Atlanta’s NPU-R Illegally Bans Members From Open Meetings
(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia Attorney General’s office has opined that the officers of Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit R violated a city ordinance when they banned two outspoken members from participating in public meetings.
In May 2015, Ben Howard, 82, a well-known senior advocate, and Ron Shakir, an activist who has run for City Council, were expelled from the NPU-R monthly meeting under threat of arrest, for allegedly being “disruptive.”
They were informed that they were banned from attending any NPU-R meetings––Howard for fives years and Shakir for eternity. This is the second time Howard has been banned from NPR; previously he was banned for one year.
As of press time they have not been supplied with any written explanation of the charges against them, though NPU-R Chair Ricardo Jacobs told Atlanta Progressive News that he emailed Shakir with instructions for appealing the decision because he was not present when the ban was instated.
Howard and Shakir, along with their supporters, say they are being targeted for challenging the status quo on issues of government transparency and the use of public money for private development.
“There’s land being given to Tyler Perry studios and not a single report has been made to members of NPU-R,” Howard told APN, referring to the impending redevelopment of Ft. McPherson, which lies within another NPU area that borders NPU-R.
That is just one of many issues Howard has called into question in public meetings.
He is also concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the Campbellton Road Tax Allocation District (TAD), where the money raised by an arts festival in Adams Park is going; and whether the NPU-R and other government bodies are following their own bylaws to ensure that citizens have input and receive information on such matters.
“We don’t have a problem with having a conversation,” about these issues, Jacobs said.
“We have a problem with feeling silenced. [Shakir and Howard] overrule the meeting… it’s supposed to be majority rule. But at what point at does the majority get blindsided by a minority?” he said.
Howard’s persistence has gotten him in trouble before. He was banned from NPU-R years ago, and says that when he complained to the City, a representative from then-Mayor Shirley Franklin’s office told him that if he would stop sending so many emails “a lot of this would go away.”
He continued emailing but stayed away from NPU-R meetings for the mandated one year.
Jacobs says Howard has been “on a tirade ever since,” and has resorted to personal attacks.
But Howard says the trouble started last December when he began investigating members of NPU-R leadership whom he suspected of having conflicts of interest.
It came to their attention that he was researching public records for information about their businesses and properties, and Jacobs confronted him in a tension-filled executive committee meeting.
At the NPU-R monthly meeting in April 2015, those tensions came to a head when an NPU-R member questioned Howard in a manner that Shakir found disrespectful.
Shakir told her to take her White privilege elsewhere, which invoked the wrath of a number of other members, who accused him of racism. The ensuing argument was so heated that a security guard eventually had to break it up.
At the next monthly meeting on May 06, the agenda included “disciplinary measures.” This turned out to be a vote on whether to suspend Howard and expel Shakir, both of which passed.
Shakir wasn’t present. Howard was asked to leave, which he declined to do.
Jacobs asked a police officer who was present to escort Howard out, but the officer also declined. In the meantime, Shakir arrived; and Sheryl Brown, the Vice Chair of NPU-R, left the room, likely to instruct YMCA management to call the police.
[At the time NPU-R meetings were held at the YMCA, but the organization has since decided not to no longer provide a venue for the meetings.]
A short time later, two police officers arrived and said they were responding to a call about trespassers.
Shakir and Howard were forced to leave. NPU-R has not had a meeting since. Shakir and Howard held a press conference outside of the meeting room in June 2015. Jacobs responded by canceling the meeting.
Jacobs then changed the meeting location for July 01, 2015 to a community center on Campbellton Road.
When Howard and Shakir showed up, a barbeque was in full swing and Brown was stationed at the door to prevent them from entering.
Molly Read Woo, a writer and neighborhood activist from Buckhead, was there to support Shakir and Howard. She filmed her interaction with Brown.
“We’re not having a meeting because the Attorney General is still in a quandary about sunshine laws and how they affect the NPUs,” Brown said, referring to the Georgia Open Meetings Act and Georgia Open Records Act.
“They haven’t came at us with a verdict so if we were to have a meeting we would have to have Mr. Shakir and Mr. Howard and we put our foot down and voted them out 23 to 3 and so we’re not having a meeting, we’re having a Fourth of July party,” Brown said.
“So there’s no NPU meeting? Was there an agenda?” Woo asked.
“There was an agenda, but once we found out––” Brown then put her hand over the camera, stifling the sound.
Woo can be heard asking “It’s not a public meeting anymore?”
Brown removed her hand, and her answer came through loud and clear.
“No, it’s not a public meeting. It’s a private party, actually,” she said.
Earlier that day, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo issued a response to an inquiry initiated by Woo as to whether banning Shakir and Howard violated Georgia’s Sunshine Laws.
“Although the Georgia Supreme Court has found that the Open Meetings Act does apply to to advisory boards that are similar to the Neighborhood Planning Units, I am not convinced that a court would find that the act applies to the NPUs,” Colangelo wrote.
“However, the City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances contains the following ordinance, located in ‘Article B, Neighborhood Planning’:
Sec. 6-3018 – Voting Procedures
- c) All NPU and committee meetings must be open to the public,” she wrote.
Jacobs was carbon copied on Colangelo’s reply, so he and the other NPU-R officers were likely aware they were at least breaking City law, and possibly State law as well, hence Brown’s attempt to reconstrue the public meeting as a private event.
However, calling an event private doesn’t make it so, especially if a quorum is present.
The event was advertised as a public meeting on the City’s website and Howard took a photo of a hand-drawn sign on the side of the building that said “Welcome NPU.”
“We feel that there is no violation of any open meeting laws,” Ricardo told APN.
Even though the Assistant Attorney General has made clear that banning Howard and Shakir from NPU-R is illegal, it’s not clear what will be done to rectify the situation.
At a meeting of the City Council’s Community Development and Human Resources (CDHR) Committee on June 09, 2015, Corliss Claire, President of the Adams Park Neighborhood Association, asked Council Members to change the city ordinance holding NPUs to the same open meetings standards as other arms of government.
“That sounds like a recommendation for some policy change that we could take into effect through this Committee, so we could look into that,” Councilman Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large) said.
Howard was there, along with other NPU-R members who spoke against him. No Council Members took his side.
Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (District 4) spoke at length about why Howard should mentor youth instead of being active in his NPU.
Councilmember Ivory Lee Young (District 3) also spoke at length, instructing Howard to demonstrate “humility.”
Councilwoman Keisha Lance-Bottoms expressed hope that the city’s Office of Planning and Law Department could “come up with a set of standards and by-laws that actually mean something.”
At that meeting, a representative from the City’s law department made a statement in line with what the Assistant AG would find several weeks later: “NPU and committee meetings have to be open to the public.”
How to make those meetings effective is another matter.