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Local Govt & Politics

    You would hardly know it, as we are all engulfed in the swirl of Impeachment Palooza out of Washington, D.C., but we are just over a month away from hundreds of municipal elections all across Georgia this November. Georgia's more than 500 cities elect their mayors, council members, school board district seats and other local offices in the odd-numbered years, with terms staggered so that not all offices are up in the same election cycle.As a school boy, we brought home mid-term Progress Reports each quarter, these reports graded your progress and school work as Satisfactory (S), Needs Improvement (N) or Unsatisfactory (U). Any U's at our house made for a very loooooongggg night. I now use a similar grading process, to track and follow the performance of our local elected officials. My home DeKalb County contains 13 municipalities, including our capital city of Atlanta, with hundreds of elected officials, so this sometimes requires a spread sheet.
  • The Atlanta Beltline will begin construction later this month on the installation of lighting and security camera upgrades along a two-mile stretch of the Eastside Trail, from Monroe Drive to Irwin Street. The project is expected to take six months to complete and will cost $1.3 million. Funding for the project will be provided by the Georgia Department of Transportation, city T-SPLOST revenue and private contributions. Trail users can expect construction crews to occupy portions of the trail surface and shoulder as they work their way down the corridor, weekdays from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a public meeting Oct. 24 that will include discussion of Eastside trail lighting, interim improvements to Bill Kennedy Way and Eastside Trail construction updates. In other Beltline news, the Atlanta City Council will vote Monday to authorize the city to accept a $17.5 million donation from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership for enhancements and improvements at the Westside Reservoir Park. The $17.5 million came from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and is the largest one-time, private donation in the Beltline Partnership’s history. The money will be used to add a vehicle entrance, parking lot, and trail connection to the Grove Park neighborhood, as well as utility infrastructure for restrooms. Drainage and irrigation will also be improved. “This is a truly monumental project that will kick-start new development, connect communities and allow us to create a healthier and more sustainable future,” said councilman Dustin Hillis, whose district includes the park.
  • For four years, movie mogul Tyler Perry has taken on a role that few people outside the gates of his sprawling Fort McPherson studio have seen. He’s still the prolific actor, writer, director and producer of films and television series such as the “Madea” franchise and “The Haves and the Have Nots.” But inside the gates, Perry has become a real estate developer — the mastermind behind a 330-acre filming complex where everything from office cubicles to the historic homes on Fort McPherson’s former Officer’s Row is camera-ready. On Saturday, Perry will unveil the new Tyler Perry Studios at a black-tie gala he said will celebrate not only his studio, but the Hollywood figures like Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington who inspired him. It’s also, he said, a celebration of what the film industry in Georgia can be. The $250 million studio is the only major film studio in the nation owned by an African American. It’s a crowning achievement for a once-struggling playwright who, more than 20 years ago, had been kicked out of his apartment and was living out of his car. “All I can equate it to is having a kid and you hope everyone thinks my baby is beautiful,” Perry, 50, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In a wide-ranging interview, Perry discussed the future of the studio and Georgia’s film industry, as well as threats to that industry — such as religious liberty legislation — he said could derail Hollywood’s growth in Georgia. Quietly and quickly, since he bought 330 acres at Fort McPherson in 2015, Perry said he has built 12 massive sound stages for other Hollywood studios to rent. There’s a replica of the White House for his upcoming presidential television series, “The Oval.” Need a set for a hospital, jail, an airliner or an airport terminal, trailer park or a suburban subdivision? Perry’s built it. His studio also bought a vintage diner in rural Georgia, put it on wheels and relocated it to Fort Mac. A half-mile, six-lane freeway for car chases, and backlots resembling a major city and Europe streetscapes, are next. Even Perry’s expansive office in a former U.S. Army Reserve headquarters, now called the Dream Building, which doubled as an apartment in his film “Acrimony,” is ready to be a film set at a moment’s notice. Perry said he plans to open his studio for tours for school children by next summer. He’s also planning an up to 3,000-seat theater for concerts and other events. Frustrated by a lack of development outside his complex, Perry said he also plans restaurants and retail on the grounds of his studios, which he said he wants to become a weekend destination for tourists and the community. He’s also discussed a center to help victims of human trafficking on his land. All of it could be built, he said, in 36 months. Beyond the lights, cameras and stages, the location of the studios holds enormous personal significance for Perry. The post was founded in 1885 and named for Maj. Gen. James McPherson, the highest-ranking Union officer killed