What should Atlanta mayoral candidates be discussing?

Activists, academics, and experts say what they want City Hall hopefuls to address during the 2017 campaign

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Atlanta voters from now until they cast ballots on Nov. 7, 2017, will hear mayoral candidates discuss their ideas for what the city needs to go from good to great and why they are the ones who can accomplish the task. These ideas have been tested and the pitches have been perfected. But what do the people who study, advocate for, and try to solve some of the city’s most pressing problems want to hear candidates discuss? We asked 17 of them what they want to hear on the campaign trail. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.Xochitl Bervera, Racial Justice Action CenterBefore the election of Donald Trump I was primarily focused on the mayoral candidates’ stances on criminal justice reform — their support for reforming the city jail and municipal court, funding for the Atlanta Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, and transforming the Atlanta Police Department’s culture.  Now these things are important inside a larger context. Will Atlanta become a sanctuary city, an oasis of freedom, an island of resistance in a Trump America? Do the candidates understand that a Trump regime means policies that will negatively affect many of us? There will be a direct and serious impact on many of our communities. And Atlanta stands at a crossroads. The candidates must choose a side. Choose “respectability, don’t rock the boat, work for cooperation with the Republicans” and a good number of our fellow ATLiens will be thrown under the very dangerous Trump bus. Or choose clear and concrete opposition that stands with all of the people of Atlanta and become a blue island of freedom in a ever-more repressive state. Which side will the candidates choose? Are they willing to make a set of commitments designed to use the power of the city to protect and defend the people most targeted and vulnerable under Trump’s administration? This includes local commitments around immigration policy, criminal justice and public safety policy, education policy, and more. Sally Flocks, PEDSI’d like mayoral candidates to address how the city will address the backlog of broken sidewalks, which probably exceeds $200 million. The 2010 State of Atlanta’s Infrastructure report estimated the backlog at $152 million. Department of Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza has also stated publicly that the estimated annual deterioration of sidewalks is $15 million.Chipping away at that backlog faces hurdles. Current city policy calls for billing property owners to fix sidewalks in front of their home. Atlanta City Council members decided to reallocate sidewalk funding included in the $250 million infrastructure bond to projects in their districts. They drained the sidewalk funds completely and cut curb ramps to $5 million — something the city was already required to spend as part of the 2009 settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department. Elected officials don’t want Public Works to enforce the current ordinance billing property owners. So are the mayoral candidates willing to include at least $15 million a year in the City budget?I’d also like the candidates to address the issue of creating a city Department of Transportation. Many large cities, including New York City, Chicago, Boston, have DOTs. Officials at Public Works have not bought into the Planning Department’s vision for the city and continue to implement changes that favor congestion relief over ones that benefit multi-modal transportation.No value assignedRebecca Serna, Atlanta Bicycle CoalitionWe feel this election is key for our issues and are planning to do what we can to help our network of supporters get engaged and get to know the candidates. We have a goal of making safe streets and bikeways high-profile issues in the election, and we’re working on a platform we want candidates to consider adopting.We want the city to have a focus on overall road safety. We want the city to adopt a goal of zero traffic deaths. It should prioritize roadway safety over roadway speed, which should change how streets are designed, give people more options, and reduce crashes. That would in turn reduce unpredictable delays, and makes the city more livable for its residents. The city should also create a City Department of Transportation to better integrate project planning with delivery.We hope the next mayor will eliminate minimum-parking requirements, especially for projects on the planned bike network, to make those developments more affordable. Finally, we want the mayor to continue creating a safe, connected, and convenient network of bike lanes and trails — candidates should set mileage goals for the network, as this will require them to do some homework and show it’s a priority — and commit to maintaining it regularly.Vince Champion, regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police OfficersI would love to see a mayor looking at the police department as the necessary tool it is. For he or she to explain more to the public why we have to make arrests and what we do, and to see where the training is definitely better. Money is important, but not necessarily as much as other benefits. What is insurance like? What about their pension benefits? You look at APD and every other car has dents in it. Why is that? Why do officers have to fight for things like that? If we don’t have to worry about administration, then we can go out and be a cop.We’d like to have a mayor, especially as strong as one here, that would stand up in support for law enforcement and be as transparent to the community as he or she is with us about what we do.Jennette Gayer, Environment GeorgiaThe bottom line: protecting our air, water, and green spaces will be even more important at the local level under a Trump presidency. The city should be a leader not a follower on energy and climate issues. We also need someone not afraid to push Georgia Power--the city should be figuring out how to get 100% of its electricity from clean renewable sources and pushing the utility to help with that goal.  