It's a shame that residents of Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow's district voted last November to give her another four years at City Hall. There was a chance to bring in new blood to a historic part of town that needs new energy. Instead it's stuck with the same tired ideas that have served the district since 1993 — not to mention embarrassing headlines.
Last week, the AJC reported that Winslow paid tens of thousands of public dollars to a landscaping firm to mow lawns in her district. She's also accused of using her council expense account to pay homeless people for what could arguably be called shadow campaigning.
Winslow's been warned and fined by city ethics officials in past years for using public cash to campaign. Her actions are a reminder of the sad reality that economically challenged communities, some of which make up Winslow's district, often end up with ineffective leadership. In neighborhoods that suffer from such systemic issues as historic redlining, lack of economic development, low property values, a weakened tax base, and negligent public services, Winslow should be providing solutions. Instead she's part of the problem.
The AJC and WSB-TV reports said that Winslow had paid more than $65,000 over five years to Richro Lawn Service to cut grass in southwest Atlanta, including lots along Richro owner Roy Davis' street, across from Winslow's house, and another owned by a campaign donor.
In a separate story, the paper and news station quoted homeless people who claim Winslow hired them to pick up trash while wearing shirts emblazoned with her name. She reportedly paid them $5 an hour, less than the federal minimum wage. When the job was done, the homeless people claim, Winslow took the T-shirts back. And, prior to her arrest in 2013 for driving under the influence — she plead guilty in February — she also used her expense account to buy lots of gas.
Since the news broke, Winslow hasn't thoroughly explained what happened. She walked away from cameras when approached by a news crew after a committee meeting. She claims the cash to pay the homeless people came from her campaign account, but the reporter found discrepancies in her campaign dislcosures.
If the allegations are true, the blame lies squarely on Winslow. But the city should share in some of that red face. Why City Hall officials didn't tell Winslow to rein in the spending boggles the mind. Councilmembers have valid purchases to make to aid constituents, but the city needs stronger safeguards to prevent the kind of year-round campaigning that these budgets allow. The city shouldn't pay so she stays in office, earning a more than $50,000-a-year salary — she could set aside her own cash. Or raise funds. Instead she's sparked a call for ethics reform. City Council President Ceasar Mitchell told the AJC he planned to discuss potential reforms. Meanwhile, the city's ethics officer is reportedly investigating.
What Winslow's doing isn't just wrong, it gives her an advantage in elections. Torry Lewis, Winslow's challenger in the 2013 election, helped sound the alarm about discrepancies in the councilwoman's spending. The 30-year-old Clark Atlanta University Ph.D. student told WSB-TV that "it's always hard to run a campaign against someone who can buy an army with city money."
Winslow isn't the only elected official engaged in this kind of spending. In neighboring DeKalb County, commissioners are under fire for misusing government-issued purchasing cards on lunches and charity gifts. Other councilmembers have used their office accounts to donate to favored nonprofits, behavior that raised watchdogs' concerns in March. One could make a case that every action taken in office is campaigning on the public's dime. Regardless, these expenditures need to come out of councilmembers' personal or campaign accounts — not pots of public funding.
For decades, residents of southwest Atlanta neighborhoods have fought for city officials to crack down on absentee landlords, litter, and blighted houses that attract crime. Winslow is not to blame for all those problems. But she's done little to address them.
Winslow could have worked with Atlanta Police on the incredibly difficult task of tracking down neglectful property owners to force them to clean up their problem lots. Or crafted policy to address the issue. Or launched a public campaign about littering. Or started a conversation questioning why it is that the city's more prosperous communities never seem to have to plead for services.
If the allegations are true, the best thing that could happen would be for Winslow to resign from the City Council. The downside, however, would be that taxpayers would have to pay for a special election so soon after last November's municipal elections. We doubt that'd happen.
Southwest Atlanta is quickly changing. The Atlanta Beltline's Westside Trail, part of which runs through Winslow's district, should start construction this year. West End commercial property owners are reinvesting in the historic neighborhood. District 4 deserves an effective leader. The city should review each and every councilmember's account to make sure these embarrassing expenditures stop happening. And the community should feel empowered to recruit candidates that want to do more. Winslow's had more than 20 years to try.
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