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Candidate Q&A – Avondale Estates City Commission candidate Lionel Laratte (incumbent)

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Candidate Q&A – Avondale Estates City Commission candidate Lionel Laratte (incumbent)

Avondale Estates City Commissioner Lionel Laratte
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Editor’s note: Decaturish and the Tucker Observer have published an Elections Guide, a 76-page e-edition featuring Q&As with nearly every candidate running in our communities. To see it, click here. This special e-edition features candidates running for public office in Decatur, Avondale Estates, Atlanta City Council District 5, Clarkston Tucker and Stone Mountain.  There is a PDF version of this, which you can see by clicking here, but due to the format of this e-edition, we strongly encourage you to use the e-reader version.

Decaturish provided each candidate in our local races with a series of questions about local issues. Here are the answers of Avondale Estates City Commission candidate Lionel Laratte (incumbent). The answers have not been edited. 

1)      Why are you running for this office?

I am running because there are things that I wanted to get done in the last four years that did not happen. For example, police reform. However, I also bring a unique perspective to the BOMC and that we need different points of view to be successful in the long term. I think residents have a vision of the city that I am tuned in to and I want to help make it real.

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

I have unique experiences. I have worked in management consulting for about 20 years now and that alone, I think brings something to the table that rounds out the team. For example, as a consultant, I have had to cultivate the ability to build trust with clients, become a trusted advisor. I have been to over 70 companies in my career, most of them Fortune 500. You can’t succeed in the business I’ve been in for almost 20 years without developing the ability to listen effectively, build trust, and create sustainable and mutually benefitting relationships.

In addition, I have served in the Army, run a couple of small businesses and have been a writer. I bring a lot of dimensions and thought to the team.

3)      If elected, what are your top two or three priorities?

My focus for the next four years will be on the people part of Avondale Estates. My top three priorities are balancing the efforts being made in the Central Business District with some focus on the residential districts (for example, storm water drainage improvements), increasing diversity and inclusivity in the city (already working on this and seeing results by being the Board liaison with the Welcoming Avondale committee), and facilitating increased resident participation in the city (for example, I have been working very hard behind the scenes to ensure all public meetings are streamed live with public participation; we’re not there yet but we’re moving forward).

4)      Do you think Avondale Estates’ Police Department should be reformed and if so, what reforms would you implement?

In the four years I have been in office, we have seen the addition of new city staff, a revision of the historical preservation guidelines, a rewrite of the zoning code, and a change in the way we calculate sanitation fees. There are other changes I am not naming here. The point is that all these changes occurred because we realized that operating as we have for the last four decades or so was not sustainable nor in the best interest of the city and its residents. They were strategic moves to improve service to residents in light of a changing landscape.

As the city continues to grow, its population has become more diverse, we have more ground to cover (due to annexation), and we have new ordinances to enforce (open containers in the CBD, for example. As such, just as we took strategic moves due to a changing environment in the areas I noted above, why would we not undertake a similar strategic re-alignment with our police department?

We are nearing completion of the accreditation process for the police department by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP). As I write this, we are expecting the final report by mid-September and my expectation is that our department will do very well in the review of our policies, procedures and standards expected by the GACP. We have an excellent department in those terms, I am sure.

But, what about the strategic direction of the department? We need reform to come up with the strategic direction for the police department in this new, more diverse, and complex environment. As with the other departments, the operant paradigm must be re-written.

5)      As the city begins amending the tree ordinance, what changes would you like to see? Do you think the tree ordinance is doing enough to protect trees?

This is another case where we need to update our strategy due to a changing landscape (no pun intended). I like to be efficient and strategic.

From the discussions we have had so far on the board, it looks like the primary concern is our tree cover over the city. I think we all agreed that a good target for overall coverage over the residential areas is 50%.

If that is, indeed, what we want to see, we should have in the ordinance that every parcel in the city must have at least 50% coverage. I think an aerial survey is done every five years or so. That offers us the opportunity to identify those properties that don’t meet that standard and work with the property owners to develop a plan to achieve it.

Otherwise, details like the variety of trees, their placement, and other details, I will have to rely on the recommendations of those who are more knowledgeable than I am and vote on them after I question and understand them.

6)      What will you do to help make the city more welcoming to outsiders?

