Alpharetta’s Lack of Election Coverage

It has been nearly a month since I wrote this article about Alpharetta’s ongoing City Council election. Since that time I have seen no local newspaper coverage of the most important election the City of Alpharetta has had since 2011 when Mayor Belle Isle and I were elected.

But six years ago when we ran for office both local papers ran profiles of every candidate within two weeks and there were forums and debates. On September 7th of 2011 the Alpharetta Revue ran a profile of some unknown candidate named Jim Gilvin on September 7th of that year. You can still read that article here but only if you promise to forgive the 20 year old real estate picture accompanying it.

And as I go back and read that profile now I am surprised to see how similar the current election is to that one.

Traffic and high density development still seem to be the most critical issues. One of the current candidates promises to provide a much needed voice for the residents of Alpharetta and the commercial property owners, builders and developers are once again displaying giant signs for the other candidate.

Easterling Hodge E Andrews

Yet even though so many of the issues are still the same the local media coverage has been much different. Actually it has been nonexistent.

There hasn’t even been a newspaper article about the city council race except for the article announcing there was one. Alpharetta is halfway through its most important election in six years and there has been no profile of the candidates.

Not one local reporter has thought to ask Councilman Kennedy why he didn’t let his constituents know he wasn’t running for reelection until it was too late for other candidates to qualify. Not a single media outlet has bothered to ask candidate Ben Easterling what prompted him to qualify as a candidate for Councilman Kennedy’s seat on the first morning of qualifying when no one in the public had any idea Councilman Kennedy wasn’t running.

I know I’m just an elected official who blogs on the side but it certainly seems like those are the kinds of things local newspapers should do to inform their readers. At least they used to.

 

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Alpharetta Has a Choice to Make

Most people who live in Alpharetta don’t realize they have an important decision to make about the future of our city on November 7th. That is when the election to replace Councilman Mike Kennedy will be held.

For the last six years Councilman Kennedy has served as Mayor Belle Isle’s appointed liaison to oversee Alpharetta’s community development department. A lot has changed in those six years.

This will be only the second time over those six years that Alpharetta voters have even had a choice to make. And if you think your vote won’t matter this November I’d like to remind you that the margin of victory in that election four years ago was decided by 7 votes!

Look, I get it. Most people are sick of politics. I’m one of them.

But six years ago I set aside my distaste for politics and politicians because I care about this community and wanted to give my friends and neighbors a choice about our future. So I very much appreciate the two candidates who are now making that same sacrifice on our behalf.

Of the 63,000 people who live in Alpharetta Ben Burnett and Ben Easterling were the only two people willing to step up and give the the rest of us a choice about our future. I am grateful. We all should be.

I have also had the privilege of getting to know both candidates over the past few years and in my opinion they are both good men. I believe they are both men of faith who are good husbands, fathers and public servants.

I first met Ben Burnett during a contentious zoning issue which affected his neighborhood on Mayfield Road. Ben was an active advocate for his neighbors and after the issue was resolved he continued to stay in touch. Eventually Mr. Burnett expressed a desire to serve his community in an official capacity so I took Mr. Burnett up on his offer by appointing him to Alpharetta’s recreation and park commission in 2014.

Ben Burnett served our city well on the recreation commission and when a position as an alternate opened up on the planning commission I nominated him to fill the vacancy based on his knowledge of zoning processes. Mayor Belle Isle and the rest of city council then unanimously supported Mr. Burnett’s appointment to the planning commission where he helped review zoning applications.

The other candidate running for Alpharetta city council is named Ben Easterling. I first met Ben Easterling in 2012 when I was appointed as the city council liaison to our recreation and parks department. At the time Mr. Easterling was Councilman Chris Owens’ appointee to the recreation commission and he served in that capacity until assuming the chairman’s role later that year. Ben Easterling has also served the city of Alpharetta well with his positions on the recreation commission.

The people of Alpharetta are very fortunate to have two such qualified candidates willing to run for city council this year. And the timing is critical. Alpharetta is at a crossroads.

In the wake of the great recession there has been a tremendous amount of growth and development in a few short years. And what we see being built now is just the beginning. Many of the developments already approved have yet to break ground.

Which means that whoever is elected on November 7th will be responsible for helping to manage all of that growth while also helping to set the course for future decisions. And at such a pivotal moment we are fortunate two candidates have stepped forward to give voters a choice.

Alpharetta now has a choice to make thanks to Ben Burnett and Ben Easterling.

