Butler: Lockhart “stacked” previous city development boards

by Robin Kemp

UPDATE 8/7 10:26 AM: ADDS drinking water CCWA background, management company name, comment request; minor edits throughout; CORRECTS lack of public transportation; ADDS appointed boards’ functions

Officials with the City of Forest Park told Park at Fort Gillem residents during an August 4 town hall meeting that they are trying to improve conditions at the seven-decades-old housing complex also known as Holland Park. A contractor for the Urban Redevelopment Association said that the city has been meeting with an “action team every Friday since April.”

“I wanted to just convey the message that your concerns did not begin with this administration,” Mayor Angelyne Butler told residents gathered in council chambers, “but we are truly here to put an end to it. And so with that, I want you to truly understand how much we care and value your opinion.”

Other city officials present were City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper, City Attorney Mike Williams, Public Works Director Bobby Jinks, Nachae’ Jones from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and contractor Michael Hightower of The Collaborative Group. Joining by Zoom were Michael Monteleone of Oasis Consulting, complex manager Philip Kennon of Reliant Development Group, L.L.C., and attorney Emily Machesky-Preston, who represents the management company.

The Clayton Crescent asked Machesky-Preston for comment or for her client’s comment the night of the meeting via e-mail. No response was received by press time.

Butler said Monteleone “has had the environmental contract between the military installation and with the city for several, several, several years, so he’s very well-versed on what is taking place over there at the military installation and beyond.”

Butler said, “We want to make sure this is a holistic conversation, one that is amicable, and so that we can truly provide the residents with some sound answers.”

Listen to the second town hall meeting

What was tested? What was not?

Michael Monteleone, Oasis Consulting

Michael Monteleone of Oasis Consulting, which also has done testing for the Gillem Logistics Center, said during the second town hall meeting August 4 that his company tested five vacant apartments for lead paint, asbestos, and mold. Oasis also tested tap water for lead to find out whether there might have been any lead in the service lines that bring county water to the complex.

The plan had been to test ten vacant apartments, he said, but only five were vacant–Apartments 2B, 4B, 3A, 10C and 15A.

In short, the Forest Park URA had Oasis Consulting test for:

  • lead-based paint inside five vacant apartments (none found)
  • asbestos in gypsum drywall, joint compound, and floor tiles (found in the joint compound and floor tiles)
  • mold (found in one apartment, possibly from a leaky pipe)
  • lead in tap water (detected at 1 part per million, well below the maximum allowed by law, on the “second draw”)

What was not tested for were contaminants like trichloroethylene (TCE), pesticides, and other cancer-causing agents that the Army has known about for decades and which have traveled into some nearby neighborhoods like Joy Lake and parts of Conley north of the base.

Seeking definitive answers

Hours before the meeting Wednesday, The Clayton Crescent asks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah whether it, “any of its contractors or subcontractors, or any other entity of which you might be aware, has ever conducted soil, groundwater, surface water, or air quality (indoor or outdoor) tests on the former Wherry housing/Holland Park property.”

We also asked whether contamination from any of the sites had ever reached the property, its private sewer lift, or the now-closed Little League field to the north of the sewer lift, and what the Army has done over the years to keep any contamination from reaching Holland Park.

A Corps of Engineers spokesman said he would forward those questions to the appropriate departments.

That evening, some answers began to come forth.

Resident JoAnn Thomas pointed out that there was only a hurricane fence separating a retention pond in the area of FTG-02 from the complex. She wanted to know how that fence could keep any contamination from crossing over.

“I’m not understanding about what way the water flows towards Moreland, because of the way the grounds at Park at Fort Gillem sit,” Thomas said. “And even in the back, that’s only a fence, which has holes in it that’s separating. Through years, we should–I know we have been getting that water. It’s not all running to Joy Lake. And if at any way, can you possibly–I would love to meet with you. So you can possibly show me? Because right now, I’m not satisfied with that answer. Or if I can come to your office, and maybe you can talk to me. That’s fine. I would be more than happy to, Mr. Monteleone.”

