Wednesday, June 29, 2016

City Hall auditor says process to prevent conflicts of interest could use a tune-up

Posted By on Wed, Jun 29, 2016 at 1:25 PM

  • Joeff Davis/CL File
Each year, city officials, employees, and some citizens serving on boards and agencies are required to disclose information about their personal finances and income, including what real estate they own. These disclosures are a way to monitor conflicts of interest and make sure employees don't try to enjoy personal gains from public service. It's about transparency. More than 1,700 were filed in 2014 and you can search them here.

But according to a report by City Auditor Leslie Ward, some of these disclosures omitted key information. In an audit delivered last week to the Atlanta City Council, Ward said that the city code is not entirely clear on how the disclosure process is supposed to go, disclosures are not checked for accuracy, and the ambiguity has exposed “the city to risk of non-compliance with disclosure requirements.”

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Planning chief's overhaul of stretched-thin department meets pushback from some councilmembers

Posted By and on Tue, Jun 14, 2016 at 12:35 PM

Planning Commissioner Tim Keane - ERIC CASH/CL FILE
  • Eric Cash/CL File
  • Planning Commissioner Tim Keane

When Johnny Martinez and Brandon Ley started Joystick Gamebar, it took approximately 10 months to obtain a building permit from the city. When they decided to open a second business, the Georgia Beer Garden, it took 14 months. The delay ended up costing them a little over $60,000, Martinez says.

“And we followed the rules,” Martinez said during a June 8 Atlanta City Council meeting. “Some people don’t follow the rules [to get these permits]. But I don’t think someone should be punished for following the rules.”

For Tim Keane, the commissioner of Atlanta’s department of planning and community development, these stories are not news. In fact, Keane says, the department and city council often hear grievances about many of the tasks they oversee. Chief Operating Officer Dan Gordon said that he hears an “escalated” amount of complaints about the job that DPCD does compared to other city departments.

Keane has a plan to overhaul the department, a move that has been met with some resistance in City Hall. Last week, the commissioner briefed some members of the Atlanta City Council about his plans to reorganize the department, a move he says will help the staff do their jobs. But some councilmembers, particularly Councilman C.T. Martin, pushed back against his plans.

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

In a tight state House race, a few bungled ballots can mean victory or defeat

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2016 at 2:36 PM

Votes are important. And every vote should be counted. But when you're talking about a presidential election, when millions of people visit the polls, a few dozen voters being given the wrong ballot probably won't change the outcome too much.

That changes at the local level, when turnout is low and every vote really counts. And in an upcoming runoff to represent House District 59, an awkwardly shaped swath of land that stretches from Atlanta and into South Fulton, there's pressure on county and state officials to make sure people are casting ballots in the district where they reside.

About 31 East Point voters from the area near Fort McPherson were given and voted using incorrect ballots in the state House Democratic primary election that ended on May 24. Either voters who lived in the contested 59th district got a ballot for the adjacent 60th district, or vice-versa. Perhaps about 30 Atlantans from a precinct along Forrest Hills Drive just north of Hapeville also might have been given an incorrect ballot, though Fulton County election officials are still checking into that case.

Sixty suddenly seems big when you consider the primary results in the 59th: Janine Brown received 1,650 votes, David Dreyer 1,610 and Josh Noblitt 896. If Brown and Dreyer are as evenly matched in the July 26 runoff as they were primary, a handful of votes could make a difference.

Brown’s campaign manager Casie Yoder said the team was disappointed that the faulty balloting happened. “When you have these types of problems in Fulton County, which, this is not the first time something like this has happened, I think it really, it kind of makes people doubt the system,” she said.

“It’s a bad situation," Dreyer said. "Some people have voted in a primary election and now they can’t vote in that same primary runoff.” He blames Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the elected official whose office oversees elections statewide. “This is their job to get this right,” said Dreyer.

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Say hello to Kishia Powell, Atlanta's new watershed commissioner

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 10:36 AM

Jackson Public Works Director Kishia Powell in a January 2016 briefing about water sampling - CITY OF JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI
  • City of Jackson, Mississippi
  • Jackson Public Works Director Kishia Powell in a January 2016 briefing about water sampling
We've got bad news for CL readers who sent their resumes to Mayor Kasim Reed to compete for that open Department of Watershed Management gig.   

