Friday, December 29, 2006

MARTA oversight committee chair earns kudos, critics

Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Donsky, Paul;
Dec 29, 2005

A year ago, Jill Chambers was a little-known Republican state legislator from
north DeKalb County still looking for a prominent role at the state Capitol
after completing her first term in office.

When the Republicans took control of the state House last January and named
Chambers chair of the Legislature's MARTA oversight committee, few expected
anything to change. The sleepy committee had generated few headlines over the
years. It was a legislative Siberia, a place for inexperienced politicians like
Chambers to cut their teeth.

But under Chambers' leadership, the MARTA oversight committee, known as
MARTOC, has reinvented itself.

Depending on whom you ask, the committee has become either the vigorous
watchdog it was always meant to be or has morphed into an overly aggressive
bully bent on destroying MARTA.

The committee's hearings have become contentious, daylong affairs, featuring
Chambers and other members grilling top MARTA brass over details of contracts
and the wisdom of past decisions and present business strategy.

Chambers demanded that MARTA turn over boxes of financial documents and other
records, poring over them like a lawyer gearing up for trial and seizing on
anything she considered evidence of wasteful spending.

Most critical for MARTA, she has locked up two bills that passed the state
Senate last year that would give the cash-strapped transit system more
flexibility over how it spends its money.

Chambers said she is just following state law, which establishes the
committee's responsibility for monitoring the transit system's finances and
protecting taxpayers who support the agency.

"This is the first time in the committee's history that they've looked this
closely at the spending of MARTA," Chambers said. "And I'll admit that has
created some tension, because they've never had to explain where the money had
gone in the past."

Today, Chambers is expected to release her first committee report, an annual
update on the committee's business.

Chambers won't reveal any details of the report, but it's unlikely MARTA will
come out unscathed. Chambers has hammered MARTA executives all year on a wide
range of issues, from how the agency buys its fuel to failing to provide
information in a timely fashion.

The report comes at a crucial time for MARTA. The transit system says it is
in financial crisis and continues to lose nearly $4 million a year on its
operations despite a recent round of layoffs and service cutbacks.

MARTA has asked the Legislature to extend a provision that allows the system
to spend 55 percent of its revenues on its operations instead of the 50-50 split
between capital and operations spelled out in state law. MARTA also wants to be
allowed to subsidize its operations budget with interest income earned on its
capital budget surplus.

Chambers said her goal is to root out what she sees as MARTA's culture of
wasteful spending. Only then, she said, will MARTA receive financial support
from the state and get the bills out of her committee. MARTA is the largest
transit system in the country that doesn't receive any state operating funds.

Vincent Fort, a state senator from Atlanta who serves on the committee, said
he believes Chambers' true motivation is to smear MARTA in order to pave the way
for some kind of state takeover in the event a regional transit agency is
formed, as is being discussed by local political and transportation leaders.

"It's almost as if there's a crusade against MARTA," said Fort, a Democrat.

Indeed, Chambers has said she would like to see a regional agency take over
MARTA and the area's suburban bus systems, saying that is the best way to secure
additional funding to improve transit service across metro Atlanta.

Stand alters business style

The committee's aggressive stance already has begun to change how MARTA does
business. Routine decisions are often parsed for how they will be seen by the
committee, and by Chambers in particular. At a recent MARTA board retreat, for
instance, members discussed the need to travel for conferences and to observe
other transit agencies, but they worried whether the committee would see the
expenses as wasteful.

"She's taken her job as chairman of MARTOC a lot more seriously than had been
in the past," said Michael Walls, MARTA's board chairman. "And it has taken some
getting used to."

MARTA officials tread carefully when the subject of Chambers is raised, given
the high political stakes involved.

MARTA lobbyist Scott Smith said he felt the exhaustive examination may, in
fact, help MARTA prove that the system needs additional financial help.

"All we can really do is continue to answer all the questions the best we can
so that everyone understands the way business is conducted here at MARTA," Smith
said. "And hope that the truth unfolds and is told."

