Note: This post was updated 12:10 p.m. Friday to include a response from Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond.
A meeting of an Atlanta citizens oversight panel began quietly Wednesday evening, but not for lack of fractious debate. Someone at City Hall forgot to set up a sound system. Members literally couldn’t hear each other.
“Hello!” Vice Chair Yvonne Jones shouted. “There’s no mic, so I gotta scream.”
Thus began the latest session of what may be one of the loneliest bodies in city government: The Community Benefits Plan Committee.
The group was formed during political battles over construction of a new $1 billion Falcons stadium. Taxpayers are financing a portion of the venue, and residents of nearby neighborhoods fought to get a legally-enforceable agreement that would ensure that nearby neighborhoods of Castleberry Hill, English Avenue and Vine City would share in the coming prosperity. English Avenue and Vine City are among the poorest in the city.
They failed to get the agreement. Instead, residents got $30 million in charitable and tax dollars, a jobs initiative, promises of further investment and this committee, which meets quarterly. It can make suggestions to Invest Atlanta, the city development authority, about where the money should go, but there’s no requirement that residents be told about plans in advance.
The board has 16 members. Only 10 attended, almost all of them unpaid community volunteers. They groused that its chairman, city Councilman Michael Julian Bond, hadn’t appeared for months. But Councilman Ivory Young did arrive, sporting a natty straw hat that he removed as proceedings began.
“It’s nice to have some officials to show,” quipped Rev. Dexter Johnson, who came to represent the Vine City Civic Association. “How many absences can you have before you’re removed?”
The committee has no secretary, so it issues no formal minutes. Agendas are sparse, and as of recent meetings, have not been posted online.
Wednesday’s was no more detailed than a longish haiku:
“5:30 PM Invest Atlanta Update.
5:45 PM Arthur Blank Family Foundation Update.
6:00 PM City of Atlanta Update.
6:15 PM Public Comment.
6:30 PM Adjourn.”
In the absence of Bond, it was up to Vice Chair Jones, an English Avenue resident and chair of her neighborhood planning unit, to run the show.
A speaker from Invest Atlanta announced what on first blush seemed to be good news. Its board had approved up to $1.2 million in funding for police cameras in Vine City and English Avenue. They would let 9-1-1 dispatchers see the streets in real time.
But committee members weren’t happy. They said no one mentioned these plans to it or neighborhood associations.
Robin Gagnon, a Castleberry Hill resident, asked why her neighborhood was left out and warned that the devices may not work as promised. The police cameras near her home were so badly installed that they can’t transmit real-time signals through foliage, she said. To get the footage, an officer has to drive to a camera, take it down and remove its SIM card. “After someone is maimed, killed or mugged in the street,” Gagnon said.
No officials who could answer committee questions were in attendance. Members grew angry. Was this committee just a waste of their time?
“We dedicated years of our lives to this,” Gagnon said.
The Blank foundation and the city were up next on the agenda, but no speakers from those groups had come.
“Is anyone out there?” Jones joked. “Are they ghosts?”
State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, an English Avenue resident, muttered from her seat in the audience: “A new level of community engagement.”
(A city spokesman said Thursday that its representative was traveling for work and the Blank Family Foundation staffer was ill.
Bond was sick and could not attend, he said Friday.)
The committee debated how to save their oversight group from irrelevance. Jones complained that members want to hold meetings more often, but they can’t get key players to attend the ones that are already scheduled. Audience members stood up to speak. The planned adjournment time came and went.
Members focused on a motion requesting that Invest Atlanta inform neighborhood groups about spending proposals that would impact them before a development authority vote. Gagnon filled in as secretary, hashing out language on a notepad with a representative of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association.
It passed after 7:30 p.m. Young put on his straw hat to leave. But discussion continued, even after the meeting was adjourned.
Jones joined the stragglers who stood among rows of folding chairs. The room was nearly empty, and they could finally hear each other just fine.