Candidate Q&A – George Dusenbury, Decatur City Commission District 1, Post B
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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 George Dusenbury, a candidate for the City Commission’s District 1, Post B seat.
1) Why are you running for Decatur City Commission?
I am running because I love Decatur, I love our community and I love living here. I want to give back to a community that means so much to me. Decatur is truly one of the best places to live and there are three areas we should focus on to keep it that way: planning, transportation (traffic), and greenspace. First, pause and plan – pause large scale developments so that we can develop a master plan to integrate traffic, stormwater, parks, parking, and affordable housing – while protecting the character of our neighborhoods and schools. Second, transportation – we must assess how all the development and roadway changes have impacted traffic and fix the problem spots. Third, greenspace – ensuring we protect what we have and find opportunities to create more.
I believe that my professional experience could help the City navigate the difficult challenges we will face over the next 4 years. I have worked in transportation, environmental, housing and community development policy for 25 years, and have spent more than a decade working with residents to implement tangible improvements in their communities. You can learn more at www.dusenburyfordecatur.com and on Facebook.
2) What makes you a better candidate than your opponent?
We are both lifelong volunteers who are committed to our city, our community and our schools, but there are several differences.
– Policy Expertise. As legislative director and district director for Congressman John Lewis, I developed policy expertise in transportation, environmental, fiscal and housing policy. These are the relevant issues in Decatur today. I also ran the City of Atlanta Parks Department, with a $30 million budget and 300 full-time employees – equivalent to the City of Decatur. Spending four years running an organization equivalent in size and scope to the Decatur City Government gave me the perspective of how government works and an understanding of the tools at its disposal.
– Diverse Experience. Over my career I have worked with governments at the local, state and national levels. My experience extends beyond Decatur, and I understand best practices and solutions for meeting the challenges that come with Decatur’s rapid growth. Development. Displacement. Decatur is a great place to live, and we want to keep it that way. Knowing what has worked (and what hasn’t worked) elsewhere will help us do that.
– Tangible Results. I helped create and have led the Downtown Decatur Neighbors to give residents a voice in quality of life issues. We used a consultative process to create a pedestrian safety plan that led to crosswalk improvements in Downtown. Our advocacy for parks resulted in the City purchasing seven sites as greenspace. Concerned that Decatur parents needed help in reducing risky behavior among teenagers, I helped create the Decatur Parents Network. The Network hosts periodic information sessions and strengthens ties and communication among parents through social events. As Vice President of the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization, I led successful traffic-calming efforts on McLendon Avenue and the planting of more than 100 trees in our community.
3) What do you think is Decatur’s greatest strength?
Decatur’s greatest strength is its people. We have talented, dedicated residents who are willing to invest in their community. I experienced this enthusiasm through the Decatur Parents Network, as president of the Downtown Decatur Neighbors, and as leader of the coalition advocating for more parks space. We roll up our sleeves and give our time and energy for what we believe in. We care about each other and we are respectful and thoughtful about different points of view.
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4) What do you think is Decatur’s biggest challenge?
Decatur’s biggest challenge is the tremendous growth that it is experiencing. Between 2015 and 2018, more than 600 new apartments were built. 330 more are under construction near the high school. And another 470 are under construction by the Avondale MARTA station. Meanwhile, older housing and the tree canopy are being torn down to make way for larger houses. This construction boom is putting stress on our infrastructure, our affordability and our schools. City Schools of Decatur enrollment has increased by 44% since 2013. Traffic is increasingly challenging. We are losing our tree canopy. People are moving out because of the high taxes.
5) How would you address Decatur’s biggest challenge?
I would put a temporary pause on the permitting of new, large projects in Decatur to give us time to develop a master plan for what we want Decatur to look like in 20 years. We have a strategic plan that outlines vision for our future, and this plan will be reviewed and re-envisioned in 2020. We do not have a master plan that drills down and answers crucial questions like: Is our transportation infrastructure, including sidewalks & crosswalks, sufficient to accommodate the growth? What opportunities are there to provide for affordable housing? Where will we put the parks to serve all of the residents who don’t have yards? We cannot answer these questions in isolation, we must tackle them holistically. If we rely only on a strategic plan, without such a master plan, we are not adequately prepared for the future.