Reed yesterday announced that he's tapped Kishia Powell, the public works director of Jackson, Mississippi, to succeed Jo Ann Macrina at the cash-flush department in charge of Atlanta's water and sewer lines. 

According to a statement released by Reed, Powell has more than 17 years experience in "sustainable infrastructure management" — think retention ponds, permeable pavers, and other projects designed to reduce flooding and help the environment — "and utility operations."

“I am pleased to have Kishia L. Powell join the Administration as Commissioner of our Department of Watershed Management,” Reed said in a statement. “She brings to us a wealth of senior leadership and operating experience in water and wastewater utilities and I am confident she will enhance the Department’s focus on efficiency and improving customer service."

Powell oversaw eight departments in her Jackson job ranging from engineering to sewer operations. According to the bio provided by the city, her work experience has prepared her for DWM, a mammoth and dysfunctional department with a sizable budget. In addition to making sure Jackson residents have working water and sewer lines, she's overseen the city's consent decree work and cracked down on water theft by eliminating more than 1,700 illegal connections. Powell also established the "Greening the Gateways" program that proposed overhauling some streets for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit users while also addressing infrastructure issues.

Recently, Powell came under scrutiny over allegations her department "steered" contracts to Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber's donors (the Jackson Free Press says the claims were pushed by the mayor's political rivals). Powell rejected those accusations, saying she specifically "had a discussion with [Yarber] (about that) before I came here... No one tells me how to evaluate and assess. And I expect my staff to do the same thing."

Prior to working in Jackson, Powell held leadership jobs in: Gary, Indiana, Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, where she managed the city’s water and wastewater utility and department's $2.2 billion capital improvement plan.

The Atlanta City Council must still confirm Powell. She's scheduled to start the job on June 13. 

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Voters will decide whether to renew APS tax on Tuesday

Posted By on Mon, May 23, 2016 at 10:32 AM

The historic David T. Howard building, which has sat vacant for several years, would be renovated with tax revenues. - JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • The historic David T. Howard building, which has sat vacant for several years, would be renovated with tax revenues.

Voters on May 24 will be asked several heady questions: Who should operate the jail and oversee court security? Which Democrat should face U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the well-funded and popular Republican incumbent, in November? Who knew there was a county surveyor’s race?!?

Ballot casters in Atlanta will also decide whether to renew the E-SPLOST, an existing 1 percent sales tax used to renovate Atlanta Public Schools facilities. If voters approve the measure, the tax would raise approximately $546 million to rehab schools, add high-tech facilities, raze old buildings, upgrade the system’s bus fleet, and help pay for school security.

All of APS' nine clusters would see new investment. Some schools, including southside facilities, would see more than $20 million in new fixes. Approximately $10 million is earmarked to upgrade the old Kennedy Middle School in Vine City, which is planned to become a pre-K-8 STEM academy. 

Cash would also help ease overcrowding in northeast Atlanta's popular Grady cluster, including spending nearly $50 million to renovate and reopen the historic David T. Howard Building in the Old Fourth Ward as a middle school. (Here are more specifics about E-SPLOST projects.)

“To create a true transformation of education in Atlanta, we must do the same for the physical infrastructure of APS with better and safer learning and working facilities for our students and educators," APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said in a statement. “But this is more than updating and maintaining buildings. This is about reinvesting in our kids and ensuring they study in environments conducive to learning and achievement.”

If voters reject the measure? Well, that’s one penny less they will pay with every dollar spent.

NOTE: This post has been altered to correct an error included on an earlier press release regarding the number of school clusters that would benefit from the tax revenues. 

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mayor fires airport GM, watershed commissioner — how's YOUR weekend going?

Posted By on Sat, May 21, 2016 at 7:54 PM

Miguel Southwell (left) and Jo Ann Macrina (right) were let go by Mayor Kasim Reed over the weekend. - CITY OF ATLANTA/JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE
  • City of Atlanta/Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Miguel Southwell (left) and Jo Ann Macrina (right) were let go by Mayor Kasim Reed over the weekend.
We interrupt your rainy and sunny weekend to pass along news of two high-level job openings at City Hall. Two city officials with tremendously important jobs — one overseeing the world's busiest airport, the other making sure our taps keep a-runnin' — have been fired by Mayor Kasim Reed. 

The mayor said last night that Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport General Manager Miguel Southwell's "service... has ended." No specific reason was given, but the AJC's Kelly Yamanouchi has compiled a long rundown of virtually everything that's happened and is in the works at the airport, a huge economic development engine for the metro region and state. Chief among the projects: a $6 billion expansion.

