Candidate Q&A – District 1 Decatur City Commissioner Kelly WalshKelly Walsh is a candidate for the Decatur City Commission district one seat. Photo submitted by Kelly Walsh.
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 District 1 Decatur City Commissioner Kelly Walsh, who is running for reelection. The answers have not been edited.
1) Why are you running for this office?
I’m running for re-election as your District 1 City Commissioner in Decatur because I want to continue to work on policies that accelerate us out of the pandemic and into the next decade with integrated comprehensive planning, smart growth, and stewardship of a healthy living environment for all residents. We live in a thriving, resilient, and engaged city where residents care about each other, want to do better and be better, and we have a plan of action for how to accomplish important goals related to housing, mobility, climate change, and race and social equity. I’m committed to working hard every day to make this city an even more resilient, dynamic and inclusive place to live.
2) What makes you a better candidate than your opponents?
As someone who is deeply embedded in this community, I will always share my time and talents toward positive change. I will continue to hold the trust that I’ve built with my neighbors and constituents and be responsive to their needs. Leadership at the local level is non-partisan. It is a team sport and it is a relay race. I have demonstrated over my first term that I am a team player and a coalition builder. I also have a track record of service and engagement in the community over the last sixteen years that has afforded me a perspective on issues that I feel is invaluable to the commissioner role. I am known for having a collaborative and positive leadership style. I prioritize partnerships, work across diverse interest groups and can leverage a varied skill set founded in strategic planning, strong communication, and a deep desire to learn from others. As an elected representative of our city, I will continue to offer professionalism and a responsive approach to working with our city government, county partners, and state representatives.
3) If elected, what are your top two or three priorities?
Neighborhood traffic calming: we have multiple requests from residents across the city to help with traffic calming and most of them are challenging corridors already identified in the Community Transportation Plan of 2018. I will work actively with the city manager and other key staff to accelerate the response to those requests and ensure that community needs are met with regard to pedestrian safety and slowing vehicular traffic down as it passes through our neighborhoods.
Diverse housing for diverse incomes: through continued work on the MLK Everyday senior home rehabilitation project as well as pursuing the goals of the Affordable Housing Task Force Plan we will create and preserve more housing across the spectrum of needs in our city.
Climate action: I believe climate change is acute and dangerous. Our response must be appropriately urgent. We will finalize the Clean Energy plan and work quickly to implement the priorities identified within it. We can also leverage the strength of the updated tree canopy conservation ordinance that will be finalized this year. Additionally, our continued efforts to promote tree planting across the city by residents and expand planting by the city in the right of ways, public spaces, and parking lots will help grow our canopy so we can mitigate urban heat island effects and help with stormwater runoff. Clearly, extreme weather and pandemics do not recognize municipal boundaries and we cannot face these problems alone. Therefore, we must actively engage with partners and identify broad-based solutions to be effective.
My commitment to Decatur and vision for our shared success is elaborated in more detail at www.votekellywalsh.com
4) In your opinion, what are the most important issues facing the city of Decatur?
Continued population growth in the metro Atlanta area will pose challenges and offer opportunities to Decatur. DeKalb County grew by double digits in the last decade according to the most recent 2020 Census and the City of Decatur grew by 29%! As an attractive city in which to live for myriad reasons, we will undoubtedly experience continued growth over the next decade. Our ability to shape that growth in a way that minimizes the negative impacts while maximizing equitable outcomes is the key. It is a delicate balance but with a shared value system of prioritizing walkability, affordability, and resiliency, we can remain a welcoming, inclusive and fun city in which to live.
5) What is your current opinion of the city of Decatur’s police department and are there any changes you would advocate for if you are elected?
Our public safety officers are highly vetted and well-trained. With strong leadership from the top, starting with the police chief who is overseen by the city manager, we have engendered a culture of community policing that is recognized across the state. As a leading partner in the GA Police-Community Trust Initiative, for example, our public safety department is demonstrating its commitment to formally address historical harm to racial minorities and transform relationships between the police departments and their community. Our police department has recently investigated and solved some extremely challenging cases and continues to work its own strategic plan that it updates regularly. The city manager hires the police chief and oversees that department. I trust her ability to oversee it and ensure that its operations meet the highest standards of public safety, integrity, and dependability. As a city commissioner it is my role to make sure the city manager has the tools to succeed in her job and I believe she has those tools to run our police department well so that we can all feel safe in Decatur.
6) Climate change was an overarching theme to come to out of the strategic plan. What will you do to help the city establish clean energy targets?
The Clean Energy Plan that we have funded will establish goals for greenhouse gas reduction and set clean energy targets for the next decade – a critical timeframe that is our best opportunity to improve our position. Solar has and will continue to play an important role in the city’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and we support the school system in adopting more solar infrastructure as well. Expanding use of electric vehicles across the city’s fleet will also be an important measure for us to take. An output of the Clean Energy Plan must be the creation of an established procedure for understanding and mitigating the environmental consequences of all City policies and spending.