For example, Smith and other MARTA officials say the agency has gone a long
way to address a lot of its problems. MARTA has significantly increased
advertising revenue and is installing a new fare system and upgrading its tracks
and trains.

MARTA General Manager Nathaniel Ford said he felt the committee's examination
has proved that the transit system is doing a good job of managing the public's

"We're not asking for any new money," Ford said. "What we're asking for is
the flexibility to manage the money we're currently receiving."

Chambers has won some fans, like Ernie Brooks, president of the union that
represents most MARTA workers.

"She is trying to do the right thing," Brooks said. "There's been
mismanagement and wastefulness, and I think Ms. Chambers is trying to find out
where the money went."

State Sen. Bill Stephens (R-Canton), chairman of the Senate Transportation
Committee, praised Chambers for raising the committee's profile and fighting to
hold MARTA accountable. "She understands that one has to make some noise
sometimes to get people's attention."

Charm belies doggedness

Chambers, 42, grew up in Clayton County. Quick to laugh, with a short bob of
wavy brown hair framing her soft, round face, she looks more like a PTA mom than
a legislative pit bull.

Chambers displays a self-deprecating charm that emerges even during the most
strained encounters. But it belies a fierce intelligence and political
determination. During committee meetings, she often downplays her understanding
of issues and topics, saying she's nothing more than a small business owner,
before launching into detailed questions that put seasoned bureaucrats on their

For the past 16 years, Chambers and her husband, Albert, have owned a small
art gallery in Buckhead that caters to the interior design market.

Chambers said running the gallery led her into politics. The more taxes she
paid, the more she wanted to know about how the money was spent. She describes
herself as a "hard-core" fiscal conservative and a social libertarian. Chambers
last year was the lone Republican in the state Legislature to vote against a gay
marriage ban.

Chambers jumped at the chance to lead the legislative committee, even though
she only uses MARTA on rare occasions, such as trips to the airport. She notes
that her district includes the Doraville and Chamblee MARTA stations.

It didn't take long for Chambers to signal that the committee would be far
different under her control.

The day she was named the committee's first Republican chair, Chambers
recalled, she received a visit from a MARTA lobbyist who congratulated her and
asked how many rail tokens she needed. It is common practice, the lobbyist
explained, to provide the committee chair with tokens to give to constituents.

Chambers dressed down the lobbyist, demanding to know why, given the bleak
financial picture she had heard so much about, MARTA tokens were being given to
an elected official. She ordered an immediate end to the practice.

A short time later, Chambers said, she was invited by MARTA General Manager
Ford to join him for lunch at the posh Buckhead Club. Chambers bristled,
demanding to know whether taxpayers were paying Ford's membership fee to the
private club. She says she never got an answer, and the two later lunched at a
restaurant near her gallery.

In Chambers' eyes, the incidents show MARTA needs to change its ways.

"It's a culture of, 'It doesn't matter how much we spend, the taxpayers will
always bail us out,' " she said. "That is the culture we are trying to change at
MARTA. We are not trying to attack MARTA. We are trying to get them to operate
more like a business."

Ford, who has resigned to lead San Francisco's transit agency, was out of
town this week and unavailable for comment. MARTA spokeswoman Joselyn Baker said
MARTA has had a corporate membership at the Buckhead Club for a number of years.

Budget closely scrutinized

Chambers has delved into the minutiae of MARTA's budget. She criticized, for
example, a MARTA contract that provided employees of a private engineering
consortium benefits such as tuition reimbursement and travel expenses not
available to regular MARTA workers.

At a recent committee meeting, she pressed MARTA officials about the transit
system's long-standing practice of "hedging" future fuel costs, which MARTA says
makes budgeting easier and protects the agency from price spikes.

Chambers is perhaps most angry at what she sees as MARTA's failure to provide
her with all the information she seeks. For example, Chambers requested an audit
of the engineering consortium's expenses. After repeated requests, Chambers said
MARTA delivered a stack of photocopied check stubs and timecards.

