Atlanta City council committee approves free swimming over objections

Adams Park Swimming Pool and Splash Pad has a variety of aquatic features like a dunk bucket and water cannons. Photo: Provided by City of Atlanta

The chances that city residents will be able to use Atlanta's 12 city-owned pools for free this summer got a lot better on Tuesday — partly because the Atlanta City Council is acting with unusual level of unity and independence from the mayor's office.

The city charges residents $5 per person to swim, but an Atlanta City Council committee unanimously moved legislation forward to do away with the fee — despite objections from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration.

According to the ordinance, roughly 64 percent of children of color can’t swim, and the drowning rate for African American children is three times higher than for white children.

The ordinance blamed the disparities on an unacceptable lack of access to pools for low-income African American children.

It was introduced last week by councilmembers Matt Westmoreland and Marci Overstreet, but the entire council eventually sign on as sponsors.

Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner John Dargle, Jr. asked the committee to hold off on Tuesday’s vote because he said it could increase security costs at the pools significantly, and the administration wanted to further consider the financial impact.

The interaction that followed reflected a growing frustration among some council members about a lack of communication from the administration.

Westmoreland reminded Dargle that he and Overstreet emailed him on Thursday requesting a meeting to discuss any issues with the ordinance before it moved forward.

“That email was never responded to,” Westmoreland said. “Why?”

Dargle said he had shared the email with the mayor’s office and they were preparing a response.

“We were just trying to sort of get our ducks in a row,” Dargle said. “I apologize if we didn’t respond. I wanted to be able to share that with the mayor’s office and then strategize an approach for bringing this forward.”

The pools generate about $54,000 in revenue for the city. The original legislation moved $60,000 from a non-departmental fund to the Parks Department budget to make up for the difference.

Westmoreland said he spoke with an official in the city’s Finance Department on Monday and that the only request was to remove the provision transferring funds because it overly complicated the legislation. Westmoreland said he made the change.

Westmoreland said Bottoms’ deputy chief operating officer brought up security concerns to him on Monday, but he didn’t quite understand them because the city already offers free swimming on certain days of the week.

LaChandra Butler-Burks, executive director of Bottoms’ Office of Recreation, said the city currently provides security at the pools only during free swim hours.

“History has shown that over the years that’s where we have most of our security needs, from crowd control especially,” Butler-Burks said.

Overstreet pressed Butler-Burks on when she would have final numbers for the projected cost increase, but Butler-Burks couldn’t provide her with a date.

“We are at our best as a city when we are taking care of the people that need it the most,” Overstreet said. “There is no reason we shouldn’t have free swim in the summer. So we need to we need to work as hard as we can to make sure that happens.”

Westmoreland said the administration needed to stop bringing concerns about council-backed legislation at the last minute — especially when council members request information days in advance of an ordinance being considered.

“We have got to stop operating this way,” he said.

The ordinance will be taken up by the Finance Executive Committee on Wednesday.

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