6) What are the top two or three things you plan to focus on as a commissioner?
1) Pause & Plan. Pause new large-scale development while we develop a master plan (going beyond the current strategic plan) to integrate it into our community.
2) Traffic. Conduct a traffic assessment and use the results to guide future transportation investments.
3) Trees. Strengthen our tree ordinance to protect existing trees and invest in new tree plantings on a large scale.
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 support retreats; I do not support having them in isolation from the people we represent. I am a strong supporter of transparency and will push for the Commission to host its retreat in a location that is accessible to all residents. I would take the further step of prioritizing sites that are accessible by MARTA.
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 would support this requirement to the extent that it is allowed under Georgia law. As Atlanta Commissioner for Parks and Recreation, I was required to submit a financial disclosure form. I believe that it is an appropriate tool for transparency and to avoid conflict of interest.
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 do not support raising taxes to subsidize affordable housing. First, I believe that there are ways to increase affordable housing without raising taxes – such as requiring developers to include affordable housing in multi-family developments. Second, raising taxes pushes out those families who currently are struggling to afford to live in Decatur – driving middle-class residents from our City.
In this year’s budget, our average home valuation increased approximately 6%, resulting in a corresponding increase in our tax bills. In addition, the City raised the property tax rate. We already are seeing low-income and middle-class families leaving Decatur; raising taxes will exacerbate this problem.
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?
Mayor Patti Garrett is a dedicated public servant who makes every decision with the best interest of Decatur at heart; it is premature to conjecture about who should be mayor until after the election.
11) What is your opinion of the city of Decatur’s current tree ordinance and what changes would you make to it, if any?
Decatur’s tree ordinance needs to be strengthened. I would support adopting Atlanta’s current tree ordinance, which is much stronger. More specifically, I support the following changes:
– Increase fines for removing a tree without a permit
– Require developers to replace trees based on diameter at breast height (DBH) standard (this would increase the number of trees that they would have to plant when they remove a mature tree)
– Reduce the number of healthy trees that can be removed without penalty (currently 3 every 18 months)
– Significantly increase tree planting on public land and create incentives for property owners to plant trees and maintain canopy
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?
Parking in Decatur is a problem that needs to be fixed, but Decatur does not need more parking spaces. We need uniform and clear signage directing people to public parking. We need safe, well-lit parking garages. We need to work with municipal, county and private parking decks to establish uniform, moderate pricing. My understanding is that the City is working on such a plan.
13) What is your opinion about the planters on West Howard Avenue?
The City should remove the planters as soon as possible. Reducing the number of lanes to increase vehicular and pedestrian safety makes sense, though there are opportunities to improve the design and implementation. Installing the planters was a mistake, one that the City should have rectified by now. That being said, I think that the conversation around the planters has been harsher than it needs to be.
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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?
Given the multiple jurisdictions involved in that stretch of North Decatur Road, I would call a meeting with staff from the City of Decatur, DeKalb County and GDOT (as appropriate) to discuss the situation and possible solutions. It seems like there already has been some analysis of the problem. I would explore tiered solutions for improving safety, beginning with simply adjusting the light so that it is red in all directions for several seconds between cycles. I also would welcome suggested solutions from community leaders and involve them in the process.
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?
Experiencing homelessness is not a crime. Harassment and threats may be.
I ran the Journey Men’s Shelter adjacent to Druid Hills Presbyterian Church for nearly a year. Through that experience, I know that Decatur’s nonprofit and religious congregations are tied into metro Atlanta’s Continuum of Care, a collaborative effort to provide assistance to people experiencing homelessness. This collaboration is particularly important as the closing of the Taskforce for the Homeless shelter a couple of years ago continues to impact housing efforts throughout the metro area and likely was a factor in increasing the number of people experiencing homelessness in Decatur.
