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Political Headlines

    A Texas judge on Friday evening struck down the entire Affordable Care Act nationwide. If the ruling is upheld, it will impact far more than the half-million Georgians who have an insurance plan through the health care exchange. Georgians who’ve never touched the federal health care exchange, including those with employer-sponsored insurance, have coverage for pre-existing conditions that was mandated by the ACA, also known as Obamacare. They have insurance that covers prescriptions, mental health and other “essential” benefits because of the ACA. Parents can insure their children on their own plans until the age of 26 — because the ACA says so. Federal District Judge Reed O’Connor struck down all that. It’s an open question whether the ruling — which came the evening before Saturday’s deadline for Georgians to sign up for next year’s ACA plans — will survive appeals. But it sent emotions from fear and rage to confusion, relief and satisfaction pulsing through through the state. Josh Schiffer, a Midtown lawyer whose daughter has a pre-existing heart condition, is “absolutely terrified.” Dan McBrayer, who sells insurance in Carrollton to many people who can’t currently afford premiums even under the law, has mixed feelings but said, “I see the problems if we continue like we have.” State Attorney General Chris Carr, who joined Georgia to the multistate lawsuit, said, “What you’re seeing is state attorneys general holding the federal government accountable.” Carr said the suit was worth the risk. “We’re a nation of laws,” he told the AJC on Saturday after the Texas judge found the law unconstitutional. “It doesn’t have to have a massive impact on Georgians if Congress steps up” and agrees together to rewrite the law and reinstate the protections for patients. “Our job is to make sure it’s done legally and properly. The ends can’t justify the means.” The good and not-so-good The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor applies nationwide, but Democratic-led states planned to immediately appeal it, first to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. No matter the outcome, the Ambetter insurance company, one of four on the ACA exchange in Georgia, told its agents that it intended to try to keep offering its current plans. Blue Cross, also known as Anthem, did not have a statement. For the moment, the Trump administration appears willing to wait out the appeals, according to statements from White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and administration health official Seema Verma. That’s some comfort to Heidi Moore of Alpharetta, whose son Jacob just turned 18. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, just before the ACA took effect, and also has Down syndrome and related health issues. Her life revolves around health care. “The thing is that with the assurances in the ACA right now, Jacob can continue to be under our private insurance,” Moore said. “We have 15 specialty doctors for my son. The majority of specialty doctors in the adult world do not accept Medicaid. And that’s a fact.” The ruling endangers that, and “it puts the fear in me,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard for Jacob to do as well as he is right now. The last thing I want us to do is to not get the health care he needs to maintain that quality of life. It’s scary for a parent.” McBrayer, the insurance salesman, has seen his own customers like Moore, and he understands that the ACA has done a lot of good. But he said one can’t overlook the people it doesn’t help. He feels for the people who can’t afford premiums these days because they make just above the cutoff to qualify for a federal subsidy, say $49,000 and above for a single person. “There’s people that’s getting hurt right now,” McBrayer said. “I just don’t see how the law as it is is sustainable.” He understands that the way those people would get more affordable plans is for customers to be allowed to roll the dice again: Buy insurance that doesn’t cover things they might need. “I’m not sure exactly what I do want,” McBrayer said; he more adamantly opposed the law before he saw some people benefit from it over time. “I see, because of this law, the faults that we had before,” he added. “But we still have the (new) faults.” Incentive to act? O’Connor’s ruling accepted the reasoning of the lawsuit. It argued that since Congress zeroed out the tax penalty for not having insurance, the “individual mandate” for insurance wasn’t really a tax anymore. And since the law had been passed under Congress’ taxing authority, every piece of it had to go. Attorney General Carr dismissed fears of what striking down the law could do in Georgia. Although Congress has so far been unable to agree on a replacement for the ACA, crisis spurs them to act, he said. Before becoming attorney general, Carr served as an aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “I have yet to meet a Georgian or an American that doesn’t believe that pre-existing conditions should be covered,” Carr said. “So should choice. I should be able to keep my doctor if I want to. We need to drive down cost of health care, we need to increase competition. Those are the things that Congress can do when they go back to the table and pass the bill and do it the right way. And I’m sure that they will do that.” U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, agreed. “Quite honestly, I think (the ruling is) probably what it takes to get us to come up with an alternative to what has obviously been a failed experiment,” Carter said. “We need to start over and begin from scratch.” Political divide The backdrop could hardly be more divided, or more dramatic. For the past two years, GOP congressional leaders and President Donald Trump have waged a campaign to dismantle the health care law, a signature campaign promise. The state’s members of Congress voted strictly along party lines as congressional GOP leaders tried on multiple occasions to replace the 2010 law last year. The Georgia delegation voted along partisan lines on the tax bill when it came up for consideration a year ago this month. Not a single House Democrat voted for the legislation. In the House, Democratic leaders are now about to take control. And they vowed to take immediate action. “When House Democrats take the gavel, the House of Representatives will move swiftly to formally intervene in the appeals process to uphold the life-saving protections for people with pre-existing conditions and reject Republicans’ effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act,” said Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is expected to became speaker of the House when Democrats become the majority party in January. She was speaker when the ACA was passed in 2010. Pelosi’s party won back the House in part by vowing to protect pre-existing conditions, an argument embraced by winning Democratic candidates such as Lucy McBath in suburban congressional districts across the country. McBath edged out incumbent Karen Handel, R-Roswell. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, stressed the popularity of the law’s protections as a reason Democrats won back control of the House. “This 2018 campaign, which yielded Democrats 40 more seats, was premised upon in large part protecting and improving the protections of the Affordable Care Act, and I expect that’s what the House of Representatives under Democratic leadership is pass legislation to do just that,” he said. He called the decision “a fit of judicial activism.” Whatever the ruling’s fate, nothing was holding back the feelings it unleashed. “It baffles me, our moral compass,” said Moore. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump spoke for many others across the country and the state: “Wow, but not surprisingly, ObamaCare was just ruled UNCONSTITUTIONAL by a highly respected judge in Texas. Great news for America!”
  • Reaction in Georgia was swift to a ruling Friday night from a federal judge in Texas striking down the entire Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Chris Carr, Georgia’s attorney general, said the ruling was just what he and other Republican leaders had argued, when Carr in February added Georgia’s weight behind the lawsuit as one of 20 states challenging the law. “My colleagues and I argued that the ACA is a constitutionally flawed law, and this federal court ruling validates what we’ve been saying all along,” Carr said in a tweet late Friday night. In February, when Carr released his announcement supporting the suit, he said, “Our office has pushed back against this overt form of federal overreach from the beginning, and we will continue to work with other states to see that it is resolved in a way that protects the interests of our citizens.”  The court struck down more than just the “individual mandate” that every American must have health insurance. It said that the entire law is inseverable from the individual mandate, and so the whole thing is now unconstitutional. That has vast implications.  Following the ruling Friday night, the American Medical Association and Georgia patient advocates raised the alarm. The provisions struck down by the ruling include protections for insurance customers with pre-existing conditions; mandatory insuring of benefits like drug costs; and insurance for kids up to 26 years old on their parents’ policies. If all that goes away now as a result of the suit, Carr said Congress can take care of that. “Now, Congress has an opportunity to do things the right way and pass a healthcare law that Georgians and our nation truly deserve – one that increases choice, lowers costs and protects those with pre-existing conditions,” he added. Up to now Congress has been unable to agree on a replacement for the law. The ruling is at the lowest level of the federal courts, and is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. It will not go into effect immediately. Legally, its argument isn’t actually applicable until Jan. 1 when the individual mandate tax penalty becomes $0. After that, major changes like this one sometimes are postponed by courts until all their appeals are finished and the final decision is made.