WSB-TV says sources have told the news station that the long security lines at the airport contributed to the firing of Southwell, who's been on the job since 2012. But Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore tells Yamanouchi that "doesn't make any sense." We've heard speculation that the ongoing fight over Uber and Lyft drivers servicing the airport also played a role. But we also were told that's not true.

News also broke this morning that Jo Ann Macrina, the commissioner of the city's Department of Watershed Management, a cabinet official whom many City Hall watchers thought would never be fired based on her ability to emerge unscathed from past controversies, had received a pink slip.

According to WSB-TV, the reasons tie back to "questionable international travel" and "management missteps." The cash-flush agency has had plenty of problems, including employees allegedly stealing equipment, sewage spills, and billing errors. But despite all those controversies, Macrina stayed on the job. Macrina, who previously worked as the deputy head of DeKalb County's watershed, and the department recently came under scrutiny during a recent budget hearing and an appearance before the City Council's utilities committee.   

Roosevelt Council, HJIA's deputy general manager and chief financial officer, will reportedly take the interim GM role at the airport. And media reports say William Johnson, the city's deputy chief operating officer, will serve as interim commissioner of the watershed department. CL advises anyone interested in the two positions to send their resume via Twitter direct message to @kasimreed.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Budget season at City Hall has begun

Posted By on Wed, May 4, 2016 at 12:54 PM

MONEY MONEY: Council started vetting spending plan on May 3 - JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • MONEY MONEY: Council started vetting spending plan on May 3

Atlanta plans to spend some $605 million next fiscal year, up from the $593 million this year, under a budget proposed by Mayor Kasim Reed.

The proposal comes as new businesses and a construction boom generate more cash for Atlanta. City officials estimate that sales tax collections should rise by almost $3 million to $104.3 million for the fiscal year that begins in July. And the city is issuing more residential building permits as property tax revenues climb from a 2013 low.

From that $605 million pot of cash called the “general fund,” police receive the biggest slice, approximately $181 million. Fire services are budgeted at some $80 million. Services such as water and garbage collection together also cost hundreds of millions, but they have separate funds and are supported for the most part by user fees, not out of the general fund.

In the budget cover letter, Reed says “carefully planned, controlled expenditures over the last six years have enabled the city to expand service delivery while also capturing operating surpluses.” The city has gotten in the habit of balanced budgeting over the last six years, without a property tax or sales tax hike. Rating agencies over the last few years have upped Atlanta’s bond rating.

Financial reforms haven’t been without controversy: Just ask the city staff who challenged the legality of a city demand that they kick in more to their retirement-benefit plans.

Reed’s letter noted that this year’s elections will cost $2.2 million and that he wants to make a $10 million payment on the Beltline’s obligations to Atlanta Public Schools.

Road repaving, sidewalk fixes, new bike lanes, and other projects in the $250 million Renew Atlanta bond infrastructure program will also get underway in a bigger way this year. Reed’s letter called it “the largest infrastructure investment in more than thirty years to improve the look, feel and experience of our city.”

Budget hearings started yesterday at City Hall. You can watch the hearings on the city's website, Channel 26, or attend in person. The full council is scheduled to vote on the spending package before June 20, sending the budget and related legislation to Reed’s desk.

We've embedded the full budget after the jump. Take a look and let us know if anything catches your eye. 

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Koch-funded group might target Georgia film and TV tax credit

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2016 at 9:57 AM

Crews prep a scene on the set of “Necessary Roughness,” a since-cancelled show that filmed at Chosewood Park's Mailing Avenue Studios. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS/CL FILE
  • Dustin Chambers/CL File
  • Crews prep a scene on the set of “Necessary Roughness,” a since-cancelled show that filmed at Chosewood Park's Mailing Avenue Studios.

Just a few short years ago, Georgia was like many a dreamer wanting to break into showbiz. And with some hustle — and some tax alchemy — it’s arrived.

But a nationwide group reportedly bankrolled heavily by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers says the next act shouldn’t star a state tax credit that's worth something like a quarter-billion dollars. Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group, says the tax credit is a giveaway. It wants Georgia to join the states like Michigan that have repealed or cut their tax credits recently.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Deal will veto 'religious liberty' bill

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2016 at 10:49 AM

Gov. Nathan Deal speaking at this morning's press conference - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Gov. Nathan Deal speaking at this morning's press conference

Gov. Nathan Deal will veto House Bill 757, a controversial "religious liberty" proposal approved by the General Assembly that LGBT advocates said would allow people to discriminate based on their religious views. 

