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Follow up Q&A – Decatur candidates answer more questions

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Follow up Q&A – Decatur candidates answer more questions

Lavista Hills supporters sport I'm a Georgia Voter stickers. File Photo: Jonathan Phillips
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File photo by Jonathan Phillips

Decaturish numerous questions at its forum on Sept. 25  for the candidates running for the District 1 Post A seat on the City Commission.

But there were some questions we didn’t have time to get to. The candidates all agreed to provide answers in a follow-up Q&A. Here’s what they had to say.

Betty Blondeau

Betty Blondeau, Post 1A, City Commission Photo provided to Decaturish

Q: City Manager Peggy Merriss has held the city’s top job since 1993. She has worked for the city since 1983. It’s possible that her retirement is something you will face as a commissioner. What is the your current opinion of Merriss’ performance and what qualities will you look for if you have to find a replacement for her?

Ms. Merriss has led the city through enormous changes during her long tenure. Now we are faced with dealing with the success of these plans that were developed twenty years ago.  These are new challenges that were never imagined at the time of their conception. If the commission is charged with finding someone to take Ms. Merriss’s place, we must look for someone who can think outside the box with bold innovative approaches to the problems that have come with our success. A new city manager must be one who seeks and values citizen involvement and input, a critical concern for me.

Q: What is your opinion of the city’s current tree ordinance? Are there any changes you would like to make to the current ordinance?

The current tree ordinance could be strengthened with a few tweaks.  In conversations with arborists and experts in the field I have learned that there are ways that this ordinance should be improved.  There are examples from other cities where the tree canopy is more strongly protected. Decatur can look to these examples and improve the current ordinance.

Q: As Decatur has grown, its diversity has dwindled. Whites accounted for 60 percent of the city’s population in 1990, while blacks accounted for almost 40 percent. According to the 2010 census, about 73 percent of the city’s population was white and 20 percent was black. The remainder of the population was non-black minority, which includes Hispanics. Do you see Decatur’s decreasing diversity as a problem and, if so, what would you do to make the city more diverse? 

Diversity should be our strength. One way to increase diversity is to push for more affordable housing. There must be more control over the destruction of the current affordable housing resulting in high end expansion homes. The new apartment development at the Bank of America property allows for 29 affordable apartments, but we need more homes.  The Cottage Grove development was a good idea, but is a missed opportunity since the price point in these homes is high.  These efforts are a beginning, but there must be strict regulation, not only a mechanism for keeping track of who’s receiving the benefit, but also a clear plan for establishing more. We really need a review of our development and zoning ordinances.

Q: As commissioner how will you work with the school board and City Schools of Decatur? Is there anything about the current direction of City Schools of Decatur that concerns you?

The commissioners and the school board must continue to work together to maintain the reputation of our school system.  The tremendous development that has taken place has put strains on the system. With the approval of the school bond issue we know that our citizens want to provide the resources necessary to accommodate a growing school body, and our seniors want to be protected from high property taxes. Collaboration between the school board and the commission is critical in seeking ways to assure the continued success of our schools.

Kelly Walsh

Kelly Walsh. Photo provided to Decaturish

Q: City Manager Peggy Merriss has held the city’s top job since 1993. She has worked for the city since 1983. It’s possible that her retirement is something you will face as a commissioner. What is your current opinion of Merriss’ performance and what qualities will you look for if you have to find a replacement for her?

I hold the opinion that the City of Decatur has experienced strong leadership across the board at the highest levels of our government for the time period that I have lived here since 2005. Strong and consistent leadership creates tangible results that can be measured and experienced. The health and success of our city under the city manager’s leadership – with support and guidance from elected officials – is illustrated by several quantitative metrics including the overall fiscal health of the city, its high (and recently raised) bond rating, and the high performance of our public school system. I think it is also demonstrated by many qualitative metrics that paint a picture of an urban gem of a small city that has an extremely high quality of life from an active lifestyle, social, and cultural standpoint.

In looking forward to the future and being part of the commission that could hire a successor to Ms. Merriss, I would prioritize a search for the right combination of operational expertise and change agent personality. Decatur should hire a city manager who is steeped in the culture and history of the city as well as someone with high credibility and experience working with county officials and state leaders. Her replacement will need to have a strategic vision of where Decatur is heading in the next decade and beyond with a view to balancing growth while protecting the high quality of life residents enjoy today.

