New emails show the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) views Mayor Andre Dickens’ proposed South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force as a continuation of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee rubber stamp approach and reaffirms that corporate interests are driving the Cop City project, which the Foundation believes will open by late 2024.
According to the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Website, the task force, which was announced March 1, is designed “to seek further community input and expert recommendations on key issues” such as park space, The Old Atlanta Prison Farm memorial, sustainability, training curriculum, and how to further community engagement in the project.
An initial draft of the public statement from Rob Baskin, the Foundation’s Director of Public Affairs, on the announcement of the new task force read, “We support the Mayor’s new task force. It will serve to broaden community input into how the City develops and preserves its remaining greenspace in the area [sic] and we’re confident it will underscore what is already wide community support for the Public Safety Training Center. Importantly, our construction efforts will continue apace so that the PSTC is operational by late 2024.”
Baskin’s assumption regarding the purpose of the task force in reflecting wide community support for the project drew a challenge from Bryan Thomas, the Director of Communications for the mayor. Thomas replied to Baskin saying, “[it] would be counter to the task force’s purpose if we pre-suppose the outcomes related to community support. Will sound like we’re trying to design around an intended outcome, which is not the case.”
“Brian: please call me,” Baskin responded, “I thought this was supposed to be [APF’s] take on your release.” Consistent with emails previously revealing an increased stake in the project’s completion amongst corporate interest, Baskin later says in the same email, “[of] import to our Board and donors is the notion that we are not interrupting construction.”
It seems Thomas won this argument and provided a semblance of protection on behalf of the mayor. Gone is any mention of community support in Baskin’s final version of the statement, which reads, “The mayor’s new task force will help ensure that the City’s entire South River Forest acreage will reflect the development and preservation concerns of the broader community. Importantly, PSTC construction will continue apace.”
With CSAC plagued by issues like a member resigning over the police killing of an activist, a lack of transparency involving the membership of the committee, and ethics questions regarding the acceptance of gifts from the Atlanta Police Foundation it is supposed to oversee, Mayor Dickens needs the new task force to appear like an actual impartial input mechanism to maintain the argument that the training center is developed with actual public input.
February’s regularly scheduled CSAC meeting was cancelled and not rescheduled without any public explanation despite the fact that both the committee’s bylaws and the city council resolution that created the body require the committee to meet once per calendar month. An email obtained through an open records request reveals CSAC chair Alison Clark cancelled the meeting after discussions amongst the committee made it clear that “housekeeping,” as she calls it, was needed “before another public meeting.”
The last time CSAC needed to work through internal issues, a public battle took place within the committee as a small group of members defended then-member Lily Ponitz who had openly critiqued a lack of proper environmental study by the APF, much to the chagrin of chair Clark and several of the older members of the committee. This round of housekeeping likely refers to the internal waves created after Amy Taylor, one of the three CSAC members who opposed Ponitz’ removal, filed an appeal seeking to overturn DeKalb County’s approval of the land disturbance permit for the proposed training center site. If Taylor’s April 12 hearing in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals is successful, it will likely halt the project for good.
The idea that Cop City will be built no matter the cost or opposition has been a touchstone for Clark throughout CSAC’s existence. In the May 2022 meeting that started the process of removing Ponitz, Clark said, “our committee requires us to be able to be neutral in our perspective, no matter whether you are in support of the project or if you are opposed to the project, our committee works under the understanding that this project is moving forward.” When Ponitz used her professional qualifications as an environmental engineer to call into question the APF’s questionable environmental site reporting, her voice was silenced.
CSAC is scheduled to meet Tuesday, and it is likely that Taylor will see a similar removal action to the one Ponitz faced in the May and June meetings last year.
Following the 17 hours of public comment before the vote that created the lease for Cop City, CSAC was the only acceptable means of public input in the eyes of the city and the APF. On the day of the vote to approve the lease agreement in September 2021, 11 protesters were arrested outside a city council member’s house. Earlier this month, a group of anti-Cop City activists standing on a sidewalk was cause for a dispersal order and threat of arrest. Individuals sending in letters of protest to various APF Board members, contractors, or funders are tracked by APD and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. Civil disobedience via camping in a public park is grounds for domestic terrorism.
The lack of alternative means of redress regarding Cop City makes Clark and the APF’s maneuvering within CSAC to quash any dissent even more damning. It also shows the disingenuous nature of the mayor’s claim that the CSAC provided legitimacy and public support to the Cop City project.
The new task force seems to be a work in progress. While the initial press release stated the task force will be comprised of 40 members, an email to potential members stated the task force “will be made up of approximately 50 members.” All the individuals on the task force will be appointed entirely by the mayor, once again shutting the general public out of directly engaging in the project.
Ultimately, it appears, it is not the general public Mayor Dickens and APF are trying to satisfy in the end. The Mayor seeks to control the public narrative while still enabling APF to carry on its goal — reassuring the private interests of Foundation’s boards and donors that nothing will stop Cop City.