  • The end of homecoming weekend was near for Spelman College graduate Teri Platt in late October, but she and some former classmates had one more task before they left the Atlanta campus. They put some cash in envelopes and slipped them underneath the dorm room doors of some students. Platt’s envelope contained $20. Platt, a 1997 graduate who teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University, gives money in other ways to Spelman. So, too, does her husband, a Morehouse College graduate. “It’s always a part of our (family’s) conversation,” Platt said of donating to Spelman and other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). From individual contributions by alumnae like Platt to celebrities like Beyonce giving scholarships to students and signing big checks, there’s an upsurge in support and donations to the nation’s HBCUs. Last fiscal year, Spelman raised a record $48 million in donations, more than triple the prior year’s total of $14.5 million, officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The college announced Thursday it received its largest single gift from living donors, trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband, William Johnston: $30 million. Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) told the AJC the number of million-dollar donations rose from one, between fiscal years 2011-14, to nine, between 2015-18. Morehouse College reported it raised about $3 million at its annual gala this year, surpassing the $1 million raised last year. Clark Atlanta University and Paine College each received its first million-dollar check this year. Private giving to the nation’s 101 accredited HBCUs increased about 21 percent in the two most recent years of available information, from $265.2 million to $320.6 million, according to federal data. The total, though, is a fraction of giving to all American colleges and universities, which totaled $43.6 billion in 2017, according to an annual study by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. HBCUs received an average of about $1,100 per student in 2016. By contrast, Emory University, Georgia’s largest private university, received an average of about $42,000 per student in gifts in 2017. HBCUs — with smaller enrollments, generally lower tuition and a greater percentage of low-income students who struggle to pay for college — have historically had smaller budgets and a critical need for donations. The funding challenge has become greater as many public HBCUs have seen steep declines in state funding in recent years as lawmakers were more cautious about spending after the Great Recession a decade ago. Several private HBCUs, such as Paine College in Georgia, have struggled financially amid enrollment declines. The AJC documented some of the challenges in a three-part series earlier this year on HBCUs. Georgia is home to nine accredited HBCUs, and many of its graduates — from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to Dr. Louis Sullivan — are major cogs in metro Atlanta’s political leadership and workforce. Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell said the increased financial support for HBCUs is critical as non-white Americans are projected to become the majority of the nation’s population by 2045. Most black doctors, lawyers and college professors are HBCU graduates, some research shows. “We are doing something in higher education that’s not being done elsewhere,” she said of educating black professionals. HBCU leaders, graduates and students say the increased philanthropic interest stems from a variety of factors. More donors are interested in supporting HBCUs amid national conversations about racially-charged issues such as deadly police encounters with African-Americans. Also, HBCU’s are getting better at fundraising, with many using social media and other methods to engage potential donors. Also, the troubles faced by some HBCUs have prompted responses by alumni and supporters to give, said Michael Thurmond, Paine College’s board chairman-elect. “It’s stimulated a response to supporters to engage and becoming more active,” said Thurmond, DeKalb County’s chief executive officer. Brian Bridges, the United Negro College Fund’s vice president of research and member engagement said: “People realize these are viable institutions. It has helped push HBCUs in a way they haven’t been pushed before.” And the attention from celebrity donors like Queen Bey hasn’t hurt. Beyonce, the music megastar, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a scholarship fund that this year supported students from several HBCUs, including Spelman and Morehouse colleges. In May, Kenya Barris, the television writer and producer of hit shows such as “Black-ish”, and his wife, Rainbow, an anesthesiologist, gave Clark Atlanta University its largest alumni gift ever: $1 million. The couple graduated from the university in 1996. Comedian and actor Kevin Hart surprised two Atlanta-bred students and seven out-of-staters at Georgia HBCUs in August with scholarships. “They highlight HBCUs on a global stage, and other folks start to think we need to consider these organizations,” Jessie Brooks, Spelman’s vice president of institutional advancement, said. Problem solved? Not entirely. HBCUs and organizations that support them say getting large checks from foundations and philanthropists is still difficult. Several hundred donors have given more than $100 million to various American colleges and universities. Not one of those schools, though, was an HBCU. Before the announcement last week of Spelman’s $30 million gift, Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, an Atlanta native, noted one of the the largest gifts to an HBCU was $20 million, also to Spelman, which came from Bill and Camille Cosby 30 years ago. He called the lack of mega-donors a “tragedy.” “Sadly, philanthropy continues to fund wealthy institutions that rarely serve black or Pell [grant] students,” Kimbrough wrote in November for the AJC’s GetSchooled Blog. John S. Wilson Jr., former president of Morehouse, noted many HBCUs got their start more than a century ago through the support of financial titans such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller families, but that changed. Spelman, for example, has two buildings with the name Rockefeller. “We have to convince more people (support for HBCUs) is not about correcting the past,” Wilson said. “It’s about creating the future, and when we do that, we’ll get the support we need.” Successful big-check hunting for HBCUs takes patience. In September, the Walton Family Foundation donated $5.4 million to Spelman and the Atlanta University Center to create an educational pipeline for art museum leadership to increase diversity in that field. Spelman spent about two years discussing the potential gift with foundation leaders, Campbell recalled. Spelman and several HBCUs in recent years have restructured their philanthropic teams and thought differently about how they raise money for their schools. Instead of holding a fundraising dinner each year at one of Atlanta’s big hotels, Morehouse School of Medicine now holds an annual event on campus where donors can see how their money is used, said Bennie Harris, its senior vice president of institutional advancement. This year, Harris said MSM raised $1.3 million through the event, nearly twice its 2017 haul. Harris said they emphasize to donors that their money is not going to the school, but to efforts that help current and future students. HBCUs, he said, must do a better job telling their story. “What we have to do is show the uniqueness about why they should give to our students,” Harris explained. Fund-raising officials are also addressing another challenge: getting alumni to give. Morehouse College reports its alumni giving rate was 17 percent, a number its president wants to double. MSM’s alumni giving rate was 10 percent in fiscal year 2007, Harris said. It was 22 percent in fiscal year 2017. At Spelman, administrators created focus groups to better understand how to engage students, which they hope will result in robust giving once they graduate. They also shared updates with donors about how money is spent. In one case, Campbell said, a donor gave $1 million after being told the results of his investment. Students are encouraged to give a gift of any kind in their senior year. The most recent senior-year student giving rate was about 80 percent, Brooks said. Platt said her giving dropped off a few years after graduation, and it bothered her. It improved as her career progressed. Platt said she finds other ways to give, such as paying a Spelman student to babysit or shopping in the campus bookstore. She currently gives about $150 a year to Spelman. “Still not a lot,” she said, “but I’m proud of it.”