I am already working with the Welcoming Avondale committee to make the city more welcoming. I worked to push through the city’s funding to support the Latinx cultural events that the committee is partnering with the Placita Latina organization to bring to Avondale Estates from September 15 to October 15.

One of the aspects of being welcoming is removing obstacles and I have to say there were some road bumps that were thrown in. However, the team have risen to the challenge and are on their way to a successful series of events whose number has grown since the initial intention.

I want to thank the small businesses in the city like the Lost Druid, the Purple Corskscrew, and Arepa Mia for their enthusiasm and willing ness to support this effort.

We need growth in diversity and inclusion to sustain everything we have achieved and are planning for our downtown. We are expecting a large turnout since the City of Decatur is also in the partnership and will also have events. Also, I think this is the first time we are working with our neighboring city on a joint project.

And then, the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice has thrown in its support, adding in an additional event.

Thanks to former Avondale Commissioner Adela Yelton for bringing this opportunity our way.
So, in the next four years, I plan on providing as much support on the board as I can for the Welcoming Avondale committee. In addition, I will be exploring building more relationships with nearby cities so their residents understand that we want them to come to Avondale Estates and share in what we have to offer.

7)      If you are elected, what will you do to promote racial justice and equity in the city of Avondale Estates?

As I mentioned in the earlier question, I see police reform as part of promoting racial justice and equality. I think there are a lot of conversations to be had about racial justice and race in general. They are not easy conversations but I think they are important to have. I have a list of Zoom meetings I want to have to inspire these conversations.

One of the first topics I want to tackle is how a small city like ours can successfully adapt to the challenges of changing demographics and density. We are going through this and, if our plans are successful, more changes are coming along. How do we, as a city, maintain our identities of self and place while moving forward into a new and better chapter in our history?

So, there’s going to be more to come. We have some gaps to bridge; I am going to do what I can to help us do that successfully.

8)      What do you think of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and what steps do you think the city should take to help reduce the spread of the virus?

Like all municipalities in Georgia, we had boundaries placed around what we could and couldn’t do by the state. As a city government, we had to operate within those guidelines. I feel we did what we could and handled it very well. I think we had good parameters for the police, residents, and the use of public places and gatherings. We took the pandemic seriously and responded.

Having said that, as we see the new variant ramping up and hospitals are full and new cases are still increasing, we’re going to have to take action. The question is how are we going to do it? No one has the appetite to return to the condition we were in at the start of the pandemic. Yet, we need to work together to stop the spread. We’re probably going to go back to City Hall being closed and doing online board meetings, if this continues. Other than that, I think we have to closely track the data and take the small steps we can when we feel they are necessary.

9)      Stormwater is a big problem in Avondale Estates and the city is starting to address this issue. What are some of the stormwater improvements you would like to see if you are elected?

First, let me say that the current board all know how serious the problem is and are fully behind solving it. We have the storm water master plan. It’s time to act on it.

I put this issue as one of my three objectives for the next four years because it is having a negative impact on many residents and is, in fact, a threat to their homes. As such, our residential areas can’t be sustainable unless we get this under control. As we’ve all experienced, the weather is changing, we are getting more rain. The infrastructure, in addition to being beyond its useful life, was also designed to handle a very different climate.
It’s a big challenge, especially paying for it. I am expecting this to be one of our top priorities at our strategic planning session in 2022 and I will be pushing for our City Staff to find grants as partial funding for this work. Now that we have construction happening in the CBD, we need to balance it with taking care of some needed work in the residential areas.

10)   What is your opinion of the current city manager?

I was part of the team that went through the process of hiring the City Manager so, naturally, I was confident we were making the right decision. We have our process where we conduct an annual review of the City Manager’s performance. He gets to hear from everyone on the board about what he did right, where he can improve, and our expectations for the next year.

This isn’t my preferred way of providing feedback. In my professional life, I provide my team members individual feedback at least twice monthly. It’s like driving a car and making tiny adjustments on the steering wheel even when driving down a straight road. I believe annual reviews are like trying to adjust your steering once you’ve hit the shoulder and you’re off the road.

Personally, I have a weekly standing meeting with the City Manager where he briefs me on various activities that are going on in the day to day operations of the city. I usually ask about progress on various items and discuss some of the information and question I hear from residents. I also take the opportunity to provide feedback and guidance that he may or may not act on. But, regardless of whether he acts on it or not (he is not bound to; I am one of five on the board), I do think it’s my responsibility as a Commissioner to provide feedback and affect adjustments in his management to the best of my abilities.

