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Candidate Q&A – Erin Braden, Decatur City Commission District 1, Post B

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Candidate Q&A – Erin Braden, Decatur City Commission District 1, Post B

Erin Braden.
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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 Erin Braden, a candidate for the City Commission’s District 1, Post B seat. 

1) Why are you running for Decatur City Commission?

I am running for City Commission to serve all the people of Decatur. I care passionately about Decatur and know there is work to be done. I have the knowledge and experience specific to Decatur so I can be effective immediately when I take my seat.  My years of involvement in the Decatur community provide me with valuable insights to understand how our city can move forward to ensure its continued prosperity and vitality. I envision Decatur’s future as a model city leading the nation in thoughtful, balanced growth that preserves our greenspace and works to enhance Decatur’s character as an equitable, inclusive community. I am excited for Decatur’s future.

2) What makes you a better candidate than your opponent?

Leadership is about service to others.I have been a leader in various aspects of community life in Decatur for over 16 years.  I have been deeply invested in our schools, my church, and my neighborhood, on a Decatur advisory board and with community groups, and on a local foundation board. In addition to my Decatur leadership experience, I bring the strategic thinking and integration skills acquired from my experience in strategic planning and Master’s Degree in International Economics.  I have demonstrated my ability to work collaboratively with others in Decatur, which is essential to creating a shared vision for our city and getting things done.

3) What do you think is Decatur’s greatest strength?

Decatur’s greatest strength has always been its people. The people who live, work, and play in Decatur are committed, engaged, and talented. We work, we volunteer, we connect, and we want to make this city a great community for all. Our Decatur is a unique city where communal effort and many shared conversations and celebrations bring us together. This is our strength and will ultimately see us through the current challenges we face and prepare us to address the challenges of the future.

4) What do you think is Decatur’s biggest challenge?

One result of the strength and vibrancy of our community is that our beloved Decatur is attractive to many and is growing fast. This is a problem many cities would like to have, but fast growth brings challenges to sustaining our vitality and sense of place. Carefully managing our growth to ensure a sustainable, equitable future is our biggest challenge. Decatur’s future as a vibrant, green city that is inclusive and diverse is at stake.

5) How would you address Decatur’s biggest challenge?

The right leadership and engagement with all stakeholders is essential to maintaining the diverse character of our community while moving the city into a sustainable future. That leadership requires forward, progressive thinking, a multifaceted vision and a collaborative approach to find creative solutions to our challenges. I will bring that leadership. To be a truly inclusive community, we must tackle affordable housing. To be a sustainable community, we must find solutions to not only protect our trees, but address our carbon footprint, single use plastics, and a host of issues affecting our environment.

6) What are the top two or three things you plan to focus on as a commissioner?

There are many elements that go into creating and maintaining a vibrant community, including balancing often competing concerns and priorities. Because of that, I don’t think a commissioner can focus on just two or three things. With every issue we need to see the big picture, recognizing that each decision impacts other considerations within our city.  Our city commission needs to listen to the wide variety of voices in our community, which includes people on different sides of each issue.

With that said, I am passionate about maintaining our city’s special character and working to be inclusive, welcoming, and sustainable.  To do that, we need to maintain our diversity, especially through expanding affordable housing options. We also must ensure that our growth, while inevitable, is managed and sustainable. That means stronger protections to make sure that our greenspace and tree canopy are preserved and increased.

We must weigh many interests so as to create the optimal balance for our city.  To achieve that balance, our commission needs to listen, and then lead and do what is right for our city’s future.  My focus will be on listening to residents about issues and, working with our community and city staff, finding forward-thinking solutions.

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 ask the City Commission to hold its retreats in a location that is more accessible to the residents of Decatur?

I see two questions here. First, I will definitely participate in the commission retreat. It will be my responsibility as a commissioner to help plan for the year, based on the strategic vision laid out by our community. Planning retreats are an important and productive management tool, especially for a part time commission.

