Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Should City Council candidates resign from Beltline, ADA boards?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 8, 2009 at 5:22 PM

Leading up to Liz Coyle's jump into the District 6 race for Atlanta City Council, there were questions as to whether the Atkins Park resident would have to resign from her position as community representative on the Beltline board of directors.

click to enlarge Candidate Liz Coyle
  • Candidate Liz Coyle

At first Coyle planned to step down from the post, a nonpaying, citywide gig to which the Council appoints a community member. Then, at a monthly meeting of an advisory board tasked with overseeing how taxpayer dollars are spent on the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit, Coyle told members she was advised by the Atlanta Development Authority's counsel that she didn't have to.

Neither does Alex Wan, one of Coyle's many opponents in the District 6 race. He serves on the ADA's TAD and finance committees. (Here's a list of ADA board members.)

Some residents, however, are raising questions in the politically active district (and in the comments of Fresh Loaf posts). Some of them deal with confusion over the candidates' status on the boards, others involve concerns that candidate still serving on boards could pose a potential conflict of interest.

Can Coyle and Wan run for office and serve on the boards? Yes, they can. To understand why, you've gotta examine ADA's organizational structure.

Before we begin, keep in mind that District 6, which includes Midtown and Morningside, is a neighborhood that stays abreast of development issues. Currently, strong concerns exist about how the Beltline, which the ADA and city support, will impact the nearby neighborhoods. The project hugs Piedmont Park and will snake north to Ansley Park. Since planning for the area in the most advanced stages, it's likely to see the most progress. (The final study group for the area will be held on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Hillside facility on Monroe Drive.)

Beltline study groups and presentations in the neighborhood often turn to the topic of density — the residents want to know how much there's gonna be and where it's gonna go. Concerns remain over the proposed vision for the area and the public's role in crafting those plans. It's such a hot-button topic that Steve Brodie, another District 6 candidate, recently solicited resident input at a meeting. (Here are the results and comments from his survey.)

There's a sneaking suspicion among a few residents — voiced in conversations with CL as well as during study groups — that the project could tilt in the favor of developers, and that single-family homes could be shadowed by high-rises. In 2004, the neighborhood fought — and won — a battle over that very issue with Gwinnett County developer Wayne Mason and his plans for tall towers at the corner of 10th Street and Monroe Drive (Coyle was the neighborhood's most vocal opponent against Mason's plans). Last year's $66 million payout to Mason for the key property and transit right-of-way in Northeast Atlanta — the same property that caused a firestorm of controversy when the Georgia Department of Transportation and Amtrak tried to halt the abandonment process — only added fuel to the conspiratorial fire. Residents want the Beltline to adhere to its original visions, which a ground-up community-engaged effort that'll bring smart development, added greenspace and (eventually) transit to the area.

click to enlarge Candidate Alex Wan
  • Candidate Alex Wan

Now, meet the Atlanta Development Authority. It's a quasi-governmental agency created by the state to help boost development and growth in the city. It can issue bonds, dole out tax breaks, and offer financing for housing programs.

Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit entity tasked with planning and implementing the smart-growth project, works in cooperation with ADA. The Beltline board oversees the project's direction and vision. Its offices are housed inside the ADA's downtown headquarters

Here's what Veronica Jones, the ADA's attorney, told CL in an email last week:

ADA is not a municipal entity. ADA is a public corporation of the State of Georgia, separate and independent from the City of Atlanta. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that our operating budget does not receive any funding from the city. We are an instrumentality of the city of Atlanta, in that we do work for the economic benefit of the city of Atlanta, but we are not the city of Atlanta.

It's also inaccurate to say that Atlanta BeltLine Inc., "is under the ADA umbrella." Certainly, they perform services for the BeltLine project on our behalf, however technically, they are a seperate Georgia non-profit. Furthermore, Atlanta BeltLine Inc., is not an entity of the city.

You'll often see ABI — and the ADA — referred to as such, however, including in these pages. The entities work closely together. Mayor Shirley Franklin is the vice-chair of the Beltline board and chairs the ADA board. LaChandra Butler Burks, who represents District 5 of Atlanta Public Schools, also sits on the board. (Bet that whole negotiating over TAD funding was awkward, eh?) Councilmember Jim Maddox sits on the board as well.

And that's where some of the confusion — and a little bit of resident frustration — comes in. All these entities are separate in legal definition, but many people view them as one and the same. But since the ABI and ADA boards aren't municipal entities, Atlanta's civil service code — which states that city employees and Council-appointed board members must resign when they announce their candidacy for elected office — doesn't apply. Neither do state ethics laws.

Coyle — who notes that she resigned from Neighborhood Planning Unit F when she announced her candidacy — says she's heard nothing but support from people who discover she won't have to resign from the Beltline board. She adds that her campaign for District 6 will be entirely separate from her work on the Beltline board. If wins the seat, she will resign from the Beltline board of directors when she takes office in January. If people do have a concern, she says, she'd be happy to discuss it with them.

A spokesman for Alex Wan's campaign told CL last week via email that he also sought the advice from the ADA's lawyers and the city's ethics office. Wan's not required to resign, but will if he wins the Council seat.

On a related note, Project Q Atlanta yesterday got its hands on the District 6 campaign disclosure reports. Here's what it found:

Wan raised $51,421.50 during the period, compared to $21,325 for Brodie (right photo) and $3,101 for Liz Coyle, one of two non-gay candidates in the race. Miguel Gallegos, a gay man who joined the race in mid June, said Monday that he wasn’t yet required to file a disclosure statement. Bahareh Azizi announced her campaign after the end of the latest filing deadline.

Much of Wan's contributions came from community and nonprofit leaders and politicians, Project Q reports. Brodie received contributions from developers. Coyle's received contributions from high-profile gay activists.

(Coyle photo by Joeff Davis, Wan photo courtesy Alex Wan For Atlanta)

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