  • Two years ago, student journalists with the Georgia News Lab asked the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office for the agency’s use of force policy, a public record readily available in every law enforcement agency’s operations manual. Cobb fulfilled the request — 54 days later. This year, News Lab repeated the exercise. Same request. Same policy. But Cobb sent the document the same day it received the request. The office took deliberate steps to improve following the poor performance cited in the News Lab story from 2016, according to Cmdr. Robert Quigley. “The sheriff made it very clear to the staff that we were going to do everything we could to meet the terms of open records (laws),” Quigley said. The public depends on the state’s sunshine laws to obtain information about the functioning of government and the performance of public officials. To test compliance with the law, in 2016 and again this year, the News Lab sent requests for routine public records to more than 140 local agencies and law enforcement offices in 13 metro counties. Law enforcement received a request for use of force policies, while governments received one for payroll records. The investigations found that nearly half of the agencies tested provided records faster than in 2016 — in some cases by weeks. But nearly a third of the agencies failed to meet the law’s requirement that they acknowledge a request within three business days and provide the records, or tell the requester when they will be available. The law requires agencies to promptly provide records that are readily available. News Lab journalists also encountered problems with how agencies responded to requests, from inappropriate demands for fees to staff who were unfamiliar with what the law requires. “This is definitely an indication about how much work there is to do,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “Cities and counties in Georgia have to do more about responding to requests from the public.” Atlanta adopts new procedures Georgia’s sunshine laws made news this year after the AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported that senior officials in the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed frustrated requests for public records, prompting the Georgia Office of Attorney General to open the first-ever criminal investigation into violations of the open records act. The administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms enacted new compliance measures in response to a separate civil compliant the news organizations filed with the attorney general, which accused the city of systematic violations of open records law. Atlanta’s response times improved dramatically in 2018 under the new Bottoms administration. In 2016, the Atlanta Police Department’s open records division took 50 business days to provide its use of force policy. This year, the department provided the document in six days — but not without difficulty. It first sent a link to a website where all the department’s policies are posted. After a reporter sought clarification, the department sent the document along with details of where it was on the website. The city’s response to a request for payroll records also improved. In 2016, the city took 54 days to provide the records. This year, the city provided the record in four days — but with one hiccup. Three business days after submitting the request, a reporter received a call from press secretary Michael Smith asking what the information would be used for. Carolyn Carlson, a retired communications professor from Kennesaw State University who trained public officials on complying with the state’s sunshine laws, said it is not appropriate for agencies to ask why requesters want records. “It is none of their business,” Carlson said. “If it is a public record, you have a right to it no matter why you want it.” Atlanta’s proposed procedure for handling records requests from the media and the public will remove the mayor’s press office from the process and place it under an independent transparency officer. Other agencies improve Many other agencies also provided records more quickly this year. In 2016, 17 agencies took more than 20 days to provide requested records or never produced them at all, compared to 13 agencies this year. The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office sent records after three days but sent them by postal mail rather than emailing electronic copies as requested. In 2016, it took the office 54 days. Stone Mountain police and the city’s government provided records within three days that took the two agencies 46 and 19 days to provide in 2016. In 2016, the Henry County Police Department sent its use of force policy in less than an hour and a half. This year, it provided the policy just 10 minutes after the request went out — the fastest response of either year. “We are a … believer in open records,” said Henry Police Capt. Joey Smith. “It’s just a law we try to abide.” More than a quarter of the agencies took longer to provide records this year. More than half of the agencies provided compliant responses both years. Problems remain Human error, technical failings and a poor understanding of what the open records law requires were often at the root of an agency’s failure to comply with the law in a timely manner. College Park police and the city government complied with requests in one day in 2016 but took 18 and 31 days respectively to do so this year. Reporters learned the city clerk, who handles requests for both the city and the police, left her position the day the requests were submitted and the new clerk said she did not receive the requests or follow up messages left with her predecessor. Austell originally provided a cost estimate of $120 for its payroll records, including $100 for “attorney fees.” The city clerk told a reporter the fee covered time the city attorney spent determining if the records could be released. When the reporter informed the clerk that state law  does not allow such charges, the clerk replied that she was “not aware” of that provision and lowered the fee to $20. Carlson said that many errors in handling requests are the result of a poor understanding of the law. “It shows a lack of training mostly, I would say, for the people who are in charge of the records,” she said. “They don’t understand (the law), or haven’t been trained well enough.” Technical problems were also an issue. Requests emailed to Fulton County and its sheriff’s office were entered into a new online system. When the system showed the request for payroll records was still “processing” after nearly two weeks, a reporter emailed the designated records officer. She received an automated reply saying the officer’s response times would be “rather delayed” because she would be “spreading Employee Engagement Cheer throughout Fulton County” during Fulton County Employee Appreciation Week. In response to a request emailed to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, a reporter received a response after six business days that the requested document was ready for downloading but she was unable to access the online system. She only gained access three weeks later, after calling the sheriff’s office records custodian who created an account for her. The East Point city clerk did not respond to records requests for more than a week. In response to follow up messages, the clerk’s office explained that the clerk had been on vacation and had not received the requests. The office sent the police department’s use of force policy a week later. For payroll records, the clerk’s office sought copying charges of $6.70. They indicated they would not accept personal checks and that prepayment was required. A reporter reminded them that the request was for electronic records and that the law does not require agencies to demand prepayment if estimated fees are less than $500. The clerk sent the records four days later without charge. She later wrote that the city changed its policy on Nov. 1, and no longer charges for electronic records. CASE STUDY: CITY OF SOUTH FULTON ‘Your request has been closed’ Metro Atlanta’s newest city canceled a request — without providing records. More than two weeks after the Georgia News Lab submitted a request for payroll records to the city of South Fulton, the records administrator provided a fee estimate of over $57. After a reporter reminded the administrator that she requested the records in electronic form, the administrator responded that the document was ready at a cost of $28.85 for one hour’s work. The reporter made multiple requests for clarification of the work involved in processing the requests and whether the records would be provided as an electronic spreadsheet, as requested. Without clarifying, the administrator eventually sent a message stating that the request would be “closed out” if the reporter did not sign a statement accepting the charges. A week later, the reporter received notification that “your request has been closed.” “That’s not the procedure they should be following,” said Carolyn Carlson, a retired Kennesaw State University communications professor and expert in government transparency. “To suddenly dismiss the request instead of answering your questions is not right.” — Jade Abdul-Malik