I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the Obama administration will do some good around neonics, the pesticides linked to the huge bee die-off. But the city could do it now. Ban neonics, use fewer pesticides on city parks and schools, and save the bees — and our food system! Finally, the passage of TSPLOST and the MARTA sales taxes means a lot will be happening to expand our transit in the coming years. We need smart transit-oriented development to accompany this new transit. We need a mayor that will not abandon principles like walkable, bikeable, mixed-use, and affordability when a developer has an idea. Chris Appleton, WonderRoot I want to hear candidates talk about the intersection of arts and policing, arts and housing, arts and restorative justice. I’m looking for mayoral candidates who will talk about the power of the arts to heal. Candidates must discuss their solutions to ensure every Atlantan has the equitable access to arts and culture that they deserve. Art and artists have a history of being on the frontlines for change. In a time when change is needed for all Atlantans, our leadership must demonstrate their support through a dedication of increased resources — time, money, and people — for the City of Atlanta toward the arts.William Perry, executive director of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, a good government groupHopefully none of the candidates will try to justify the illegal use of sirens and blue lights and we can have a discussion of real ethics and transparency issues such as: ending Atlanta’s pay-to-play culture; establishing guidelines, procedures, and qualifications for office budget expenses, staff bonuses, and proclamations; posting accessible public documents on the city’s website including budgets with real-time expenditure and revenue reporting; creating a Council Attorney that serves independently of the city — Mayor’s — law department; reducing the mayor’s budget for hiring private lawyers hired to protect the mayor’s image, a move that keeps public documents out of the hands of the public and stalls the prevention of illegal appointments and activities.No value assignedDan Immergluck, Georgia Tech professor and expert on housing affordabilityCandidates need to discuss housing affordability, specifically inclusionary zoning and a housing opportunity bond. The first must be mandatory and targeted primarily at households making less than 50 percent of the area median income — roughly $34,000 for a family of four. We also need a major housing trust fund, funded by a housing bond, that’s targeted to low-income households. It can also be used to preserve existing affordable stock, to provide funds for rehabilitation and purchase of existing properties accompanied by long-term affordability requirements.I’d like to hear how they plan to address vacant and abandoned properties more aggressively. The city needs to increase its activity taking control of distressed properties so that they do not continue to harm neighborhoods. This will also serve to open up these areas to housing opportunity. More funding should be devoted to demolition where it is necessary, and to rehab where it is feasible. Doing so would spread out housing demand and reduce land value pressures. It will also save the city millions per year in costs associated with vacant properties. The mayor can push the Fulton tax commissioner and the Atlanta-Fulton Land Bank Authority to partner on acquiring properties and, when possible, rehabbing them for affordable housing.The new mayor should push for property tax reform that is more fair. Low-income homeowners need tools that limit property tax burden, especially as their neighborhoods gentrify. Landlords who commit to long-term affordability should be taxed at lower rates than those who do not. Programs to help lower-income homeowners repair their homes need to be expanded.Finally, where state policy is an impediment to local policies, the next mayor must work more with mayors and leaders from other cities and suburbs around the state to build political capital for changes to state law. This is more feasible as we have seen a growth in suburban and small town poverty and housing affordability issues.Jack Hardin, co-chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission on HomelessnessAtlanta is reducing its homeless counts while other major cities are experiencing increases. The next mayor should continue to partner with the private sector investing in successful strategies and filling gaps to make homelessness rare and brief in Atlanta. At the same time, the City needs to lead major investments in affordable housing so we can avoid the fates of other great cities. Housing needs to be affordable for unskilled workers and connected by transportation to employment.Eric Kronberg, principle of Kronberg Wall and urbanism advocateAtlanta has a chance to lead, to be a light in urban redevelopment. The city has come amazingly far in the past 18 years I’ve lived here, but it also has very far to go. The Nov. 8 votes offer great promise in terms of funding local investment in place and mobility options, but also set a huge responsibility for cities to lead the way to a better, more inclusive place for all people of our nation. I firmly believe that the work Planning Commissioner Tim Keane and Ryan Gravel are leading in terms of helping Atlanta define a vision for our future as a city is critical for our success. I also strongly believe that the changes needed will be uncomfortable medicine for a lot of residents. This will obviously not be politically popular in the least. Finding a mayoral candidate that understands the importance of this work, and the absolute need to help people get past their current expectations, is critical for the success of Atlanta.Marshall Rancifer, founding director the Justice for All CoalitionThey should be discussing having total wraparound services for homeless folks. I want to see them instead of putting people in satellite locations, which is not going to work unless you provide transportation for them to access homeless service providers, is improving the Peachtree-Pine task force to be a one-stop shop, a full-service center to meet the clients who are there. I want to see if taking the quality of life arrests off the table