Candidate Q&A – Christopher Gagnon, Decatur City Commission At-large
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About this series:
Decaturish sent questions to candidates running for elected office in Decatur and Avondale Estates. We will publish the candidates’ responses throughout the week. For more information about voting in the upcoming election, please see the note at the end of this post. Here is the response from Christopher Gagnon, who is running for the Decatur City Commission’s At-large seat.
1) Why are you running for Decatur City Commission?
Decatur is my home. I’ve been a part of this community for over 10 years. I wasn’t born here, I moved here by choice. My business allows me to live anywhere in the world and I choose here. Why? Our city is diverse, progressive and filled with intelligent, compassionate neighbors. We believe in social justice, freedom of thought, expression and opportunity. I’m proud to have raised my children here, educated by our teachers and surrounded by a like-minded community.
Like many of my neighbors I’ve been frustrated by the recent rapid-fire changes made by our city with very little weight given to resident’s opinions. My own experiences attempting to participate in the city’s decision-making processes were not good. As I spoke to my neighbors it became clear that this experience is very common among our residents.
I’m running for City Commission to provide choice to our neighbors. With roughly 25,000 residents Decatur is filled with voices, ideas and opinions. Each of those voices is valid; each should be heard and respected. While our ideas may diverge, we all believe in this city and its future. I believe that fresh voices can help restore our confidence in our city government.
I don’t derive any income from this area or hold any commercial interest in our city’s real estate or in the surrounding areas. I view Decatur solely as my home. This gives me a different view of our city that is well aligned with my neighbors. We protect our homes much differently when we don’t view them as opportunities for advancement. Preserving our small town soul while assuring natural, sustainable growth is my top priority.
2) What makes you a better candidate than your opponent?
My opponent and I share very different views of the At Large seat of the city commission. I believe this seat is unique in that it represents the only check and balance in our city government. This seat represents both districts of our city and requires a majority of voters twice the size of the district seats. This seat is harder to win, and it carries a broader responsibility. If a resident’s voice isn’t being heard by their district commissioners, they can appeal to the At Large commissioner.
The At Large commissioner should not be afraid to walk against the current of the commission and, in fact, should strive to do so to assure that every angle was considered and every voice was heard. This seat should embody the voice of the people and should be constantly asking the question “Have we considered every angle?” before agreeing to a vote. This is how I view this seat and this is how I plan to execute it.
My opponent has stated in this campaign that this seat is simply one voice out of five and that it doesn’t have any ability to make a difference. His voting record supports his view. While the minutes of commission meetings are generally sparse, they do reveal the complete voting record of every commission vote. My opponent has voted ‘aye’ to every proposal that reached a vote for the entirety of his time in office. Are we to believe that every proposal introduced in four years reflected the absolute best policy decisions available to our city? Given the amount of debate and unfavorable experiences of our residents I cannot accept this to be true.
I am the better candidate because I believe in the power of our voices. I will assure that every voice, every opinion and every option is considered. If I’m elected, the At Large seat will not be a rubber stamp, it will be the voice of the people.
3) What do you think is Decatur’s greatest strength?
Decatur’s greatest strength is our soul: our diversity, our progressive attitudes, our respect for each other and our celebration of our differences. You can see this in our schools, at our festivals, walking through the square, sitting on a restaurant patio. People say hi, we run over to help each other, we stop our cars on busy roads to let each other in. Decatur is a safe place to be a good person.
4) What do you think is Decatur’s biggest challenge?
Our greatest challenge is to evolve and grow without losing the small-town soul of our city. If the cost of living here continues to rise, we’ll continue to lose segments of our diverse population. If our city becomes apartment-heavy our population will become temporary. If our roads become too congested, commuters and businesses will look elsewhere. We need to balance our growth with the importance of maintaining our soul. Every decision the commission makes should factor in the impact to our small-town feel and quality of life. This requires the inclusion of every resident’s voice.
5) How would you address Decatur’s biggest challenge?
The greatest ideas come from our residents. The diverse nature of our backgrounds and experiences gives us an enviable pool of creativity, ideas and capability. Opening our governing processes will allow us to access the strengths of our community. Restoring confidence in a participatory government will give the city better access to more ideas. During a campaign it’s easy to become stuck in debates on individual projects but this is short-sighted. The larger issue we need to solve is in the process our government uses to approve these projects. Residents are invited to participate but when their ideas run against the grain of the city’s preconceived views they are usually summarily dismissed. This limits creativity and removes valid alternative options. This needs to change.