Second, many organizations plan retreats away from regular day to day environments in order to effectively step back from those activities and focus without distraction. We could certainly look into holding the retreat in Decatur, but would want to ensure that any venue change does not interfere with that benefit. I am open to exploring a location closer to Decatur that would allow easier access to the public without disrupting the intense and valuable working sessions of the commission.

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 am a firm believer in transparency in government, which is essential for trust.  We would need to explore the legality of requiring nonelected people to file disclosures. I support strengthening our conflict-of-interest policies, as needed, with a failure to comply with such policies being grounds for dismissal. Enhancing those policies will help secure the public’s trust in the work and decisions made.

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?

One of my top priorities is expanding affordable housing options, which is key to preserving our economic, racial and age diversity. There is no question that we need to bridge the housing gap. A disproportionate number of people suffer from housing stress, when over 30% of their income is used for housing. This can lead to skimping on essentials like food and medications, and can contribute to damaged mental health.  However, I do not believe a tax increase is the answer to solving this issue.  There are a variety of policy options available to retain, promote, and create affordable housing in Decatur.

Decatur has an Affordable Housing Taskforce working on these issues right now and their recommendations will be presented to the City Commission this year. We need to act on stronger policy recommendations as soon as possible. Available policy options include mandatory inclusionary zoning to ensure that all new development includes affordable units, tax incentives to maintain existing affordable housing throughout the city, and impact fees to help fund investments in long-term affordability. Decatur has a Housing Trust Fund that can be expanded and utilized. These efforts require strengthening partnerships with the state, the county, investors and non-profit and private housing developers. And above all, we need to be open to new and creative ideas.

We can learn from many cities and countries that have employed a variety of successful solutions to the crisis in affordable housing. I am well prepared to tackle this issue when I am elected.  I want to live in a city where the people who educate our children can afford to live, where those who serve and protect us every day can call Decatur home, and where our seniors can age in place.

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?

Unlike many other cities, Decatur’s mayor is primarily a procedural designation. The mayor runs meetings and is the official representative of the commission, however, the position does not have additional powers beyond the other commissioners.  Decatur has a city manager who is the professional administrator handling the day-to-day management of the city and is appointed by the commission.  I am confident that we can trust the elected city commissioners to know who the best people for these positions are, and I am grateful that they are willing to serve in these roles.

11) What is your opinion of the city of Decatur’s current tree ordinance and what changes would you make to it, if any?

Our tree ordinance needs to be strengthened.  Decatur’s tree canopy is truly the soul of our city, and it is what sets us apart from many other urban core cities. Our shaded downtown sidewalks, tree lined streets, and our amazing specimen trees found throughout our neighborhoods are one of Decatur’s greatest quality of life and environmental assets.

Sadly, this canopy is eroding. We are experiencing tree loss not only due to development, but environmental stress and the fact that much of our canopy is old growth and vulnerable.

Conserving and protecting our trees and our environment is a top priority. The city has an ISA Certified Arborist, Kay Evanovich, a key commitment from the city to our canopy. The city is also planting trees every year, and we need to increase those efforts in cooperation with community groups and civic partners.

City policies, such as the tree ordinance, are not intended to be static; they require on-going monitoring and enforcing to remain relevant and effective. The City’s Environmental Sustainability Board is in the process of preparing recommended revisions to the current ordinance, and I look forward to hearing their recommendations.

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?

Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, parking has become a ubiquitous challenge in many downtown urban core cities and Decatur is facing it because of its successful growth. The City states that Downtown Decatur has 300-metered spaces, 2,200 deck and lot spaces, plus private businesses spaces. Additionally, many merchants offer free validated parking.  Regrettably, aggressive booting on private property has soured many visitors to Decatur.  While the City’s website offers comprehensive parking information on lots and pricing, as do the city maps, we have more we can do.

