Atlanta City Council grapples with training center

Outside lawyers say there is a path for pausing the project.
Demonstrators protest the construction of a new public safety training center during a press conference at City Hall in Atlanta on Tuesday, January 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Demonstrators protest the construction of a new public safety training center during a press conference at City Hall in Atlanta on Tuesday, January 31, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

On an otherwise quiet Sunday in East Atlanta Village, a few dozen people crowded into tables and on couches in a corner of Joe’s Coffeehouse, where Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari holds laid-back coffee drop ins.

But this time, the meet-and-greet was laced with frustration, boiling over from residents opposed to the city’s planned public safety training center.

Bakhtiari, one of the only vocal project opponents on city council, pushed back.

“I’m completely alone in my fight against (the Atlanta Police Foundation)” she said of the organization leading construction. “My colleagues won’t talk about it. Everyone’s just hoping it’s going to go away — it’s not going to go away.”

Within the past few months, Atlanta City Council members have sat through hours of emotional public testimony and fielded hundreds of emails from constituents pleading for them to take action against construction of the $90 million facility.

Outside lawyers say that both the mayor and the city council have the ability to cancel the lease. But even council members who have been vocal about their concerns say that there wouldn’t be enough votes to do anything, even if they believed they could take action.

Six current council members voted in favor of the lease agreement between the city and the Atlanta Police Foundation in 2021. That leaves eight new members who are now also on the hook for addressing the controversial project.

The agreed-upon lease — passed by the council at the time in a 10-4 vote — outlines details of the 85 acres of development and surrounding preserved greenspace, and is valid for 50 years.

Within the terms is the ability for the city to terminate the lease “with or without cause,” so long as written notice is provided 180 days in advance.

The provision gives Mayor Andre Dickens the ability to terminate the lease, but leaves unanswered questions about what authority the City Council has to back out of the agreement.

During a lengthy interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dickens dismissed the idea of canceling or amending the contract.

“You could change the lease, but you won’t change the fact that these grounds need to be enhanced so that individuals in the community can have a benefit,” he said. “And you will still need to find a place for us to train police officers and train firefighters.”

Former City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong sat alongside then-councilman Dickens in 2021, but voted against the training center. She told the AJC that the chaos unfolding around the project today is a product of missteps taken years ago.

“This is a manifestation of the lack of care at the very beginning that, frankly, they had plenty of time to do,” Archibong said.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens answers questions in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the Atlanta Public Safety Center.

What can council do?

Some council members have taken a firm stance that they can’t call off the project. Archibong disagrees, saying every contract has a provision for the city to cancel for convenience.

“I would be examining that, I would be working with the mayor to see how we could start over. Even if the outcome is the same, the process was so deeply flawed,” she said.

Atlanta-based attorney Alex Joseph said that she also believes there are concrete steps the council can take to break away from the lease.

Joseph often represents local governments, but does not work for Atlanta or DeKalb County. She recently resigned from her position as chair of the DeKalb County ethics board.

“This lease is hugely favorable to the city,” she said. “There are no penalties for terminating the lease.”

Eric Teusink, an Atlanta real estate attorney, agreed. He said both the mayor and city council have the ability to cancel the lease through slightly different routes.

Council members would likely have to pass legislation to retract the mayor’s power as the primary negotiator on the lease, he said.

“When city council members say that they don’t have the authority, they are technically correct that they don’t have the authority at this moment,” he said. “I think they could absolutely pass legislation, taking the authority out of the mayor’s hands and investing it back within city council.”

And city wouldn’t be on the hook for damages, Teusink said.

“The city could revoke the lease immediately and (the police foundation) would just have to turn over the keys to the city,” he said.

City Attorney Nina Hickson said during a committee meeting she has advised council members that they can’t immediately terminate the lease. But she did not address whether the council could pass legislation to take back authority of the project from the mayor.

Council members who have voiced concern about the facility say that there aren’t enough votes to press pause on it, anyway.

Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites said the decision about the training center ultimately lies with the mayor and the council members who OK’d it. She condemned the violent protests at the site, which she said don’t help the case for stopping the project.

“I think that the events that you have seen over the last few weeks and months do not speak to what we need to make the argument to go back and visit this,” she said. “If we can find some of the members who would like to do something different, I’m happy to join their efforts.”

This week, nine council members signed onto a plan they hope will ease concern. The council is considering a resolution to invest 25% of all net revenue generated by the facility back into Atlanta community programs.

“This is us saying: ‘Hey, we got here, we saw the book already written and we’re trying to edit some of the chapters in the book,”’ said Councilman Antonio Lewis, who authored the proposal.

A protester holds a sign against a proposed public safety training center during the Justice for Tortuguita Rally at Liberty Plaza across from the Georgia Capitol on Saturday, March 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Activist Manuel Tortuguita Terán was killed by law enforcement authorities in January near the planned site of the training center. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Unanswered questions

Archibong, who represented portions of DeKalb County on council, remembers when Atlanta Police Foundation CEO Dave Wilkinson pitched his vision of the facility.

She said her “cautionary advice” was to make sure the communities surrounding the site were brought to the table.

“You can’t just tell people what you’re going to do, we need to do things through a bottom-up community engagement step-by-step process,” she said.

The Atlanta Police Foundation said that concern that the organization has not been transparent about the project is “misplaced criticism.”

It is the responsibility of elected officials — the City Council and mayor — to engage the public, said Rob Baskin, the foundation’s vice president and director of public affairs.

“We are not an elected body,” he said. “That’s not what our mission is, that’s not what we do.”

Brittney Burnett, along with her husband Charley and two young children, was among the crowd at Joe’s Coffeehouse Sunday to meet with Bakhtiari.

“I don’t feel like the mayor’s office and city council are really paying any sort of attention to the people who are against the project,” she said.

Regardless of the protests, Burnett said: “We’re families who are concerned about over policing of our neighborhoods.”

Dickens recently announced the formation of a new task force to address concerns of construction on the 85-acre site. He has also canvassed neighborhoods near the facility to listen to residents’ concerns.

Some of the large organizations participating in the task force are the NAACP, ACLU of Georgia, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Beltline, Inc.

“I think that we have got to respond to the public’s cry for accountability and answer their questions,” Waites said.