Speaking with reporters, Deal said the legislation did not align with Georgia's values. He said he would have signed the Pastor Protection Act, which would have protected religious leaders from performing same-sex marriages — the First Amendment already covers that — and was backed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.  

"I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives," Deal said. "Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our State and the character of its people." 

He added: "Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way." (Here are Deal's complete remarks.)

After the legislation passed, Deal had been under heavy pressure from both the faith community to sign the bill and industry leaders to veto it. Hollywood filmmakers threatened to not shoot productions in the state. Two economic development projects reportedly passed over Georgia because of the controversy. Others threatened to close shop and move elsewhere. The governor took issue with the tactics used by some members of both sides of the debate, saying he does not "respond very well to threats." 

Deal took no questions from reporters after concluding his remarks. 

In a statement, Ralston said he had shared Deal's concern and the House worked to make sure its "religious liberty" measure "must not only protect the free exercise of religion and faith-based organizations, but also had to include clear anti-discriminatory language." Ralston said he thinks the version that passed met that "test."

Ralson said "[i]t is regrettable that the merits of this measure have been ignored in the days since its passage by critics who had not taken the time to read the bill or understand the legal issues involved."

"I take pride in the leadership role the House played in making Georgia the number one state in which to do business," he added. "We all aspire to a Georgia which is welcoming, hospitable and growing. At the same time, we have a duty to the Georgians we serve — the Georgians who live, work, play and worship here — to listen to their concerns." 

Simone Bell, the Southern Regional director of Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group and member of Georgia Unites, the large coalition that fought the measure, commended Deal. She said the group feels "very fortunate that LGBT people and people with living with HIV were spared the terrible consequences of HB 757."

"In the end, Governor Deal did not allow hate and fear-mongering to dictate state policy; instead he chose to act reasonably and with compassion and demonstrated that equality is a Georgia value," Bell said. He listened to the business community, hundreds of ministers, and tens of thousands of Georgians who opposed the bill. Freedom of religion does not give any of us permission to discriminate against others."

Some conservative lawmakers have threatened to call for a special session to attempt to override a veto of the "religious liberty" legislation. State Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, who's also running for Congress, is one of the first out of the gate to do so.

This is a developing story. Expect more updates.

More photos from the press conference after the break

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Sine Die, thank God the legislative session is over

Posted By and on Fri, Mar 25, 2016 at 4:22 PM

Lawmakers in the House participate in the ceremonial tossing of papers in the air at the close of the 40-day session. Unlike previous sessions, last night's activities ended well after midnight. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Lawmakers in the House participate in the ceremonial tossing of papers in the air at the close of the 40-day session. Unlike previous sessions, last night's activities ended well after midnight.
After 40 days of horse-trading, hand-shaking, and the occasional smart move, the long nightmare known as the Georgia General Assembly has come to a close. State lawmakers ended the legislative session early this morning, well past the traditional midnight stopping point.

The mad dash of last-minute legislating saw many measures pass both chambers and head to Gov. Nathan Deal's desk for his signature or veto. Lawmakers approved legislation that: allows Atlanta voters to decide on taxing themselves to pay for expanding MARTA; makes the top leaders of the Fulton County Health Department state employees; would help fund controversial "pregnancy centers;" permits students to carry stuns guns on campuses; reforms the collection of rape kits; puts a South Fulton and Stonecrest cityhood referendum before voters; changes the grand jury process to do away with special privileges for police officers; asks voters to approve the abolishment of — and lawmakers to recreate — a judicial oversight group; and, of course, places limits on the use of commercial drones. The many bills that failed to make it out of the Gold Dome included measures to allow in-state cultivation and the expanded use of a liquid form of medical marijuana and the elimination of DeKalb County's CEO position. Deal is already mulling whether to sign or veto the "religious liberty" legislation approved by lawmakers and a bill allowing licensed gun owners to carry weapons on most parts of public colleges and universities' campuses. 

As is the case every year, it takes a few hours to sift through the debris, so expect more news about the Gold Dome in the coming days. We've posted photographic evidence of last night's shenanigans after the jump.  

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