6) What are the top two or three things you plan to focus on as a commissioner?
First, transparency. We need to make our meetings and processes more accessible to our residents. We have a duty to restore confidence in our commission. There are technology tools that allow for participation without physical presence. We project ourselves to the world as a progressive city, but our city management uses archaic methods for communication and participation. Every citizen’s voice is valid and must be heard, even if it runs contrary to the opinions of the commission. Our methods need to change to open the process to more voices.
Second, improved due diligence prior to voting. No commissioner is an expert in every topic required to make a decision. Voting on a proposal without complete independent, expert opinion is an irresponsible way to manage a city. Let’s gather the data we need to make the hard decisions. If we don’t feel confident that every angle has been explored, we push the proposal back for additional work. The commission should not serve as a rubber stamp to proposals but nearly every proposal presented to the commission over the past four years was passed with a unanimous vote. Who is standing up to assure that every available option has been considered?
Third, a renewed focus on our basic infrastructure. Our city is spending large sums of money on large projects while broken infrastructure sits unattended. Potholes, deteriorating sidewalks, faded street signs, watershed issues; these are the pieces of the city we see and feel every day. More importantly they can be fixed in relatively short order if we simply choose to address them.
7) Every year, the Decatur City Commission holds its annual retreat at a location two hours away from the city of Decatur. The meeting is technically open to the public, but the public can’t easily attend and there are no video or audio recordings of the meeting. The City Commission does record and publish minutes, but they are a short summary of a two-day long discussion. This is an important public meeting that sets Decatur’s agenda for the entire year, but very few people get to see it. If you are elected as a commissioner, will you continue to participate in these retreats, or will you ask the City Commission to hold its retreats in a location that is more accessible to the residents of Decatur?
I don’t believe the city commission needs any retreat whatsoever. If we want a change of location, we can meet outside on the square or in one of our many community gathering places. I oppose any meeting that is not fully accessible to every resident of the city, fully recorded and archived for future reference. I will not boycott this offsite meeting but will work to change it to a more accessible format that is fully recorded. Our city is not a corporation run by a handful of executives. Decatur belongs to its citizens who must be given access to all city business.
8) A recent Decaturish editorial called for several reforms in city government following an investigation into the city’s vendor cart pilot program. One of our recommendations was requiring members of the Decatur Development Authority board and city employees overseeing economic development activities to file financial disclosure forms. These reports would list sources of income, any ownership interests these individuals might have in other companies and any property they own. Currently, the only people legally required to file them in the city of Decatur are the city commissioners and school board members. Do you think members the DDA and city employees involved in economic development activities should file financial disclosure forms? If not, why not?
I wasn’t required to file a financial disclosure as a candidate but elected to do it anyway because I have nothing to hide. I believe every city official and appointee who participates in financial decision-making or who has discretionary spending ability above a set amount should be required to file financial disclosures. These disclosures are not very detailed, simply showing any ownership interest exceeding a given percentage in property and organizations. They don’t quantify any financial value or reveal any personal financial information. The idea that they represent a privacy concern is simply untrue. The purpose is to identify where conflicts could exist. Anyone unwilling to provide this very limited information can simply choose to not accept an appointment and honestly probably shouldn’t be considered. Restoring confidence in our city government is critical to the evolution of our city. Complete transparency is the only path.
9) Recently, a consultant for the city floated the idea of asking voters to approve a tax increase to subsidize affordable housing in the city of Decatur. Do you support this idea? Why or why not?
I personally don’t mind contributing more for the right causes; however I’m not open to increasing taxes on our residents. Tapping our residents to solve policy issues with their wallets to avoid making hard decisions is irresponsible governing. Our recent trend towards deficit spending is shrinking our options to use our current tax base for social services like housing subsidies. If we don’t stop this trend our budget will continue to shift more funds to servicing our growing debt which will absolutely result in a shrinking of social services budgets. This is where we lose the progressive soul of our city.
10) If you are elected to the commission, one of your first duties will be to choose a mayor. (The mayor in Decatur is chosen by his or her fellow commissioners at the beginning of each year.) What is your opinion of Mayor Patti Garrett and do you think she should be reelected as mayor?
