Editorial: Lesa Mayer and The Decatur WayDecatur City Commissioner Lesa Mayer (left) walked out of a joint work session between the city commission and school board after feeling like the boards were glossing over the school district's millage rate. Photo by Zoe Seiler.
On Aug. 1, Decatur City Commissioner Lesa Mayer walked out of a joint work session between the city commission and the Decatur School Board.
She said the work session was performative and didn’t address the community’s concerns about several issues, including housing affordability.
By leaving that room, she’s done more to bring attention to the shortcomings of The Decatur Way than I have in nearly 10 years of running Decaturish.
What is The Decatur Way? It’s the refusal of the city’s elected and business leaders to criticize each other because they’re afraid they’ll damage the city’s brand.
The problems inherent in The Decatur Way were evident in the very first years of publishing Decaturish. Early on, I complained that the Decatur City Commission held its yearly “retreat” two hours outside city limits. I was met with much tut-tutting by the people who were quite happy living in Decatur. They implicitly trusted the city commission to act in their best interest and weren’t interested in knowing how the sausage gets made.
When I finally could afford to attend the yearly retreats, I realized why the city commission wants to hold these meetings out of public view. You could see things there that you wouldn’t see at regular meetings, like – gasp – disagreements about the direction of the city!
When Lesa Mayer took office, she decided her time on the commission would not be business as usual. She would not meekly follow The Decatur Way of doing things.
During her first retreat, in 2020, Mayer fought hard for the city to adopt an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would require developers to set aside a certain percentage of units for affordable housing. The idea had been discussed since at least 2018. The city commission adopted the inclusionary zoning ordinance six months later.
That may have been too late to save much of Decatur’s affordable housing. If Decatur had been able to have an honest discussion about its policy failures and its affordability problem, would it have been able to protect more of its affordable housing from developers?
I don’t want to paint Mayer as a saint. She’s done some good work, but the Decatur Way is pernicious. It keeps elected officials quiet when they shouldn’t be. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the relationship between the city commission and the school board. They act independently of each other. School board members and city commissioners will never criticize each other in public, even when the situation warrants it.
Every city commissioner was silent when the community began asking hard questions about former City Schools of Decatur superintendent David Dude. The superintendent was accused of taking more vacations than his contract allowed and getting bonuses for his “unused” vacation days, allegations raised in one of five lawsuits filed against the district during his time here. When I asked city commissioners to weigh in, none of them were brave enough to offer even a mild critique of the superintendent or their colleagues on the school board.
After Black parents began speaking out, the school board finally held Dude accountable, placing him on leave and ultimately parting ways with him. If the Black families hadn’t spoken up and Decatur’s public officials stayed silent, would Dude still be the superintendent?
I’m convinced that he would be, and that the situation dragged on longer than it should have because The Decatur Way got in the way of doing the right thing.
Decatur has not learned from its mistakes. In our Sept. 1 e-edition, you’ll find a story about families leaving City Schools of Decatur. When I called Decatur School Board members asking for a comment, they deferred to Board Chair Jana Johnson-Davis, saying that she would speak on behalf of the board. I did wrangle a quote out of board members Hans Utz and James Herndon. The Decatur Way instills a pervasive fear that someone speaking independently might accidentally slip up and tell the truth.
Because the truth and The Decatur Way are incompatible.
You can call Mayer’s decision to walk out of the meeting as performative as the meeting itself, as some people have. But I hope that Mayer’s statement about Decatur’s unhealthy civic norms will lead to some self-reflection by Decatur’s leaders.
The Decatur Way offers the community a false choice between unity and chaos. The truth is, you can have a successful, progressive community where public officials criticize and disagree with each other. You can publicly identify problems, differ on the solutions, build consensus on how to move forward, and then tackle those problems together.
Decatur’s leaders need to ask themselves: Are they going to continue to follow The Decatur Way, even when it stands in the way of fixing the community’s most pressing problems? Or is there a better way?
I’d argue there is, and it will be up to public officials like Mayer to show us the path forward.
Editor’s note: This editorial appears in our Sept. 1 e-edition which is an exclusive product for paying subscribers. To become a paying subscriber, visit supportmylocalnews.com
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