The DeKalb Delegation held the first of three Town Hall meetings last evening at the Cross Keys High School in Atlanta, located in the central/north portion of DeKalb County.
The panel of five state representatives were: Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, Rep. Mike Jacobs, Rep. Scott Holcomb, Rep. Tom Taylor and Rep. Michele Henson. Apologies were given by Hensen on behalf of Rep. Karla Drenner who had planned to attend but was unable to be there.
The 2013 legislative session begins January 14 and runs through an estimated date of April 18. As the head of MARTOC, Rep. Mike Jacobs spent the majority of the first portion of the meeting discussing the failed T-SPLOST vote and the future of public transportation in Atlanta. He said that it was clear to him that there will not be public support for transit until "MARTA gets its house in order. So, that's what we are going to do."
Jacobs noted that there were also concerns about the penny sales tax already being levied for MARTA on sales in Fulton and DeKalb counties alone. The T-SPLOST sales tax would have added another penny to every dollar spent in these two counties, making the burden of their costs higher than any of the other counties who would also be benefiting from the programs that would be funded.
Rep. Oliver added that Georgia is the only state out of 50 that does not have any state funding directly allocated for public transportation. The state has contributed to it in various ways, but the only way you will see direct funds specifically for the purpose of transit is with the voter approved SPLOST dollars unless something changes.
Rep. Henson stepped in to add that she did not believe that MARTA was the only contributing factor to the failure of T-SPLOST. "If you ask me, I'd say it was pretty clear that the voters don't trust their government officials to do the right thing with their money," she said. "That's the real problem we ought to be addressing. I mean, that's what I've been hearing."
There was also discussion about the district maps that were redrawn, leaving many communities like Tucker very upset with the configurations that, for many, place them into long and narrow districts that have enormous diversity in thought on various issues. Rep. Taylor assured the audience that the districts were drawn according to the law and every rule for fair distribution was followed.
During the second half of the meeting the attendees were encouraged to ask questions or offer up topics for discussion that concern them. The questions ranged from that of privatization of government, pedestrian safety, cell phone towers and the possible annexation of neighborhoods into the city of Decatur.
Rep. Jacobs stated that an audit completed by KPMG of MARTA showed specifically where privatization of certain areas would result in significant cost savings. The audience member asking the question added that public safety should remain a priority.
After hearing from my citizens' group Get the Cell Out - Atlanta, he offered to check on the status of the bill from the last legislative session that would ban cell towers from public school grounds. Jacobs was a co-sponsor of the bill and stated that it did have bi-partisan support. Instead of a ban, protesters were left with a non-binding, advisory referendum on the July ballot. The change in the bill happened after what the representatives described as a "decent upon the capitol" by numerous telecommunications lobbyists who did not want the bill to pass.
"That advisory referendum was intended to send a message to your local school board about exactly what the people in these communities want or do not want," said Jacobs. "You should always check with your local school board member on any issue you have regarding the schools and how your child might be affected."
Rep. Holcomb added that the ban on towers would not have helped the schools under contract, but it would have clarified what the tower companies could do in the future.
The referendum was included on the July 2012 ballot. Voters across the county responded by a vote of 62% that they did not approve of the practice of placing cell towers on school grounds.
Audience member Viola Davis of Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter said that the results of the referendum are exactly why you don't see cell towers at any of our schools to this day. So, in her opinion, even though the original bill to ban the towers was killed, the referendum did the job that many hoped it would do. The towers were not built and the contracts between the school system and T-mobile have all expired.
Many attendees spoke about the process of creating cities which has been in the news at lot lately and under consideration. A representative from the neighborhood of Medlock Park and nearby Medlock Place stated that their areas wanted to be able to vote on whether or not they wanted to be annexed. It was clear that the subject matter had divided many neighborhoods and pitted them against one another.
Rep. Henson clarified that the issue was sitting with the city of Decatur at the moment and no movement would be seen on the issue until they decide if they want to annex any areas into their city limits.
Candice Jordan from a group called "Juvenile Justice Reform," stated her frustration with trying to gain reform in the areas of juvenile detentions and homicide victims rights. Rep. Oliver told her that any non-profit or special interest group wanting to contribute to these areas need to be prepared to use evidence-based practices or, in other words, proof that your suggestions for reform are legitimate and warrant spending of tax dollars.
"Different people believe different things," said Oliver. "Some say mentoring works, some think that locking them up will do the trick. What I'm saying is that you had better come prepared if you want to state that you have an answer because there is a lot of debate out there about exactly what the right thing to do might be."
Rep. Taylor added that this was an area the public can really expect to see some changes in the next couple years as it is something they plan to focus on. There was information provided about how the public can become more involved when they have issues they want to discuss. Contact your state representative and find out who his/her secretary is. Then you can ask to be placed on the email list for alerts about upcoming meetings on that topic. There are also a few Mondays at noon that are set aside for the delegation to speak with the public and the county commissioners also attend.
Estelle Williamson, a concerned resident in Avondale who wants better safety in her area where crime is on the rise, asked the question that was on many people's minds. She asked, "will we see you pass legislation to ban the gifts from lobbyists? Or will we see a total ban of contributions and gifts?"
The delegates were quick to remind the audience that they have not been in session so any delays are simply time matters and the subject will likely come back up again in the new session.
Henson and Taylor both gave examples of when a lobbyist might make a gift of something minimal that might not even register in their minds as even being a gift. Hensen mentioned having friends who are also lobbyists and Taylor mentioned attending a lobbyist-sponsored meeting to learn about the particular industry.
Rep. Holcomb ended the meeting by stating, "I actually don't think it's all that complicated. You know who your friends and family are and you should be able to tell when someone is giving you something because they want to influence your opinion on a particular subject. It's especially easy if you haven't seen them all year and they suddenly pop up around the Jan. - March timeframe with invitations to dinner every night of the week."
"I'd like to see a limit on gifts to no more than $100," said Holcomb, "but I really don't think you'll see anything that limits campaign contributions. That's something that is a big part of the culture here and would be very hard for many people to give up."
Would you like to hear more? Don’t miss your chance to speak directly to your state delegation members about what's in store for 2013. And, don’t miss your chance to ask about legislation you were following from 2012. Plan to attend one of these upcoming Town Hall meetings in January:
Jan. 3, 2013 at 6:30 p.m. - approximately 8 p.m. at the Maloof Auditorium, 1300 Commerce Drive, Decatur
Jan. 8, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. - approximately 8 p.m. at the Porter Sanform Center, 3181 Rainbow Drive, Decatur.
This article has been updated and corrected from an earlier version. More information on the meeting is available here.