in the Civil War. But during the Civil War, the land was used by Confederate soldiers as a training ground in a war fought over the enslavement of black people. At a BET awards ceremony this year, Perry got emotional recounting the history of Fort McPherson. “It’s incredible for this place to have this history and for me to own it. It’s really powerful,” Perry told the AJC. “I hope this is an inspiration for everybody else.” Perry saw potential in Fort Mac Perry’s studios started in a small building on Hoke Street, and later took over what is now Krog Street Market before he bought a former church property near Greenbriar Mall. In a few years, he’d outgrown the Greenbriar site. Perry bought land in Douglas County for his home and a studio, and in 2014, he said he informed then-Mayor Kasim Reed he was leaving Atlanta. Reed pitched Perry on Fort McPherson, which closed in 2011, taking with it thousands of jobs. “I come out here and even though the grass was 15 feet tall and overrun (with) snakes and wildlife, I still saw all the major potential,” he said. In June 2015, the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, also known as Fort Mac LRA, bought Fort Mac and sold 330 acres to Perry for $30 million, leaving about 145 acres to be developed later. It didn’t come without controversy. Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who represented the area, said Reed gave Perry a sweetheart deal, selling the land for far less than what it was worth. Since, the studio site has become an engine of gentrification, Fort said. “This was the sweetest of sweet deals for Tyler Perry,” Fort said. Perry said he’s been disappointed to see little happen with the still-undeveloped land on the other side of the fence. In 2017, Fort Mac LRA named a master developer, Stephen Macauley, to lead redevelopment to include about 2,500 residences, retail, restaurants, a performing arts center and office space. Negotiations turned sour this year and appeared to be scuttled. But the authority and Macauley continue to negotiate and a pivotal meeting on the future of Fort Mac is set for Oct. 17. Perry said the city approached him about buying the rest of Fort Mac for $30 million when talks with Macauley appeared to be falling apart. But talks didn’t go far. Perry wanted to buy the former Forces Command building as part of any deal, but Fort Mac LRA was already under contract to sell it for a future U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab. In August, the authority sold the command building for the future FDA lab, a move Perry and Bottoms criticized as detrimental to future development of the remaining land. ‘I’m not going anywhere’ Many in Georgia’s film industry point to Perry as an emblem of the state’s industry. Unlike other studio operators who solely rent sound stages, Perry has one side of his company that leases space to other filmmakers, but the core of his business creates intellectual property he controls. “Tyler Perry could base his empire anywhere in the world,” Bottoms said. “The fact that he has chosen Atlanta to build his studios speaks to the extraordinary possibilities seen in our city.” Georgia can still be a place that develops homegrown talent like him, Perry said, but he warned about renewed talks of “religious liberty” and other socially contentious legislation such as the state’s ban on most abortions, which is being challenged in court. Perry said with all he’s invested, “I’m not going anywhere.” But investors who have built other studio complexes and who are dependent on Hollywood films will be hurt. So, too, will be the thousands of Georgia film workers who would see opportunities dry up, Perry said. “You literally would take an axe to the root of all their possibilities and what their growth could be,” Perry said.
  • DeKalb County has not done enough to stop repeated sewer spills that allow human waste to contaminate streams and rivers, a new lawsuit alleges. The South River Watershed Alliance wants a judge to designate DeKalb in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and force the county to pay civil penalties and take immediate action to prevent spills. The Alliance is a non-profit conservation organization focused on ensuring the health of the South River and Chattahoochee River watersheds. Both the alliance and its board president, Jacqueline “Jackie” Echols, are named as a plaintiff.  The county said Friday afternoon that it had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit. In a statement, the county said that it has been working to increase transparency while reducing the number of sewer spills in DeKalb. The county says it plans to spend $105 million during the 2019-2020 fiscal year on sewer system repairs. The lawsuit filed Tuesday notes that there have been more than 800 spills both small and large since July 2014. It provides 25 addresses where major spills have happened more than once.  The county’s statement said those numbers don’t tell the whole story. “DeKalb County annually processes, treats and releases 12 billion gallons of clean water into the South River through two wastewater treatment plants, Snapfinger and Pole Bridge,” the statement said. “At the end of the third quarter of 2018, major sewer spills were down 42 percent from 2017 and the county ended the year with an overall reduction in major spill volume.” DeKalb’s aging sewer system often gets overwhelmed during heavy rainfalls, leading to overflows that allow wastewater to enter the stormwater system. Other spills are caused by blockages due to improper items being flushed or fats, oils and greases from homes and restaurants being poured down drains. The lawsuit accuses DeKalb of failing to implement technology that could prevent spills. It also places some of the blame on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for not enforcing the Consent Degree negotiated in 2011.  