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How one NPU has become a battleground for Georgia's sunshine laws

'Meetings have to be open to the public, but how do you run a meeting when there are folks that are becoming unruly and disruptive?'

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  • Joeff Davis
  • INTO EXILE: Neighborhood Planning Unit-R, arguably Atlanta’s most dysfunctional citizen advisory group, has become a battleground for Georgia’s sunshine laws because of senior advocates Ron Shakir (left) and Ben Howard.

On the first Wednesday of every month, southwest Atlanta residents gather inside the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA on Campbellton Road for the monthly Neighborhood Planning Unit-R meeting. Like many other community groups, heated moments over parliamentary procedure, controversial developments, or an official’s actions have frequently occurred.

Small-yet-heated gripes have grown into acrimonious discord at NPU-R's recent meetings. A growing dispute between the group’s leaders and two outspoken senior advocates, Ben Howard and Ron Shakir, has led to unprecedented levels of dysfunction and resulted in the community activists being suspended. Despite the attempted exile, they vow to exercise their rights to attend public meetings — even if others claims their presence deters community progress.

The NPU system formed 41 years ago under then-Mayor Maynard Jackson to spark citizen participation in local government. Once a month, 25 different volunteer groups across the city consider community development proposals and occasionally bicker over political minutiae. But Howard and Shakir argue their bans don’t just hamper small-scale democracy, they also violate state transparency laws.

“This is an opportunity to be able to vet, to be able to discuss, to be able to engage policies that come throughout the city to all community organizations,” Shakir says. “It’s our constitutional right to be able to address our elected officials. If they’re somewhere, we should be able to be there.”

Howard is an 82-year-old Korean War veteran and former union organizer with a soothing voice and calm demeanor. Shakir, a slightly younger neighborhood activist and People TV community program producer, is gruff and matter of fact. Turn on Channel 26 to watch Atlanta City Council meetings and, during public comment, you’re likely to see them speaking out on issues as big as the Atlanta Falcons stadium funding to the parliamentary procedure of obscure citizen groups. Howard has served as president of the Atlanta Planning and Advisory Board, frequently dubbed the “NPU of NPUs,” and even received his own official day — July 15 — from Council for his civic contributions.

The NPU-R brouhaha started after Howard’s continued inquiries into local groups receiving public funding for upgrades to Adams Park. Toward the end of the April meeting, Howard and Shakir raised questions about NPU-R’s procedures, which devolved into a shouting match with NPU-R Chair Ricardo Jacobs, who repeatedly banged his gavel in an attempt to restore order. As the meeting adjourned around 8:45 p.m., when the YMCA started to close, Shakir began walking out of the meeting, only to be called out by a white female resident of the area.

“He’s going to hold up the meeting, and then he’s going to be the first one to walk out,” the woman yelled. “Nah, nah, nah!”

According to Jacobs, Shakir allegedly used “racial and direct verbal attacks” against one member, prompting a “small melee.” In an audio recording that captures the exchange, but is hard to hear exactly what was said, Shakir tells the woman to “take her white privilege out of here” — another person claims he said “white butt” instead. Several attendees later claimed Shakir made intimidating advances toward the woman, an allegation he denies.

At the May 6 meeting, residents voted to indefinitely ban Shakir — and suspend Howard for five years — from NPU-R. Howard, who was given three minutes to defend his alleged disruption of meetings, which had once before led to a one-year suspension, attempted to reference Robert’s Rules of Order to discredit the vote. Howard refused to budge after Jacobs threatened to call YMCA security.

“I will not voluntarily be leaving this meeting,” Howard said as he continued to record the meeting, quibbling over the lack of an appeals process.

Shakir walked in late to the meeting, unaware of his expulsion minutes earlier. He fired off a series of questions for Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms regarding the proposed annexation of several unincorporated Fulton County communities. At that point, Jacobs again called YMCA security staff, which asked both activists to leave the public meeting held inside a private facility. Shakir said he was in full compliance with the law. Howard, who had written letters to the YMCA’s corporate offices, told security he wanted to speak with their lawyers.