FTG-02 is across the treeline just southwest of the apartments, and Joy Lake is west and southwest of FTG-02. To the north of the complex and the Little League baseball diamond, running through the woods adjoining Moreland Avenue, is Big Cotton Indian Creek.

A Google Maps topographical view of the Southeastern Burial Sites area shows Joy Lake, the Park at Fort Gillem, and nearby creeks.

Monteleone said that the slope of the land tends toward Joy Lake and that the Army had never tested the Holland Park property for groundwater or soil contamination.

“There’s reports that have been done by the Army,” he told Thomas. “And I can show you groundwater–I’m talking about groundwater flow maps, let’s be clear. So the groundwater flow is that water that’s below, you don’t see that, right? That’s beneath the earth, it’s like 40, 50, 60 feet deep, that groundwater. You might be talking about surface water flow, which could be possible. I have to look at the surface drainage maps and so forth. But groundwater itself, based on all the mapping and all the drilling that has been done by the Army–there’s been a lot of that–it’s definitely in a predominantly southern fashion flowing towards Joy Lake. Because Joy Lake acts as, effectively, as a receiving body for groundwater, effectively. That’s what’s happening, because that’s a lower spot and it just tends to, it does migrate that way. And there’s also a bit of a draw in that southern parcel as well, that you don’t see. And so those contours actually just flow in that direction. So the Army has done a ton of drilling historically. And I’d be happy to show you those reports, or show you the maps, or meet you there and go over that. You know, that’s up to the purview of the mayor, of course.”

Surface water is what flows along or collects on top of the ground, whether that’s water running down a hill or street, a creek or river, a puddle, a pond, or a lake.

A pipe drains off the old Fort Gillem onto the 4700 block of Moreland Avenue just north of railroad bridge near Big Cotton Indian Creek and The Park at Fort Gillem Apartments. Maps do not indicate whether this pipe is linked to any contaminated areas of the base. Several stakes can be seen sticking out of the ground to the right of the pipe. (Photo: Google Maps, February 2021)

Playing hard to get

Because the records to which Monteleone refers are public records, paid for with public funds, Thomas or anyone else is entitled to see them under the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Georgia Open Records Act. Any documents that a contractor like Oasis produces for a government client are public records (with certain exemptions).

The Clayton Crescent has counted 89 discs containing documents about contamination at Fort Gillem and surrounding areas and efforts to clean it up. According to library staff, the Forest Park Branch Library had no device capable of reading the discs available when we visited, The Clayton Crescent bought equipment in order to be able to ead the documents and to release them online later–which would take a lot of server space.

However, Monteleone revealed Wednesday that the information is already available online via an Army SharePoint account.

“All of these records that I’ve talked about, about the Army, all environmental records are kept at the City of Forest Park Public Library, ” he said. “You’ll find if you go there, you’ll find, if you ask the librarians, they’ll take you right to the Gillem section. There are binders, in paper, with all the data, environmental, they’ve [the Army] collected, since they started doing work there. In addition to that, more recently, they’ve gone into putting them onto CDs, compact discs of CDs. If you have a laptop or computer, you can bring that and look at the CD. I think the library has a computer available, I believe, where you can use the CD, as well. But because of COVID last year, the Army is hosting that administrative record on a SharePoint site via the web. So there’s actually another way to access all that data. So these two reports I just described are in that administrative record. And it took a little doing to find them but we were able to find them when working with the Army to resurrect them. They’re not very big reports. But the data was useful and it was very supplemental to what we were doing and it will be included as a part of our final report, we’ll reference that.is in the process of making them more accessible to the public.”

The Clayton Crescent has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah whether the SharePoint link is accessible to the public and, if so, what that web address is. We’ll update here with that link as soon as we get it.

Water flowing underground

In July, Butler told The Clayton Crescent, “Ground impact does not run below the housing. No groundwater impact was found by the Army under the housing.”

The city and the Corps have yet to state definitively whether there is any groundwater reservoir or underground stream running beneath Holland Park. If there is groundwater, and the Army itself never tested that groundwater in the first place, it would not have found any contamination.