That document lists a series of fixes that DeKalb said it would make over a 10-year period and outlines financial penalties if the county has additional sewer spills. Those penalties have not been enforced and the EPA and EPD have not prosecuted DeKalb for its failures over the years, the lawsuit says. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who was elected in 2016, said in April that the county was making strides under the Consent Decree but likely would not meet some targets by the 2020 deadline. In its statement, the county said that it has tried to work with the Watershed Alliance to address its concerns. “The County has engaged directly with SRWA for the betterment of the South River, including, most recently, the County funding and supporting South River clean-up activities and contributing over $500,000 to acquire a trash trap requested by SRWA,” the statement said. Read more | DeKalb CEO: County will miss 2020 sewer fix deadline
  • Two similar and still-unsolved murders and a third case where the primary suspect disappeared will be featured in two true-crime cable series. “The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes” is a new show that will air on the Oxygen network. Holes is a retired investigator whose claim-to-fame is solving the Golden State Killer case in 2018. Now, he will use that same DNA technology in hopes of discovering clues in other cold cases. Holes’ Oxygen network show premieres next month. His team has schedule an episode for 2020 that will feature two of DeKalb unsolved murders that are often mentioned together because of their similar characteristics. Tamekia Taylor, 27, was found dead in her Lithonia home in December 2002. Jennifer Clemmings, 32, was  killed a month later in nearby Stone Mountain. Both were well educated women found stabbed to death in their homes.  Police have not said whether they believe the cases are related, but there are few leads. Despite cash rewards, no suspects were identified in either homicide. The third DeKalb case that will be featured on a different show is less a death investigation and more of a missing person case. Police already think they know who killed Shirley Merritt in February: her son Richard Merritt. >> Georgia cases featured on true-crime shows Merritt was an attorney facing a 15-year prison sentence on fraud charges, but he vanished on the day he was to turn himself in. When police went to his mother’s home looking for him, they found her stabbed to death. Richard Merritt had been living there while on bond; he was granted extra time to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. Now, John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted” fame wants to highlight the case on his new show called “In Pursuit with John Walsh.” That show airs on the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel. DeKalb County police officials told county commissioners that the TV exposure will give the department a chance to showcase the work of its investigators while possibly shaking out new leads. Commissioners have signed off on allowing Holes’ show to film county employees and on county property, and the other approval is expected on Tuesday. Related Stories: Rewards offered in deaths of 2 east DeKalb women Where is the disbarred lawyer accused of killing his mom?
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs put on leave an Atlanta-based administrator and reassigned the region’s chief medical officer and seven other staff members while it investigates the treatment of a veteran under its care. Joel Marrable’s daughter discovered more than 100 ant bites on her father when she visited him in early September. The daughter, Laquna Ross, told Channel 2 Action News: “His room had ants, the ceiling, the walls, the beds. They were everywhere. The staff member says to me, ‘When we walked in here, we thought Mr. Marrable was dead. We thought he wasn’t even alive, because the ants were all over him.’” Marrable, who served in the Air Force, was staying at the Eagle’s Nest Community Living Center on the Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s campus in DeKalb County. He died from cancer shortly after the incident. Sen. Johnny Isakson got involved upon hearing the report. The VA posted a statement Tuesday outlining actions it was taking, but did not name the staffers involved. It said that the regional network director, listed on its website as Leslie Wiggins, is on immediate leave. The region’s chief medical officer, listed on the website as Dr. Arjay K. Dhawan, has been assigned to administrative duties pending a review of the quality and safety of care issues in the network. Seven staff members have been reassigned to non-patient care positions while the VA investigates. “What happened at Eagles’ Nest was unacceptable, and we want to ensure that veterans and families know we are determined to restore their trust in the facility,” said VHA Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone. Wiggins was assigned in 2013 to manage the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur after the deaths of three veterans linked to widespread mismanagement in the hospital’s mental health unit. The then-secretary of the VA endorsed the work Wiggins did a year after her appointment, and she was later elevated to the regional director. Problems remained as the Atlanta hospital received the department’s worst reviews, one star out of five, about a year ago. A call to Wiggins’ office was not immediately returned.
