Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens defended the closed-door nature of his new public safety training center task force and said on Wednesday that members expressed concern over their safety if the meetings were publicized.
Dickens recently announced the formation of the 40-plus member South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force created to facilitate broader community input on the training center and uses of the surrounding green space.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week confirmed that the meetings would be closed to the public and media. Initially, the press was invited to hear the mayor’s opening remarks to the task force, until access was revoked Wednesday morning and the location of the meeting went undisclosed.
The decision that the meetings would be inaccessible caused outcry from training center opponents who accused Dickens of not being transparent about the effort he touted as a way to bolster community engagement.
In response, Dickens called an evening press conference where he was flanked by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and various Black community leaders.
On the steps of City Hall, the mayor announced that task force members told the mayor’s office how they would like to proceed.
“This task force just got started and we asked them how they would like to be open to the press,” he said. “And quite frankly, a lot of these individuals expressed today that they were scared.”
However, a list of the task force members’ names and associations has already been publicly shared, undermining the case for secrecy.
Dickens pushed back against the criticism and noted that while the meetings of the former citizen advisory group were available to the public, the new task force doesn’t share that accessibility.
“These individuals that have decided to serve our city, they get to determine how they like to be addressed and how they would like to be in front of the media if they so choose,” he said, but he did not address access for the public.
Meetings of government committees are generally required to be open to the public in Georgia, but there are some exceptions allowed under state law. The city’s legal justification for closing the task force meetings to the public was not immediately clear, and Dickens did not provide further explanation Wednesday.
During his remarks, Dickens said that he wanted to keep community input at the front of conversations surrounding the training facility, and doubled-down on plans for construction.
“Let me be clear to you today that the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is moving forward because we need it,” he said, adding that the city’s public safety officers are in dire need of such a facility.
“Every part of this project has been scrutinized and has been found to be fully compliant with the law and all environmental protection requirements,” he said.
Dickens was joined by Young, a former Atlanta mayor, who also described the city’s need for enhanced public safety resources. Young recalled fighting crime, human trafficking and a rampant drug trade while he was in office in the 1980s.
“We have always taken the leadership and tried to figure out peaceful answers that develop the entire community and that all of us can be proud of,” he said. “That’s what we’re setting up this training center for.”