But three questions arise:

  • Did any of the companies the Army hired to do testing find pollution encroaching on the property?
  • If they did, whether or not any pollution was detected, when was the last time someone checked to see whether it had spread?
  • Has the Army or any of its contractors run other tests for contamination on the property–for example, surface water soil, vapor intrusion, air quality?

A company contracted to test for toxic gases rising from contaminated groundwater made at least two stops on the property in 2014 but it’s not clear whether they took samples there or what the results of any samples might have shown.

Points where Atlas Geo-Sampling stopped while doing a vapor intrusion (VI) study in 2004. Two points are in the Holland Park property, with a third across from the Moreland Avenue entrance, and a fourth at the creek just north of the complex.

The Clayton Crescent asked the Corps of Engineers about three stops logged by Atlas Geo-Sampling, which was contracted to take samples for a 2014 vapor intrusion study. A map that tracked the sampling truck’s movements shows that at least two stops were made on the property, as well as one at the front entrance on Moreland Avenue, one at Big Cotton Indian Creek in the woods just north of the Little League field, and one next to the warehouse area at South First Street near Holland Avenue. Jim Fineis of Atlas Geo-Sampling told The Clayton Crescent the company collected samples wherever the Army told them to, but that each dot on the map represented a stop–not necessarily a sampling point. It’s not clear why a sampling truck would enter the apartment property and make two stops.

Lead: Inside paint, water OK; outside paint TBA

According to Monteleone, Oasis did XRF scans of the interior walls to look for lead paint and found none.

He also said that Oasis planned to return to the apartments to test the outside walls for any lead paint because the Army had found lead in the exterior paint in 2012.

“We’ve talked to the Army and the Corps of Engineers extensively,” Monteleone said. “Through a lot of good connections I’ve had, we’ve been able to actually get two reports that were done. That was test reports by the Army back in 2012. And they also checked for lead-based paint. And they checked the exterior and the interior. They as well did not find lead-based paint on the interior of the homes. They did find lead-based paint on the exterior of the buildings. That’s the reason why we’re going to go back, and the mayor’s commissioned us to do that, to see if we can confirm what the Army found.”

View of The Park at Fort Gillem Apartments from the MARTA stop on the southbound side of Moreland Ave., February 2021. Just across the ditch, children’s bikes lean against one of the buildings. (Google Maps)

He said that copies of the two Army test reports were available in the administrative record, which is what is on the 89 discs on file at the Forest Park Branch Library.

“I’m surmising, in talking to the Army, my guess is they were probably doing this in preparation for transfer,” Monteleone said. “As many of you know, transfer of Fort Gillem actually happened in June of 2014. So, my best guess is they were doing that in preparation for for transfer. So we actually have those imports. And they’re also in the administrative record, as well.”

He added, “The one thing I wanted to assure you all is that we’re we’ve got all this data, we’re getting more data, the mayor is taking great action, as the URA has. We have a report to prepare for them. That report’s not been prepared yet. So you’re kind of getting the first look on the data hot off the press.”

Oasis also tested the tap water for lead, although the Clayton County Water Authority provides drinking water to the apartments through the county’s water system.

“Our concern there was the potential for lead service lines coming from the meter to the apartments,” Monteleone explained. “We had a concern that that could be the case, based on the water sample data. We don’t believe that’s the case…. If you had lead pipes in the buildings or in the service lines, we would have found much higher lead levels than what we found.”

He explained how the testing was done: “We did draw, in accordance with procedure, we drew a tap water sample from one of the units. And I’m happy to report that the sample, based on the second draw, came in at 1 ppb, one part per billion. So it’s a very, very, very low amount of lead. And that actually is well below the national drinking water standard of 15 parts per billion.” In addition, he said, “we know that a recent sample that Clayton County does–they routinely check their water supply going out to the homes as well–their water sample yielded 1.2 [parts per billion]. So again, we feel like the tap water appears to be in good shape.”

CCWA, which periodically releases a simplified version its latest water testing results to the public, told The Clayton Crescent that the apartments have been on county drinking water for years. However, they say they do not service the sewer lift, which is privately owned.

