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DeRito and Mitchell likely won’t debate

This post was supposed to be an event announcement. Unfortunately I get to write about what’s not going to happen. Alpharetta likely will not see a debate in its only contested Council race.

Mitchell BRAThe debate club at Alpharetta High School invited Donald Mitchell and challenger Doug DeRito to debate on Wednesday October 30th. The club has experience running these sorts of things, most recently hosting mayoral candidates in 2011. I’m told that DeRito accepted but Mitchell did not.

Other groups have also attempted to organize a debate to no avail. It’s disappointing the candidates couldn’t come together.

The result is that candidates will not be put on record for their views on key issues. And there are some biggies facing Alpharetta in the coming years. For example, the proposed convention center, residential density in downtown, and adherence to the comprehensive land use plan and its limits on apartments.

It also means that Mitchell won’t have to answer questions on his Big Rich Atlanta appearance in a public forum.

DeRito’s campaign hasn’t mentioned the reality TV controversy until very recently in an endorsement letter. A former Mitchell supporter wrote the letter and called out the Councilmen for his antics on the show. It was mailed out by the campaign and appeared in the Alpharetta Patch.

I believe it was a mistake on DeRito’s part to wait this long on the reality show issue. Nevertheless Mitchell was ready, blasting the tactic as negative campaigning on his Facebook page.

I disagree. Many have not seen the full episode where Mitchell appears drunk and belligerent. He calls women bitches and whores (excuse the language, it’s not mine).

Is it appropriate for a sitting Councilman to appear on television like this? Does it reflect poorly upon the city? These are questions Donald Mitchell should answer in a public forum during this campaign. And it’s not gonna happen.

Slow start to Alpharetta campaigns

The September 30 campaign finance disclosures have been filed by both of Alpharetta’s fall candidates. The results are a bit of a snoozer, especially for this armchair campaign follower.

Incumbent Donald Mitchell raised a little more money in recent months and currently sits on approximately $15,000 in his warchest. Earlier this year he seeded his campaign with $20,000 of his own money, half of which came in the form of a loan. He’s since repaid that loan to himself.

Contributions from downtown interest continue to trickle into Mitchell’s coffers. Thus far he’s received checks from the folks behind children’s boutique Alex n Sis, cigar shop Tinder Box and Larry Attig.

Mitchell also collected a small contribution from Penn Hodge, Alpharetta’s king of strip malls. Mitchell campaign signs are being deployed at properties managed by Hodge’s firm. It’s an interesting endorsement.

Hodge seems to have a new-found interest in downtown Alpharetta. He was appointed to a small committee tasked with bringing a college to the old Milton High School campus. His firm also has a new real estate project in the historic district. It makes good business sense for him to financially support Mitchell at this time.

So here at Roots we’ll be keeping an eye on the cozy relationships being forged downtown. It’ll make for good blog fodder someday.

Challenger Doug DeRito has yet to raise outside funds as of September 30th. He’s kicked in $3,000 of his own money but that’s it. Don’t count him out though. DeRito’s done this a time or two.

Neither candidate has paid a consultant at this time. Expect these relationships to be revealed in the last campaign filing due just before the election.

Apartments, apartments, apartments

They’re back! The proposed Deerfield Parkway apartment complex in Milton has resurfaced. If you’ll remember back about a year ago the city narrowly rejected a request from Crescent Resources to build a new complex on Deerfield Parkway. The developer sued Milton arguing that the city was violating the Georgia Fair Housing Act by rejecting affordable housing.

View Crescent Resources apartments in a larger map

Since that time Milton created a form-based zoning code in the Deerfield area. The judge hearing the lawsuit remanded the case back to Milton so that the developer could reapply for the zoning under the new rules.

This case will be interesting to watch. The argument was made in court that the developer wanted to build lower-end apartments. Will Crescent make this pitch to Milton, or will they come with a high-end product? We talked about this double standard last year. It’s all starting to play out now.

And back in Alpharetta… Tonight that city’s Council will consider creating something akin to a neighborhood watch program for apartment complexes. Traditional programs like this don’t work in apartments so law enforcement has to get a little creative. It’s a good program though. But remember, apartment opponents are unreasonable when they say apartments invite crime, right?

And while not technically apartments (yet), there’s another interesting nugget on Council’s agenda tonight. Council will begin discussing developer qualifications for the City Center project. This is for the four sections that will be privately developed.