Q: What is your opinion of the city’s current tree ordinance? Are there any changes you would like to make to the current ordinance?

Regarding the current tree ordinance I have seen a disconnect between theory and reality and I think there are changes we can make to offer a stronger overall ordinance to protect our tree canopy. There was hard work and concerted effort put into updating the tree ordinance along with the overall update to the Unified Development Ordinance​(UDO) ​ a few years ago. I participated in that process myself and witnessed a high level of community input throughout. Community stakeholders such as residents, members of citizen advisory boards, local builders, architects, and business owners were all part of crafting the UDO​. However, the tree ordinance ​has been tested and it is not protecting high value trees and our future canopy in the way I would like to see. What I have learned through discussions with some of our community’s thought leaders and local experts on this subject is that we can do a better job with our tree conservation plan and respecting tree disturbance during development. I also ​think we can​ see some shortcomings with the kinds of replacement trees we allow and our follow up to ensure that the replacement trees are thriving.

To better protect existing trees I am recommending the following:

1. We need do a better job of identifying and preserving trees that will provide future canopy for the City. These are not always the biggest trees but are​ important contributors now and in future to Decatur’s Urban Forest Canopy.

2. Less grading. Decatur lots under new development are typically scraped from setback to set back requiring the removal of most, if not all, the trees in addition to the top soil for future trees. Because root zones cross boundaries, the impact can be negative to neighboring properties as well, thereby amplifying the problem.

Some important outcomes of making these changes are that landscape starts to inform design rather than the converse. More existing trees, forests and neighborhood character can be preserved. Less impervious surface is created by less mass grading. High value soils are protected and there are benefits from the associated storm water mitigation. Also importantly, green design that respects the position of healthy trees can facilitate the creation of affordable housing .

Q: As Decatur has grown, its diversity has dwindled. Whites accounted for 60 percent of the city’s population in 1990, while blacks accounted for almost 40 percent. According to the 2010 census, about 73 percent of the city’s population was white and 20 percent was black. The remainder of the population was non-black minority, which includes Hispanics. Do you see Decatur’s decreasing diversity as a problem and, if so, what would you do to make the city more diverse?

Decreasing diversity in Decatur is a problem for us all. The cumulative loss over the last 5-7 years of extended families, seniors, people of color, and the potential loss of anyone from the LGBTQ community in future is a wound we must all work together to heal and remedy. If our city cannot offer affordable housing, manageable taxes, an inclusive environment, and a fair playing field overall, then we need to come together to form consensus on why that is and how to solve our mutual problems. Diverse communities are more sustainable, more equitable, and in my opinion far more interesting and enjoyable to live in. I was raised by my grandmother, grew up with cousins that felt like siblings, and left my hometown to go to college across the country so I could embrace opportunities to meet people from all walks of life and cultures. I have benefited from the opportunity to live in many multi-cultural and multi-generational environments and have a strong affinity for travel and exploration. We shouldn’t have to travel too far, however, to find diversity and we should always try​ to welcome otherness into our community.

Diversity comes in many forms and flourishes in an inclusive environment in which everyone has the right to free speech but feels a responsibility to engage with others and respect opposing views. Diversity can be cultivated when there is affordable housing and stability ​for seniors. Diversity can be amplified when the cultural, social, and economic landscape is inviting to all kinds of people. I believe that the 60-point action plan in the Better Together Comprehensive Plan offers a blueprint for creating a more diverse environment that will ultimately be the future of Decatur and its next generation. That’s the starting line, not the finish. But if we don’t get on the path and follow it closely we will continue to miss opportunities to be rich in differences and full of possibilities.

Q: As commissioner how will you work with the school board and City Schools of Decatur? Is there anything about the current direction of City Schools of Decatur that concerns you? 