Mold: 1 of 5 apartments tested

Of the five vacant apartments tested, Monteleone said Oasis found only one that “appeared” to have some mold forming, which he said was possibly due to a broken pipe.

“One of the units did show…some signs of water leakage, probably from a pipe or whatsoever, and there was some initial signs of potential mold growth bleeding through the paint,” Monteleone said. “And what that looks like is the mold, when it starts to be active, it actually looks more like a black, circular bullseye kind of thing to it. That’s what you will see if you’ve got active mold growth. So we didn’t see that in four of the five units. But we did see some potential in one of these.”

Asbestos: it’s there and don’t touch it

However, crews did find asbestos in the joint compound between sections of drywall, as well as in old floor tiles that had been carpeted over.

“Under the carpeting matting, what we found was that there were nine-by-nine floor tiles….So historically, nine- inch by nine-inch tiles would almost assuredly signify that these are made at a time when those tiles were made using asbestos products. So we took samples of that as well. And sure enough, all the floor tiles that we sampled in the units did contain asbestos.

On the plus side, Monteleone added, “But, we also noted in both cases, the general appearance of the homes and apartments were actually in very good shape. The apartments were were fine, the rugs were complete, they weren’t–they were all nailed down. And so basically, in the tile case that, you know, they were encapsulated with the rug. So that’s, that’s a, that’s a good thing, we would again, presume that. And we talked and interviewed one of the maintenance folks. And I think we are of the understanding that the nine-by-nine floor tiles will probably exist through most all of the complex units there.”

The Atlanta Army Depot–later named Fort Gillem–was one of several sites in Georgia where civilians and troops were exposed to asbestos, according to the website Mesothelioma.com. The problem was by no means unique to Fort Gillem, however. Nearly every military base in the country and many homes and offices built in the past century contain asbestos. Efforts to ban asbestos altogether have failed in Congress.

What is encapsulation?

Georgia Department of Natural Resources asbestos regulations define “encapsulation” as “to coat, bind, or resurface walls, ceilings, pipes or other structures with a sealant to prevent friable asbestos from becoming airborne.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines “encapsulation” as “The treatment of ACBM [asbestos-containing building materials] with material that surrounds or embeds asbestos fibers in an adhesive matrix to prevent the release of fibers, as the encapsulant creates a membrane over the surface (bridging encapsulant) or penetrates the material and binds its components together (penetrating encapsulant).”

Placing carpet over asbestos floor tiles, as was done at the Park at Fort Gillem, is a form of bridging encapsulation. And at a few dollars per square foot, it’s a lot cheaper than penetrating encapsulation.

By comparison, some common penetrating encapsulants include asbestos binding compound, which runs about $92.40 a gallon; airless spray encapsulant at about $50 per can; and interior and exterior lagging capsulant, which costs a little over $120 a gallon.

Encapsulating asbestos is not a do-it-yourself job. State and federal regulations require specialized training for handling asbestos-containing building materials because the microscopic fibers that fly into the air can lodge in people’s lungs and cause mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that takes 20 to 50 years to make itself known.

Kids and pets

Monteleone warned residents not to touch any damaged floor tiles. Instead, he said, they should call apartment management to deal with the problem.

“The asbestos tiles are in fact, encapsulated with rug,” Monteleone said. “So my advice there is, you know, if you’ve got a pet and they tear up the rug, and the floor tile gets exposed, you would want to stop, you know, obviously bring that up to the management firm, and talk with them, say, ‘Hey, the floor tile’s exposed,’ and they will send out the appropriate people that are appropriately trained to deal with that situation. The asbestos tile itself doesn’t become a problem until the fibers become airborne. So if you were to pick up a tile, break it, or if your pet were to scratch it up really, you know, rough, it could become airborne, put fiber into the air, then yeah, that would be a concern at that point. So right now it’s encapsulated under the rug, that’s fine.”

As for the joint compound on the walls, Monteleone said, “The wallboard, again, in and of itself is is fine, we didn’t find any asbestos there. The joint compound, we did which is in ventilated. seamed areas where it’s been used to patch over the nails and so forth. Again, it’s been painted over and as long as it’s not broken, meaning, you know, if you didn’t break into a seam or break into a joint where you’ve got compound where you could get this asbestos in the air. It’s again effectively encapsulated at that point. “

Monteleone warned residents not to touch any damage.

