Blackbox Special Report

Parking deck issue taught Alpharetta leaders: You can never be too open



ALPHARETTA, Ga. – It’s rare when Alpharetta’s new City Hall brims to capacity for a council meeting.

But last September more than 80 people filled the room to have their say about an issue they felt should have been more publicized.

City leaders had voted in August to build a new parking deck at the site of a popular pedestrian gathering spot on a parking lot along Old Roswell Street. Residents streamed to the microphone at the next meeting imploring city leaders to reconsider.

And they did.

The matter illustrates Alpharetta’s steps – and missteps – along the path to open government.

The lofty goals of “government transparency” is easy to proclaim but can be difficult in practice.

Even when government acts legally as it did in this case, citizens often demand more openness – a tap on the shoulder or a bullhorn alert when something big is about to happen.

Three days before the council vote Aug. 22, the city published an agenda online listing the parking deck item under “New Business.”

That agenda included detailed drawings of the Old Roswell Street site and a timeline for construction.

Should it have done more?

In light of public reaction, yes.

If residents saw the agenda beforehand, it did not spur them to attend the Aug. 22 meeting. Only Councilman Jason Binder spoke in opposition to the parking deck plan.

It was only after the 6-1 vote and subsequent news accounts in the Herald that the public got involved.

Resident Saga Terrell said at the time the council vote ran counter to the community’s wishes.

She was concerned about how the proposal made its way through to the council and was approved with the minimum amount of public notice.

Indeed, from the development of Avalon to downtown zoning, Alpharetta is noted for polling its public before deciding key issues. Workshops and public forums are held weeks before the City Council considers voting on major initiatives.

In the case of the parking deck, there were no such forums. City staff did discuss the plan with downtown merchants and property owners a week before the vote. But there were no information sessions advertised for the general public.

“We tackled this issue initially as more of a technical issue where we looked at cost and number of spaces – more of a data-driven approach,” said James Drinkard, assistant city administrator and public information officer for the city.

“We really didn’t anticipate a lot of blowback from putting a parking deck on a parking lot.”

City leaders found out differently.

“We try to anticipate what [the public] will have interest in, what they consider hot-buttons,” Drinkard said. “We really go to an effort to call those things out. We definitely got that guess wrong.”

In the wake of resident protest, the City Council withdrew the earlier vote and spent six months hosting public information sessions on the issue.

In February, a plan was approved that preserved the pedestrian gathering area on Old Roswell Street, satisfying most residents who had spoken out.

Mayor David Belle Isle used the occasion to highlight a lesson learned.

“Sometimes we make a decision and the public lets us know about it,” Belle Isle said. “I want to thank this council for leading by listening.”

Alpharetta residents have long made it a point to show up for City Council votes on key issues.

To ease that process, the city had $80,000 in audio-visual equipment installed when its new City Hall opened in 2015. For the first time, residents could follow government in real-time from home.

Drinkard said usually anywhere from 35-40 people go online to watch meetings live.

“I’m very happy with that,” he said. “Because you know what it takes to actually get 35 people to come and sit in that room? We can’t do that unless we make somebody mad.”

The city’s website also gets a lot of use, Drinkard said.

The city is especially proud of its financial transparency portal, which features an open checkbook tracking expenditures all the way back to 2013.

“Folks were really happy when we put it out there, but it really doesn’t get much use,” Drinkard said. “It seems to be one of those things that the public’s response is: ‘OK, great. We love that it’s out there, but, since you have it out there, you probably don’t have anything to hide. So we’re content.’”

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