Editor’s Note: This commentary piece from Dontaye Carter, who has announced his candidacy for Sandy Springs mayor, is in response to a conversation around compensation for elected officials. This week, Sandy Springs officials decided to allow elected officials access to health insurance starting in January, but only if they pay 100% of the cost. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul also submitted a commentary piece, along with City Councilmember Andy Bauman, who kicked off the discussion late last month.
Four years ago, I joined Attorney Fred D. Gray, the architect of the Civil Rights Movement and the attorney who represented Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for a tremendous honor. Attorney Gray is the last living member of the inner circle of the Civil Rights movement and I was in attendance as he received the Hope Worldwide Lifetime Achievement award for his many works to better our society.
After the celebration, I attended lunch with Attorney Gray, his family, and the committee that honored him. During lunch, I had the opportunity to ask Attorney Gray, “What advice would you give a person coming behind you?” He responded, “I made it my life’s mission to destroy the institution of segregation, but there’s so much work that’s left to do. I would tell you to look at the systemic barriers that impact individuals today and dismantle them for the next generation.”
Attorney Gray grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. He saw a part of this country that, thankfully, my wife, my daughter, and I would never have to experience. He is a hero to me; because of his efforts, I was the first person in my family born with a protected right to vote. My daughter is just the second descendant of my mother and father to be born with that right.
But the remnants of that system of oppression remain embedded in our law. We have an opportunity to make this city more equitable for the diverse groups of residents that call Sandy Springs ‘home.’ History offers every person a chance at redemption, but we must seize it.
I’m disappointed in most of our City Council’s response to providing the option of benefits to elected officials in Sandy Springs. Many of our neighboring cities, including Dunwoody, Roswell, and Alpharetta, have chosen to provide health benefits to their mayors and council members. This isn’t a foreign concept.
Tuesday night, the Council voted on a substitute motion to add the option of providing benefits to elected officials if, and only if, the elected official assumes 100% of the price tag associated with the benefits. They gave the appearance of listening to residents speak up in favor of this proposal without removing the barrier.
Effectively, serving our community as an elected official becomes an opportunity for only the wealthiest of Sandy Springs residents. We can’t expect people to choose between public service and paying their bills. We must be honest about the sacrifices that everyday, hard-working Sandy Springs residents must consider before deciding to serve our city. And all for what? The price tag for benefits fell between $94,000 and $160,000 for all seven members of Council – that’s less than the cost of the City Springs’ mixed-use complex. If this is just about service, why did City Hall need to be moved from the Morgan Falls Office Park?
I have nothing against the decision to spend $229.2 million on City Springs, but I do question what our City Council values. The U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice….” Those words are echoed in Georgia’s own Constitution, “To perpetuate the principles of free government, insure justice to all….” However, you won’t find those words in our City Charter.
Our Founding Fathers didn’t get everything right, but they at least ensured the basic principles to building a more just and equitable society were written into our Constitution. These are the words that people leaving their homelands held onto in search of better opportunities. These are the words that our great grandmothers and grandmothers heard as they stood boldly against inequality during the Women’s Suffrage Movement. These are the words that Attorney Gray and Attorney Thurgood Marshall pointed Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis, Ella Baker, and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland toward in their fight for Civil Rights. And recently, these are the words many of our own residents leaned on as they stood with citizens across Georgia against Senate Bill 202.
However, none of these movements have ended. Women that we know, love, and share life with are still fighting for equal pay and the right to make decisions about their own bodies. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are still fighting for the recognition of their humanity. Georgians are still fighting to protect their right to vote.
Before you say, “Those aren’t local issues,” ask yourself, “Why were state rights and local rights so important to our elected officials?” We can’t underestimate the power that our city government yields. It’s one of the many reasons the city of Sandy Springs exists – because residents of this city wanted to ensure that their interests were prioritized. But priorities must reflect the diversity of this city.
This isn’t an issue about cost. This is an issue about values. And it’s clear that a majority of our city government does not see the value in allowing for new voices to join the conversation.