issue for our entire city. For our city to grow and our citizens to thrive, we need to feel safe in our homes, our communities, and throughout this great city.
The crime statistics seem to show that crime is coming down; however, when I am travelling the city for this campaign, our citizens are concerned. The random crime is alarming, causing apprehension and fear in neighborhoods all over the city.
The fact that we have hired more police is admirable, but I'm concerned about the deployment and retention of our officers. We need trained, mature officers to help with our new recruits. Atlanta has excellent training and spends tens of thousands of dollars on training of every officer, but we are losing too many of them to other jurisdictions. Both compensation and operational issues must be addressed, and if re-elected to City Council, I will be actively involved in resolving these issues.
Recently there was an issue regarding 911 calls that had to be rerouted between Fulton and Dekalb Counties. When precious minutes are wasted through communication errors, this is unacceptable.
The Video Integration Center with its surveillance camera system has given our police force important information in apprehending perpetrators. If re-elected, I will advocate for cameras in all areas that are traveled by our citizens, including our neighborhood commercial districts all over the city.
In addition to our police, we must make sure that our first responders have the tools that they need to protect the health and safety of our citizens. Public Safety is paramount for our city to thrive and continue to attract new businesses and residents.
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?
Watson: As a citywide policy maker, I view public safety from both a micro and macro lens as it includes cooperation from county, state and federal authorities. Presently, we are only four police officers short of our goal of having 2,000 officers on the force – a first for Atlanta. As a result of the current Council and administration making public safety priority number one, over the past four years, violent crime has been reduced by 17 percent.
In addressing the perception of crime, we must use the data appropriately to address concerns and educate the public on those areas most affected. While police presence is key, citizen involvement in creating a safer Atlanta is no less so. Other concerns that impact perception include blight and even broader issues such as drug and human trafficking. The micro issue of code enforcement of abandoned homes and vacant lots impacts the broader perception of public safety.
Additionally, providing our young people with a learning environment that meets their needs and safe after-school options are also micro issues with a wider impact. Enhancing and supporting our community policing program and the Centers of Hope will continue to have a significant impact.
Furthermore, it is no secret the county court system has served as revolving door for repeat offenders who show complete disregard for society. It is imperative that the City and County aggressively tackle this issue.
Ultimately, we will continue to confront the perception of crime through collaboration – with Atlanta citizens, APS, Fulton County, and state and federal organizations.
Norwood: See above answer.
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?
Watson: In March when I joined the majority of the Atlanta City Council to send the new stadium financing to the next level of approval, I voted to support a project that will bring tourism and construction jobs to the City while preserving our financial stability and the quality of the neighborhoods that surround the project. Prior to casting my vote, I met with community leaders and read numerous emails from constituents.
The Council's amendments, which I helped develop, guarantee that the City will not be responsible for cost or operating overruns by ensuring no public dollars from the General Fund will be used on this project. The stadium neighborhoods will also benefit from a broadly interpreted amendment that includes a draft community benefits agreement that clearly shows the Council has heard the public's concerns.
Council action extended the hotel motel tax (HMT) by 30 years. I consistently raised questions regarding the HMT revenue stream. Current state law mandates that 39.3 percent of the HMT be used for debt service and operation and maintenance of a stadium. The public contribution towards construction of the proposed new stadium will be $200 million in the form of a revenue bond secured by the HMT. Additionally, an undetermined amount -- referred to as the "Waterfall" -- is comprised of the funds remaining after bond repayments. Among other things, the Waterfall will go to reserves, operations and maintenance of the new stadium. I hope that the City, State and community stakeholders will work together to allow a portion of the Waterfall to be used for ongoing community needs over the life of the new stadium -- especially if the proceeds exceed initial projections. I am referring to this potential excess as the "Windfall" -- which is the difference between the actual revenue generated over the life of the HMT and the payments for the reserves, operation and maintenance costs.
While I raised questions about the amount of HMT revenue stream, especially the value of the Waterfall portion, I decided to vote for the financing based on: (1) the General Fund protections added by Council, (2) the requirements for the negotiation of a community benefits agreement before distribution of any proceeds from the HMT backed bonds, and (3) my support for our region's largest and growing employment sector, tourism.
For the reasons above, bolstered by the state requirement that the entire 39.3% of the HMT revenue stream go entirely to such a project, I believe our decision is in the best interest of the City of Atlanta.
Norwood: From my previous years on City Council, I know enough not to venture a guess as to how I would've voted. Experience tells me our present council members were privy to countless reports, studies, memorandums, lively discussions, and debates that led them to their decision. Since I was not privy to all of the internal reports, studies, and discussions, I feel that it is inappropriate for me to take a position on a decision that is now fait accompli.
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?
Watson: The rejection of the regional transportation referendum was a consequential loss for Atlanta and the region. The capital city is central to our state's commerce and we cannot afford to bear the burden alone of providing safe, reliable transportation options for commuters.