and getting those ordinances done away with. It’s been sitting on the table since Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall released it a few months ago. And there are more and more places being blocked off by the city to prevent homeless people from gathering. The city needs to be more welcoming to its poor and marginalized populations.Julian Bene, Invest Atlanta board memberI would like to see the mayoral candidates discuss whether they will continue to champion job attraction and retention efforts, which have brought to the city many new or expanding employers and thousands of good jobs in each of the past several years. Would they fully fund Invest Atlanta’s economic development program and collaborate closely with the state and the city’s other key partners? Would they restrict tax abatements for commercial developments to exceptional cases, such as those in challenged parts of the city? And how would they stop the Development Authority of Fulton County from giving out abatements in the city with no public benefit, such as affordability, required? Would they wind up any Tax Allocation Districts Editor’s note: TADs are funding tools aimed at incentivizing developers to build in so-called “blighted areas,” including Atlantic Station and Downtown. and direct their revenues back to the general funds of the city, Atlanta Public Schools and the county? If so, which TADs? In addition to their plans for boosting affordable housing, how do they see completing out the Beltline during their term?No value assignedMary Hooks, Southerners on New GroundThey need to be talking about what they intend to do to make this city a sanctuary city for black and brown people under a fascist, white-supremacist administration.Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality executive directorWhile health services fall under the purview of counties, the city has an important role to play in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The next mayor can play a pivotal role in helping us reach the goal of an AIDS-free generation. The mayor must have a good working relationship with both Fulton and DeKalb County Commissions to ensure a coordinated effort to implement the Strategy to End AIDS. The mayor should also use the bully pulpit of the office to engage civic, faith, education, and business leaders in this fight.On a policy level, the mayor needs to prioritize the housing crisis among people living with HIV by ensuring more affordable housing options, lobbying for increased funding, and addressing the current contracting issues that leave HIV housing providers with funding gaps while annual contracts are being processed. The mayor should also support efforts to develop a pre-arrest diversion program for those accused of sex work and work with the Atlanta Housing Authority to ensure that those with minor criminal convictions are able to secure housing and access to vital services.Jessyca Holland, C4 Atlanta executive directorOn my mind, and heavy on my heart, is the “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland, California. We need to collectively learn from that tragedy. I would also like to see more local support for national initiatives that have the potential to offer workforce support to the “gig” economy, which includes artists. I’m specifically thinking of the CREATE Act. Artists are concerned with a wealth of issues that affect everyone. We would all benefit from better transportation, affordable housing, and food equity and access, to name a few. These are issues many artists understand intimately. Listen. Paul Gerdis, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Atlanta, IAFF Local 134The Professional Fire Fighters of Atlanta, IAFF Local 134, will be watching the 2017 Mayoral race with a close eye. We are looking for a candidate that will continue the strong lines of communication that our current mayor, Kasim Reed, has established with the recognized Fire Labor Union in the city.The Fire Union needs a mayor that will take a serious look at increasing our compensation packages, lower benefits, and increasing our way of life. The firefighters of the City of Atlanta are dedicated public servants that commit to the protection and well-being of the citizens, visitors, and business in our city. Our Union will meet with all leading mayoral candidates.Michelle Marcus Rushing, chair of the Beltline Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee, a citizen oversight groupI think what is needed is a “For Atlanta, By Atlanta” platform. It feels like far too much political and fiscal capital has been spent on making Atlanta attractive to outsiders — event facilities, tourist districts, big roads so they can zoom in fast and zoom back out even faster, big cheap parking lots so they don’t have to feel like they’re even in a city. Many of these choices have degraded quality of life in the city; some have simply diverted funds from other causes, while others have directly led to deterioration of neighborhood and travel conditions at a local level (especially walking and bicycling).Those things are not why people move here and stay here. Those things usually suck up a lot of public expenditures while generating relatively little tax revenue in return. In the meantime, citizens are fighting for years to get playground equipment fixed, crosswalks installed, blighted houses controlled, schools improved, and all the other things that actually impact daily life.I want to hear a mayoral candidate say, “We aren’t going to do anything glamorous or attention-getting for the next four years unless it primarily benefits our residents. We’re just going to make a nice place to live and to work or run a business. And we’re going to make sure that everyone can live here and thrive from it.”

Atlanta often has a dream of being the best combined with a haunting inferiority complex that prevents real evidence-based decision-making and attention to detail. The recent interest in affordable housing and opportunity and ending homelessness needs to be elevated. That is, they need to champion and make evidence-based policies for decent local jobs, housing affordability at all income levels and all parts of the city, lots of transportation options, local businesses, and so forth.