“If you did break the wall, let’s say I’ve had this happen with my own kids, they break a wall for some reason, a door slams and there’s a hole in the wall, whatever. Don’t take it upon yourself to repair that. What you do is you just leave that as is and call the folks in maintenance or the apartments and they will properly take care of that and deal with them appropriately.”

Trust but verify

Mayor Angelyne Butler asked for 42 residents to volunteer to let crews enter their apartments for testing. She asked them to sign papers on a clipboard that City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper had. (As of Thursday morning, Cooper said that no residents had volunteered to allow the indoor testing.)

“Now that you can’t find anything that was wrong, you want us to give you 42 apartments to go in?” asked Carolyn Harris, a 27-year resident of the area. “We didn’t trust you then and we don’t trust you now.”

Some residents expressed concerns that the city might try to run them out of the complex.

“Why should we trust him and you to come inside our homes to find something wrong when we know for a fact that you want the area?”

“But that’s not true,” Butler said.

Some blamed one or two residents for, in their opinion, stirring up trouble.

Butler said, “The environmental aspect of the community, people were coming to us.”

Two,” Harris replied.

“It could have been one, but we want to address those concerns,” Butler said.

Proposed upgrades

The community historically has been treated as everyone’s red-headed stepchild for decades. The Army cut off access through the base, isolating the community even further. A lack of nearby amenities and sidewalks hasn’t helped.

View of the former Little League diamond next to the Park at Fort Gillem, Feb. 2021. Standing water is visible in a pothole just beyond the fence on the southbound side of Moreland Ave. (Google Maps)

A Little League field next to the apartment was shut down. When the Army got tired of policing the complex, it cut off access to a road that let residents enter and exit through Fort Gillem. The Forest Park Recreation Center had told people in Holland Park they’d have to pay non-resident fees to use the facilities because the postal address was in Ellenwood–even though Forest Park’s police and fire departments had jurisdiction after the Army quit patrolling there.

But the community is a community, where people feel safe, look out for each other, and don’t worry about random gun violence. Many have lived there for decades and everyone knows each other.

The streets on the former base housing are notorious for their potholes. Jinks said that he had driven through several times in recent weeks and that the best thing to do would be to remove the existing pavement and start fresh.

Community doubts

At times, city leaders seemed frustrated that their efforts to improve conditions for the residents were not more well-received, while residents wanted to know whether they would be forced out of their homes and into a prohibitively expensive rental market.

Walter Edwards, who moved to the complex in 1978 after retiring from the Army, said he’s had no problems. “I didn’t know how long I was going to live here, but I knew it was a safe place,” he said. “And I live there. I have no problems getting maintenance. I have no problems with anything.”

However, he wanted to know, “Will you honor the lease up to 2025? That’s the first question. The next thing is, what are you planning on doing for us? Can we still live there? What I don’t want is a repeat of what I saw in Atlanta. They were getting rid of property, and they would say, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be mixed use. We’ll put you on Section 8, you go away, you come back and live in the same place. And then all these restrictions popped up. You have a felony from 27,000 years ago, or you went to jail for smoking some marijuana, ‘Oh, you can’t come in.’ Only three percent of the people came in. The biggest word that I hate, that I hear, is ‘density.’ And a lot of cities, they need revenue. But they’d rather put density, a 27,000-person apartment in, and get rid of that. And like I said, I’m quite happy where I am. Now I don’t know who you talked to, ’cause it’s probably in the apartment, and I have friends that live in all other areas around here, too. But when I have a problem, I call, and they [apartment management] get it fixed. So my question to you basically is, will we stay there until 2025?”

Butler replied, “So, there are conditions. Is that the right word I want to use?”

