After nearly an hour of debate in which former committee member Lily Ponitz was allotted just over two minutes at the start to defend herself, the Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee (CSAC) voted to remove Ponitz via an unusual voting method with only Ponitz herself and Amy Taylor voting against removal.
Members Amy Taylor, Shuan Billingslea, and Nicole Morado all spoke in defense of Ponitz. (Note: members Billingslea and Morado are alternates and were not allowed to vote on the removal, but their support of Ponitz was noted on the committee record) Each began by stating members of their respective communities communicated through email a general demand for keeping Ponitz on the committee. Given that Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman, who serves CSAC as a “facilitator” and not a voting member, also stated he received “a slew of emails” on the subject, it is highly likely that similar volumes of emails supporting Ponitz were sent to all members of the committee. None of the committee members speaking for the removal of Ponitz mentioned the input of their communities as a factor in their voting choice.
The exact nature of the alleged crime Ponitz committed that merited her removal remains unclear. Trying to clarify this question, member Ophelia Lee summarized her understanding as “Lily made some comments during the time when we were all supposed to have been not speaking to the press, our neighbors, or no one until we were told it was time,” while Anne Phillips blamed Ponitz critical statements regarding the project as the cause for individuals being “violent” in their protest of the development of the training center, dubbed “Cop City” by those protesters.
Secretary Sharon Williams, who assumed that position after Ponitz stepped down earlier this year, described the problem as more to do with the “modality” of how Ponitz presented her critique, which “disparaged the work of the committee.” Williams continued on moments later, with the real truth behind the committee’s accusations of Ponitz, saying, “lastly, we are not here to discuss whether or not the police academy will be built.” There is no need for discussion on that subject by the committee because, as Williams’ statement implies, the CSAC simply exists as a facade for community input with neither the power nor desire to follow the will of the community and shut down the project.
The committee was a late development in the process of Atlanta City Council’s debate on the Public Safety Training Center project, presented on the day of the vote by then Council Member Natalyn Archibong as the final of three last minute proposals in response to the massive public campaign against Cop City. The CSAC motion was voted down in part because failure to abide by any CSAC provisions created by city council would place APF in “default” of the terms of the ground lease. Without such provisions, warned Archibong, any community oversight would be toothless.
“See without there being a default provision, [the committee] doesn’t have any real teeth, right?”Natalyn Archibong
While Archibong’s original amendment failed, City Council placed a provision for the creation of the CSAC in the preamble to the ground lease agreement “as a way to inform and obtain feedback from the community and other stakeholders.” Notably absent from the preamble or subsequent resolution from the City Council Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee authorizing the formation of the CSAC was any mention of either community oversight power or consequences for APF disregarding CSAC guidance. The legislation provided for a committee that was indeed, as forewarned by Archibong earlier that month, “without teeth”.
While most political bodies strive to push the limits of their power, it is remarkable that the CSAC is content to remain well within the bounds of meek suggestion makers. Such timid action would only be possible with a leader intent on keeping other committee members on track as pliant subordinates to the desires of the Atlanta Police Foundation. Thankfully for APF, they found such a leader in committee chair and avid proponent of forest destruction Alison Clark.
In January, Clark showed just how cozy she is with the police foundation by introducing a media ban for its membership. Introduced in response to Ponitz speaking with Saporta Report in December 2021 regarding, among other items, discrepancies between the site plan and environmental study, and approved at the time with a 10-2-3 vote, the ban stood on legally dubious grounds due to its restriction on free speech rights of its members. Clark promised that by-laws containing the media ban would be presented at the following meeting, however no such ban was included in the by-laws passed in the subsequent committee meeting.
Clark made other attempts to neuter the committee during the by-law creation process. In an email dated February 13 and obtained through a Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) request, Clark suggests adding the following language to the by-laws: “The Committee shall have no legal responsibilities and is formed to give advice and recommendations to… It cannot compel the board or staff to act on its recommendations or feedback.” While this language did not make it into the final by-laws, Clark continues to do her best to ensure the spirit of that limitation remains in effect within the committee.
The committee’s own members don’t seem to understand that the media ban never went into effect. In the most recent meeting, committee member Lee indicated her belief the ban was in effect saying, “[Ponitz] made some comments during the time we were not supposed to speak for the press.” Such self-limiting views of CSAC power serve Clark well in stifling any attempts at allowing the committee to pressure APF in any meaningful way.
“but when you read [Ponitz] articles, it’s almost like, you know, [The Committee is] not being…open and honest about what is being what is going on.”Patricia Culp
Clark’s disdain for Pontiz’ willingness to talk to the press is evident elsewhere in the February email to Freeman, asking both for the inclusion of a media clause and an ethics clause, calling for the latter of which to compel members to “behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the committee.” During the removal debate, member Patricia Culp stated, “but when you read [Ponitz] articles, it’s almost like, you know, [The Committee is] not being…open and honest about what is being what is going on.” The concern Alison held for the perceived credibility of the committee continues to drive internal debate more than a desire for actual credibility.
Dislike for Ponitz’ appearances in news reports likewise existed within APF brass. In another email obtained through a GORA request, APF employee and project manager for the Cop City project Alan Williams alerted members of Cop City design, architecture, landscape, and contractor firms as well as Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers and other APF leadership to Truthout Article highlighting the opponents of the Cop City project, known as Forest Defenders. Notably, Williams included now Acting Chief of Police Darin Schierbaum (at the time, Scheirbaum was Deputy Chief of Police), who is a member of the CSAC, but did not include any other committee members.
Clark is also willing to bend CSAC rules in order to maintain her concept of order. While its by-laws require the committee to follow Robert’s Rules of Order for its parliamentary procedures, Secretary Williams proposed a vote-by-exception for Ponitz’ removal. This voting method calls for only members objecting to a motion to voice their vote. Such a method is highly unusual, since it only asks for members dissenting the motion to go on the record, and is further not mentioned anywhere within Robert’s Rules of Order.
Ponitz attempted to force a roll-call vote for her removal, which prompted an actual roll-call vote on the motion that failed, falling on the same lines as the subsequent removal vote.
After Clark then briefly thanked her for her service to the committee and noted the potential for Ponitz to work as a consultant with CSAC in the future, Ponitz was removed from active participation in the meeting and Clark rapidly moved on to the next order of business.
In an email sent to fellow CSAC members before the meeting, Ponitz stated, “my work and speech is inspired by a desire for the truth to be told, and to not let this project slide through with half-done due diligence and a rubber stamp.” With Ponitz’ removal complete, Clark cemented the CSAC’s role as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Atlanta Police Foundation.