I don’t have a personal opinion of Mayor Garrett; however I believe we need a fresh start. In my particular race against the only incumbent, my election would definitively signal a desire for change. If the people want change, that is what they should receive. Additionally, I would propose the commission begin the process to debate a change in our city charter and governing structure. Our city has grown to the point where the residents should elect our mayor independently of the commission. A small commission that controls both the legislative and executive functions of the city is not the best structure to take Decatur into the future.
11) What is your opinion of the city of Decatur’s current tree ordinance and what changes would you make to it, if any?
I support strengthening the tree ordinance. My definition of strengthening goes beyond simply making it harder to remove trees. Our ordinance needs to be broadened to describe specific restricted actions in detail to include every method available to exempt from those actions. For example, a homeowner should have very specific exemptions and processes for removing troublesome trees. These actions should be described clearly in the ordinance, which makes them easy to understand and execute when needed. Homeowners typically aren’t the bad actors in tree removal. Developers can work the cost of fines and penalties into their budgets and choose their approach based solely on the numbers. In many cases committing a violation is the better financial decision for them. We need to solve that problem first and foremost. With high property values and speculative development, we will continue to see violations simply because the fines don’t dissuade the action. Developing a complete ordinance removes the need for a variance process which is ripe for abuse. Variances need to stop.
12) Parking remains a contentious issue in the city of Decatur. While the city says paid spots are necessary to ensure a steady flow of traffic to nearby businesses, residents and visitors have complaints about space availability, affordability and the practices of booting companies who patrol private lots. Some businesses that have left Decatur have cited parking as a reason for their departure. Do you think parking in Decatur is a problem that needs to be fixed, or do you think this issue is overblown?
Downtown parking is a scare commodity. As such it comes with a price. I don’t personally feel downtown parking costs are out of control. Some parking lot prices are a little high, but market forces will drive them down if people choose to keep looking for alternative spaces rather than pay them. I’m personally more concerned about parking within our residential neighborhoods. Many of our streets are quite narrow, some with 2-side street parking. With our increasing traffic issues forcing commuters to take residential streets I’m concerned about safety for pedestrians and children, as well as potential accidents with parked cars. This issue needs attention city-wide.
13) What is your opinion about the planters on West Howard Avenue?
They’re weird, ugly and embarrassing. I’ve been appalled by them from the day a truck showed up and started tossing them into the street. The plastic parking bumpers and reflective tape added months later further prove they were not part of any carefully orchestrated plan.
The real issue with the planters is that they represent a microcosm of what it’s like to deal with our city government. A handful of people make decisions that affect the entire city; in this case a very dangerous decision. When residents attempt to engage their city on the missteps they are met with hubris, disdain and eventually complete apathy. This is no way to run a city. This is no way to lead a representative government. The planters are dangerous and embarrassingly ugly but more importantly they represent a line drawn in the sand between the city and its people. I personally can’t wait to read my opponent’s answer to this question because to date I have been unable to compel a sitting commissioner to reveal any opinion at all on this subject. The measure of a leader isn’t whether they make mistakes, it’s how they respond to them going forward. The silent treatment on this project needs to end.
14) Residents living around North Decatur Road and Superior Avenue have been complaining about conditions there for years, citing numerous accidents. What would you do to improve this intersection?
I personally believe this issue is driven by commuters choosing to use Superior as a way around the Scott/Clairemont and North Decatur/Clairemont intersections. This is what I call the ‘Waze/Google Maps’ issue. Residential streets are often identified as a faster route even if they weren’t constructed for the increased volume. In the short term we need to shift funds for more traffic enforcement in this and other residential trouble spots. The long term solution is to stop shrinking our artery roads. If Decatur is to grow, especially as a commercial hotspot, we need to increase and improve traffic flow, not constrict it. Constant traffic restriction is forcing many commuters to make poor decisions out of desperation. Traffic goes where traffic is moving. Let’s provide better paths of travel in and around our city.
15) Shirley Baylis, downtown program manager in the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development has said there has been a “significant increase in the number of homeless people in the downtown area and on the square. Businesses have started having more issues with people panhandling or harassing their customers and, in some cases, threatening their employees.” What can be done to address these concerns while still showing compassion for people who are homeless?
Let’s research creating safe zones for homeless in our city. Our residents are progressive, and we want to help but we can’t let this become a problem. Safe zones would give those in need a place to go while providing the community a safe way to help while keeping our businesses and patrons free from unwanted and in many cases unsafe encounters. I’d like to see a coalition of the city, residents and businesses come together to help solve this issue.