Turning to City Attorney Mike Williams, Butler said, “Well, you can chime in. But there are–on the contract–“

“Madame Mayor, let me just answer that,” Williams said. “At this point, there’s no intention on the part of the city or the URA to do anything.with that lease. Now the lease does have conditions in there and provisions in there regarding what could happen if there is a violation of the terms of the lease. It’s just like the lease that you have. But right now, there is no intention. The reason that we went through this whole exercise was to address the condition and make it better. Now I can assure you, and I’m a lawyer, nobody trusts a lawyer, I get it. But I can assure you based on all the discussions the staff has had, the mayor has had, the URA has had, the overriding concern is what to do to address any environmental issues and to make the conditions better. And that’s why we’re looking at proposals to put the park in. We’re looking at proposals to fix the road. We’re looking at proposals to make sure there are no environmental issues there. But to answer your bottom-line question, at present, there’s no plan to do anything with this prior to ’25.”

An open culvert just north of the Holland Park property between the former Fort Gillem and Moreland Avenue southbound. A stake with red tape (below) marked the spot in February 2021 (Photos: Google Maps)

A woman who did not identify herself near the end of the Zoom call said the entire community had a “trust issue” and asked whether they would get a complete copy of the 1953 lease between the apartment company and the Army.

Williams said he could provide copies at City Hall on Thursday. A copy of the lease, which was attached to a Secretary of State corporate filing, was uploaded to the city’s website.

The original lease was between the Conley Housing Corporation, which had built the complex, and the Department of the Army.

However, after the property changed hands a few times and as the contamination spread, the Army modified the lease around 1990 to absolve itself of any future responsibility for any ill effects from pollution coming from the base.

An open ditch runs past the Park at Fort Gillem Apartments on Moreland Avenue southbound. (Photo: Google Maps)

Lula Middlebrook asked, “What part does the mayor and council have in representing us?” She also questioned whether some residents who had complained about conditions at the apartments were just trying to stir up discontent, but added that if other problems were solved as a result, that was fine.

“If you find something, what are your plans for us?” Middlebook asked. “What are we going to do prior to 2025?”

Butler said the management company would be notified so that they could do something about it.

“We truly do not want to be in the residential business,” the mayor said.

Lawanda Folami, who has advocated for the community for years but is not a resident, said the action report sounded like a step in the right direction. She questioned why the city had not previously told residents who had made Open Records Requests about the Fort Gillem documents on file at the library.

As for changing seats on the URA and DDA boards, she added, “We don’t mind change, but can we be included?…These are nurses. These are professors. These are retired military sitting here. This not little Pookie.”

A slide from the second town hall meeting with Forest Park, Oasis Consulting, and apartment management shows a proposed recreation area for Park at Fort Gillem residents.

Lloyd asked what the timetable would be on the park area and whether it would be a public park or something the apartment management would handle.

Butler said it would go before the URA on September 2 for a vote. “I would love for you guys to be present on September 2nd–it will be right here–and chime in on your desires to see it happen. I will say that this board is very committed to the Park at Fort Gillem…and having you guys there to express your pleasure would (go a long way).”

Jinks suggested the residents think about any changes they want to see and to come back with those ideas before September.

“We just want to give you a park, a place to go sit down, a place to watch your kids play, a place to go after a hard day’s work,” he said. “I just want feedback to see what y’all want.”

Butler also mentioned the possibility of putting up a Little Free Library at the complex.

Entrance to The Park at Fort Gillem Apartments, originally known as Holland Park, February 2021. A private company built the complex in the 1950s, on land leased to it by the Army, at a time when World War Two veterans who couldn’t find affordable housing were building shacks next to bases all over the country. (Google Maps)

Thomas asked the landlord and city to “get with Clayton County” about the truck traffic blocking ingress and egress. “This is gonna cost somebody’s life.”

Jinks said that he had asked DOT and that they said the red light to the south is too close: “They would not put a red light there [at the complex entrance] because it’s a dead-end community.”

Drainage pipes to the right of the entrance to the Park at Fort Gillem Apartments. (Photo: Google Maps)

As far as trucks on the side of the road, the city could put no-parking signs, then residents could call the police. He also suggested that the county might be able to help.