11)   Do you think the city does a good job communicating with its residents and, if not, what improvements would you make?

I think the city communicates well with residents currently. However, there is lots of room for improvement. This is actually a part of my three objectives for the next four years. I envision a city where residents are very informed on that is going on around them and participating in it.

What I want to happen over the next four years is for us to greatly improve the City web site so that things are easier to find. There is no reason users can’t have a more intuitive and friendly experience when trying to get City information.

Second, I will be working to have all of our City meetings live streamed with the ability for the public to comment. This is something that is crucial to our development as a city. We have the technology, it’s not too expensive and most municipalities do it.

Finally, residents need better access to materials, especially when it comes to real estate development. We need to do a better job of making materials accessible and also making residents aware that they are available. I have ideas about how to do this (push notifications, for example), however, this is something that we are going to have to get the City Manager and his team to provide a plan with the details.

12)   Do you think the city should be doing more work around affordable housing to either encourage people to move to the city or to keep people, especially seniors, in the city?

The City of Avondale Estates absolutely needs to do more in the area of affordable housing. I don’t think the goal of encouraging people to move into the City is primary in this regard. It looks like people are willing to move here already, judging from home sales and the occupancy of the apartment buildings that have recently opened. I mean, we even had Berkely Village residents wanting to be annexed into Avondale Estates. People know we are a desirable place to live.

The goal of affordable housing in Avondale Estates should be to allow seniors to be able to remain in the city even when they are on fixed incomes and are no longer part of the active work force.

I have been a proponent and have pushed for affordable housing in all the development we have had a hand in helping move forward. Unfortunately, I have not successfully moved the board to include this as a priority even though it is mentioned in the Downtown Master Plan.

Affordable housing has negative connotations and there’s not much we’re going to be able to do to change that. However, I do believe that we can do it in a way that is beneficial to the city and allows our senior residents to remain in proximity to their friends and family.

13)   If you are elected, what will you do to support public schools in Avondale Estates?

I have to say that I don’t really know how much we can do at the municipal level. Really, the school board has a better ability to affect change there.

However, Avondale Elementary has changed greatly for the better since I moved to the city 13 years ago. A couple of things contributed to that. First,  a new principal who is driven to succeed and a good leader. Dr. Dontae Andrews has proven that he is the type of leader who places the success of his students above all and has worked with the community to ensure that there is progress in the school. The results are obvious.

Second, the Avondale Elementary School Education Foundation, for the past five years or so, has been instrumental in bringing together the community to support the school in ways the county Board of Education is not. They have spun up projects to cover everything from getting school supplies to providing snacks to getting software. In brief, they continue to put a lot of effort into work with school staff and administration to make this school one we would all send our kids to.

14)   If you are elected, what will you do to support the business community in Avondale Estates?

On the Board, we have taken steps over the past few years to encourage and help businesses come to Avondale Estates. In a way, we’re already helping them just by the fact that we are doing things to bring more people into the city. Don’t get me wrong: We aren’t doing 100% of what we could be doing but we are making some solid moves.

In fact, the Welcoming Avondale committee and all the events with Placita Latina are small business based.  The business community is going to be positively impacted by that series of activities alone. There is definitely more to come from this effort. Stay tuned.

We also have a Downtown Development Authority (DDA) that can probably contribute more to the success of our small businesses. In fact, I believe this is the tool the city has that can have the biggest impact on the success of businesses in the city in a couple of ways.

The DDA team has done a terrific job of working with City Staff to bring some of the development we’ve seen downtown to reality. I remember, the week after I was sworn in, walking around the downtown with former DDA member Sam Collier and talking about the potential there. We’ve seen some of that happen and there is more coming. We are moving forward.

Now that we’ve got a few years of development ahead of us, I’d like to see the team turn its attention more to the small businesses and making them successful. For example, if I remember correctly, the small businesses in the downtown area didn’t receive masks and sanitizer until October 2020, if I remember correctly.

I think it’s important this body of volunteers take on the sustainability of downtown businesses as a priority. The real estate transactions, no doubt, do a lot to move our growth forward. But the real estate is only one aspect of the city’s downtown and its ability to generate the tax revenue the city is expecting to use to provide some tax relief to residents and pay off the loan we took to build the Town Green.