  • A government watchdog group asked Georgia’s inspector general to look into whether a group that did work for the State Charter Schools Commission violated state law by not reporting it paid for agency staffers to attend events across the country and offered them stipends. The filing by Common Cause Georgia on Tuesday was the second such action since The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the vendor gifts to employees at the commission in September. Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, called on commission officials to return payments they received from the vendor. “Georgia’s citizens need to know that state employees are not being personally paid by the very vendors they are charged with overseeing on behalf of the taxpayers,” Henderson said. “The citizens of Georgia should be able to have faith that their state government employees are not conflicted by receiving — or even being offered — side ‘consulting’ payments from state vendors, and vendors need to be held accountable for such inappropriate offers or payments and violations of important government transparency provisions,” Henderson said. The complaint says a Chicago nonprofit — the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — could wind up being prohibited from doing business with the state for a year and forced to repay what it received from the State Charter Schools Commission. “If these important transparency laws are to mean anything, appropriate actions must be taken in the face of blatant violations as have been uncovered here,” Henderson said. Corrie Leech, the communications director for the association, said her organization didn’t know about the reporting requirements and would comply in the future. The AJC reported in September that the association has been paid at least $264,000 since early 2015 to help review charter petitions and applications, for consulting services and other duties. The state commission has the power to approve or deny petitions for state charter schools and renew, not renew or terminate state charter school contracts. According to agency emails reviewed by the AJC, the association has offered to pay for Bonnie Holliday, the commission’s director, and other senior staffers to attend conferences and group events since at least 2015. The emails show Holliday and Gregg Stevens, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel, submitted reimbursements to the association to pay for travel at least four times in 2017 in amounts higher than the $250 that would trigger a requirement that the association file vendor gift disclosures. On the day a consulting contract was being finalized in June 2017, the association offered Stevens $1,000 as a “consulting stipend” and travel reimbursement to speak at a conference. Stevens turned down the payment. Records show the association offered Holliday a $1,000 “consulting/facilitating fee” in 2017 for a conference in Phoenix. She accepted the stipend. Under Georgia law, “No public officer other than a public officer elected state wide shall accept a monetary fee or honorarium in excess of $100 for a speaking engagement, participation in a seminar, discussion panel, or other activity which directly relates to the official duties of that public officer or the office of that public officer.” However, in a written response in September, Lauren Holcomb, the commission’s communications director, said Holliday was asked to lead a session at the conference, forcing her to develop content and an agenda, organize speakers and present information, among other duties. She said those duties were outside the scope of Holliday’s job with the state, for which she was paid $125,000 in fiscal 2017. Holcomb said Tuesday, “At the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia, we strive to adhere to the strongest ethical standards.” She said the staff travel and financial stipends provided by the nonprofit organization were vetted and approved by the agency’s legal counsel. “As with all requests,” Holcomb said, “we follow a strict approval process and only approve requests that fall within established state policies and procedures.” Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.
  • Jewel Johnson used to feel close to her south Fulton County neighbors. Over the three decades she’s lived in Loch Lomond Estates, she invited neighbors over for birthday lunches, tried to always say hello on the street and celebrated each year at the subdivision Christmas party. But those strong relationships frayed after she and a cohort of neighbors sued in 2016 to stop their neighborhood’s annexation into the city of Atlanta. As the court battle unfolded, Johnson said, people stopped waving and sometimes refused to answer the door when she knocked. She’s stopped attending the holiday party, and her relationship with a close friend became so strained, Johnson deleted the woman’s number from her phone. “I really felt like we had a real good community, ‘til the annexation came along,” said Johnson, 67. “I don’t know if it will ever get back. I pray it will.” Thus is life these days in Loch Lomond, a tree-lined suburban neighborhood of about 200 homes that was on the edge of Atlanta’s expansion when it was developed in the mid-1960s. Now, the neighborhood finds itself on the last fault line in the Fulton cityhood movement that over the past 13 years has reshaped the county’s politics and forged new community identities. It’s this struggle for identity that has pitted neighbor against neighbor in Loch Lomond. The community and its residents became collateral damage as the charge to incorporate areas across Fulton forced homeowners in the neighborhood, many of whom had lived together in harmony for decades, to suddenly take sides. In 2014, a group of residents in the subdivision started a petition to annex the unincorporated area of Fulton into the city of Atlanta, just one street over. The successful petition, after the majority of neighbors signed on to join the city in 2016, caused a backlash among residents who resisted becoming part of Atlanta. They sued on the grounds that the petition was not valid. In October, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed and upended the annexation, saying the neighborhood was improperly annexed into Atlanta. That decision effectively placed Loch Lomond in the new city of South Fulton and set off a new wave of hard feelings among neighbors who say a small, vocal group of residents is overwhelming the majority’s will. For Johnson, too much was at stake to sit on the sidelines. She had lived in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s, and still owns property in the city. But a series of events made her decide she didn’t want to be there any longer: She had one child, and was pregnant with twins, when the Atlanta child murders began in the late 1970s. When her children were young, Atlanta did little to respond to a drug dealer next door. And gentrification raised her property taxes, making it harder to afford her home, while services didn’t seem to improve. In 1989, she decided it was time to leave. Decades later, when Loch Lomond neighbors began seeking signatures for the annexation petition, she hadn’t changed her mind about the city. “Southwest Atlanta’s always on the back burner,” she said. “We get less from the city than anybody. …We can’t survive in Atlanta. Their interest is not in the little people like me.” ‘We have been unannexed’ In many ways, the neighborhood had one of its own atop city hall at the time of the annexation two years ago. Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed grew up in Loch Lomond, and lived there when he was a state representative. For resident William Shepherd, the idea of joining Atlanta had a lot of appeal. Shepherd, now in his 80s, is past president of the neighborhood homeowners’ association. And he’s so in favor of living in Atlanta that he refuses to believe the court decided otherwise. He said he didn’t “have any hard feelings” toward neighbors who pushed for the annexation to be overturned. But at the same time, he questioned their motives, saying they should have respected the wishes of the majority of residents, who wanted to be in the city. State law requires 60 percent of property owners and voters sign off on an annexation, though opponents questioned whether all the signatures were legitimate. “I felt like people manipulated the community,” he said of those who filed suit. “I’d rather have my own choice.” Shepherd moved to Loch Lomond 47 years ago during a period of sharp transition. As his and other black families moved in to what was originally considered a remote area of the county, many of the original white owners left the subdivision. For sale signs were common. The neighborhood, a bucolic setting with several lakes and homes on one-acre lots, attracted middle-class families who formed the basis of the community that is still in place today. Shepherd said he preferred to join Atlanta over South Fulton because he thought an established city would be a better fit for aging residents. The city of South Fulton is still building up its police department and making decisions about fundamental parts of its government. More than two years after the annexation was first finalized, in the summer of 2016, Shepherd thinks of himself as an Atlantan. “I’m not going to say we’re out of Atlanta,” he said. “I’m not accepting it as fact that we have been unannexed.” Other residents have been reluctant to share the depth of their feelings, not wanting to air neighborhood business in public. Some declined to discuss the annexation controversy on the record. Lorraine Walton, a longtime resident, said the fact that several residents want to be in South Fulton “has created a divide.” And Emmanuel Tillman, who lives in the neighborhood next to Loch Lomond, said he’s had to get off his local Nextdoor app because of the amount of “sniping” between neighbors about the annexation. Mary Harris, a 42-year resident who led the petition drive for annexation, said she still considers herself an Atlanta resident. She said those that want to stay in Atlanta aren’t giving up. But she doesn’t believe the legal dispute has changed the character of the friendly neighborhood. “No one has stopped talking,” she said. ‘It’s just an uncomfortable feeling’ Still, Atlanta annexation opponents say they have experienced a different reality. Some say the neighborhood isn’t as welcoming to them as it once was. They describe behavior that’s hurtful, including being ignored by some neighbors. Leroi Stanley, 45, grew up in Loch Lomond, later lived in Cobb County and moved back to the neighborhood several years ago to raise his children. He doesn’t want to be part of Atlanta and found advocates pushing the annexation to be overzealous in their efforts. He objected when one neighbor asked his mother for his father’s death certificate so they could get him off the voter rolls and make it easier to get to the 60 percent of signatures needed for annexation. He said that moved him to question the annexation efforts. Shortly after, Stanley said, he stopped getting invitations to community meetings, including this year’s Christmas party. “There’s been no more notices in my mailbox,” he said. “The neighborhood is definitely divided, and I would say rightfully so.” Stanley and his anti-Atlanta annexation neighbors