Later in the meeting, a woman named Raven said, “Are they trying–are they gonna steal Park at Fort Gillem?That’s the only reason why I’m here. Because I’m from the city. So I know what happens when urban development comes in and they take over and they want the property. So that’s all I’m here to find out.”

Butler said, “When we heard from the residents, there was the initial concern about the property management company that we first heard about, we did not hear at the last town hall meeting at the end of June, I believe, June 30. But there still was that lingering question as to, was there any contaminants, any environmental concerns that needed to be addressed? So it’s not that the URA–it’s not that the city is trying to take the property.It is trying to address concern that we found out at the last meeting had been going on for a very long time. So I really want that to be clear, the city is not trying to take the property, the URA is not trying to take the property, we are simply attempting to address a concern.”


Butler: Previous mayor “stacked” development boards

Butler reiterated that her administration was not to blame for the longstanding problems surrounding Fort Gillem and the Holland Park apartments.

Former Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart

“The URA , the Urban Redevelopment Authority, is a board comprised of residents and business owners. So before assuming office, the previous mayor [David Lockhart] stacked a few boards. It was–we did accomplish some things with those members. But there are a lot that we did not. And as a result, we did remove those previous members. And I believe one of them is here with us today. And so we also had to, we resurrected the Downtown Development Authority. So by statute, state statute, the members that serve on the DDA can also serve as members of the URA. So I am the chair of both boards. And we do have one member here with us today, Ms. Nachae’ Jones.”

Lockhart’s administration closed the deal when Kroger bought the first 253-acre warehouse site on the former base.

The Clayton Crescent has asked Lockhart, who left the city after losing the mayor’s seat to Butler and now practices law in Walker County just south of the Tennessee border, for a response to her comment.

The city has three appointed boards: the URA, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and the Development Authority (DA). Each has a different jurisdiction, but all exist to upgrade blight and bring new businesses into the city. That gives the people on those boards, most of whom were not elected to do the job, a lot of power involving big-money public-private partnerships like Gillem Logistics Center.

Some of the board’s duties can overlap:

  • The URA’s job is “to revitalize and redevelop blighted areas within a city or county, as allowed by O.C.G.A 36-61-1. The City of Forest Park Urban Redevelopment Authority focuses on promoting the development of trade, commerce, industry, and employment opportunity at the Gillem Logistics Center.”
  • The DDA’s job is “to assist in the redevelopment and revitalization of the central business districts located in Forest Park as authorized by O.C.G.A 36-42-1.”
  • The DA exists “to promote the development of trade, commerce, industry, and employment opportunities in the City as authorized by O.C.G.A 36-62A-20.”

Butler moved to have the City Council transfer the old URA’s powers to the DDA in February 2020 after it refused to approve funding for a new police station for which no plans or drawings yet existed, and which was to have gone on land donated specifically to the fire department. The police station was added soon after Chief Nathaniel Clark was hired. Funding for the police station would have been attached to existing efforts to upgrade Starr Park and build a new fire station. Butler sent letters to each of the URA board members alleging they had committed “malfeasance” and fired them after a hearing at City Hall. The URA demanded Butler retract the letters. She did not.

The late Frank Brandon, who had been instrumental in the city’s efforts to buy Fort Gillem, and Trudy Smith, a Republican activist, were singled out for additional criticism–Brandon for not coming to City Hall to sign important papers (he said he had been too ill to do so) and Smith for allegedly using her spot on the board to work against the administration.

Brandon resigned, then tried to rescind his resignation, accusing Williams of having “tricked” him into resigning. Butler refused his request.

At the time, Smith had claimed that the mayor and council had themselves “packed” the DDA with “their yes people.” 

Clark became interim city manager a month before the URA Board was dissolved. Fire Chief Eddie Buckholts retired in June 2020. By November 2020, Clark was given a new title, Public Safety Director, with power over both the city’s police and fire/EMS services. According to the city’s website, Clark retains three titles: deputy city manager, public safety director, and police chief.

Soon after the old URA’s powers had been transferred to the DDA, a new URA was formed.

In April, the city council and the new URA approved a $41.1 million bond package that included not only a new police and fire station, but also a new City Hall.