Up until this point, the city has never mentioned the word “residential” with regard to their City Center project. They’ve tip toed around it but the word has not appeared in a single document or discussion – until now. I predicted the city would wait until after the election for this topic. With nearly everyone running unopposed, it’s now safe to have this conversation out loud in city hall. Bring on the high density residential!

And if condos over retail are still unfinanceable, then you can expect a developer to come with a plan for apartments in downtown. Remember, it’s all for the sake of having a “vibrant” downtown.

Doug DeRito vs Donald Mitchell

Doug DeRito ran a weak campaign for mayor. He hemmed and hawed about running, finally throwing his hat in pretty late. And as we all know, he finished third in a three way race.

But his 2011 run for mayor interrupted his third term on Council. This is an important detail as it paves the way for his campaign this year.

Alpharetta’s term limit rules restrict Councilmen from serving more than three consecutive terms in a single post. By running for mayor in 2011, DeRito reset the clock on his term limits. He’s free to run for his old job now, and could serve three more terms in the seat if voters will allow him. So perhaps rolling the dice for the Mayor’s job was a calculated strategy on his part, knowing he’d have a decent opportunity to fall back into the Post 1 seat.

Is this something Donald Mitchell might make a campaign issue out of? While DeRito isn’t violating the term limit rules, an argument could be made that he’s not following the spirit of the law.

Mitchell BRAA similar argument was made in 2010 when Jim Paine defeated John Monson for David Belle Isle’s vacant Council seat. Paine switched posts to skirt the term limit rules. Monson certainly made it a campaign issue then, but the voters didn’t seem to mind.

But this is just one of many issues that could surface in this campaign. Of course there’s Mitchell’s reality show appearance, a story you heard first on this blog. Or there is the controversy from 2010 involving DeRito, the Alpharetta CVB and the high school. This campaign could get nasty real quick.

But if discussion heads back toward the issues (and hopefully it will), things should trend DeRito’s way. He’s a policy wonk and loves the inner workings of municipal government. Mitchell is still getting his hands around the issues currently before Council. In a debate format, DeRito will eat Mitchell’s lunch.

But Mitchell is a terrific retail campaigner. He’s got a charming and friendly demeanor (his reality show character notwithstanding). If he knocks on enough doors this fall, Mitchell’s got a shot at this thing.

How do you think this campaign will play out? Will character be a driving issue? Or will issues separate the candidates?

Peach Pundit BBQ Tour comes to Alpharetta

What’s Peach Pundit? It’s just a blog. No it’s a an outstanding blog, perhaps Georgia’s premier political blog. I’m a regular reader and you should be too.

peach pundit logoWhat’s the BBQ Tour? It’s the blog’s road tour where they get out and meet readers. They pick a barbecue restaurant in each of Georgia’s Congressional districts to host an event. Monday it’s the 6th District’s turn. Alpharetta’s Smokejack BBQ has been picked for the location.

The event is fairly informal. Show up, grab a table and order your meal. The only confirmed speaker will be Congressman Tom Price. The rest of the time is reserved for informal chats among the participants. Expect a few campaigning politicians to be in attendance as we’re on the eve of municipal election season. Or you can introduce yourself to Peach Pundit’s all-star lineup of bloggers. It’s the kind of event I love. You can’t go wrong combining politics and barbecue!

Here’s the 411:

What: Peach Pundit BBQ Tour – 6th Congressional District
Where: Smokejack BBQ, Downtown Alpharetta
When: Monday August 19th, 6:30 – 8:00pm

More information can be found here.

Compromise reached on Rucker Road mosque

The City of Alpharetta and the Islamic Center of North Fulton have reached a compromise in their three year battle. This story was first reported by WSB-TV’s Mike Petchenik but thus far has not been covered by local media.

ICNF 2013 front elevationThe ICNF operates a small mosque on Rucker Road in Alpharetta. In the Spring of 2010 they petitioned the city to expand their facility. Local opposition was immense, overflowing public meetings. Neighbors claimed that ICNF broke a promise made years earlier to not expand. Alpharetta’s Council unanimously rejected the mosque’s request.

ICNF sued the city, going straight to federal district court. This court ruled in favor of the city in a summary judgement. The case was then appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Department of Justice took an interest in the case, as did the Jewish Anti-Defamation League who sided with the ICNF.