  • DeKalb County’s chief executive officer has called for a review of actions taken after power outages  caused disruptions at a water treatment plant over the weekend. The study will focus on evaluating the backup power system at the Scott Candler Water Treatment Plant in Dunwoody, where a loss of water pressure caused by the outage led to a countywide boil water advisory. “I am committed to making sure our infrastructure is protected and maintained in a manner that will ensure quality service to the citizens of DeKalb County,” CEO Michael Thurmond said in a news release. Heavy thunderstorms caused the power outages at Scott Candler late Friday and early Saturday morning. Although backup generators kicked in within minutes, water pressure briefly dipped below recommended levels. DeKalb began telling residents around 10 a.m. Saturday that they should boil water prior to consumption. The boil water advisory was lifted for everywhere but Dunwoody on Sunday night. Read more | Boil water advisory affects Dunwoody for a third day Dunwoody’s boil water advisory wasn’t cancelled until Monday afternoon, so restaurants and schools were forced to make adjustments for most of the day. Some residents questioned why it took the county nearly 12 hours after the initial power outage to issue a boil water advisory. Others have asked whether the backup power at Scott Candler is outdated. The news release said the review will include analysis of Department of Watershed Management protocols and the county’s procedures and training around power outages at its facilities. A final report will be shared with members of the DeKalb County commission and the public, although no timeline has been outlined. 
  • A big-name Democrat throws his hat into the ring in one of two U.S. Senate races in Georgia next year. Former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff announced Tuesday he will challenge Republican U.S. Senator David Perdue in 2020. Ossoff became well known in metro Atlanta after nearly winning what was the most expensive U.S. House race in history in 2017. Ossoff narrowly lost a special election runoff in Georgia's 6th district to Republican Karen Handel, but Ossoff says he gained valuable experience in the process. 'What I learned is that I will not be intimidated,' Ossoff told MSNBC while announcing his candidacy. Ossoff joins three other Democrats who are challenging Perdue: Business executive Sarah Riggs Amico, who was last year’s runner-up for lieutenant governor; Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.  The 32-year old Ossoff may stand the best chance in a head-to-head race against Perdue, according to WSB political analyst Bill Crane. 'He would be one of those names that should cause some concern among the Republicans,' Crane said. Ossoff already has the endorsement of Georgia congressman John Lewis. Even if Ossoff wins the Democratic nomination, he would still face many challenges. While Ossoff is well-known in metro Atlanta, 'That won't be the case when you're in the Macon, Columbus, Augusta, Savannah, Athens, etc. media markets,' Crane said. Crane believes Ossoff may also struggle to find votes in rural Georgia. 'His political leanings are well to the left of what most of the state outside of the metro markets will be,' Crane said. Georgia will be in the unique position next year of having two U.S. Senate races. In addition to Perdue's seat, there will also be a special election to fill the remainder of the term of outgoing Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down due to health reasons. Asked why he wants to challenge Perdue rather than run for Isakson's seat, Ossoff told the Atlanta Journal Constitution because Perdue 'is one of the least effective and most out-of-touch members of the U.S. Senate.'  Democrats are targeting Georgia with two Senate seats up for grabs next year. 'The Democratic senatorial commission, and the DNC, really wants to pick off one if not both of those seats,' Crane said. Republicans currently hold a 53-47 advantage in the U.S. Senate. Democrats hope to regain the majority in 2020, and Georgia will play a key role in determining which party will be in power.
  • A state lawmaker wants a judge to invalidate an agreement between the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and a Cobb County plant that emits a carcinogenic gas.  The agreement, known as a consent order, requires the company to enhance emission control equipment at the facility. Georgia Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) filed a legal challenge to the agreement on Friday in Fulton Superior Court. The challenge alleges Georgia EPD violated state law by not publicizing and accepting public comment on the Aug. 7 agreement with Sterigenics, a company that uses the toxic gas ethylene oxide to sterilize single-use medical devices in a facility near Smyrna. Jordan is joined in the legal challenge by two Cobb residents who live close to the plant. VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue One of the petitioners has been diagnosed with cancer, and the other lost her husband to the disease, according to the filing. “They have all more likely than not breathed and continue to breathe that known carcinogen … and/or they or family members have already suffered grievous injury as the result of cancer which they believe to have been caused by [ethylene oxide] released by Sterigenics,” the filing says. “Had the Petitioners’ legal right to provide comment not been interfered with by Georgia EPD’s failure to follow the law, they and others would have vocally contested various aspects of the Consent Order.” A Sterigenics spokesman declined to comment on the filing. Company officials have appeared at town hall meetings in Cobb County and have consistently maintained that the plant’s operations do not pose risk to the surrounding community. EPD officials declined to comment on pending litigation, as did the Attorney General’s Office. But the EPD said last month that the consent order allows Sterigenics to install pollution control equipment right away while the state reviews a new permit application. “EPD takes very seriously its mission to protect the health and safety of all Georgians and believes that this consent order and permit are the best next steps,” the EPD spokesperson said at the time. The filing calls the state’s agreement with Sterigenics “startling” because it allows the company to continue operations that “pump carcinogenic [ethylene oxide] into the Petitioners’ neighborhoods, shopping centers, playgrounds, sports fields, and schools while EPD and Sterigenics were still trying to figure out how bad the issue really is and how to fix it (something that is still not known).” A footnote in the filing references a consent order Sterigenics entered with the state of Illinois – an agreement that requires continuous air monitoring around Sterigenics’ plant in Willowbrook and sets “stringent” ethylene oxide emission limits, “none of which are required by or even addressed in the Georgia” consent order, the court filing says. “If petitioners had been allowed to be heard, what the Georgia EPD and Sterigenics would have agreed to might have looked very different,” the filing says. Some residents and officials, including Jordan, have been calling for Gov. Brian Kemp to shut down the plant. The legal challenge comes the same week independent air testing began around the Cobb facility. The monitoring is being carried out by a private environmental consultant at a cost of about $130,000, which will be split between Smyrna, Cobb County and the city of Atlanta. The EPD has said it plans to do start its own testing in the next few weeks. Disclosure: one of the residents named in the petition is an employee of the AJC’s parent company, Cox Enterprises.