Regional leaders must come together once more to determine a viable funding mechanism for addressing our existing transportation infrastructure needs while simultaneously expanding transportation options. In the interim, our state representatives are exploring how to make the transit experience as seamless as possible across the numerous agencies. Additionally, under new leadership, MARTA is making significant efforts to improve the rider experience and increase service frequency.
In less than six months, the first phase of the Atlanta Streetcar is scheduled to open for service. Our signature street, Peachtree, and the ever-popular Old Fourth Ward neighborhood will be home to the first rail project within the City limits since MARTA.
The City is also vigorously pursuing federal funding for public transit along the Atlanta BeltLine and we are establishing a robust bicycle network, addressing the critical issue of last-mile connectivity.
As our regional leaders brainstorm on "Plan B", the City of Atlanta could consider the implementation of a parking user fee that may provide additional funding to build and improve upon our transportation infrastructure while encouraging us to drive less often to our destinations.
Norwood: There are two issues: one is within our city limits, we must work to resolve traffic congestion in the areas where it exists. The second is the larger regional gridlock that exists on our interstates and in our suburbs.
There are many roadways in our city which provide mobility today, and I travel them frequently. Other parts of our city, including the one in which I live, has gridlock during many hours of the day. We can't "widen" our way out of congestion; we must redevelop our city so that we learn from the mistakes of the past. I have been a proponent of new urbanism principles for many years and am delighted to see these principles becoming more widely known and appreciated.
Atlanta is a city that was built for cars. In a city full of cars, there is no quick fix for gridlock traffic. As the city continues to grow, we need to make sure that we create new density that doesn't exacerbate existing congestion. Traffic signalization needs to be deployed to assist in congestion. And we need to evaluate the traffic flow issues caused by off-duty officers who are hired to "move traffic quickly" for individual entities, but which may produce unintended consequences creating gridlock on nearby streets.
As a councilmember, I was proud to support the Beltline and will continue to fully support system expansion for transit, bike, and pedestrian trails, and the creation of WalkUPs – Walkable Urban Places.
Traffic doesn't stop at county borders, city lines, or at the Chattahoochee. While MARTA, the CCT, and the GCT systems function well enough, I would like to see a coordinated Atlanta area transportation system that envelopes the entire scope of our city and region. Paramount is developing solutions to clear our interstates and roadways quickly of traffic accidents.
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?
Watson: There is much national debate on cities taking on social issues such as homelessness. Thanks to an innovation delivery grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, we have experienced success in providing for our homeless population – particularly homeless veterans. However, we will have to work with Fulton County, the state and other non-profit partners to provide supportive housing as we have done with the Gateway Center, the Veterans Administration and United Way of Greater Atlanta.
Ultimately, we must ask what is often the source of this problem – mental health. Like other matters of regional concern, we cannot meaningfully tackle homelessness by ourselves, which is why the Regional Commission on Homelessness was created.
Norwood: Mayor Kasim Reed's Atlanta Homeless Registry has made strides in working with our homeless population. Through information gleaned from the survey, Atlanta will now be in a position to prioritize support when it comes to finding permanent housing for homeless families with the highest risk of dying on the street or just disappearing.
In collecting information for the registry and in face-to-face contact with the homelessness, determinations can be made as to cause; i.e., mental illness, unemployment, addiction, personality disorder; and the best avenue of treatment. Although the Atlanta City Charter states no monies from the General Fund can be used for the homeless, we can certainly act as a reference source for possible aid. By combining the efforts and support of the public, private, and not-for-profit communities, we can match each individual situation to the agency/organization that is best positioned to address immediate needs and future assistance.
In addition, I have been an advocate for work programs for our underemployed and homeless men and women. The "Working for a Clean Atlanta" program hired dozens of individuals who preferred to work rather than panhandling. In a city as industrious as Atlanta, everyone should be able to contribute to our city's well-being. I believe that a coordinated work program (with numerous types of work opportunities) can be a viable and valuable component to a comprehensive solution to this seemingly intractable problem.
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?
Watson: Typically constituents reach out to their district Council member for common issues such as trash pick up or broken traffic lights. As a citywide Council member, I generally receive constituent concerns that are far more nuanced and require creative solutions such as zoning and land use matters.
The 311 call center will not change my continued responsiveness to constituent concerns and requests. Rather, I believe the service will streamline our interdepartmental communications as we internally navigate how best to resolve each resident's concerns.
Norwood: I am hopeful that the new 311 call center will help free up council members and enable them to concentrate their efforts to solve larger, community- and city-based issues. As a recipient of many of those trash/traffic-light phone calls, I am very familiar with the frustration levels our constituents experience.