Arguments were heard in February and the two sides were sent to mediation this Spring. A compromise appears to have been reached from that mediation. The result comes in the form of a second request from the ICNF sent to Alpharetta’s Community Development Department. This proposal calls for a facility smaller than the one sought in 2010. It will measure in at 7,900 square feet (down from 15,000 square feet) and would contain their mosque and community hall. The buildings will feature brick construction rather than the more modern look of the 2010 plan.

Where do we go from here? Alpharetta’s Planning Commission will hold a rare executive session this week, presumably to discuss this matter. It will then be voted on by this group followed by City Council.

Will there again be local opposition? In his story Mike Petchenik interviewed a neighbor who seemed fine with the compromise. It’ll be interesting to see if others feel the same way. One would think that Alpharetta’s Council wouldn’t agree to this without a strong feeling that the community was behind it. Keep in mind that this case will hit the Council’s calendar at the same time election season begins. The last thing incumbent Councilmen want is a controversy to boil over at election time.

What’s this blogger’s take? I sided with the mosque back in 2010, something that put me in a huge minority here in Alpharetta. My personal feeling is that land use plans should bend over backwards to accommodate houses of worship. They’re vital to any community.

That being said, I’m excited to see both sides work together towards this compromise. It is a good plan that allows the mosque to serve their congregation while also minimizing impact to the surrounding area. I hope we can put this ugly controversy behind us.

MARTA’s Connect 400 survey is paltry, irresponsible

Today MARTA’s board will hear findings from the Connect 400 initiative. The study will present what they call the “Locally Preferred Alternative” for transit along the GA-400 corridor.

MARTA trainThe recommendation is for heavy rail. They want it built up the GA-400 right of way to Windward Parkway at an estimated capital cost of $2.6 billion.

I really wish I could be at the meeting today. No, I don’t want to speak out against heavy rail. I just want to see if these guys can make this suggestion and keep a straight face.

The study is making this recommendation after hearing from only 136 respondents. Somehow this miniscule sample size is enough to determine a local preference.

Let’s look at a few other recent public surveys to put this into perspective. Over 500 residents responded to the Highway 9 LCI study in Alpharetta and Milton. Approximately 400 responded to the survey for the Envision Main Street project.

Making changes to a few miles of Main Street is slightly less involved than bringing heavy rail to Windward. It’s probably on the magnitude of one one-thousandth the size actually. Yet Alpharetta managed to get more than double the number of respondents to their little study.

It’s laughable. MARTA representatives are willing to claim their have found the preference of north Fulton by talking to 136 people? Or was the decision preordained?

The study will hold only one additional public meeting before asking MARTA’s board for final approval. I’ll bet you a fist full of MARTA tokens that this meeting is scheduled during a weekday when typical working stiffs can’t come. Maybe it’ll be in the friendly confines of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. That’s where the only Connect 400 meeting in Alpharetta was held.

I’ve not seen an independent, scientific poll on heavy rail preferences in north Fulton. My guess is that support for the project would be pretty evenly split. It’s a polarizing issue. It’s also an important one. That’s why it’s irresponsible to present such a poorly executed study like Connect 400. MARTA’s board should reject the study and insist on a deeper and more exhaustive survey.

And regardless of your opinion of heavy rail in north Fulton, be sure to ask your local city and county officials what they think. Municipal elections are coming. Candidates squirm when asked about MARTA heavy rail. It’s fun to watch.

Rolling out the unwelcome mat in downtown Alpharetta?

Tonight Alpharetta’s Council will consider a small item that could create a bit of controversy. The proposal, forwarded from city staff, would place limits on some businesses in the historic district of downtown. The measure is likely to pit different downtown factions against one another. Pass the popcorn, this one might be interesting to watch.

Are some businesses not welcome in downtown Alpharetta?

The change would restrict a laundry list of uses in downtown including offices, schools, health clubs, grocery stores, service stations and more. The limits apply to businesses on the ground floor of buildings located within 25 feet of a sidewalk. Basically this means buildings along the west side of Main Street and both sides of Milton Avenue.

A few existing businesses already fall into this bucket and would be grandfathered in. However if they wanted to move to another part of downtown or expand then the limits would apply.

Expect support to come from the usual suspects in downtown, especially those business owners not affected by the change. They will claim that the limits will increase walk-ability and work towards creating a vibrant downtown.