  • Medical sterilization plants in Covington and Madison suffered inadvertent leaks of ethylene oxide years before concerns about emissions of the toxic gas raised alarms by federal regulators, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. The leaks at plants now owned by Becton Dickinson in Covington in 2016 and a separate facility in Madison in 2006 were reported to state regulators at the time they occurred. The state Environmental Protection Division took no punitive action in either instance, a state EPD spokesman said, because the facilities took “appropriate action” to correct the mishaps. The operations of sterilizers that use ethylene oxide have come under greater scrutiny since an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report released last year came to light that warned of the risk for potential health concerns from long-term exposure to the gas. That report, known as the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, warned of the potential for higher cancer risk in census tracts near the BD plant in Newton County and a Sterigenics sterilization facility in Cobb County. In a statement, BD said it “is proud of the safety and compliance records for our sterilization facilities in Covington and Madison.” The company noted that the two reported leaks are the only ones that either facility has suffered since 2000. “There were no injuries as a result of either event,” the statement said. “If an event occurs, we immediately take corrective actions and report it to the proper regulatory authorities.” Local TV station 11Alive first reported the leaks. According to records obtained by the AJC, the Covington plant suffered a leak of up to 85 pounds of ethylene oxide in January 2016. The leak was caused by the failure of a gasket. The company replaced the faulty gasket and other connections within the system were also inspected, a state report said. In a statement, BD said safety equipment detected the leak when it happened, “and the sterilization process was stopped immediately.” “There were no evacuations needed because no employees were present in the manifold room at the time of the release,” the statement said. In the 2006 incident in Madison, a leak occurred during equipment testing before the then-new plant opened for operations. The test was conducted on Sept. 29 of that year, but the release of ethylene oxide was not discovered until 11 days later. A spokeswoman for the company said the leak lasted six minutes. According to a 2006 letter to state regulators from C.R. Bard, the company that owned the plant at the time, the Madison leak was blamed on “operator error” while testing sterilization equipment. At the time, the company said “no more than 30 pounds” of the gas was released. A statement from BD last week said the amount of the release was at most 26 pounds. BD said changes to the facility’s testing protocol “permanently corrected” the matter. BD said its emissions are well below its permitted amount. Recently, BD also has pledged to spend $8 million to improve emissions controls in Covington and Madison. In an email, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the agency decided against taking enforcement action against C.R. Bard, BD’s predecessor company, for either of the two leaks. Under state law, EPD engages in “conference, conciliation, or persuasion” with companies it regulates to return facilities to compliance, Chambers said. “In these matters, EPD determined that the facilities had taken appropriate action and had returned to compliance,” he said. “If EPD had not been satisfied with the company’s response, the agency would have taken additional enforcement actions, to include monetary penalties or other corrective action.” In recent weeks, Sterigenics has come under scrutiny for safety concerns at its plant. An April 2018 leak resulted in a warning letter from the state for failing to promptly notify regulators. State regulators also visited the plant last month after the AJC reported about a leak in July and an explosion a year earlier that injured a worker. In a statement, Sterigenics previously told the AJC the company “is focused on the safety of its employees and its communities as it sterilizes vital medical products and devices.” Sterigenics has said both leaks were below reporting thresholds and that the company is in compliance with state and federal emissions standards. Sterigenics recently entered a consent order with the state EPD to enhance its emissions controls.