I recognize the fact that when constituents call their councilmember, they have reached their breaking point and feel there is no other place to turn. Quite frankly, I welcome those calls. I want to see their issue solved. I want to know what concerns them. And I will work closely with the Administration and my colleagues to resolve all issues that are brought to my attention.
What can you bring to the Atlanta City Council that it currently lacks?
Watson: My decisions to pursue public service opportunities have always been driven by seeing a need. When I chose to run for the Atlanta School Board, I did so as a father of three young children growing up in the district at a time when the board had a particular need for competent, collaborative leadership.
Four years ago, I offered myself for the Post 2 citywide seat because of the particular challenges facing the City. I knew my financial acumen and creative problem solving fit the challenges. I did not run for this seat just to be an office holder or to reach another rung in the political ladder. Rather, I knew what needed to be done and I was prepared to make the courageous decisions.
We will be faced with similarly challenging issues in the next term – funding transportation and infrastructure needs, strengthening our school system, tackling our unfunded other post-employment benefits (OPEB) and other looming policy and operational matters such as the possible annexation of Druid Hills. Addressing these matters will require competent, courageous leadership and strong financial and legal experience – both of which I provide.
Norwood: If re-elected to City-wide Post 2 as an independent voice, I will bring an unbiased opinion, free from political pressure to our debates. My life, my campaign, and what I stand for, is an open book. This was certainly true during my previous years of tenure on the council, and nothing has changed. I don't and never have made political deals to curry favor. I only want what is best for Atlanta and our citizens. I believe in people before politics. Potholes are not partisan.
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?
Watson: Much like pension reform was the signature fiscal matter facing the City in this first term, addressing our $1.4 billion unfunded additional post-employment benefits (OPEB) liability will be a priority next term. The liability is not currently shown on the books. We will pull together an expert panel to advise how best to manage the costs and the Council and the Administration – with employee input – will ultimately select the option that best meets our objective.
Norwood: One of my greatest concerns is the appearance of commercial corridors in our city with their stretches of abandoned strip malls, absentee landlords, and trash everywhere. Our citizens deserve better. All over our city, citizens are maintaining their property, while the nearby structures are allowed to deteriorate and negatively impact the community. Both Code Enforcement and Public Works have a role to play in addressing this issue, and I will work with my colleagues and these departments to make real progress on this.
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?
Watson: The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most important developments in our City's history. It is a fundamental innovation just as the airport was under Mayor Hartsfield – and we want to get it right the first time.
As I have previously with BeltLine projects, I will continue to encourage developers and the associated community to work together to find solutions that work for all and positively impact the overall purpose of this transformative development. This includes encouraging affordable housing, senior housing, safe connectivity to public transit, and additional green space.
Norwood: The presence of a big-box retail giant is totally incongruous with the very spirit in which the Beltline was conceived. In my mind, the Beltline is sacred ground and I have proudly supported it since its inception. How can we not be thrilled and want to maintain a vibrant, sustainable, living, connective presence?
From the beginning, I have advocated for appropriately-scaled density, so that connectivity "across the tracks" and into the neighborhoods will be preserved. In the interim, while I have not been a member of the City Council, much progress has been made regarding the Beltline. However, there are areas where the zoning was not updated, causing the current problem of big-box development near Glenwood. If re-elected to City Council, I will immediately put together a Task Force to review our Land Use and Zoning code to make sure that our laws match our intentions to redevelop Atlanta in an ecologically-friendly, sustainable manner. The Beltline will be at the top of my list.
What's your favorite part of the district you want to represent? What's your least favorite part that you hope to change?
Watson: As a reminder, I serve in an at-large capacity and certainly cannot select a favorite part of the City; our districts offer distinct amenities and experiences. What I most enjoy about the City at large is the diversity of our neighborhoods, the opportunities provided by transformational projects such as the Atlanta Streetcar and the Atlanta BeltLine and our promising bicycling infrastructure.
The opportunities these projects provide allow us to address collectively and collaboratively our pockets of economic despair through aggressive code enforcement, community-oriented projects, and creative place-making.
Norwood: Atlanta has many neighborhoods with distinct flavors, complexities, and personalities, and during my previous years on the council and during my mayoral campaign, I was in almost all of them...in every part of the city.
Senseless crime against my constituents and friends is what worries me the most. I worry that one more break-in, one more robbery, one more shooting and the neighborhood will become disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disappear from the radar. If elected, I would like to continue my campaign for more cops on the beat, a faster response time for 911 calls, and the establishment of stronger neighborhood policing and the installation of cameras.
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?
Watson: The City has extensive open records and open meetings laws that we adhere to by mandate. Additionally, Council members file annual disclosure reports with the City and the State. I believe that more can be done to share data within our various City departments.
Norwood: The basis of my entire campaign is transparency in government. I want to participate in an open city council, free from closed-door deals and questionable fiscal accounting. If elected, I will be totally straightforward with my fellow members, and expect the same in return.
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