Informational Meeting on City of Brookhaven

May 23, 2011

Please join me for an informational meeting on the proposal for a City of Brookhaven on Tuesday, May 24, at 7:00 p.m. in Lupton Auditorium in the main building of Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road.

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia will be tasked with performing a feasibility study as to how a City of Brookhaven might impact your local services (either positively or negatively) and your taxes (again, either positively or negatively).

Tuesday’s meeting will include Ted Baggett of the Carl Vinson Institute to answer your questions about what will go into the feasibility study and what we will be able to learn from it. The meeting also will include a citizen who was involved in the creation of the City of Dunwoody to discuss why that community looked to a new municipality to solve some of the problems inherent in big county governance.

In addition, I’ll be happy to answer your questions about the status of the Brookhaven proposal and how it could progress in the future.

Deterrence is Key to MARTA Safety

May 16, 2011

Recent news of an attack by a horde of gang members against two Delta Air Lines employees on a late night MARTA train has prompted renewed interest in the issue of public safety on MARTA. The attack also has prompted me, as chairman of MARTOC, the joint legislative committee that oversees MARTA, to delve into the issue.

Over the next few months, MARTOC will be looking for ways that we can make the experience of using MARTA better for its customers. One of the key areas on which we will focus is public safety. I strongly believe that we will see more people choose to ride MARTA if they perceive the system as clean and safe.

Deterrence is essential to enhancing safety for MARTA customers. MARTA police are aggressively pursuing the gang members who perpetrated the attack against the Delta employees and have arrested seven of the perpetrators as of the time I write this column. This effort is commendable, but after-the-fact arrests and prosecutions are not sufficient to provide the level of deterrence that is necessary to significantly improve safety on MARTA.

I held a MARTOC meeting on the public safety issue on Tuesday, May 3. In their presentation, MARTA officials informed the committee that they are in the process of installing closed circuit cameras on every bus and train car in the system. With respect to buses, this project is expected to be completed by the end of 2014. It will take somewhat longer to outfit all trains with closed circuit technology. The price tag to outfit all MARTA vehicles with closed circuit cameras is expected to be $15 million with annual operating costs of $2 million.

This is a significant step in the right direction, but closed circuit cameras are only as good as the human eyes that monitor them. A more significant step to improve deterrence would be to increase the number of uniformed police officers who are present on trains and buses. MARTA is now taking steps to place uniformed officers on 60 percent of evening trains. The closer we get to 100 percent coverage — both during the evening and daytime, and particularly on trains — the better.

Some of my constituents have noted that there was a time in the past that it seemed routine to see a uniformed MARTA police officer on every train, walking the train from front to back, back to front, and then back again. These days it seems that sightings of uniformed MARTA officers on trains are less frequent.

One project that MARTOC is undertaking this year, prior to the 2012 legislative session, is a comprehensive review of the MARTA Act. This is the 1960s state law that created MARTA. In the MARTA Act, there is a restriction that 50 percent of MARTA’s revenues must be used for operations and the other 50 percent for capital and infrastructure. This is known as the “50-50 split,” and it is a restriction that MARTA has long asked the General Assembly to repeal.

If the General Assembly decides to repeal the 50-50 split, it would not happen without replacing it with some specific requirements on MARTA’s operations in particular areas. One of these areas is almost certain to be public safety.

We might mandate that more uniformed officers be deployed on trains and buses. We might require that the closed circuit cameras be operated in such a way that they are more interactive, rather than simply appearing to the public as fixed objects for which it is not apparent whether or not they are manned.

Any public safety requirements added to the MARTA Act will be aimed at stronger deterrence. In the May 3rd hearing, MARTA informed us that the number of serious crimes within the MARTA system such as robberies, aggravated assaults, auto thefts, rapes, and burglaries have been reduced from 540 in FY 2006 to 418 in FY 2010.

This downward statistical trend is a good thing, but we will not have fully addressed the issue of public safety on MARTA until deterrent measures are adopted to make riders feel safer.

On a final note, MARTA informed us that they will have a police officer walk you to your car during the evening if you pick up a blue or white telephone located at a station. I am passing this information along to you, in case you might need to make use of this service in the future.

Downsizing the School Board for Better Governance

May 8, 2011

The 2011 session of the General Assembly is finished and in the books. Shortly before adjournment, we passed Senate Bill 79 (click for information), a bill that among other things will reduce the size of the DeKalb County Board of Education from nine to seven members. Governor Deal signed SB 79 into law a couple of weeks ago.

The provision of SB 79 that shrinks the DeKalb school board was taken from House Bill 63 (click for information), legislation that I authored earlier this year. It downsizes the school board by eliminating the two “super districts” that each cover half the county, leaving seven single-member districts of equal population.

In addition to yours truly, Senators Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) and Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) and Representatives Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) and Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) were instrumental in seeing to the passage of this important legislation. Despite the fact that just about every other DeKalb County legislator refused to see past the purely political arguments that were made against SB 79, this bipartisan group of five legislators worked together to take a major step forward for the DeKalb County School System.

In 2001, the DeKalb County Board of Education saw its membership increase from seven to nine seats. The current size of the school board is a major impediment to its operating at a high standard. This is why the passage of SB 79 was crucial.

Experts agree that smaller school boards provide higher quality governance than larger boards. The Commission for School Board Excellence, a group of leaders that wrote Georgia’s school board ethics law, has recommended that boards consist of no more than seven members. Georgia law already provides that school boards may have no more than seven members, but unfortunately school systems like DeKalb were grandfathered into this 2010 enactment.

DeKalb County, Clayton County, and the Atlanta Public Schools are the only districts in Metro Atlanta that do not meet this standard. Of the latter two districts, Clayton lost its accreditation in 2008 over alleged corruption among board members, and APS has been placed on probation by the accrediting agency known as Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). SACS is in the process of reviewing school board governance in DeKalb County as well.

Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of SACS, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “all of the problems in these systems are about board governance, power struggles, and unethical behavior – not teachers or lack of funding.”

Reducing the size of our school board can help eliminate these problems. “As you increase the number of actors that are on the board, you sometimes end up with an inability to act in conformance with anybody’s set of standards,” former State School Superintendent Brad Bryant, who hails from DeKalb County, told the AJC.

The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA) regularly selects Georgia’s best school boards as “Distinguished Boards of Education” after a review of their performance and organizational structure. More than 90 percent of the boards chosen for 2008 through 2010 have only five members, according to GSBA’s website.

The Gwinnett County School System has the largest student enrollment in Georgia. It also has an award-winning board of education with only five members – two less than SB 79 will require for DeKalb County and four less than comprise DeKalb’s current board.

Of the four largest school districts in the state (Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett), DeKalb is the only one with a board of more than seven members.

My hope was that this necessary change could be made through local legislation, approved by a majority of the 19 representatives and 7 senators from DeKalb County working together to do what is right for our school system and our children.

In this regard, Representative Mary Margaret Oliver had proposed House Bill 22 (click for information), local legislation that could have addressed this issue from a local perspective. I supported HB 22 throughout this year’s legislative session and hoped for its passage, but watched with dismay as certain school board members and their friends in the legislature worked to ensure its defeat.

Within the past two years, our school system has seen the indictment of its superintendent and has spent millions of tax dollars in attorney’s fees for lawsuits against construction contractors.

Reducing the DeKalb school board to seven members is a necessary first step toward a better-run school system. I am pleased that we were able to overcome purely political obstacles in order to make it happen.


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