So, we need to get the DDA and the City rowing in the same direction in that regard.

15)   What do you think is Avondale Estates greatest strength?

Our greatest strength is our people. And, by that, I mean that the people make the place and we shouldn’t forget that. I walk around Avondale a lot and, besides doing it for exercise, I do it to talk with residents and see for myself some of the things they send emails and call me about.

Because residents are our strength, it only makes sense that we leverage their knowledge, expertise and willingness to be involved for the good of us all. My favorite example of this is the process we went through for the design of the Town Green.

I think the park going to be great when it’s done. However, that greatness will be due to something besides the physical environment we’ve created. It will also be great because every resident had a chance to put their ideas into it and see their fingerprints in it. It’s got buy in from the community and what that gets you is pride in the outcome. Everybody feels good about it and this is the key to enhancing the lives of residents.

My vision is that our residents are active participants in the decision making process and not just observers.

16)   What do you think is Avondale Estates biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge is the changing landscape of our city due to two factors: our development activities and climate change.

17)   How would you address what you believe to be Avondale Estates’ greatest challenge?

The only way we are going to successfully meet this challenge is by doing the three things I have outlined as my focus for the next four years: become a more welcoming city, adjust the infrastructure to meet the new climate, and, of course, increase resident participation.

Of course, there are other tactical things that need to happen. However, these three items provide the direction we all need to drive.

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

Yes

How would you work to promote ethics and transparency in government?

Again, this is addressed by the third aspect of my platform. I believe community participation is an integral part of transparency. By promoting community involvement, I am promoting transparency.

Each elected official has the personal responsibility of holding themselves to high ethical standards.

More information about voting in the Nov. 2 election: 

All elections coverage can be found at Decaturishvotes.com and Tuckerobservervotes.com.  

Election Day is Nov. 2. Early voting will begin on Oct. 12 and will end on Oct. 29. The voter registration deadline is Oct. 4. To register to vote, click here.

To see a list of important dates in the 2021 election year, click here.

Voters in DeKalb County are eligible to apply for an absentee ballot as of Aug. 16. 

To apply for an absentee ballot:

— Visit the Georgia Secretary of State website.

—  Complete the absentee ballot application using the state’s official paper form. Use black or blue ink only.

Applications can be mailed to the county elections office at this address: DeKalb County Election office, 4380 Memorial Drive, Decatur, GA 30032-1239.

Applications can also be submitted by fax, 404-298-4038, or email, [email protected]

Voters may send an absentee ballot request for multiple people who live in the same household in the same envelope or email.

If an absentee ballot is not mailed to you, call DeKalb Elections office, 404-298-4020. You may still vote in person, either early or on Election Day.

An absentee ballot application must be received by Oct. 22.

In accordance with SB202, a new voting bill signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in March, a copy of a voter’s ID is required to apply for an absentee ballot. A Georgia driver’s license, Georgia state ID, Georgia voter card, U.S. Passport, U.S. military ID, employee ID issued by any branch of the federal or state government, tribal ID, or a document verifying a voter’s name and address – including a paycheck, utility bill, or bank statement – are accepted forms of ID.

Early voting begins Oct. 12 and ends Oct. 29. The hours for early voting are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There will also be weekend early voting on Oct. 16, 17, 23 and 24. Call your elections office for hours.

Beginning Oct. 12, you can participate in early voting at the following locations: 

– Bessie Branham Recreation Center (2051 Delano Drive NE, Atlanta, GA 30317)

– Lynwood Recreation Center (3360 Osborne Road NE, Brookhaven, GA 30319)

– Berean Christian Church – Family Life Center (2197 Young Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30088)

– DeKalb Voter Registration & Elections Office (4380 Memorial Drive, Suite 300, Decatur, GA 30032)

– Tucker-Reid H. Cofer Library (5234 LaVista Road, Tucker, GA 30084)

– Stonecrest Library (3123 Klondike Road, Stonecrest, GA 30038)

– County Line-Ellenwood Library (4331 River Road, Ellenwood, GA 30294)

– Dunwoody Library (5339 Chamblee Dunwoody Road., Dunwoody, GA 30338)

For the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding early voting times and locations, visit Decaturishvotes.com and Tuckerobservervotes.com or call 404-298-4020.  

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