The April 8 special called council meeting lasted about a minute and a half. The package passed 4-0. Councilwoman Latresa Wells was absent.

Hours later on April 9, the URA also voted 4-0 during a special called meeting to pass the bond package. Members Steve Bernard and Lois Wright were absent.

Members of the reformulated Urban Redevelopment Authority. Butler, Lawrence, Taylor, and Jones were the quorum that voted to pass a $41.1 million bond issue that included funding for a new City Hall and public safety complex. Bernard joined the call after the vote. Wright was not on the call. The URA members, along with Eric Stallings, also sit on the Downtown Development Authority that hired Michael Hightower to do PR for Gillem Logistics Center. Hightower is running the town hall meetings with Park at Fort Gillem residents. Stallings was not at that meeting.

Immediately following the URA meeting, the Downtown Development Authority voted, again in a special called meeting (over the recommendations of staff to award the contract to Leff andAssociates) to hire Hightower’s company, The Collaborative Firm, to do PR for the city’s efforts on Main Street and at Gillem Logistics Center.

City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper requested a separate campaign for Starr Park and the new City Hall.

Hightower then noted he was the only bidder present and gave a pitch for his company. Lawrence then said the board should give the contract to Hightower because he had been the only biddser to show up. However, other bidders, including Leff and Associates owner Marc Leff, told The Clayton Crescent that they also would have attended–had anyone notified them of the special called meeting. (Transparency note: Lawrence has donated to The Clayton Crescent; Leff, who has done crisis communications for the city, also has hosted Robin Kemp on his media show, “4 Questions Journalist Spotlight.”.)

Since then, the city has tasked Hightower with running the town hall meetings with residents of the Park at Fort Gillem.

Under both the Lockhart and Butler administrations, two members sat on all three boards at the same time: former elections superintendent Lois Wright and Eliot Lawrence.

Although Wright’s and Lawrence’s terms expired in March 2020, the City Council voted this week to replace them on both the DDA and URA with gym owner Katie Flynt and Nancy Howard of Teens 4 Justice.

Wright is still listed on the city’s website as chair of the Development Authority (DA), where Eliot also is a member. Felicia Davis has filled the DA vacancy listed below. Butler chairs the other two boards:


URA Board members listed on the city’s website as of August 6, 2021

DDA board members listed on the city’s website as of August 6, 2021

DA board members listed on the city’s website as of August 6, 2021

Michael Hightower, The Collaborative Group

During the town hall meeting, when Butler invited residents to apply for future board openings, Hightower said, “No conflict. Nobody’s gonna, nobody can say anything against this issue that, you know, multiple boards handling the same problem.”

Butler replied, “No.”

Hightower continued, “It makes it easy to push things through. If no one’s going to oppose you, since they sit on different boards for serving the same purpose under you.”

Butler pushed back.

“Each board has a different responsibility. And each member has a voice. And it’s a democracy. So the majority wins. There are things that are brought to boards in which the majority was not in favor of. So those items die,” she said.

“As long as we have transparency, we’ll trust you,” one resident stated near the end of the town hall meeting. He urged city leaders that, the next time someone complains about the complex, “just let the rest of us know.”

Folami encouraged the residents to be patient with the city.

“Give them a chance to show action,” she said.


Resources

EPA Quick Guide to Drinking Water Sample Collection: Show the kinds of bottles and caps used for different kinds of water testing, along with step-by-step directions for collecting and handling samples correctly.

Purple Air: Crowdsourced air quality map from sensors, similar to Weather Underground home weather stations. Each sensor costs about $250. No sensors appear south of I-20 as of press time.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade: Learn how Black and low-income communities in “Cancer Alley,” which stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, began monitoring the air around their own homes next to the area’s refineries and chemical plants, using a $75 device made from a plastic bucket.

Learn about surface water, groundwater, and aquifers from The National Geographic Society.


Catch up on all The Clayton Crescent’s coverage on the Fort Gillem contamination issue, which also contains useful resources like maps we made, links to descriptions of different chemicals and heavy metals and what conditions they can cause, and dates of significant events from 1979 to the present:


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