One current option is to improve parking signage. I understand that steps are already being made towards that goal.  Better and more uniform signage can make parking options easier for those visiting our city and for Decatur residents. Another solution for us to consider is promoting the availability MARTA into our city. Lastly, we would benefit from the input and ideas of our Decatur Business Association community whose livelihoods are most affected. I welcome their input. Solutions to make parking more easily found and accessible is an important part of keeping our downtown area vibrant and viable. The possibility of smart technology discussed the updated Transportation Plan may facilitate more efficient parking in the future.

13) What is your opinion about the planters on West Howard Avenue?

I realize these planters are universally disliked. My understanding is that they were added as a temporary measure as part of the Re-Imagining West Howard initiative. Before the planters were installed, residents had legitimate concerns for safety, access, and the immediate need for traffic calming measures in that corridor. At the suggestion of residents, the city was willing to experiment on lower-cost solutions so as to better study the impact on traffic as well as pedestrian and bicycle safety. Are the planters popular and fulfilling their intended purpose? No. But when something does not work as planned, we can course-correct and learn from the process.  I support replacing the planters with an alternative long-term solution that will achieve the goals of traffic calming and public safety, once funding is secured.

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?

This is a dangerous corridor, one that I drive frequently. I too am eager to get this situation fixed. Decatur’s recently updated Decatur Community Transportation Plan has identified it as a priority intersection, with recommendations for improvements. Because there are multiple jurisdictions over the roads, sidewalks and traffic lights involved – City of Decatur, DeKalb County and DOT – solutions to this issue are slowly moving through various departments and approval processes. DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader is very supportive and has been working with the county on solutions. It is currently in the county’s traffic and safety study.

It is my understanding that excessive speed is a major contributor to this issue. We could evaluate whether a traffic light at Willivee to slow down traffic would help, while a more permanent solution is being implemented.

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?  

Homelessness is another reason that expanding affordable housing options needs to remain one of our community’s top priorities. Many people are just one paycheck away from homelessness, and it is an issue confronting every city in America. Its causes are complex and numerous and the solutions are complicated.  Sadly, veterans are overrepresented within the homeless population compared to the general population.  Domestic violence results in women and children being homeless. Addressing the mental health crisis and substance abuse are both critical to the solution.  The many issues that create homelessness are the crux of the complexity to solving this issue.  As challenging as the issue is, we must tackle it.  Fortunately, Decatur has a lot of resources that can provide input and ideas.

To address the issue in Decatur, I have two initial thoughts. Short-term, the Decatur Downtown Business Association, public safety, homeless non-profit agencies, grass roots organizations and places of worship should work together to come up with a plan to present to the city commission. They can bring to the table their perspectives as to the causes and possible solutions, including successful programs initiated in other communities throughout the country. It will also be important to hear the results of the pilot Ambassador program working with homeless individuals on the square that concluded on October 2nd.

Long-term, the issue of homelessness needs to be addressed systematically in the city’s upcoming strategic plan. The best solutions arise from collaboration of many voices.  Our homelessness challenge will be best addressed when our community comes together to seek the answers. Like the other complex issues we face, homelessness cannot be solved by a single commissioner, but together we can.

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?

Decriminalization of marijuana is considered a key step in reforming our Criminal Justice System.  Marijuana laws are changing at a rapid pace across all 50 states, which can cause confusion at times.  Marijuana is legal for adults over the age of 21 in 11 states and medical marijuana is legal in 33.

I believe that possession should be a misdemeanor and not an incarceration offense. I support the Decatur Prevention Initiative’s educational and prevention efforts aimed at our youth. A more immediate concern is the health crisis quickly arising from vaping.  Currently we have young and not so young people dying and permanently damaging their lungs by vaping.  I consider the vaping crisis a top priority for the safety of our youth.

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?