16) Marijuana possession has been decriminalized in neighboring cities, including Clarkston and the city of Atlanta. Do you support decriminalizing marijuana possession in the city of Decatur?
At this time, I don’t. While I’m open to legalization, this must happen at the state level. My primary concern is that decriminalizing marijuana does nothing to reduce the safety risk inherent with an illegal distribution system. With the unnerving trend of fentanyl-lacing and spotty sourcing the public health risk is just too great. Legalization provides for the development of a legal distribution system which is the only way to assure a safe product. We also need to consider that decriminalizing use doesn’t decriminalize the source. Money flowing from our community to a criminal distribution system will eventually fund terrible criminal activity which nobody in this city wants to support.
To help residents understand the current process followed by the Decatur Police Department: if someone is discovered with 1-ounce or less of marijuana they will not be taken to jail. Dekalb County Jail will not accept a suspect for this crime. Decatur Police will confiscate the drugs, book the suspect and release them with a court notice. The municipal court can still convict, and this will end up on the suspect’s criminal record if convicted. This process already provides a sort of de facto decriminalization. Any further action would be irresponsible until Georgia legalizes marijuana.
17) What is your opinion of the city of Decatur’s current budget? Are the any areas of the budget that you think need to receive more funding? Are there any expenses in the budget that you think should be reduced or eliminated?
It would be short-sighted to identify specific line items for reduction or addition in a vacuum. The budget reflects the financial view of the current policy priority and direction of the city. To responsibly change the budget, we need to change our policy priority. This is the purview of the city commission and where I give the strongest opinions. For clarity I believe our biggest priorities as a city (and therefore the areas that should receive the most funding) are infrastructure, education, public safety and community services. As residents, if we feel these areas are well-maintained, we can usually justify the high cost of living in our city.
18) Recently, the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce has suggested that the city change the name of Commerce Drive. The road was once called Oliver Street in honor of a notable black entrepreneur, Henry Oliver. In 1984, the Chamber of Commerce convinced the city to rename the street to Commerce Drive. Now the Chamber’s president is recommending the city change the name of Commerce Drive back to its original name to recognize Henry Oliver’s contributions to the city. What is your opinion about changing the name of Commerce Drive back to Oliver Street?
Kudos to Chamber President Katerina Taylor for seeing something and saying something. I believe we should change it back. I’m sure the generic noun ‘commerce’ won’t be offended by the change.
19) Are you satisfied with the current plan for developing and maintaining Legacy Park, formerly known as the United Methodist Children’s Home? If not, what would you change about it?
When you buy a giant piece of land, then ask people to come up with a purpose you’ll never please everyone. I would have personally liked to see more housing and a sports complex for our schools but that’s just my personal opinion. I’m honestly concerned more with what we can afford and our ability to see the strategic direction through to fruition. Lesser projects in this city have experienced an end result much different than the plan. The devil’s in the execution and our track record isn’t spotless.
While I’d rather look forward than backward it’s worth noting that a speculative land deal financed entirely through debt is not a good habit to get into as a city. The $2 Million annual note payment is absolutely going to affect future city decisions, especially if we miss budget estimates. We bought it and we now need to move forward, but we will quickly lose our small town feel – and possibly more – if we continue down a path of untamed growth and deficit spending.
20) Do you support annexing additional areas into the city of Decatur? If so, what areas should be annexed?
I believe that any group of people who adjoin our city, who get together to request annexation should be given that opportunity. Spoiler alert: most unincorporated neighboring residents don’t want to pay our taxes so voluntary residential annexation is rare. Commercial annexation needs complete and proper diligence and complete transparency. If these two requirements are completed properly, I have no issue with annexation.
21) What do you think of the city’s efforts to make its streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, like cycle tracks on city streets? Do you think the city needs to invest in more projects to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety?
I believe we need to continually invest to keep our city safe for pedestrians and cyclists. I’d like to see more options considered, more impact studies and an approach that does a better job balancing the needs of cars, cyclists and pedestrians. The city’s approach to date has been to limit access for cars which has resulted in disastrous traffic. This makes walking and cycling less safe.
22) If elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner?
Absolutely and I will push for full disclosure, improved recording and archiving of all city business.
Learn more about voting in the Nov. 5 elections:
Voter registration for the Nov. 5 municipal elections ended on Oct. 7. Early voting will start on Oct. 14.
If you have registered and need your polling information, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter page by clicking here.