I would support the City pursuing a policy of partnering with local non-profits and churches to expand outreach to those experiencing homelessness while appropriately enforcing quality of life ordinances meant to protect people from harassment and threatening behavior. Ultimately, our goal should be to help people transition from homelessness while ensuring the safety of our residents.
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?
I have mixed feelings on this issue. Drug use, including alcohol, is a problem in Decatur, especially among high school and even junior high school students. We and other families learned a great deal about this as parents of high school students, which is why I helped found the Decatur Parents Network – to educate parents and help them work with their children to reduce poor choices. Drug and alcohol use can impact cognitive development, increase other risky behavior, and reinforce mental health issues.
That being said, current drug laws are enforced inequitably, with poor people and people of color disproportionately arrested and prosecuted.
I lean toward decriminalizing marijuana use to address the inequity in our judicial system, while believing that the City, the school system and parents need to increase their investment in education and outreach to reduce drug and alcohol use among minors.
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?
While Decatur has a strong history of prudent, fiscally sound budgeting, I am concerned by a few parts of Decatur’s current budget. As noted earlier, our average home valuation increased approximately 6%, resulting in a corresponding increase in your tax bill. At the same time, the City raised the property tax rate. In addition, the City has budgeted to spend $2.3 million in reserves. I believe that funding for the Decatur Development Authority and use of the Hotel-Motel tax can be re-allocated from expenses like the Convention Center and management of retail property to more basic government functions like sidewalks, infrastructure and public safety, hopefully reducing property taxes.
I also am concerned by the impact of acquisition of the Methodist Children’s Home on our budget. The City was right to purchase this property but it currently is committed to paying $2 million annually for 20 years to service the debt on the property. This cost does not include operation and maintenance – or capital improvements to the property. As Decatur’s annual operating budget is only $30 million, the debt is a significant portion of our budget and taxes. The city should redevelop the master plan for the property with the goal of eliminating impact on the budget within 3-5 years.
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?
I wholeheartedly support the proposed 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?
I am not satisfied with the current plan. The plan does not appear to recognize financial constraints or identify ways for meeting operational costs. As noted above, the cost of acquiring the land requires the City and its sub-entities to pay $2 million annually for 20 years. That is a lot of money for a city whose total operational budget is $30 million. In addition, the City has to fund maintenance and operational costs and has not identified funding to implement the vast majority of planned improvements.
We now must realistically assess how we can use the property to meet the highest needs and priorities of the City while reducing the financial burden on its residents. The majority of the site should remain parkland. The City should collaborate with the School Board to determine how that parkland can accommodate facilities that jointly meet the needs of the schools and residents generally – and pool resources to do so. Some land should be considered for non-park use, including affordable housing. The site is the City’s last opportunity to address affordable housing on a significant scale, and this should be pursued in conjunction with the Decatur Housing Authority.
20) Do you support annexing additional areas into the city of Decatur? If so, what areas should be annexed?
I do not support annexation at this time.
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?
From the beginning of my campaign, I have advocated that we conduct a traffic and transportation assessment to understand the impact of recent development and transportation investments on traffic. The 600 apartments constructed since 2015 have brought more drivers and more cars. The 800 apartments currently under construction will do the same. We have fundamentally changed the traffic infrastructure in Decatur over the past five years. Let’s gather the data, assess where our transportation system stands, and invest in transportation improvements that balance the needs of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. As noted earlier, this assessment should be part of a broader master plan to integrate transportation, stormwater, parks, parking and affordable housing into future development – while protecting the character of our neighborhoods and our schools.
As president of Downtown Decatur Neighbors, I helped lead the advocacy efforts for improved sidewalks, crosswalks and intersection improvements. We developed and submitted to the City a plan for doing so, and the City implemented several of our recommendations.
22) If elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner?
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.
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