 

 

 

Healing the Heart of Democracy

For years I have been concerned about the state of our nation and what it means for the future we will leave to our children. That concern was the main reason I ran for public office.

By running for city council I saw an opportunity to make a difference, however slight. And by offering to serve my community on a local level I hoped to positively impact the future for my children.

The beauty of serving at a local level is that most of the issues have an immediate impact the community we call home. National politics usually dominate network newscasts but it is the local decisions about roads, parks and zoning applications that have the greatest impact on a city. So I try to stay focused on local issues that I can influence and generally refrain from writing about national issues here unless they have a direct impact on Alpharetta.

One national issue that has weighed heavily in my mind lately though is how politically divided our nation has become. Rather than a nation of “We The People” it seems like too many Americans are caught up in “Us versus Them” or “Good versus Evil”. The political divide has gotten worse over my lifetime and lately it seems that divisiveness is resulting in violence.

Last year as I began reflecting on how our nation got to this point I came across a book titled Healing the Heart of Democracy written by Parker J. Palmer. It provides some great insight into how our nation’s political discourse has reached such a troubling point and even though it was written in 2011 it seems especially relevant after the 2016 presidential election and thee ensuing turmoil.

Healing the Heart of Democracy

The author of Healing has a very different political perspective than mine and I nearly stopped reading it at one point because it was challenging to read so many views I disagreed with. But fortunately Mr. Palmer’s ability to identify the root of many problems facing our nation kept me reading even when I didn’t agree with his proposed solutions.

Looking back it became clear that if I couldn’t bear reading the book because I didn’t always agree with Dr. Palmer then I wasn’t ready to hear his message any way. Below is a selection from the book’s introduction that I found particularly relevant:

But these days, “We the People” have a great deal of trouble talking across our lines of difference about the common good—so much trouble that many of us doubt the very concept of a “common good.” Deformed by a divisive political culture, we’re less inclined to differ with each other honestly than to demonize each other mercilessly. That’s why it’s so seductive to gather with folks who share our view of what’s wrong and do little more than complain about all those “wrongdoers” who aren’t in the room.

If we want to “create a politics worthy of the human spirit,” we must find ways to bridge our differences, whether they are defined by age, gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. Then we must seek patches of common ground on the issues we care most about. This is more than a feel-good exercise. If we cannot reach a rough consensus on what most of us want, we have no way to hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people.

Every time we fail to bridge our differences, we succumb to the divide-and-conquer tactics so skillfully deployed by individuals and institutions whose objective is to take us out of the political equation. Question: Why are billions of dollars spent annually on cable TV performances of political “infotainment” that are all heat and no light? On disseminating disinformation and agitprop online? On PACs that can produce and purchase air time for fact-free attack ads that offer no solutions? Answer: To make “We the People” so fearful and suspicious of each other that we will become even more divided and politically impotent.

There is a lot of wisdom in those three paragraphs. Especially to someone who has been actively involved in local politics for the past few years.

If you are as concerned about the divisive nature of American politics and the effect it is having on your friends, family and community I encourage you to read Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker J. Palmer. The book not only provides clarity to some of the core issues facing America but also offers ways suggestions for ways we can act locally to do something about it.

I try to keep an extra copy on hand if you would like to borrow one or you can order it here on Amazon for less than $15.

 

 

2017 Fulton County Property Tax Assessment Increase Update

A few days ago I wrote this article about this Fulton County’s recent property tax assessments after receiving numerous calls and messages from neighbors with questions or complaints. As I mentioned in the previous article city officials like myself have absolutely no control over the assessments so our only options are to leverage whatever political influence we may have to encourage a reasonable resolution by those who do have control of the situation and adjust our local tax rate as we see fit based on the decision handed down.

With that in mind I have had several conversations with elected officials at the state and county level over the past few days and would like to provide an update. Every elected official I have spoken to is upset with the way the tax assessment process has been handled and I have been encouraged by the attention given to this urgent matter. One way or another local governments need to know our tax base as soon as possible. The city of Alpharetta will begin our current budget ends in less than three weeks and it is absolutely absurd that we still don’t know what our property tax base will be to plan for the next year.

Fulton County Vice Chairman Bob Ellis who represents Fulton’s 2nd District and lives in Milton has been at the forefront of trying to resolve this convoluted problem. Vice Chair Ellis held a public meeting last Thursday to hear from residents. This report from 11 Alive titled “Tempers Erupt in Meeting Halls over Fulton County Tax Bills” covered the meeting. A lot of upset taxpayers took advantage of the opportunity to voice their concerns and when I spoke to Bob on Friday he was sincerely glad to given them the opportunity. You may watch the full video of the town hall meeting here.

