Not just a new mayor: Atlanta City Council will see major turnover next year

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Councilmembers confident in future relationship with Mayor-elect Dickens

When Alex Wan returns to his old seat on Atlanta City Council next month, the legislative body will look very different than when he left four years ago.

“I’m chuckling that I’m going to be one of the older council members,” said Wan, who represented an Eastside district from 2009 to 2017 and won the seat again in the Nov. 2 general election. “When I first joined, I was one of the younger ones.”

That sentiment reflects the major turnover coming to the City Council in January, following this year’s elections that saw several young, progressive candidates win seats. In addition to a new mayor, six brand-new members will join the 15-member council Jan. 3. That group will be joined by Wan and Mary Norwood, another former councilmember who sought a return to City Hall this year.

The incoming council is thought to be more ideologically progressive than past iterations, especially on major issues of public safety and housing. Several of the new members have backgrounds as social justice activists and campaigned on bold platforms focused on reimagining policing and addressing the root causes of crime.

It’s still too early to say how exactly the turnover will manifest through new reforms, voting blocs or political allegiances — and how that could impact the policy agenda of Mayor-elect Andre Dickens, whose agenda includes starting an Atlanta Department of Labor and creating a task force of specialists deployed to deal with issues like mental health and homelessness.

Discussions around policing and criminal justice could be one fault line on the new council. For example, several of the new members have said they support closing the Atlanta City Detention Center, and expressed skepticism at the plan approved by the council in September to build a new training center for police and firefighters on forested land in DeKalb County.

“Not all left-of-center folks necessarily agree on the same things, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect consensus all the time,” Emory University political science professor Michael Leo Owens said. “But I suspect, given the seeming personalities of these people, that we won’t see bloodbaths in City Hall around policy matters.”

Several officials and City Hall insiders said they are more confident about the future relationship between the council and Dickens, himself a two-term councilman before becoming mayor.

‘Surprises and land mines’

Two longtime incumbent councilmembers, Cleta Winslow and Joyce Sheperd, were ousted by challengers Jason Dozier and Antonio Lewis in November’s runoff elections, and several others passed on a reelection bid or gave up their seats to run for higher office. Other new names on the council include Byron Amos, Liliana Bakhtiari, Keisha Waites and Jason Winston. And the group’s leader, Council President-elect Doug Shipman, is also new to City Hall.

Of the remaining incumbents, only Michael Julian Bond and Howard Shook were on council before 2018.

The new Council appears to be more diverse than ever. Racially, it is made up of eight Black members, five white members, two Iranian Americans and one Chinese American. There will also be three openly LBGTQ members — a historic number.

“This new council is a very unique mix of seasoned, experienced folks who have been on council and new folks who are coming in with their thoughts on innovation and ideas,” Shipman said, adding that the turnover could mean “there are lot of questions around assumptions: ‘Do things have to work this way? Is it possible it would work differently?’”

Incumbent members said they hope newcomers will be receptive to advice as they take office. Shook said there are many “surprises and land mines” to navigate on council, saying: “It’s easy to get too far ahead of yourself.”

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Many new members have said they plan to seek insight from their predecessors and more experienced counterparts.

“While I’m definitely excited to build with nonprofit partners, organizers, community leaders, it’s going to be really important to also listen,” said Bakhtiari, who will represent an Eastside district. “What I am most excited about young people being on council is that the energy is there, as is the eagerness to learn.”

Bakhtiari said she is most interested in tackling housing policy and has been in talks with Councilman Matt Westmoreland on helping to provide access to legal counsel for people facing evictions and foreclosures.

That said, it’s unlikely many councilmembers will seek to make major legislative moves on day one.

“Progressive ideas often meet with the reality of a real budget, and the political progressiveness also meets with the reality of other elected officials not being as ready to move forward or as fast,” said Amos, a former school board member elected to a Westside district. “So I will probably fall in the middle and play that voice of reason.”

A new council-mayor dynamic

A solid relationship with the mayor’s office can define how a City Council operates, and vice versa. While the mayor relies on the council to approve pieces of their legislative agenda, a good relationship with the chief executive can help council members get more done too.

Dickens, Shipman and multiple council members said they are optimistic the new council will have a good partnership with the incoming administration.

“It’ll be a breath of fresh air for City Hall,” said Bond, one of six councilmembers who endorsed Dickens in the runoff election. “I think it’d be very refreshing to have a new mayor because of the type of personality he has ... so there’s optimism with the new members and optimism with the mayor.”

That would be an improvement on the relationship the Bottoms administration has had with City Council, which has become strained over the years.

Earlier this year, councilmembers pushed back on her proposal to close the mostly empty jail. And just last week, a council committee voted down an ordinance backed by the Bottoms administration that aims to increase residential density in the city.

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“As president and as councilmember, it has not always been the most collaborative relationship with the mayor’s office, and the communication has lacked between both sides,” said former mayoral candidate and outgoing Council President Felicia Moore, who served in City Hall for 24 years. Moore said it was particularly frustrating when she would find out information from “third-party sources when you’re right across the hall.”

Bottoms was less hands-on than her predecessor, former Mayor Kasim Reed, when it came to lobbying the council. This year alone, the council has overridden two of Bottoms’ mayoral vetoes, an act that hadn’t happened in more than a decade and requires 10 councilmembers to sign off.

Still, Bottoms secured several big legislative achievements, including cash bail reform, the new public safety training center and a new diversion and services center at the Atlanta jail.

“I think it’s likely that the new council will be more assertive than the last one, which was more assertive than the one prior to that,” Shook said.

Dickens has already reached out to members of the new council and met with several of them.

Dozier, an activist and Army veteran who unseated Winslow, said he’s excited to work with Dickens specifically because of the mayor-elect’s views on issues like transportation and housing.

“We have a real opportunity to move our city in a direction that we should’ve done years ago,” Dozier said. “With a fresher, younger, more progressive, more forward-thinking city council, I think that has gotten people really excited about the future of this city in a way they haven’t felt in a long time.”

Staff writer Tyler Estep contributed to this article.