I am concerned about the issues of disproportionality that are currently being raised and discussed by the CSD leadership, the school board, and many parents in our community. The CSD leadership and school board are shining a light on a gap that has existed and must be recognized in order for us to move forward and close it. We have gaps in student achievement and in disciplinary action and this is not a recent development. Fortunately we have data, we have leadership, and we have to ensure that we have the will to build a plan for all students to thrive under equal treatment and in an equitable environment. As a city commissioner and a parent with children in our schools I am a stakeholder in this work and in making a plan of action. I will continue to be an actively engaged parent and use my leadership and experience to work with the school system to empower it to take necessary action to improve the problems of disproportionality. I will continue to be a good partner to parents and students who may be experiencing these problems first hand. I will continue to be an advocate for anybody who doesn’t have a voice in our community. I will call on everyone to take a stand and not be silent when they see, hear, or observe actions that promote disproportionality and inequity. I will absolutely support the newly-hired Equity Director of CSD in her efforts to resolve this problem and close the gap.

Melissa Manrow

Melissa Manrow

Q: City Manager Peggy Merriss has held the city’s top job since 1993. She has worked for the city since 1983. It’s possible that her retirement is something you will face as a commissioner. What is your current opinion of Merriss’ performance and what qualities will you look for if you have to find a replacement for her?

Ms. Merriss has been a steady guiding hand to our city’s growth over the years, and holds much institutional knowledge.  I have high regard for her performance, and hope to find a successor who will carry on her good work.  One highly desirable trait in any successor would be an awareness of all the hard work and intentional planning on the part of our city staff over the years, and a respect for the process that guided them and us as residents.  Her successor need not be a clone, nor have the same approach to our city’s management, but should be a strong leader, with the ability to listen, respond, and make decisions promptly—no paralysis by analysis.

Beyond that, strong succession planning is key in any prosperous organization, especially one like Decatur, which has many senior staff with robust tenure.  Whether those staff remain or not, the depth of their knowledge is not secure unless the organization as a whole has ensured that others share at least some of that knowledge.

Q: What is your opinion of the city’s current tree ordinance? Are there any changes you would like to make to the current ordinance?

The current tree ordinance reflects the balancing act of individual property rights and the greater good that we all benefit from by having a healthy, mature tree canopy.  The challenges as I see them are not from individual homeowners who might wish to take down one or two trees in order to improve their property—they are from developers who clear cut every property they procure, leaving nothing living on the lot.  It’s been heartening to me to see a change in interpretation between our city’s first staff arborist and our current arborist, who appears to take a much more protective stance regarding tree protection and removal of trees.  That change in staff and interpretation may make all the difference in the long-term success of the ordinance.

Q: As Decatur has grown, its diversity has dwindled. Whites accounted for 60 percent of the city’s population in 1990, while blacks accounted for almost 40 percent. According to the 2010 census, about 73 percent of the city’s population was white and 20 percent was black. The remainder of the population was non-black minority, which includes Hispanics. Do you see Decatur’s decreasing diversity as a problem and, if so, what would you do to make the city more diverse? 

I believe Decatur’s sense of community grew largely out of its diversity, and I mourn the loss of diversity over the years—diversity of families, houses, incomes, and individuals.  Given the realities of housing prices and the generally small lots, along with comparatively small homes built here, there may not be much recourse to our dwindling diversity of housing, but I believe we should strive to retain all the types diversity we do still have.  We must continue the conversation begun by Better Together, and discuss what ideas work best for our community.   I also intend to examine best practices for retaining housing and household diversity, whether those are further tax freezes/homestead exemptions, community land trusts, or inclusionary zoning.

Q: As commissioner how will you work with the school board and City Schools of Decatur? Is there anything about the current direction of City Schools of Decatur that concerns you? 

As commissioner I will work to meet and speak regularly with the school board, as other commissioners have done, maintaining strong communication and constructive conversation.  While the schools are growing rapidly, Dr. Dude seems to have quite a strategic, analytical approach to school growth projections, and with ongoing communication, I am confident we can continue to have a good relationship between the commission and the school board.

Tim Martin

Tim Martin. Photo provided to Decaturish

Q: City Manager Peggy Merriss has held the city’s top job since 1993. She has worked for the city since 1983. It’s possible that her retirement is something you will face as a commissioner. What is the your current opinion of Merriss’ performance and what qualities will you look for if you have to find a replacement for her?

