CSAC faces internal issues, demands meeting with Mayor

CSAC Member Sharon Williams calling Forest Defenders “eco-terrorists” in the May 2022 CSAC Meeting
credit: Unicorn Riot

After cancelling its February meeting for what committee chair Alison Clark called “housekeeping” reasons, it was a surprise when the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) cancelled it’s second consecutive monthly meeting in March. New emails reveal the committee underwent a turbulent latter half of the month, which started with one member attempting to circumvent filing financial disclosure forms required by city of Atlanta’s ethics law and ended with members demanding to meet with Mayor Andre Dickens before resuming CSAC’s required monthly meetings

The beginning of March saw the close of an ethics inquiry into Christmas gifts given to members of CSAC by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). As reported by John Ruch of the Saporta Report, the city of Atlanta Ethics Division deemed the ornaments given to the committee “might raise an appearance of impropriety and implicate the City’s prohibition on gifts,” but held that neither CSAC nor APF intentionally violated the Code of Ethics, since both parties were unaware that, due to the Committee’s oversight of APF and the Foundation’s business dealings with the City, APF is a prohibited source of such gifts. At the end of the inquiry update letter, the Ethics Division recommended that CSAC undergo formal ethics training at its next monthly meeting. 

Financial Disclosure Woes

Clark forwarded along the results Ethics Division inquiry to the rest of the Committee on March 1 and additionally included a reminder to all the members of the Committee that they each received a prior email with information on accessing the ethics web portal to complete their yearly financial disclosure forms, asking each of the members to respond with an acknowledgement they received the email. 

Not everyone in the committee readily accepted their financial disclosure filing requirements. In a March 14 email to Janet Keene, an ethics analyst for the City’s Ethics Division, CSAC member Sharon Williams let her dissatisfaction be known. “I am a volunteer on the CSAC advisory committee for the new training facility in Dekalb County,” Williams wrote, “I volunteered to advise the non profit Atlanta Police Foundation not the city of Atlanta. I would rather resign than complete this form. Please advise. This whole thing has been poorly handled since it’s inception.”

Williams is not one to be shy about her speech. She was the first person to publicly call members of the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement eco-terrorists, using the term during the May 2022 CSAC meeting.

Unfortunately for Williams, these financial disclosures are not optional even if she were to resign. The city’s Code of Ethics requires any elected official, neighborhood planning unit (NPU) officers, about 10% of city employees, and mayoral or council appointed members of city boards to submit ethics disclosures for every year that they serve the City, including filing a disclosure the year after their service to the city ends. CSAC is what the city considers a BACE (Boards, Authority, Commission, Etc.), and, with the committee created through council legislation, individuals on the Committee are considered council appointees and therefore subject to these filing requirements.

According to the city’s Ethics Division website, “the Code of Ethics requires the annual disclosure of financial statements to enable the public to review the assets and income sources of city officials and employees for actual and potential conflicts of interest between the individual’s official duties and personal interests.” For every year an individual serves in one of those required filing positions, they must submit their financial disclosure by April 1 the following year and any individual delinquent in filing their disclosure without reason will be fined $50 per business day up to $500 for their first offense. 

Despite beginning her CSAC tenure when the committee first met in October 2021, this is the first year Williams and most of the other members were required to fill out the disclosure forms. 

In August 2022, ACPC emailed the city’s Ethics Division to inquire why members of CSAC did not submit the yearly ethics forms after their 2021 service. At the time, Keene’s response to ACPC indicated the Ethics Division did not realize members of CSAC were appointed by City Council. After an internal evaluation of CSAC, the head of the Ethics Office, Jabu M. Sengova, informed ACPC that Committee members would be required to file disclosures in 2023. Since the filing period had expired for 2022, the office did not require those members file disclosures that year. Sengova later informed ACPC that, “notices will be sent out in early 2023 to the members of this committee pursuant to our process.”

On Feb. 16, Keene sent an email regarding the yearly financial disclosure notice to CSAC and other volunteer BACE members, instructing them to file their disclosure with the city by April 3, 2023 (since the traditional April 1 filing date is on a Saturday, this year’s filing date is pushed back to the next business day).

The day after Clark sent out the reminder regarding the ethics disclosure forms, March 2, Clark emailed Brian Paxton, Senior Attorney in the city of Atlanta Department of Law requesting, “to set up a call with [him] to discuss the CSAC.” The two were delayed in connecting for nearly two weeks, but it appears they finally had a phone call with each other sometime in the late afternoon March 15.

It is unclear what the conversation between Clark and Paxton entailed, but based on the timing, it likely lead to the cancellation of the March 21 CSAC meeting as the following day, March 16, Clark emailed Marshall Freeman, who is now a Deputy Chief for the Atlanta Police Department (APD) but was previously the APF Chief Operating Officer and in charge of administrating the CSAC. “Did you send notice to the clerk ref the [cancellation of the] upcoming meeting?” Clark said, “I failed to verify before.”

The clerk Clark is referencing is the Office of the Municipal Clerk which, amongst other things, is charged with maintaining all BACE records and publishing the Public Meeting Calendar in accordance with the Georgia Open Meetings Act. When Clark said she “failed to verify before,” she is likely referencing the cancellation of the February meeting, which Clark cancelled the morning of Feb. 20 for internal “housekeeping” reasons, but the Clerk did not receive notice until several hours prior to the scheduled start of the meeting on Feb 21.