Our city’s fiscal health is considered a role model by many aspiring cities.  Our city is in a strong financial condition due to conservative budgeting and strong fiscal management. When you look at our expenditures, you realize that the vast majority of our budget is spent on the people that serve and protect our city – our firefighters, our police, and our public services/servants.  The friendly relationship between that work force and our community is unique and enviable.  In how many other places could our kids attend “Cocoa with the PoPo?”  We are fortunate to have such an invaluable work force.

Certainly, we need to continually evaluate our budget expenditures to ensure efficiencies and alignment with our strategic values. On the revenue side, we need to continue work to rebalance the tax digest.  Seventy-seven percent of our general fund revenue comes from real property taxes. Of that, 83% is from residences and 17% is from the commercial digest. That ratio is not sustainable, as our taxpayers have increasingly felt. Most cities are closer to a 60/40 split. Another contributing factor to this imbalance can be found in the city’s logo. We are a city of schools, places of worship and homes. We have substantial tax-exempt acreage compared to other cities. The growth in multi-family residences and mixed use buildings downtown have helped grow the commercial digest, but more work needs to be done.

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?

The original name change was a serious oversight, and it ought to be corrected. It needs to be addressed in cooperation with the economically affected residents and businesses. In the meantime, we can do more to commemorate the legacy of Henry Oliver and his contributions to the city through signage that provides historical context.

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?

The city did the right thing in acquiring the property and adding 77 acres with 22 acres of permanently protected greenspace.  I consider the current plan an important start but a work in progress. The current plan attempts to balance the many competing desires for Legacy Park, and reflects the vast and various comments received during the public planning process. It does reflect our community’s desire for greenspace, athletic facilities, community gathering space, affordable and inclusive housing, and preserving historical significance. The city recognized at the time that it could not implement the plan alone, and will need to further refine any implementation plans with the input and expertise of partners.  I look forward to working with partners to realize the community’s vision for Legacy Park.

20) Do you support annexing additional areas into the city of Decatur? If so, what areas should be annexed?

Common sense dictates that we need much more information before deciding on specific plans for any annexation.  There are multiple considerations to evaluate so that we can best weigh the costs and benefits to our city, including how we will be impacted if we do or don’t annex. It makes sense to expand our tax base to include commercial properties and shift the tax burden off homeowners, but it needs to be done in cooperation with the county and surrounding entities. We have all witnessed what could be termed “land grabs” around the metro Atlanta area. While not directly involved, Decatur has felt the impact of those decisions. The good news is that Decatur has joined with Dekalb County and other municipalities in our region to support a study on the impacts of municipalization on our region. That study was initially delayed but is now ongoing.

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?

The city must continue to be forward-thinking in terms of improving the infrastructure for safe, alternative modes of transportation. We have invested heavily in cycle tracks and ensuring safety for cyclists. And as part of pedestrian safety, it is good to know that every year the city includes sidewalk and crosswalk improvements in the budget, with planned improvements at key intersections. It can’t all be done at once, but I believe we are investing an appropriate amount in improvements, with ongoing projects added as needed.

As we plan for a balanced transportation network, we need to evaluate the impact on vehicular traffic and ensure the smooth flow of traffic through the city. Like most of Decatur, I too travel through the challenging traffic congestion we suffer at certain times and days of the week. As we plan for the future with fewer single-occupancy cars, we need to mitigate impacts now by partnering with Dekalb County on improved signalization and traffic flow.

22) If elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner?

Absolutely. I am committed to upholding the highest standards of ethical conduct. Transparency is as essential to a commissioner’s work as having a broad and detailed understanding of the many considerations needed in running a city. My leadership positions of the past 16+ years in Decatur exemplify my high standards of ethical conduct and transparency.

Learn more about voting in the Nov. 5 elections:

Voter registration for the Nov. 5 municipal elections will end Oct. 7. Early voting will start on Oct. 14. To register to vote, click here.

In order to register you have to be a U.S. citizen, a legal resident of a Georgia county and at least 17 1/2 years old. You must be 18 years old to vote, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

If you already are registered and need your polling information, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter page by clicking here.

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