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Two Atlanta Police officers in attendance to provide a NPU update watched the incident unfold without taking action. Another two APD on-duty officers eventually arrived to escort Howard and Shakir from the building, threatening both with potential arrests. As they left the building, Jacobs leaned over to the window, pulled several blind slats down, and peeked outside to see if the cops had escorted them outside.

“The disruption is gone,” said one woman to a round of applause.

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  • Max Blau
  • Neighborhood Planning Unit-R Chair Ricardo Jacobs chats with an army of citizen journalists about why senior advocates Ben Howard and Shakir were banned from future meetings.

The refuge for those residents was temporary. On June 3, Howard and Shakir returned with citizen journalists holding handheld cameras, and defiantly sat in the front row. The meeting again devolved into a shouting match that forced Jacobs to call security and cut the meeting short after 25 minutes. No votes were taken. No new business was discussed.

After the meeting adjourned, Jacobs, swarmed by citizen journalists capturing his clear frustration, recounted the events leading to the suspensions and played back the cell phone recording capturing the April meeting’s chaos. His right hand trembled as the recording played back.

“All of this is going on because they want to do a circus,” Jacobs said. “To be honest, Mr. Howard is a valuable member of this community with a lot of knowledge. But when he feels he’s lost or anyone’s against him, he goes on the attack. That’s what he’s been doing.”

The ongoing fight, NPU-R land use committee member Annsonita Robinson says, has turned the citizen advisory group into the “joke of NPUs.” Because of Howard and Shakir, she says community progress has stalled, and elected officials have avoided appearances at meetings. According to Jacobs, meeting attendance has dwindled from 100 people to about 20 people.

“They’ve heard the stories,” Robinson says. “We can’t get the parents to come. We can’t get the business owners to come. We can’t get the Greenbriar Mall merchants to come. Nobody wants to participate because of these two gentlemen. … It brings you to tears.”

Open government advocates have cried foul over the bans, saying they violate state law. Grant Park resident Steve Carr, an active participant in the NPU process, says removing attendees from a meeting, even if there’s a 10,000-to-0 vote for a ban, violates state law allowing citizens to attend public meetings. Local activist Molly Read Woo has asked the Georgia Attorney General’s office to look into the matter. Georgia State University professor Gerry Neumark, who has studied the NPU system, says the elected members are “treading on thin ice” given their reasons for the punishments.

“It’s just one of those things the public has to put up with,” Neumark says. “A tremendous amount of acrimony has existed between some NPU members. Nobody ever reported that anyone was actually removed. People like Howard and Shakir have the right to show up.”

With Shakir and Howard considering legal action, the city has tried staying above the fray. Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Jewanna Gaither says the city “doesn’t want to overstep” the boundaries by meddling with the citizen advisory councils. Gaither declined to comment on whether the city, or NPU-R itself, would be on the hook for a potential lawsuit.

“The NPUs are independent,” Gaither says. “NPUs are to be sub-governed. We help and provide information. We make sure they have the necessary items. But whatever decisions they make, they make.”

On June 9, the fight spilled into the Council’s chambers during the Community Development/Human Resources Committee meeting. Charletta Wilson Jacks, the city’s Office of Planning director, recommended the city start offering third-party mediation to work out “personality conflicts” within NPU meetings. Bottoms acknowledged the NPU was stuck between a rock and a hard place, able to create its own rules, yet unable to enforce them.

In response to Bottoms, Deputy City Attorney Marc Goncher said that NPU-R’s bylaws, which allow for suspension or expulsion, are difficult to enforce and “run afoul of the spirit of the NPU code” calling for open public meetings.

“Meetings have to be open to the public, but how do you run a meeting when there are folks that are becoming unruly and disruptive?” Goncher said.

With no immediate solution in sight, Jacobs told councilmembers NPU-R would provide short-term relief to the YMCA by moving its next meeting on July 1 to a temporary location, 2800 Campbellton Road, located one mile west and across the street from the old McDonald’s. Howard, perturbed by the swift decision, jumped up to the microphone as the meeting adjourned.

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“When was this vote taken?” he asked with a concerned look.