said Reed and other city officials tried to persuade residents by making lofty promises as they tried to build support for the annexation. Neighbors saw his visits to the largely African-American neighborhood as an effort to get more voters into the city who would be inclined to support Keisha Lance Bottoms in what would become a close mayor’s race last year between her and Mary Norwood. Bottoms eventually won by fewer than 800 votes. Stanley didn’t like that his children’s education was disrupted by the annexation effort. They were moved from the Fulton County Schools to Atlanta Public Schools after the area was annexed. Still wary of the test cheating scandal, he doesn’t trust his children’s education to the city. He moved one child into Fulton schools after the court ruling, and plans to move the other two at summer break. Other residents expressed different reasons to distrust the city and its leadership. Evelyn Weaver, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 45 years, said she knew Reed as a child. But she didn’t like the mayor’s plan to displace two historic, black churches downtown to build Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Weaver, who was also involved in the lawsuit, said she grew up in Atlanta and didn’t want to go back. The tensions from the Loch Lomond annexation battle have been hard, she said. “It’s just an uncomfortable feeling,” she said. Raphael Ammons, one of those involved with the lawsuit, said people in the neighborhood used to go out of their way to help each other, but that’s changed since the court case. Ammons said he hopes time heals the divide, but said there’s “a lot of bad blood” between residents. “People are angry they’re not going to be in Atlanta,” he said. “Some people don’t even speak to you. It’s just animosity, it’s tension.” ‘They’ve been so ugly to me’ Fulton County’s cityhood movement began in force in 2005, when Sandy Springs residents voted to incorporate. Since then, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills also formed cities in north Fulton. But residents in south Fulton weren’t interested. In 2007, they rejected a cityhood referendum with 80 percent of the vote, preferring the unincorporated status quo. As annexations shrank the unincorporated area, cityhood proponents tried again. In 2016, residents approved a referendum to form the city of South Fulton, and they elected leaders the following year. South Fulton’s transition period to assume services from county was finalized this fall. Odie Donald, the South Fulton city manager, is hoping to bridge the divide between those who wanted to be in his city and those who preferred Atlanta. He is planning to hold community meetings to welcome Loch Lomond residents into South Fulton before the police, trash and other services transition to the new city in January. Donald said he hopes to win residents’ trust and he thinks they will get used to their new reality, and even come to enjoy being South Fulton city residents. “I believe they will end up very happy,” he said. “By law, we have to serve them and they have to be in the city. We’re going to make sure they have the highest level of service.” Michael Smith, an Atlanta spokesperson, said the city was disappointed in the court’s ruling in October, and in a subsequent decision last month to deny a request that the court reconsider. City officials and some Loch Lomond residents continue to explore options for other ways to stay in Atlanta, he said. As for Johnson, she hasn’t spoken at length to people on the pro-Atlanta side since well before the court ruling in October. Even though the episode has taken its toll, she’s happy with her decision to pursue the lawsuit. She hopes time will repair strained friendships, but she isn’t sure. “They’ve been so ugly to me,” she said. “I don’t know if this thing’s ever going to heal,” she added.
  • Some of Georgia’s top Republican elected officials, agricultural organizations and business development groups cheered the Trump administration’s move Tuesday to roll back a sweeping Obama-era clean water regulation aimed at protecting tributaries to navigable waterways. Georgia has helped lead opposition to the 2015 rule, known as Waters of the U.S., in federal court, arguing that it is overly strict and costly and hurt state sovereignty. And supporters of President Donald Trump framed Tuesday’s joint action by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a win for local farmers and ranchers, even as environmental groups raised safety concerns. “This is a great victory for our farming community over the very real threat of blatant federal overreach on private property,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said. “The new rule will finally give our landowners a clear and precise definition regarding what is regulated and what is not, ending years of uncertainty and confusion on where the Clean Water Act applies — and where it does not.” The administration is seeking to limit the federal government’s authority to regulate pollution from certain types of tributaries that feed into larger bodies of water, effectively gutting one of former President Barack Obama’s signature environmental regulations. Environmental groups warned that the proposal could have a harmful impact on the water pouring from the spigots of millions of Georgians while also having a detrimental effect on more than half the state's streams. Obama’s 2015 rule maintains that rivers used for drinking, recreation and fishing can only be clean if pollution from creeks and other bodies of water feeding into them — including ditches, wetlands and “ephemeral” streams that are created by rainfalls — is regulated. It cites authority from the Clean Water Act, which states it’s illegal to pollute waterways without a permit. The rule — which was never implemented after it was halted by a federal judge — prompted swift backlash from the agriculture industry, real estate developers, and oil and gas interests, who argued it was impractical, expensive and constituted an undue regulatory burden. Farmers, for example, said it would require them to seek federal permits for farming operations such as fertilizing near drainage ditches and building small structures near waterways. “This rule erodes our private property rights for our farmers and ranchers across this country. It regulates ditches and low-lying areas that don’t even come close to the definition of navigable waters,” Zippy Duvall, then the president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, said in November 2015. Duvall has since moved up to become the head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and he said Tuesday that Trump’s proposed rule was “rooted in common sense.” ‘Full-on assault’ Environmentalists warned that the Trump administration’s action could harm the tap water of up to 117 million Americans, including nearly 5 million Georgians. The group Environment Georgia estimated that nearly 40,000 miles of the state’s streams, or roughly 57 percent, could be adversely affected. “The rivers that make our state so special — the Chattahoochee, the Altamaha, the Savannah and more — rely on hundreds of small streams and wetlands. If you strip away protections for those clean water workhorses, you threaten Georgia’s most iconic and economically important resources,” said the group’s director, Jennette Gayer, who vowed to fight the action “every step of the way.” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, was one of only two Georgia congressmen who voted in favor of Obama’s proposal after GOP leaders moved to reject it. He described the Trump administration’s plans to scale it back as “just another hit from President Trump’s full-on assault on our environment.” “By reversing progressive steps forward in environmental safety, this administration is putting Americans’ health, the stability of our water treatment infrastructure and the beauty of our country at risk,” he said. Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator, said the Trump administration’s proposed actions would lead to cost savings for farmers and reduce barriers to business development by more clearly defining what’s covered under federal and state clean water laws. The new rules would be largely focused on bodies of water that are adjacent to navigable waterways or directly connected above ground. “Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals,” Wheeler said. Another vocal defender of Trump’s proposed plan was Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The former Georgia governor said he’s heard about the issue constantly while on the road meeting with farmers. Court fights Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who has quarterbacked the state’s legal push to kill Obama’s Waters of the U.S. rule along with other mostly Republican states, said Tuesday that he was reviewing Trump’s proposed replacement. “With Georgia having led a multi-state coalition fighting against the 2015 WOTUS Rule for nearly three years, we look forward to reviewing the newly proposed rule and hope that it returns to protecting the States’ traditional role as the primary regulators of land and water resources,” Carr said in an emailed statement, using an acronym for the clean water regulation. Still, Carr’s office said it would continue to fight Obama’s original 2015 rule in court to make sure there was no chance of the older, stricter version making it onto the books. A hearing on Georgia’s motion to block implementation of the 2015 rule is slated for Friday in a Brunswick federal courtroom. Georgia also sued the Obama administration over its carbon emission rules, which the Trump administration moved to kill earlier this year. The EPA and the corps will accept public comments on the new clean water proposal for 60 days. They could then revise the plan before finalizing it, likely sometime next year. Several environmental groups said they would likely sue to stop the action, which follows up on one of Trump’s top campaign pledges. “Big polluters could not have crafted a bigger free pass to dump if they wrote it themselves,” said Blan Holman, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “In the face of this serious threat, SELC and our partners will fight this dangerous proposal in court.” Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.