7) What are your thoughts on supporting more affordable housing? How do you think the city should balance concerns about increased density with the need to build more housing?
There is a nationwide, region wide, and local housing shortage. Within the housing crisis is a void of housing stock that offers diverse housing for diverse incomes. Passing the inclusionary zoning ordinance was important, but building new affordable housing is expensive and inefficient relative to preserving what we already have. We cannot lose focus on preserving and maintaining the naturally occurring affordable housing that we have identified. I am eager to continue the efforts of the steering committee that I sat on this spring that is dedicated to making senior home rehabilitation projects a year-round city-wide effort as part of that preservation. Smart cities mass density near transit. We have done that by building in our commercial corridor downtown and near the Avondale Marta station. These are prime examples of transit-oriented development that can yield commercial revenues and provide affordable units that are amplified by being near transit.
8) Do you support raising taxes to create financial support for more affordable housing?
There are multiple ways to increase levels of affordable housing and we should use tools we have recognized in the affordable housing task force report to pursue our goals before raising taxes solely for that purpose. Once we see the medium-term outcomes of activating the multi-pronged effort we are working on then we can make an informed decision about whether there is a scenario in which a tax increase would be the right solution. In a first pass we know that owning land is the best kick-starter for creating more affordable housing. Additionally, recent policy changes by the Commission such as passing the inclusionary zoning ordinance, hiring a part-time employee to focus on housing, creating the Decatur Land Trust, researching zoning updates that improve conditions for more affordable units to be built, and setting up a permanent year-round senior housing rehabilitation program would be the first actions I would pursue before taking up the consideration of a tax increase.
9) How would you like to see the city and the school district work together to plan for future growth?
The City Schools of Decatur and the City Government partner very well in deciding land use issues. For several years the two organizations have shared a tool that helps forecast the number of students we can expect to join the school system if a multi-family project is built. The tool is refined and updated with each new project so it gets “smarter” with each use. This has been a critical method for helping us understand and forecast growth as new projects come online. The school system and government have also coordinated policies on annexation so as to reach a constructive agreement with our state legislators on annexation as it relates to cities and counties. The City Commission passed a moratorium for one year on annexation at the request of the school system to demonstrate its support of CSD’s negotiations with the DeKalb BOE. We have budgeted for a Facilities Master Plan update to be conducted in 2022 and CSD will included at the table. Maximizing all the places where we share greenspace and facilities is one of the most important ways we partner and offers the best of our city to all residents.
10) What is your opinion of Decatur’s current city manager?
Our city is safe and strong in the capable hands of the city manager, Ms. Andrea Arnold. In 2019 when the Commission hired Ms. Arnold, we did so with a view to finding the right combination of operational expertise and community engagement. She impressed us with her commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive organization, coupled with her strategic vision of where Decatur is heading in the next decade and beyond. She offered us a well-formed view to balancing growth while protecting the high quality of life residents expect. The health and success of our city under the city manager’s leadership – with support and guidance from elected officials – is illustrated by several quantitative metrics that represent the fiscal health of the city including our ability to borrow and repay debt with a triple A bond rating, a growing commercial tax base, and the maintenance of a healthy fund balance. The health of our city under her leadership is also demonstrated by many qualitative metrics that paint a picture of an urban gem of a small city that has an extremely high quality of life from an active lifestyle, social, and cultural standpoint.
11) 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?
The city responded swiftly to the public health and economic crisis using an actual pandemic response plan administered by the city manager. There were many unknowns and things we had to learn along the way, but the government mounted an emergency response team immediately and went to work. We took the strongest stand possible to COVID-19 in July 2020 by passing a city-wide mask mandate. Through consistent communication efforts by the city, we created a culture of caring for each other by making mask wearing, social distancing, and getting vaccinated the norm vs the exception for residents. Infection numbers recorded for 30030 remain low and we should be proud of our resolve as a city to fight back this terrible virus. We cannot ignore that we have endured an economic crisis as well. The City of Decatur government offered a small business emergency loan program that was up and running by late spring 2020 that placed well over $1 million dollars into our local businesses and non-profits to keep them open and viable during the shut-down.
12) What do you think of the city’s current tree ordinance and what would you do to change it?
The current tree ordinance is not strong enough to keep us resilient in the face of climate change and the pressures of population growth and future development. The new draft ordinance will improve our canopy both in size and quality. I have spent at least a hundred hours over the last several years learning and reading about trees and meeting with tree experts and advocates from across the metro area and our city. Through this work I have learned that we must pass a stronger tree ordinance that does the following things:
– Requires planning for trees at the beginning of the permitting/planning process.