Vice Chair Ellis has also called upon state legislators to intervene if the problems cannot be successfully resolved at the local level. I am personally concerned about further state involvement in local governance because some of the existing assessment problems are unintended consequences of previous legislation. For example, state law currently requires governments to value residential properties between 90 and 110 percent of fair market value so Fulton County can be fined $1 million if this years’ assessments don’t reflect those values regardless of the consequences. But despite reservations about further state involvement I do appreciate Bob’s insistence that the situation must be remedied one way or another.

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves has also been vocal about the tax assessment problem. Last week Chairman Eaves joined Vice Chair Ellis in calling for the Board of Assessors to rescind the 2017 property tax assessments. Chairman Eaves has also been vocal in calling for a freeze on tax assessments until the issues can be resolved:

“To our homeowners, this is a financial emergency,” Eaves said. “A freeze would mean that most would pay the same in taxes, so long as city hall and school board millage rates were not increased in the past year.”

The Fulton County Board of Assessors was scheduled to vote on the requested tax freeze last week but postponed the vote until this Thursday. However the chief tax appraiser says he won’t recommend rescinding the assessments even at that time.

State Senator John Albers from Roswell who calls the assessment situation a “fiasco” is following the matter closely in case state intervention is required has also expressed concerns that the tax board meeting should be conducted in a more convenient forum for his constituents.

One way or the other it is imperative that the Tax Board resolve the situation immediately so that local governments can make informed decisions on tax millage rates and budgets for next year. This is unacceptable.

Before the tax board’s decision scheduled this week Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann who represents District 1 and lives in Johns Creek will also hold one more public meeting to discuss the matter this Wednesday night, June 14, at Johns Creek High School at 7:00 p.m. I encourage those of you who have questions or comments to please attend the meeting and be heard.

Hausmann meeting copy

 

Constituent Letter and Response

I sent a letter to many of my constituents two weeks ago. The idea was to solicit feedback from the people who elected me about their vision of our future downtown and their reaction to the current pace of development in Alpharetta.

constituent-letter

Change is occurring rapidly and as a community we are facing pivotal decisions about our future so I wanted to get a better sense of where my constituents stand on those key issues.  That is why I mailed the letter to 1100 Alpharetta residents asking for their responses to the following questions:

The current pace of land development and density growth in Alpharetta is:

a) Too little                       b) Too much                        c) About right

Your vision of downtown Alpharetta in the future would be more like:

a) Buckhead                       b) Canton Street in Roswell                  c) Decatur

The response to the letter has been overwhelming with more than 150 people sending comments so far. In addition to answering the two questions many people also included thoughtful comments about other issues that concern them.

The response has been encouraging and the results surprised me. While my original intent was only to solicit feedback that could guide my future decisions some constituents also copied my fellow councilmen with their responses. Other constituents even asked me to share the results with the public along with the rest of council so I decided to make the results public for anyone who is interested in what my constituents had to say.

Of the 1100 letter recipients one thousand of them were homes containing the most likely voters in the city of Alpharetta. Each of those households contains multiple voters who vote in nearly every election held. Many of those households contain three or more very active voters.

The remaining recipients were people whose opinions I respect, people who have reached out to me about issues in the past or people who serve in various volunteer capacities throughout our community. The list was created as a reflection of the diverse group of people who elected me to represent them and with whom I would want to speak if I were running for re-election today.

The results of the responses I received as of midnight 10/27/2016 are below.

survey-results

Frankly, I was shocked. Based on the people I speak with at schools, churches, softball games, etc. on a regular basis I fully expected the the majority of respondents to select “B” for both questions.

But for 87% of the Alpharetta voters who responded to feel the current pace of development in our city is too much was startling. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the thoughtful, passionate, frustrated and occasionally angry comments many people included.

I was also surprised to find that responses from the list of most likely voters were almost identical to those from people I subjectively selected or who responded because a neighbor sent them the survey. Regardless of the sample group the percentage of responses for selection “B” were only reduced by 1% as a result of rounding.

As a person who ran a successful campaign against an incumbent council member five years ago by pointing out their record on growth and development I take these results very seriously. When nearly 9 out of 10 of the most active voters who hired me say that our current pace of growth and density is too much it is just too overwhelming for me to ignore. And as I cast votes on related issues in the future it will be with these results in mind.