  • Georgia lawmakers are recommending that the state government pass laws next year to allow hemp farming and cannabis oil distribution. The proposals from two Republican-led committees would help provide medical marijuana to Georgia’s 6,000 registered patients and give farmers another crop to support themselves. Cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana products will likely be considered by the Georgia General Assembly during its 2019 legislative session, which begins next month. Georgia has allowed patients to use medical marijuana since 2015, but state law still prohibits buying, selling or transporting it. A House study committee voted unanimously last week to allow farming of hemp that could be processed into droplets, capsules and creams that are already widely available to the public in nutrition stores but imported to Georgia from other states. Cannabidiol — also called CBD — is legal in the United States if it contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. A separate proposal from a joint House and Senate study committee would set up regulations for growing and selling a more potent cannabis product, low THC oil, which could be used by patients suffering from severe seizures, intractable pain, deadly cancer and other ailments. Georgia’s medical marijuana law allows up to 5 percent THC, but it doesn’t provide any legal way to obtain it. Hemp growing in Georgia would allow the state to participate in an international market for cannabis oil, said Robert Lee, who started a Statham-based company called GaXtracts to manufacture industrial hemp into CBD product. Already, 41 states have some form of industrial hemp production under a federal pilot program. “This is a massive step,” Lee said. “Georgia is primed and in a good position to get this legislation in place and enable the industry to start growing.” Neither cannabis oil nor low THC medical marijuana gives users a high, but some state legislators remain concerned that expanding access to marijuana-related products could lead to recreational marijuana consumption. “Hemp is cannabis. Cannabis is marijuana. Marijuana is a drug,” state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a Republican from Douglas, told the House Study Committee on Industrial Hemp Production. “The most significant unintentional negative consequence in dealing with hemp is the likelihood of lessening or undervaluing what the drug of marijuana can or will do.” Congress is considering a farm bill that would legalize production of industrial hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC. The bill could receive a vote in Washington this week, and if signed into law, states such as Georgia could set up regulations for standards, testing and licensing fees. “It’s got the potential to be a big industry,” said state Rep. John Corbett, a Republican from Lake Park and the study committee’s chairman. “There might be years where hemp will give farmers an option to plant something that will generate income for them” besides corn, cotton, blueberries or soybeans. As for medical marijuana oil, Georgia’s program has expanded over the past three years, but patients need a way to legally obtain it, said state Rep. Micah Gravley, a Republican from Douglasville. “Even some of the traditional opponents of marijuana know this has been good for the patients,” said Gravley, a co-chairman of the Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access. “We haven’t seen the sky fall. We haven’t seen any negative side effects. We’re seeing people that benefit, in some cases by coming off opioids.” The commission is still deciding on details about how to ensure safe and controlled low THC oil distribution. Gravley said the group will likely make recommendations to the General Assembly before the end of the year. Legislators need to consider how many licenses to award, what agency will handle oversight and how to ensure hemp products comply with state laws, said state Sen. Matt Brass, a Republican from Newnan. “We have patients that this oil is working for,” said Brass, a co-chairman of the commission. “We’re tasked with trying to get that oil in their hands.” Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.
  • Gov.-elect Brian Kemp struck a different tone Tuesday in his first major speech since his narrow victory, outlining an agenda focusing on boosting rural Georgia and small businesses that avoided talk of divisive social legislation. The Republican aimed to distance himself from the attacks he unleashed during the campaign, urging the crowd of more than 100 legislators at the biennial training session in Athens that “it’s time to put politics behind us.” “It’s time to shed the labels and work together as Georgians. It’s time to stand up for our communities, our families and our Georgia values,” he said. “It’s time to protect the vulnerable. It’s time to do the right thing — even when no one is looking.” A small number of Democrats were eager to remind him of his cutting rhetoric during his campaign against Stacey Abrams by staging a boycott of his speech. But most Democrats attended the event, and several party leaders actively worked to avoid a larger walkout. In the speech, Kemp didn’t announce a departure from his stance on issues such as his vow to expand gun rights and pledge to sign a “religious liberty” measure. But he sought to take a more conciliatory approach to the lawmakers he’ll need to pass his agenda. He repeated previous campaign promises, such as an increase in teacher pay and a boost in rural hospital tax credits. And he outlined a new group, dubbed the Georgians First Committee, that will hash out ways to reduce regulations and boost small businesses. Kemp also emphasized his plan to leverage more state resources to “crush” violent gangs and his plans to create a database that will track people in the country illegally who commit crimes, both standards of his campaign stump speech. He followed that up by reinforcing his pledge for $90 million to improve school safety. “Our classrooms are for raising the next generation of Georgia leaders — not a hunting ground for school shooters,” he said. ‘Sick and tired’ This sort of shift is expected after a race decided by such a narrow margin. But it was no given — particularly because Kemp has sent mixed signals since his victory. During the 10 days that fell between the election and when Abrams abandoned her bid, Kemp’s campaign sent the same press releases attacking “radical” Democrats that it did before the vote. And after Abrams ended her bid, Kemp followed his victory by pledging to carry out his conservative campaign vows and stocking his transition team with well-known Republicans. But he also extended an olive branch to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — perhaps the state’s most prominent Democratic official — by walking to City Hall last week to try to defuse tensions that erupted between the two over the summer. For some Democrats, the softer tone from Kemp won’t be enough after he spent the past year railing against Abrams and her “radical backers” — and warned they wanted to take Georgia down a path toward socialism. Several Democratic lawmakers pledged to boycott the event, saying they wouldn’t forget his attacks and didn’t want to lend legitimacy to him by attending his first address. State Rep. Renitta Shannon invoked Kemp’s handling of elections and his selfie with an anti-Muslim extremist in her decision to boycott the Republican’s speech Tuesday at the legislative biennial conference. She said he ran a “campaign of hate” and that he can’t walk it back now. “I am sick and tired of conservatives across the country running hateful campaigns and then expecting everyone to go back to business as usual after campaign season,” said Shannon, a Decatur consultant. But the party’s leaders have not joined that call, and several prominent Democrats discouraged others from taking part at a heated closed-door caucus meeting. “If you’re not at the table, you might be on the menu,” said Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving legislator in Georgia. “There can be some disagreement, and I’m sure there will be. But you can’t express that disagreement unless you participate.” ‘Olive branch’ The tight outcome — Abrams was within about 