Through my years on and leading the Decatur Business Association (DBA) I’ve had a variety of opportunities to work with or around Peggy. I like her personally and, more importantly, I respect her years of service to Decatur and the skill with which she’s managed a very tough job. Given that she serves at the pleasure of the commission and has held her position for as long as she has, through many years of many different people in leadership, it’s clear I’m not alone in this assessment.

I’m a believer in sticking with things proven to work well so I’d be seeking similar qualities in any replacement — sound financial skills, the ability to cultivate and advance a community-driven vision, and a creative approach to recognizing and seizing opportunities.

Q: What is your opinion of the city’s current tree ordinance? Are there any changes you would like to make to the current ordinance?

First off, calling it a “tree ordinance” is a bit of a misnomer that tends to increase the tensions that surround the issue. What Decatur has is a Canopy Preservation Ordinance, which is an approach focused more on trees in the aggregate than on individual trees in individual yards. It leans more towards the big picture and long term with a primary focus on planting, growing, measuring and maintaining our level of coverage community-wide for the benefit of future generations.

I understand we have many in the community who feel the ordinance doesn’t go far enough in protecting existing trees, particularly when land is being developed, while others still consider it too intrusive. I’ve listened to and sympathize with arguments on both sides of the issue. But wherever anyone sits, we have the ordinance we have for a reason. We went through that process and it was a messy one, with a lot of passion on both sides. In the end, we emerged with something that tries to balance these tensions by giving everyone some of what they wanted. No one emerged feeling a sense of victory but no one was trampled by the process either.

Was it an ideal outcome? Maybe not. But it was community and democracy in action and that’s something I respect.

Q: As Decatur has grown, its diversity has dwindled. Whites accounted for 60 percent of the city’s population in 1990, while blacks accounted for almost 40 percent. According to the 2010 census, about 73 percent of the city’s population was white and 20 percent was black. The remainder of the population was non-black minority, which includes Hispanics. Do you see Decatur’s decreasing diversity as a problem and, if so, what would you do to make the city more diverse? 

Ask almost anyone in Decatur what they love about our city and they’ll include its diversity in their answer. It’s a shared value. So yes, if that diversity is decreasing in certain respects it’s a problem. But more specifically, from a city commission standpoint, it’s a particularly relevant problem if there are policy matters at the municipal level that are contributing to the decline.

We’ve identified in the past that one of the issues is the degree to which we as a community are genuinely welcoming to minority populations and the city’s Better Together initiative — particularly its focus on how we police our citizens — has made some headway. There’s still much progress to be made as it relates to inclusion and equity but I absolutely support the committed efforts of the citizen advisory board tasked with implementing the Community Action Plan, as well as the hundreds of citizens who’ve involved themselves in its creation.

We’ve identified that escalating property taxes for folks on a fixed income has played a role in displacement and I was immensely proud last year when I and my fellow residents voted in such overwhelming numbers to eliminate school taxes for our seniors — a move that reduces their property tax burden by roughly 60%.

But there’s still more that can be done, particularly as it relates to housing. The more we can tailor our regulations to allow for viable housing types that meet needs across a broader income spectrum, the more welcoming we’ll be. The more we can prioritize the need for workforce housing for our teachers, emergency personnel, service workers, and so many others key to a diverse and well-rounded community, the more inclusive we’ll be.

If we truly value diversity, we’ll need to increasingly walk the talk in the years ahead and that’s something I’m committed to.

Q: As commissioner how will you work with the school board and City Schools of Decatur? Is there anything about the current direction of City Schools of Decatur that concerns you?

The school board is the elected body that runs our schools and runs them well. I don’t just acknowledge that fact. I respect it. I root for their success and I’m committed to assisting in whatever ways are appropriate.

More than anything, that means relationship-building and collaboration. While the school board and the city commission are autonomous bodies, there are many overlapping areas in their respective pursuits. As Decatur grows and develops, our schools need to be prepared. Growth must be predictable so their projections remain valid and allow time to prepare.

Should annexation once again be considered, our schools must have a voice. These things aren’t possible unless city commissioners and school board members routinely engage. Not just casually but at the table. That’s a priority for me.

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