Ben Howard Back at NPU-R, Elected Secretary, Atlanta Tells NPUs: No More Banished Activists
(APN) ATLANTA — Earlier this year, two Atlanta activists, Ben Howard and Ron Shakir, were banned from participating in the public meetings of Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit R (NPU-R), a move that appears to have violated Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
Ricardo Jacobs, the Chair of NPU-R, initiated the ban because, he claimed, Howard and Shakir repeatedly disrupted meetings.
The pair said that they were targeted for being outspoken on issues the leadership did not want to address. Howard was also investigating NPU-R leaders for conflicts of interest and said they wanted him out once they became aware of his project.
At the May 2015 NPU-R monthly meeting, members voted to ban Howard for five years, and Shakir for life. The men were escorted out of the meeting by police.
In June, the matter was brought before the City Council’s Community Development/Human Resources Committee (CD/HR), where a representative from the city’s Law Department indicated that the ban violated City Code.
In July, an assistant to the State Attorney General came to the same conclusion, and added that the ban might also violate Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
But the very day the assistant AG issued her opinion, the Vice Chair of NPU-R physically blocked Howard and Shakir from entering the group’s monthly meeting.
She claimed that the meeting was a private event at a privately-owned building, even though a public meeting notice had been posted on the City’s website.
In September, the members of NPU-R adopted new bylaws that retroactively included expulsion as a disciplinary measure.
Finally, in October, Charletta Wilson Jacks, director of the Planning Department, which oversees the NPU system, put her foot down.
In a letter to Jacobs, she stated: “The NPU and its committee meetings must be open to the public in accordance with City Code Sec. 6-3018(c). NPU R may not close its meetings to one or more individuals simply because it meets on private property.”
She mandated that all future meetings be held at Adamsville Recreation Center, saying all City personnel attending the meetings would be directed there.
And Jacks required that the new bylaws allowing for expulsion be changed.
“Recommendations of an NPU shall not be accepted by the Council until the NPU has adopted bylaws in compliance with City Code,” she said.
Jacobs apparently objected and demanded a meeting, as Jacks references a meeting in a follow-up letter.
In the second letter she wrote, “I must continue to reiterate that the NPU meeting and its committee meetings must be open to the public in accordance with City Code Sec. 6-3018(c).”
She offered a model bylaw for the NPU to adopt, which outlines measures that NPU leaders can take if a meeting attendee “substantially obstructs the ability of the meeting chairperson to proceed through the items listed on the meeting agenda.”
She included the clarification that the “character” of the conduct, not its “content or message,” must be the problem in order for the leadership to take action.
In that case, “the meeting chairperson may require the attendee to leave the meeting,” only after asking the attendee twice to cease the problematic conduct to no avail.
A City of Atlanta spokesperson told Atlanta Progressive News that this bylaw has been adopted by NPU-R.
Howard told APN he was able to attend the November NPU-R meeting and participate without obstruction.
Elections were on the agenda. Jacobs was re-elected to Chairperson. He was the sole candidate. A new Vice-chair was elected, also uncontested.
When it came to secretary, no candidates volunteered Howard said someone nominated him.
“Somebody got up the courage to second it,” he said.
The rest of the attendees insisted on taking a vote, even though the other two uncontested positions had been filled with only a nomination and a motion to second the nomination.
Jacks, who was present, offered to facilitate the vote, even though she explained to attendees that only ballots with a name on them would be counted.
“There were five ballots with my name on it and nine with the word, ‘No,’” Howard said.
Howard is now secretary of NPU-R.
“I don’t think they are going to try to change that. I don’t know what they could come up with to change that,” he said of his detractors within the NPU.
He said he is focused on a long to-do list that includes crime, public transportation, and transparency.
Shakir has not attempted to attend recent NPU-R meetings, but Howard said he will let him know that he is no longer banned for life.