16,000 votes of forcing a runoff — left many Democrats infuriated that Kemp refused to resign as secretary of state and give up his role overseeing the state’s voting until after the election. Abrams refused to concede and launched a new voting rights group that filed a sweeping lawsuit seeking an overhaul of Georgia’s elections process. Yet elected Democratic officials are in a bind, balancing their frustration with Kemp with the need to bring results for their constituents. The party flipped more than a dozen legislative seats this year, and many of the newcomers will be targeted in 2020. Even those in solidly Democratic territory expressed concern about sending the wrong signal. “You know, I fought real hard for Stacey Abrams. I was a big supporter of hers and still am,” said state Rep. Al Williams, D- Midway. “But I respect the office, and he’s going to be the governor the next four years. You don’t win all the time, and it’s time for the olive branch.” Kemp echoed that theme throughout his address, highlighting areas where he believed both parties can reach a consensus, such as increased education funding and reduced business regulation. “Campaigning is very tough. It’s very draining. It tests your faith some days, but it also tests your resolve. But governing is just as hard — or harder,” Kemp said. “And in the years ahead, there are times when we disagree. And that’s all right. But there are many more times when we agree, and we unite to lead this state.” Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.
  • A Fulton County judge has given the city of Atlanta and opponents of the massive Gulch project until next week to ready their arguments for why public bonds should or should not be issued to help fund the $5 billion development. Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney on Monday continued a hearing to “validate” bonds for the sprawling 40-acre site until Dec. 19. VIDEO: More on the Gulch Under Georgia law, a validation hearing is required before a governmental entity can issue bonds. It’s typically a routine matter in which a judge assures investors who would purchase the bonds that the debt issued by the government agency is legal and binding. But that routine step has become another potential battleground for Gulch opponents who allege in a court filing that the up to $1.9 billion public financing package is potentially illegal. Four members of the Redlight the Gulch Coalition, including former state Sen. Vincent Fort, have filed more than two dozen objections to the deal. MORE ON PROPOSED GULCH REDEVELOPMENT VIDEO: Atlanta mayor gets pushback over Gulch redevelopment FLASHBACK PHOTOS: Atlanta’s Gulch and viaducts PHOTOS: Meet your Atlanta City Council members Among their contentions is that 15 years of future school taxes have been improperly added to the financing package without necessary approvals of the Atlanta Public School board. They also argue that the Fulton County Commission must vote to approve the county’s participation in the project. Meanwhile, an APS employee whose child is a student in the district also is contesting the bond validation proceedings. Attorneys for the employee, Erica Long, did not disclose her objections and declined comment Monday. They told McBurney that they expect to file their arguments by Friday afternoon. Attorneys for the city and Gulch developer CIM Group declined comment after the hearing. In a statement, APS spokesman Ian Smith said the continuance “gives APS time to continue our discussions with the city.” While he wouldn’t comment further on those discussions, he said the district maintains “ reasonable hope for a resolution.” In November, Atlanta City Council approved the complex public financing package that would allow CIM to tap into future sales taxes and property taxes created within the Gulch development to help fund its construction. Under the deal, CIM could collect five cents of the local 8.9-cent sales tax generated within the project’s footprint through 2048 to pay for costly infrastructure. The second public funding stream would come from future property taxes created by the development within a zone known as the Westside Tax Allocation District or TAD. TADs are areas where property tax collections for cities, counties and schools are frozen for a period of time. Future increases in tax collections from rising property values as the area redevelops are used to help pay for development. In theory, after the TAD expires, the participating government bodies — such as school systems — reap the financial benefit of new, higher property values. The city, Fulton and APS are all parties to the Westside TAD and have agreed to forgo future property taxes to help spur development in neighborhoods west of downtown. The city has said that the three government entities have committed their property tax “increment,” or the amount above what’s been frozen, through 2038. But in a filing, Carranza Pryor, an attorney for the Redlight the Gulch Coalition, said the school system’s agreement to a Westside redevelopment plan called for the TAD to terminate at the end of 2023. APS, unlike the city and Fulton, never voted to extend the schools’ participation to 2038, a court filing states. Julian Bene, a leader of Redlight the Gulch, called the Gulch deal “a fraud.” “The entire Gulch TAD is invalid because it relied on 15 years of school tax increment that they’re not entitled to,” Bene said after the hearing. “But if we had not intervened today, then the city would have walked away with 15 years’ worth, about $310 million worth of school tax money.” Fulton, meanwhile, when it agreed to the 2038 extension required that the commission must approve the use of its tax dollars for any development commenced after Dec. 31 of this year, Bene said. That vote hasn’t happened. A Fulton spokeswoman said Chairman Robb Pitts does not think the county needs to approve its participation in the Gulch deal, but county officials were still working to confirm that interpretation. Smith, the APS spokesman, said he “cannot speak to the accuracy of other parties’ challenges as it relates to this matter,” and said the Redlight the Gulch Coalition does not speak for APS. The school board last week passed a resolution by a 7-2 vote requiring the board’s written approval before school taxes within the Westside TAD could be used for new development. That move triggered a furious response from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose office called the resolution “misguided and potentially unlawful.” In a more measured statement Monday, Bottoms’ office declined to comment on the arguments made by Gulch opponents. “However, we remain confident that the financing plan complies with state law and we intend to use the period between hearings as an opportunity to continue discussions with our partners at Atlanta Public Schools,” Bottoms’ spokesman Michael Smith said. Staff writers Vanessa McCray and Arielle Kass contributed to this report.

News

  • A 28-year-old man was found shot to death inside a car in northwest Atlanta. According to authorities, the body of the 28-year-old was found with multiple gun shot wounds at 6:45 p.m. on Hollywood Road NW. The investigation continues. TRENDING STORIES: Megachurch pastor defends $200K Lamborghini purchase for wife Officials search property of missing Colorado mom's fiance; reward up to $25K Atlanta police chief says Atlantic Station hindered murder investigation
  • Thieves in St. Louis may have reached a milestone -- stealing an entire house, albeit a tiny one, Saturday in St. Louis.  >> Read more trending news  “It’s just so surreal, because you hear about trailers and cars being stolen all the time,' Meghan Panu, who spent two years and nearly $20,000 building the tiny home, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She said the house was designed to be as efficient and sustainable as possible and was also built with some recycled materials. Panu planned to move into it over the summer. Panu is hoping nearby businesses have surveillance video that can help identify the suspects or that someone sees the domicile on-the-move.  'I’m just hoping that maybe (the) state patrol will flag it and pull it over,” Panu told the Post-Dispatch. “But in the meantime, it’s just been a waiting game.”
