Vocal critic removed from Atlanta police training center committee

Graffiti near a dirt part off Key Road in southern DeKalb County, just outside the property where the Atlanta Police Foundation plans to build a new public safety training center.

Combined ShapeCaption
Graffiti near a dirt part off Key Road in southern DeKalb County, just outside the property where the Atlanta Police Foundation plans to build a new public safety training center.

The most outspoken member of a committee helping guide plans for a controversial Atlanta police and fire training facility was ousted by her colleagues last week.

Leaders of the committee say the move was not about Lily Ponitz questioning the commitment to environmental testing and other due diligence at the site, or her general opposition to the development that’s slated for 85 forested acres in unincorporated DeKalb County.

But some other committee members, activists and at least one public official say that’s exactly what it seems like.

“If they had played everything out and Lily continued to be sort of a more scrutinizing or dissenting opinion, it doesn’t mean that the whole system shuts down,” DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, who appointed Ponitz to the panel, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It just means that one of the citizen appointees doesn’t ultimately agree with the final site plan.”

The community advisory committee was created by the Atlanta City Council last October, shortly after it approved the ground lease necessary for the Atlanta Police Foundation to build the sprawling new police and fire training facility on city-owned land along Key Road, just across the DeKalb County line.

The deal was approved after months of debate and one meeting with some 17 hours of public comments, the majority asking officials to shoot down the proposal. The committee was subsequently framed as a way for residents — and particularly those from the DeKalb neighborhoods immediately surrounding the site — to help make the training center as palatable as possible.

Ponitz, who has a background in environmental engineering, quickly became the most vocal critic on the committee. She repeatedly raised questions about environmental testing going on at the sprawling site — which is a former prison farm — and accused the development team of “misleading stakeholders” about its thoroughness.

The committee’s bylaws name the chairman as the group’s “designated spokesperson.” Alison Clark, who serves as co-chair, has previously stressed that any comments to the media “should be funneled through the chair” because individual members speaking out could give the public the perception that they represent the committee’s consensus opinion.

Ponitz continued to say her piece, even writing a guest column for local news site Saporta Report.

“The challenge rested in the methodology,” Clark told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of Ponitz’s ouster. “Instead of coming to the committee and addressing her various concerns, through the process with the committee which would’ve allowed us to have appropriate debate and discussion, the arguments were always made in the media.”

The committee is also meant to provide advice, not oversight, Clark said.

Fellow co-chair Sharon Williams said during last week’s meeting that Ponitz “disparaged the work of the committee and ... the work of our technical team” and that her dismissal was made “in accordance with our bylaws and in coordination with Atlanta city legal counsel.”

A replacement for Ponitz will be appointed by the City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, officials said.

»See a full press release and Q&A from the committee regarding Ponitz’s dismissal at the bottom of this article.

Ponitz said she did bring concerns to the committee but also took them elsewhere because it was “important for transparency” to make them as publicly as possible.

“While the democratic process, as I see it, would involve tapping community expertise and diversity of opinion, the majority of this committee was content, and in fact protective of, operating as an extension of the police foundation-dominated media narrative,” Ponitz wrote in a statement provided to the AJC.

At least three members of the committee expressed support for Ponitz during last week’s meeting, and said they’d received many emails from residents asking for her not to be removed.

“I just seems to me,” member Amy Taylor said, “that we’re here to serve the community and taking Lily off the committee would probably have even bigger impact than some of the things out there in the press.”

The vote on Ponitz’s removal was ultimately held “by exception,” with no roll call and only “no” votes directly counted. Ponitz said she’d still be on the committee if a more traditional vote had been held and abstentions had been counted.

She said she plans to speak with Atlanta’s integrity officer about the method used.

Combined ShapeCaption
Police make arrests Tuesday, May 17, 2022, at encampment of opposition to the massive training center planned for Atlanta’s police officers and firefighters. (John Spink/ John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink /John.Spink@ac.com

Police make arrests Tuesday, May 17, 2022, at encampment of opposition to the massive training center planned for Atlanta’s police officers and firefighters. (John Spink/ John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink /John.Spink@ac.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Police make arrests Tuesday, May 17, 2022, at encampment of opposition to the massive training center planned for Atlanta’s police officers and firefighters. (John Spink/ John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink /John.Spink@ac.com

Credit: John Spink /John.Spink@ac.com

The actual development, meanwhile, appears to be inching nearer to the construction phase.

Clark, the advisory committee co-chair, said the updated site plan is more or less finished. She touted several recommendations put forth by the committee that were adopted by the police foundation. Those include relocating a firing range to an area further away from residential neighborhoods and removing altogether plans for explosives testing at the facility.

The site is located in DeKalb, but the county has little say over the project and how it moves forward because it’s on city-owned land. The county does have to approve land disturbance permits, which it has not yet done.

Rob Baskin, a spokesman for the Atlanta Police Foundation, said the organization expects final permitting approval sometime in the next six to eight weeks.

A DeKalb spokesman, meanwhile, said the land disturbance applications were ”under a comprehensive and diligent review” by “a full range of county departments.”

“We cannot (and would not) forecast when that review will be completed based on the size and complexity of the proposed project,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

Developers did, however, recently receive a temporary work permit to install a fence encircling the training center site. Baskin said the barrier is currently under construction.

The fence is aimed largely at keeping out activists who have built treehouses on the property and otherwise tried to stop work from moving forward. The “forest defenders” have frequently clashed with police and work crews on the property; at least two Molotov cocktails were thrown in the direction of officers attempting to clear the site last month.

One advisory committee member, Anne Phillips, recently characterized escalating acts of resistance — which include destroying machinery and vandalizing the offices of construction contractors tied to the project — as “reactions to Ms. Ponitz’s writings.”

“From the articles and all of the insinuations, we have had people who have begun to be violent in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Phillips said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Destroying property, making threats against people and their families.”

The various actions taken by activists and “forest defenders” are not exactly new, even though they have, for a variety of reasons, gained more public notoriety in the weeks since Ponitz wrote her column for the Saporta Report.

Activists have targeted the site for months and there have been “more than 30 violent incidents” reported since the start of this year, Baskin said.

Terry, the DeKalb County commissioner, said Ponitz’s removal actually has the potential to enflame the situation even further.

“That just adds more fuel to the extremists. They say, ‘see, the process is rigged’” and feel violence and intimidation are their only recourse, he said.