Elected officials cannot always make decisions based on what is most popular. I know that sometimes we have to make difficult choices and ruffling feathers often comes with the territory. But I am also keenly aware that when elected officials stray too far from the vision of their electorate it will not continue indefinitely.

 

 

 

 

 

Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

The article below was written by Mayor David Belle Isle, the mayor of Alpharetta, who gave me permission to share it with you here.

 

Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

I’m a vision guy. I love looking at something and imagining what it could be; what it could be like; and how to get there. I love chasing a vision and seeing the pieces fall into place. But, for a vision to be worth the chase, the promise of “what could be” has to be better than “what is.”

Last week, I found myself in a makeshift room midway up the interior back stairs of the State Capitol. The room was packed. The air was hot. I was there to testify on behalf of Alpharetta at a committee hearing on the proposed MARTA expansion bill, SB 330. To my surprise, the room was not full of concerned every day citizens seeking faster commute times to home and work. Rather, it was filled with developers, lobbyists, and employees of chamber and public policy groups. Indeed, a total of 7 lobbying firms have been retained to make sure this MARTA bill gets passed and that you vote for it. Big money. Big stakes. Big supporters.

Among others, two developers spoke of how wonderful the MARTA expansion would be for the economy, specifically their economy. They introduced a new phrase: “transit premium.” This is the concept by which the properties serviced by the rail will increase in value by 50%. This is fantastic! Fantastic, that is, if you’re a property owner or developer near a proposed new transit station.

On the whole, I firmly believe that the expansion of public transit is part of the solution as we look to shorten our drive times to home and to work. But, the current $8 Billion proposal has me scratching my head:

  1. What About the 97%ers? Only 3% of commuters within reach of the current rail use MARTA and ridership is down over the past 10 years.
  2. Convenience Factor. For most, using rail involves a six-part process: a drive to the station, a wait for the train, a ride on the rail, a wait for a bus, a ride to a bus stop, and a walk to their building. Real people will weigh that time and hassle against driving straight to work.
  3. Transit for Everyone… Else. Many who support the expansion of MARTA rail are laboring under the hope that others will take the train so that their drive downtown won’t take so long.
  4. Until Death Do It Tax. 43 years is a long time to pay a tax on everything you purchase. This puts the full payment outside my life expectancy. I’m 40.
  5. Bait and Switch. The MARTA project list is disposable. MARTA is not obligated to build the projects the voters are being asked to fund. They should be.
  6. Hadn’t Thought of That. No one has thought to measure the expected improvement, if any, along Georgia 400. For an informed vote, we need to know how much quicker our drives will be.
  7. Federal Match? The proposed expansion is dependent on federal matching funds of $4 Billion. There is no obligation by the Fed to commit these funds. Before MARTA expansion hits a ballot, there should be.
  8. I’m Against What? The ballot question is worded in a way that a “No” vote implies you oppose traffic relief and economic development. The question should be neutral.
  9. Stacked Deck for Alpharetta. If successful, 3 new transit stations will attract 3 new streams of traffic from surrounding areas and require 3 new 2,500-car parking decks constructed MARTA-style.

I truly want to see us, as a region, take on traffic and develop a comprehensive plan. I can see it. That’s my vision. It is imprinted on my mind. Yet, we need to look at all the options openly: heavy rail, new roads, light rail, additional lanes, bus-rapid-transit, managed lanes, bus circulator programs, intersection improvements, signal timing, adaptive traffic, Uber, driverless cars. If we’re not careful, we’ll spend more than half of our transportation dollars on 3% of our commuters. “What could be” will be no better than “what is,” except we’ll have the pleasure of paying for “what should never have been.” The best answer probably lies in some combination of travel methods. We don’t know. But before we vote, let’s find out if this vision is worth the chase.

 

 

Resolution of the Mayor and Council Regarding MARTA Tax Increase

Last night the Alpharetta Mayor and City Council unanimously supported a resolution asking members of the Georgia state legislature to allow Fulton County to finish the transportation improvement process begun last year under House Bill 170. It is my understanding that the Mayor and City Council of Johns Creek have also adopted this resolution.

Last year’s House Bill 170 laid out a well designed plan for investing in the diverse infrastructure needs of a county the size of Fulton. The resolution below would preserve that ongoing process while still providing municipalities more flexibility to expand transit within that framework as needed. You can click on the photo below to read the whole thing.

 

Alpharetta SB 330 Resolution_edited-1