The Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods this month rated the current City Council on whether their votes are “friendly” to neighborhood interests, but some council members say the list is unfair.
According to the SSCN, only 31 percent of votes cast on 10 controversial zoning decisions during this City Council’s term were considered “Neighborhood Friendly.” SSCN is an advocacy group that lobbies City Council on neighborhood issues.
SSCN produced a similar ranking after the first term of the first City Council, elected in 2005 after residents voted to incorporate the new city. The first council voted with the neighborhoods 44 percent of the time, according to SSCN.
To see the full list for the current term, click here.
Council members with lower scores say the list is unfair and subjective. There’s also a suggestion that politics may have tainted the list’s objectivity.
City Council elections are Nov. 5 and four of its current members – Dianne Fries, District 2, Gabriel Sterling, District 4, Tibby DeJulio, District 5, and John Paulson, District 1 – are running for reelection.
Three of the candidates running for office this year are former members of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods: Barbara Malone in District 3, Tochie Blad in District 4, and Patty Berkovitz in District 6.
Susan Joseph, who compiled the list for SSCN, said the bias charge is untrue. She said the list was created with the intent of providing objective information for voters about the voting records of council members.
Joseph said she created previous versions of the list with input from Malone, Blad and Berkovitz when they were members of SSCN, but they had no involvement in approving of the most recent version of the list. Joseph said the candidates’ involvement with SSCN did not affect how the list ranks the votes of certain council members.
“I can assure you that as much as I would like my personal opinions to be part of this … they weren’t,” Joseph said.
So with those caveats in hand, how did individual council members running for re-election rank?
Paulson, who is running unopposed, and Fries received a 0 percent “Neighborhood Friendly” rating from SSCN.
Paulson said he doesn’t agree with the list’s assessment of his record.
“I don’t believe that’s true,” Paulson said. “I don’t believe my votes have been zero in favor of the neighborhood.”
Fries said the SSCN’s affiliation with candidates for City Council should make residents question the value of its rankings.
“I think it’s important for residents who see that report to understand that it presents a very one-sided point of view. They were selective in the zonings chosen to present, and they did not make public important, relevant facts that impacted cases such as legal rulings,” Fries said. “With a political candidate on the organization’s board, it calls into question the timing and motive of this report.”
Councilman Gabriel Sterling drew a 33 percent “Neighborhood Friendly” rating from the group. Sterling joined the council mid-term during a special election. He said the SSCN’s list is flawed. He said some of the votes considered unfriendly to neighborhood interests were part of resolving lawsuits, such as the vote that settled the Church of Scientology’s suit against the city.
“They were an activist organization and now they’re becoming a political organization,” Sterling said. “Not all their members are doing it for the right reasons and believe in the work they’re doing …They do not by any means represent all the neighborhoods in Sandy Springs, not even the majority.”
DeJulio received the highest marks from SSCN. The list concluded he voted with the neighborhoods 71 percent of the time.
DeJulio said he couldn’t comment on whether the list was fair to his colleagues, saying he could only speak for himself.
“I have to do what I feel is best for the people who elected me, for my neighborhoods and the city,” DeJulio said. “Even when I first started with the city, one of our objectives was to protect our neighborhoods. We’ve got fabulous neighborhoods and we have to ensure they remain fabulous.”
City Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny is not running again. She also received high marks from SSCN, voting with the neighborhoods 57 percent of the time.
McEnerny said the list is a fair assessment of the council’s record.
“They have been conducting this survey since Day 1 of the city. I think it’s a wonderful public service to the community, to measure the votes of the elected officials against the goal and mission of the advocacy group,” McEnerny said.
Other council members not up for reelection criticized the list.
Councilman Chip Collins, who was rated as voting with the neighborhoods 29 percent of the time, said the list over-generalizes the sentiments of the neighborhoods.
“I think the entire study lacks credibility,” Collins said. “I would urge voters to ignore the subjective analysis by the SSCN as to whether any particular vote was supportive or disruptive of the wishes of neighborhoods.”
Mayor Eva Galambos, who is not running for reelection, only votes in cases where there is a tie among the other six council members. The SSCN determined that none of her votes, or 0 percent, were in the interests of the neighborhood.
In one instance, Galambos voted in favor of allowing a developer to exceed an 18-story height limit on a new office building along Mount Vernon Highway. Galambos said even though the building will be higher than 18 stories, it will also be less dense.
“Sometimes they’re just totally irrational,” Galambos said. “I was well aware that I was voting against the Council of Neighborhoods.”
Galambos added that, “the Council of Neighborhoods doesn’t always represent the neighborhoods.”