Opposition is likely to come from property owners and their commercial real estate brokers. The change ties their hands and limits marketability of property. Also expect opposition from Rivers Academy, a private school on Main Street that qualifies for limits under these rules. Alpharetta hasn’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat for this school’s downtown presence. For a city that prides itself on quality schools, that’s disappointing.

Building campaign warchests in north Fulton

Mike Bodker’s been busy. No, it’s not the vague ethics charge taking up his time. The Johns Creek mayor has been raising some serious campaign cash for his re-election campaign this fall. Mr. Bodker’s already held fundraising events in the city and even hosted one at the Commerce Club in downtown Atlanta. He’s raised well over $50,000 as of June 30th.

Mr. Bodker’s one of only three candidates in all of north Fulton that’s even begun bringing in contributions. It’s an early attempt to build a warchest. Perhaps it’s a sign of vulnerability or just the realization that he’ll face a competitor. But in Bodker’s case, it circles around to that ethics charge. According to public filings his campaign has spent $2,600 with the Alpharetta lawfirm Briskin, Cross & Sanford. It’s unusual for a local candidate to spend this much with an attorney.

Sandy Springs mayoral candidate Rusty Paul has raised $63,000 since just April. He’s the hand-picked successor to Eva Galambos and has deep political and lobbying connections.

Roswell mayor Jere Wood and Joe Lockwood from Milton both face re-election this year. Neither has begun raising funds as of June 30.

To put Bodker and Paul’s campaign warchests into perspective, let’s compare them to Alpharetta’s bruising three-way mayor’s race in 2011. The three candidates spent a total of $80,000. As of June 2011, only David Belle Isle had begun raising money. Bodker and Paul are each on a pace to blow away those campaign numbers.

The young cities of Johns Creek and Sandy Springs have never witnessed strong campaign battles for mayor. That’ll likely change this year. And coverage of these campaigns will eclipse every other campaign in north Fulton this year.

Only one city council incumbent in north Fulton has raised money as of June 30 – Donald Mitchell. He’s kicked in $20,000 of his own money into his re-election campaign. A handful of contributions have also trickled in, mostly from downtown business owners. The $23,000 in cash he has on hand is more than double what he spent on his entire campaign in 2011.

Clearly Mitchell feels vulnerable this year after his antics on a reality television show this spring. Without that embarrassment he was probably a shoe-in for re-election. He’s very friendly guy and is terrific at retail campaigning.

Legal ads and local news reporting

Legal ads. They’re the mice-type blocks of legalese in local newspapers that most ignore. If you’re brave enough to read them you’ll find foreclosures, meeting notices, liquor licenses and bid invitations. Recently while perusing these I found a legal ad inviting newspapers to bid on providing legal ads. Crazy huh? Actually I found two of these. Both Roswell and Alpharetta are currently considering bids from newspapers to become each city’s legal organ.

A legal ad seeking bids for legal ads

Are legal ads still necessary or even relevant in this age of the internet? Municipalities are becoming much more transparent on their web pages and social media campaigns. Forsyth County and the city of Alpharetta in particular are very transparent online. I can get far more detail on what’s going on than I can with a legal ad in a weekly newspaper.

Nevertheless municipalities will spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on this slow and antiquated way to disseminate information to citizens. But don’t blame them. State law requires the selection of a legal organ. Alpharetta, Johns Creek and Milton all use the Appen Newspapers for their legal ads. Roswell currently uses the Neighbor Newspaper (owned by the Marietta Daily Journal). Forsyth County and Cumming used the Forsyth County News.

Legal ad contracts create a relationship between municipality and newspaper that isn’t directly disclosed to readers. Effectively the municipalities are customers of the newspapers. And even if a paper doesn’t have a legal ad contract with a city, in the future they might bid on the business.

It’s these same newspapers that report on the happenings at city hall or a candidate. And like any article a paper writes about a client, the story is almost always going to be positive. It would be extremely unwise for a newspaper to report negatively on a city, a city employee or politician when these same people decide who receives lucrative legal ad contracts.

Most stories that are critical of local governments are first reported by either bloggers or media from Atlanta (the AJC, WSBtv, etc). That should come as no surprise.

I’m not leveling criticism at any particular newspaper. I know several local journalists and think they do tremendous work bringing compelling news to their readers. But readers need to understand when there is a financial consideration happening behind the story.

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