– Identifies and preserves the best trees that will provide future canopy for the city. These are not always the biggest trees but are important contributors now and in future to Decatur’s Urban Forest Canopy. Preserving these trees and replanting these types of trees will give us the best outcome for sustainable canopy growth.
– Protects trees in the areas that have lost the most and where most of our canopy is found which is on single family lots. Enhancing the permitting process with more education, more support and technology, and stronger enforcement will help property owners be more conscientious of the urban forest contribution they have right in their own back yard.
13) Every year (except for 2020) the Decatur City Commission holds its annual retreat two hours outside of city limits and does not record the meeting or stream it for people who cannot attend. Do you support the city commission’s practice of holding its annual retreat two hours away from its city limits?
It doesn’t matter to me where the strategic planning retreat takes place as long as we can gather together and create not just a safe space but a brave space for being constructively dissatisfied, sharing thoughts and ideas and finalizing a work plan. I value the time our team spends together once a year at the planning retreat in focused time with staff that it is concentrated on building trust with each other, getting to know staff better and understand their challenges and strengths. During the retreat we work together to create the annual work plan that is our blueprint for action every year. I welcome attendance by the public and the media at any and all of the strategic planning sessions.
14) The city of Decatur has taken several steps to become more bike and pedestrian friendly, including cycle tracks and pedestrian walkways. Do you think the city has done enough to make the city friendly to bikers and pedestrians and, if not, what do you think the city should do to improve its pedestrian and cycling infrastructure?
The city still has much more to accomplish over time to become even more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. We must press forward with our long-range plans for more connectivity and better infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians that is identified in the Community Transportation Plan. The upcoming bike lane to be completed on Church Street from the intersection with Commerce Drive up to the city limits with DeKalb County will be our latest effort. I would like for Decatur to make even greater inroads with its relationship with GDOT so that we can have more control and better outcomes for pedestrians and cyclists on our busiest roads that cut through our city like Clairemont Avenue, College Avenue, and Scott Boulevard. Another incredible accomplishment will be the project to reengineer Atlanta Avenue so that it is much more user friendly for the hundreds of students who cross in that zone every day to go to and from Renfroe Middle School. We need more sidewalks and shared space for bikers and peds
15) Prior to the pandemic, the ability to find parking was a common complaint from people visiting Decatur. Do you think access to parking is a problem in Decatur and, if so, what would you do to address it?
It is important that visitors arriving by car are able to easily find a parking space and within a walkable distance to the downtown commercial corridor. It turns out that the spaces are plentiful but often the visibility into what’s available and where, is not clear. The most recent study conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission in 2018 identified over 10,000 parking spaces housed in surface lots or parking decks downtown. We can improve our parking offering with much better signage and technology to regulate occupancy so that nobody needs to work hard to decode where to park, how much it costs, and whether there is available space. An investment into better signage and smart technology to manage our parking inventory downtown are things I strong support.
16) What do you think is Decatur’s greatest strength?
Decatur’s greatest strength is by far its residents. Our citizenry is smart, driven, charitable, and neighborly. We have a civically-engaged community like no other. The sense of place we create by acting and conducting ourselves in this way is very special and is the result of our city’s strong character.
17) What do you think is Decatur’s biggest challenge?
The incredible pace of growth over the last decade has had a negative impact on our diversity and that continues to be one of our biggest challenges as a city. Economic forces that displace long-time residents and seniors, climate migration, and the effects of the pandemic combine to make Decatur more expensive and less inclusive.
18) How would you address what you believe to be Decatur’s biggest challenge?
We need to take a multi-pronged approach to fostering diversity. I recognize that Decatur must be cognizant at every turn regarding how to support and increase racial, economic and social diversity. Diverse communities are more sustainable and more equitable. Furthermore, we should always try to welcome otherness into our community. The underpinning of all of this is diverse housing for diverse incomes. I will continue to bring the voice and perspective needed to create affordable housing opportunities that can accommodate more city and school employees, public servants, seniors, and the next generation of young people who want to return to the special place where they grew up. Finally, diversity can be amplified when the cultural, social, and economic landscape is inviting to all types of people. That’s the starting line, not the finish. We should strive to have a community that is rich in differences and full of possibilities.
19) If you are elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner? How would you work to promote ethics and transparency in government?
Absolutely and without a doubt I promise to meet the high standards of comportment and behavior that Decatur residents deserve and expect. As an elected official I would take extremely seriously the responsibility I have to conduct myself in an ethical and transparent manner, not just meeting minimum standards in that regard, but setting an example for my peers in local, county, and state government. My goal is always to lead by example and to serve with humility.
More information about voting in the Nov. 2 election:
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.
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)
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