  • Letters to Santa hidden behind a chimney mantle for more than 100 years  were recently revealed during a town’s Christmas celebration.  >> Read more trending news  Two children, whose great-grandparents likely played with the letters’ authors, delivered them to Santa during the Beverly Old Fashioned Christmas. One of the letters, written Dec. 25, 1912, by Page Woodward, who was then 8 years old, sought gifts for her brother, sisters and parents before asking for something for herself, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported:  “Will you please bring these things. For Reginald, a air rifle, a Boy Scout book, a sweater and two magazines, Country Gentleman and Farm Journal. For Ruby, black ribbon and pair of stockings. For Mabel, two pair of stockings. For Mamma, a book. For Papa, a hat. For Teddy (her sister Henrietta’s nickname), a game, doll and a lot of candy and nuts. For my self, a doll, leggings and lots of candy and nuts.” The letters were discovered during renovations to the Beverly Heritage Center, a history museum built into one of the town’s historic buildings. It is believed they fell between the chimney wall and mantle 106 years ago. The letters offer insight into what life was like more than 100 years ago.  “Writings from children rarely survive,” Christopher Mielke, who created an exhibit to showcase the letters, said in a statement. “Letters to Santa are especially insightful because children genuinely believe that Santa will read their words himself -- values of honesty, generosity, and sharing are at the forefront.” The letters are on display at the history museum until the New Year.
  • It couldn't have gone much better for the Cardinals as they started Sunday's game in Atlanta by forcing two punts. In between, they drove 64 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead on David Johnson's 1-yard run. But everything went haywire from there. The Falcons (5-9) scored the game's next 40 points — 21 off Arizona turnovers — and the Cardinals (3-11) fell 40-14 to a team that had lost its previous five games. Arizona surrendered a season-high seven sacks behind an entire line of replacements. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen turned over the ball three times, and the Cardinals allowed 215 rushing yards to the only NFL team with fewer yards on the ground than they had. This was a miserable road trip to a gray, cold, rainy place, although at least the roof was closed in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 'I look at it like the Chargers game a few weeks ago, we started out real fast, put 10 points up, and then something bad happens and we're not able to weather the storm,' said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. '. . . It was just an avalanche after the start.' Moments after blunting Atlanta's second possession with a third-down sack by linebacker Haason Reddick, the Cardinals took over with good field position at their 43. On the second play, though, Rosen threw right toward Johnson, and Falcons end Vic Beasley Jr. batted the ball in the air. Linebacker Deion Jones picked it off and rambled 41 yards for a score. Just as the Cardinals went on to lose 45-10 to the Chargers, Arizona imploded again. The Cardinals' next possession ended when Bruce Irvin and De'Vondre Campbell sacked Rosen. On the next play, Falcons running back Tevin Coleman went around right end for 65 yards on the way to a career-best 145 rushing yards on just 11 carries. Atlanta entered the game ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing, averaging 82.1 yards per game, but 'defensively, we didn't do a great job of stopping the run . . . ' Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said. 'We've got to do a much better job, and like I said, all that starts with me.' Soon after a short field goal gave Atlanta a 10-7 lead, Rosen was sacked and stripped by tackle Grady Jarrett, and nickel cornerback Bryan Poole recovered at the Arizona 34. Maybe Atlanta's pressure didn't count as a surprise. Four of Arizona's starting offensive linemen are on injured reserve, and the team cut a right tackle several weeks ago. Plus, two key reserves are on the injured list. So the Cardinals rolled out rookies Korey Cunningham, Colby Gossett and Mason Cole at left tackle, guard and center, along with right guard Oday Aboushi and right tackle Joe Barksdale, who left with concussion symptoms. Was it any wonder Arizona rushed for just 60 yards on 22 carries? 'It has a lot to do with everybody, really: the timing, blocking, communicating and stuff like that, ' said Aboushi, who was signed on Oct. 23. 'A lot of it comes with shooting ourselves in the foot.' Not long after Rosen's fumble, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan scored on a 1-yard sneak for a 17-7 lead, and then another Arizona drive fizzled in part because Rosen was sacked by Poole, who was unblocked on a blitz when the quarterback forgot to check his left side. 'I took a couple of other sacks on myself when they were battling their butts off up front, and I've just got to play better,' Rosen said after completing 13 of 22 passes for 132 yards, including a 40-yard completion to Johnson on his second throw of the game. 'We've all got to play better, but I don't want anyone to look at those stats and think everything's on the O-line. In this game there were a couple where I was just a little mentally slow on things.' The Falcons went fast tempo after Rosen's second pick, which set up Ryan's 21-yard pinpoint pass down the left sideline to Julio Jones. He scored on a diving catch with Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson attached like Velcro. Not for the first time the Cardinals were undone by the second quarter, outscored 16-0 on this day and 137-34 on the season. At least the end is near. 'It's disturbing, frustrating, you hate it, but I try to find the silver lining in everything,' Fitzgerald said. 'It's the holiday season, my kids are healthy . . . I'm no different than anybody else; I'm frustrated at work, but there's a lot to be thankful for.' ___ More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL
  • A prisoner is suing the South Carolina Department of Corrections, contending the agency has violated his religious freedoms by refusing to allow him to smoke pot or wear dreadlocks. >> Read more trending news  Inmate James Rose, 41, filed the federal lawsuit last week, contending the agency has violated his constitutional rights by not providing him marijuana “as part of the Rastafarian religious practice,” according to The Associated Press. Rose also claims officials in the state prisons department held him down and shaved his head, cutting off his dreadlocks, after he asked for marijuana in April of 2017, the AP reported. He is arguing he should be allowed to grow dreadlocks to an “unlimited length” as part of his religion. Rose is seeking $1 million in damages and said in the filing, “The injuries I’ve sustained related to the events were migraine headaches, psychological trauma, mental anguish (depression), panic attacks and nightmares,” according to the AP. >> Trending: Pot makes older people smarter but impairs younger people, scientists say Rose was convicted of murder in 2013 and is serving a life sentence after his conviction in the killing of the son of a Lincolnville town council member.  
  • New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is wearing cleats in honor of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting victims during Sunday night’s game against the Steelers. >> Read more trending news  Edelman tweeted a photo of the cleats, along with the words 'In Remembrance' with all of the victims’ names. The cleats say, '#Strongerthanhate' and feature a Star of David and the Tree of Life logo on them. Edelman isn't the only Patriot to pay their respects to the victims. On Saturday, Patriots owner Robert Kraft flew to Pittsburgh to visit the Tree of Life Synagogue, according to NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala. On Oct. 27, Robert Bowers opened fire inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, killing 11 people.