Dickens Slashed Public Comment, Backed Opacity on Council
(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large) has recently been endorsed by several progressive leaders in Atlanta in his campaign for Mayor of Atlanta; however, while on Council he repeatedly slashed public comment opportunities on housing and public safety as Chair of the committees with oversight of those issues; and he supported the City Council’s ongoing practices of non-transparency.
Dickens also voted for several ordinances making cuts to public comment at Full Council Meetings; and making it more difficult to comment during the pandemic.
DICKENS’S CUTS TO PUBLIC COMMENT
When Dickens was first elected in 2013 and made chair of the Community Development/Human Services Committee (CD/HS) of the Atlanta City Council at the beginning of 2014, Dickens promised Atlanta Progressive News that he would have no time limit for public comment in that committee. (then called “CD/HR”)
At the time, City Hall was open and in-person comments would frequently only be offered by a small handful of members of the public such as Ben Howard, Ron Shakir, APN’s News Editor (the present writer), and the now-late Dave Walker.
However, like most new Councilmembers, Dickens quickly abandoned his promises around meaningful democratic participation; and assimilated into the pack of the in-group of Councilmembers, juxtaposed to the outgroup of the public.
As previously reported by APN, prior to 2010, there were few if any limits on making public comments in Committee.
When the two minute limit at Full Council was adopted years ago, the committees remained unlimited because they were seen as the place where the public could truly participate in policymaking, Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), who served on the Council at the time, has recounted.
However, shortly after making that promise, Dickens began a race to the bottom, first establishing a five minute total time limit in CD/HS Cmte, then chipping away at it so that by the time he was Chairman of the Public Safety/Legal Administration Committee, members of the public were only given three minutes to speak on issues of public safety, and only at the end of the meeting after Committee Members had already voted.
At first, Dickens had no time limit on public comment. For example, these meeting minutes from Feb. 25, 2014, reflect no time limit and four speakers on that day.
By 2015, Dickens cut public comment to three minutes at the beginning of the meeting, limited to items on the agenda only; and then two minutes at the end of the meeting for any other items. The Dec. 01, 2015 agenda states: “PUBLIC COMMENT PERTAINING TO ITEMS ON THIS AGENDA (3 MINUTES)”.
This limitation to agenda items also made it difficult for members of the public to bring new ideas or concerns to the Committee.
In 2017, Dickens became chair of the PS/LA Committee, which only took public comments at the end of the meeting, after Councilmembers voted on items on the agenda.
This meant that Chairman Dickens was content to preclude any opportunity for citizens’ comments to have any impact on the Committee’s votes, as shown in this June 13, 2017 agenda.
“M. REMARK(S) FROM THE PUBLIC (3 MINUTES) N. ADJOURNMENT.”
By this time, Dickens’s allotment for public comment dropped to three minutes per person total (rather than the two plus three he had instituted in CD/HS).
Dickens also supported cuts to public comment at Full Council.
In 2018, Dickens voted in favor of cutting public comment delegations from sixteen minutes to ten minutes, after Councilmembers Cleta Winslow (District 4) and Sheperd complained after the Gulch Debate that they were being criticized by the public.
Winslow said at the 2018 Council Retreat that public comment in Atlanta is like “the asylum being run by the people who are ill.” Dickens saw no reason to object to this comment.
In 2018 and 2019, Dickens voted multiple times to support limits to public comment for current and former elected officials. Former elected officials, who used to have no limit, now only have two minutes to speak. Current elected officials from other bodies, who used to have no limit, now have only six minutes to speak, thanks in part to the votes of Mr. Dickens.
In 2019, Dickens supported cutting Proclamations, which honor seniors and other Atlantans often for their lifetime achievements, to fifteen minutes per person; and only four per meeting.
During the pandemic, Dickens supported a resolution limiting the window of opportunity for people to call and leave voicemails for the Atlanta City Council to a three hour window on the day before the meeting. This resolution was introduced after the Council opened up public comment to voicemail comments, but Councilmembers apparently felt that too many members of the public were leaving voicemails.
DICKENS’S SUPPORT FOR NON-TRANSPARENCY
Dickens’s record on transparency has been equally problematic.
Dickens has opposed videotaping Committee Briefings, in which Councilmembers discuss agenda items prior to the Council Meetings.
Dickens failed to support the ordinance in Committee. Also, when Bond brought up the ordinance in Full Council, not a single Councilmember was willing to give the public meaningful access to their semi-private little meetings. Dickens failed to second Bond’s motion.
APN has made Dickens and all other Councilmembers aware of several meeting minutes that fail to list the movers, seconders, yeas, nays, and abstainers on specific votes, in a clear violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Jan. 14, 2020 (vote to adopt the agenda, and the vote to adopt the minutes)
Jan. 28, 2020 (vote to adopt the agenda, and the vote to adopt the minutes)
Feb. 11, 2020 (vote to adopt the agenda)
Feb. 25, 2020 (vote to adopt the agenda)
March 10, 2020 (vote to adopt the agenda, and the vote to adopt the minutes.)
Apparently content to continue to withhold information from the voters, Mr. Dickens has failed to introduce a personal paper, as requested by APN; or take any action, to amend the minutes.
Currently, APN’s News Editor, the present writer, is in open records and open meetings litigation with the City of Atlanta.
Rather than correct clear violations of law for which there is no known defense, Dickens, by his actions and omissions, has ratified the unlawful minutes and supported the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on undermining transparency.
The Dickens Campaign was originally interested in participating in this story when APN inquired about Dickens’s endorsements; however, the campaign lost interest in responding when it learned that APN sought for Dickens to respond to his cuts to public comment and his failure to amend the unlawful minutes, among other issues.
Dickens has been endorsed by State Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta), former State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), former State Rep. Doug Dean (D-Atlanta), Rev. Timothy MacDonald, and Joe Beasley.
“With his eight years of service on City Council, he’s shown himself to be a leader. He looks at problems, puts people together, and comes up with solutions,” State Sen. Orrock told APN of her endorsement.
Fort said he is endorsing Dickens because of his policy positions.
“He has some policy positions I agree with – affordable housing. In terms of affordable housing, my position is, in order for the City to deal with the affordable housing mess, the City needs to have dedicated funds, budget funds. You can’t do it through matching funds or grants, you need new dedicated funding,” Fort told APN.
Other candidates for Mayor of Atlanta include Councilman Antonio Brown (District 3) and Council President Felicia A. Moore, who both have their her own transparency and public comment-related issues related to their Council service; former Mayor Kasim Reed; Sharon Gay; and several others.
Incumbent Keisha Lance Bottoms is not running for reelection.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2021)