Meanwhile, Williams again emailed the Ethics department on Friday, March 17, this time replying directly to the official notice of the financial disclosure requirements, saying, “we are waiting to be assigned outside counsel from the Foundation.” It is unclear who Williams means when she says “we,” but it does indicate Williams was not alone in her desire to circumvent the financial disclosure requirements. The email also further underscores Williams’ belief her position is one of service to APF, not to the city that created the Committee. 

The following Monday, March 20, the Ethics Division exchanged a flurry of emails with Williams. The exchange begins with Keene reasserting Williams’ filing requirements and offering to assist Williams in the filing process. Williams responded again reiterating her intention to seek outside counsel in the matter using the plural “we”, saying, “This process was not part of our onboarding process. There is not agreement about the status of this advisory committee and we are acquiring our own legal team to assist us in responding to the city of Atlanta.” The exchange ends with Sengova, Keene’s boss informing Williams of the fines that would be incurred should she fail to file the disclosure by its due date. 

Williams ultimately filed her disclosure on March 31. An inspection of her financial disclosure form reveals nothing problematic that would indicate an ethical or legal reason for her to avoid filing the form.

Discontent all the way to the top

Williams’ March 20 statement, “there is not agreement about the status of this advisory committee,” however, revealed a deeper issue within CSAC than Williams attempts to disregard the ethics filing requirement.

Clark echoes Williams’ sentiment about the status of the Committee the next day. In an email sent out just under seven hours before the originally scheduled meeting time, Clark informs the members of the committee, “that our March 21st CSAC meeting has been cancelled. There are some items surrounding our committee that need to be addressed. Accordingly, I have requested a meeting with [Mayor Andre Dickens] before our committee moves forward with additional meetings.” Given Clark’s earlier communication with the city of Atlanta Department of Law, it’s likely that these underlying issues that needed to be addressed with Dickens are serious in nature. 

CSAC member Amy Taylor, who filed an appeal against APF’s land disturbance permit on Feb. 6, agreed with Clark. “We should absolutely have a sit down with the Mayor before moving forward,” Taylor wrote in a March 21 email to all of CSAC, “I think it is not unreasonable to ask for and is the least [the city of Atlanta] could do after the hell we have been put through on their behalf.” 

Taylor also calls out Dickens, who began a public relations salvage mission on behalf of Cop City project after the death of Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán by Georgia State Patrol officers in the Weelaunee Forest earlier this year. “[Dickens] has met with Boulder Walk residents and not any other communities directly affected by this project,” Taylor wrote, “I can’t help but to notice his economic choice of exposure to the residents… he hasn’t bothered to come down to Starlight Heights to find out what we have to say about this.”

March 20, Dickens and a retinue of city officials canvassed the affluent and pro-Cop City Boulder Walk neighborhood where CSAC chair Clark lives, which the City’s twitter account incorrectly calls “the closest neighborhood to the planned training center.” Indeed, Boulder Walk is actually entirely separated from Cop City by the green space the city and APF have promised will be open to the public upon the training center’s completion.

Taylor’s less-affluent Starlight Heights, on the other hand, is actually the closest neighborhood to the proposed training facility, with some houses sitting within 150 feet of Cop City’s property line. The Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC), whenever it may be built, is slated to exist across the street from the neighborhood, just inside the tree buffer that Lily Ponitz championed adding to the project plans before she was terminated from CSAC last June by a motion Williams brought forth after Ponitz spoke out against the project publicly.

The ethos of Atlanta’s elected leadership is well encapsulated in the fact that the more affluent neighborhood is closer to the greenspace while the less wealthy neighborhood sits nearby to the louder EVOC area of the project. 

LaChandra Burks, Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the city of Atlanta and the mayor’s designee on CSAC, reached out to Taylor on March 22 about setting up a visit from Dickens to Starlight Heights, which Taylor said she would be happy to discuss. The Mayor visited three neighborhoods that week, presumably one of those was Starlight Heights. Most of the pictures posted by the City in a March 27 twitter thread about the Dickens’ neighborhood visits, however, appear to be from a gated community called “Gates at Bouldercrest.” 

Mayor Dickens continues to tout the successes of CSAC, as he did in an interview with Greg Bluestein for the April 5 episode of Politically Georgia, a podcast from the Cox Media owned Atlanta Journal Constitution. “There’s been a stakeholder group for the last year or more,” Dickens said, “that’s been meeting monthly to talk about what they’d like to see, and so the things that they said they wanted to see, a lot of that input has gone into it.” Dickens then correctly lists several of the suggestions by CSAC implemented in updated versions of the plans like moving the firing range next to Metro Youth Detention Center instead of closer to the neighborhoods and the 100 foot tree buffer, but he erroneously credits CSAC with reducing the size of the project from 150 to 85 acres, which was a change implemented by City Council prior to passing the lease legislation in 2021. 

“So the community input around it has been instrumental,” Dickens tells Bluestein. It is apparent from the CSAC emails, however, that members of the committee do not feel that they are being heard by the Mayor or City Council. “We should be having regular meetings,” Taylor concluded her March 21 email to her fellow CSAC members, “with both of these entities that have asked us to serve their purpose and have put us on the front lines of this conflict.”

With Dickens’ new task force spinning up this month, he has an alternative to CSAC for what he calls public input, but further problems with the committee will only serve to continue eroding public perception of the process that Dickens desperately needs to maintain whatever political capital he may still hold to ensure Cop City is built.  

Timeline of emails:

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