How the city collects and uses public input on diversity, housing affordability and a proposed cultural center are becoming a theme of the mayoral race between Dontaye Carter and incumbent Mayor Rusty Paul.

A Diversity and Inclusion Task Force appointed by Paul earlier this year was given the goal to suggest ways to improve inclusion in city government and the community following Black Lives Matters protests that occurred in the city last summer. 

Carter claimed the city is not listening to public input or to the task forces and committees it creates like the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. He said the city needs equitable action on what task forces suggest.

Paul said that gaining input is the reason he named the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. “So why would I not listen to a group I appointed? He’s assuming behavior well outside how I typically operate,” Paul said.

“I’ve asked them for a comprehensive rather than piecemeal report so staff can look holistically at the recommendations and create an action agenda for council,” Paul said.

Paul said the purpose of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force is to offer suggestions on ways to make all people in the community feel welcomed and valued.

Carter said he’s not disregarding city task forces, but if it is created then the city needs to listen to the individuals placed on it to make a difference.

“If we’re going to put a task force together, we need to ensure … that our city officials are listening to that input. Because what’s the point of having these task forces, but they’re not going to listen, they’re not going to keep those recommendations?” he said.

“The reality is diversity and inclusion is, it’s just an illusion if we’re not talking about equity. And the fact that those recommendations aren’t being heard by City Council, shows that there’s a lack of concern for equity,” he said.

Paul said the city’s strength has always been its neighborhoods, and rental communities are neighborhoods, too.

“The city can live up to the commitment it has made to our traditional neighborhoods while also encouraging housing options available for teachers, first responders, hospital personnel and similar groups who want to live here,” Paul said.

Significantly more first responders live in Sandy Springs than before he became mayor through a program that renovates city-owned houses to make them affordable to their families, he said. 

Public input has been an issue discussed by the task force itself. Soon after Chairman Jim Bostic formed subcommittees on Housing & Transportation and Recreation, its members realized keeping the nearly 50% of city residents who live in apartments informed was a challenge.

Task Force member Nicole Morris said during the group’s March 22 meeting that she was unaware of any grassroots organizations focused on African American representation.

“I think that gap will be a bottleneck for the data that we can collect, as we think about inclusivity and making sure that we have all of the diverse and multicultural groups represented,” she said.

The Task Force gave Paul an early report just on housing that asked the city to translate more of its documents and its live meetings into Spanish and other languages. 

Carter also raised questions of integrity and transparency, saying residents didn’t have answers about what is going on with a cultural center proposed at City Springs.

A conceptual illustration of the Sandy Springs Cultural Center as shown in a city presentation. (Special)

A cultural and civic center is part of the 2012 City Springs Master Plan’s goals. The city had a consultant examine three locations for a cultural center: the Bluestone building at the Heritage Green site at 6110 Blue Stone Road; a former auto shop on 151 Hilderbrand Drive located next to the Heritage site that the city bought for $1.8 million, and; the third option at City Springs next to the Performing Arts Center.

A presentation by City Manager Andrea Surratt on April 6 proposed the City Springs location as the ideal site, which matched a resolution approved by City Council in September 2020 to build it there. Instead of giving the city $3 million in advance to build the cultural center, the new plan was to reimburse the city through a 20-year lease agreement.

Originally the cultural center was to include the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber and the city’s hospitality agency, Visit Sandy Springs, along with the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust’s offices and museum exhibits. Now the proposal only includes the GCH and space that’s left over for the city.

Few people knew what GCH planned for the 7,000 square feet of space it wanted other than an update to the Anne Frank in the World exhibit. The GCH didn’t reveal its plans for seven exhibits focused on diversity and inclusion until after protests began.

The council heard from residents opposed to the cultural center and in support of the city and GCH’s plans in successive meetings.

“As to lack of transparency, if he had come to any recent council meetings, he would have heard input from almost 100 people on the topic who were largely very informed and we’ve also had scores of informed emails in the topic of the Anne Frank exhibit. No decisions have yet been made, so I expect even more public dialogue before we reach a decision point,” Paul said.

Carter questioned if the city used public input collected through surveys and public meetings for the Transportation Master Plan adopted in April.

Carter claimed the city didn’t listen to the public when it adopted its Transportation Master Plan in April. And it is not reaching all its diverse residents.

Kimley Horn, the city’s consultant company on its Transportation Master Plan, said 89% of the 262 respondents to its online feedback tool taking its Travel Habits survey were White. The consultants noted the public meetings had to be held virtually due to the pandemic.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis is a freelance journalist based in metro Atlanta.