"It left me feeling like they didn't take me seriously," she said. "It was
almost like a brushoff."

Smith, the MARTA lobbyist, said the agency has provided Chambers with
everything she has asked for, at times pulling staffers to compile reports.

Chambers said she was hopeful that relations will improve, noting that MARTA
will soon be getting a new general manager and board chairman.

Fort, the Atlanta Democrat serving on the MARTOC committee, said Chambers
seems to be looking for a "Perry Mason moment" during committee meetings when
she barrages MARTA officials with questions.

"It happens at every MARTA meeting --- she has a long list, question after
question after question about MARTA's practices --- and there's no there there,"
Fort said. "She hasn't proven her case."

Chambers says she has become convinced that MARTA's budget problems are
largely of its own doing. "MARTA has all the money it needs to operate a safe
and secure system, if the money is spent in a prudent and reasonable manner."

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Brook Run - Skate Park Clear Cutting

Posted for Mr. Lowry to the original DNCA website.

Dear Mr. Vernon Jones,

A large stand of park trees (about 5 acres) has been clear-cut in Brook Run Park along Peeler Rd. The trees were cut all the way to the fence on 12/19/06 and 12/20/06 along an entire block. The trees will be replaced with about 4 acres of concrete, asphalt, stadium lights, stadium speakers and will operate into the night hours until 11:00 PM according to DeKalb County Code Book Code Section 19-26 Hours.
Here is information published on DeKalb Greenspace.

The skate park's final design will be a commercial, revenue producing facility complete with food services, delivery trucks, etc. The revenue will be used for other parks in DeKalb County. This facility will cause traffic and public safety issues in Dunwoody. Dunwoody has always been commited to protecting our forest, reforestation, parks, zoning, development, traffic, quality of life, and property values.

A skate park was supported in public meetings for our post-playground children and teenagers. The skate park was to fit in with the existing topography and save trees. There was strong public support to keep Brook Run as a passive, natural greenspace, and even add to greenspace with the demolition of existing abandoned buildings and parking. There was opposition to adding parking, hardscape and active areas such as ball fields. We have plenty of that in the surrounding area.

The skate park design greatly changed from the original design. The final plan was never made public. DeKalb Parks (Marvin Billups) said they would hold a public meeting to present the final plan to the public. No meeting was held. No plan was made public. 'These facilities would be sculpted to fit into the existing topography and wooded areas', according to the original EDAW Plan for the park. Some of the planning documents can be referenced on the Dunwoody North web site . Reforestation was planned after the construction of the Childrens' Playground. Reforestation did not happen. Many of the small stick replacement trees have died.

Now, this will be the largest skate park/stadium in Georgia with an additional 200 parking spaces, and one of the largest in the country. The skate stadium would be OK for an abanded Wal-Mart site, but not in existing natural park land. The lights, sound, traffic and trash will pollute Dunwoody, late into the night. The worst will be in front of Dunwoody North, but will affect all of Dunwoody as we get additional regional visitors into our communities from every direction.

A mistake and lack of representation for the public support has occurred. We have been misled. This has been taken in a direction by DeKalb County that we did not want and is not needed. A vote for parks and greenspace and bonds has been wrongly used. Most areas of the state, and country are preserving greenspace. This has turned into a DeKalb County revenue producing commercial facility in the wrong location.

It should have a Stop Work order and a public review before the topography is destroyed soon by the grading bulldozers, and certainly before concrete and asphalt cover our greenspace. It is possible to reforest, reduce the size back to the original supported plan, or move the park to an area occupied by vacant building hardscape or commercially zoned property. We should act fast. The construction will be complete in six months.

Dunwoody will suffer permanently because of serious DeKalb County planning mistakes.

Hundreds of stumps are being cleared this week. Surveyors were staking Wednesday for Land Disturbance (grading) to begin within a few days.

Land Disturbance (grading) is done by large earth moving equipment. The natural rolling terrain will be further destroyed and flattened into a plateau, like a shopping center. This is done in a 'cut and fill' grading process. It will have a steep, unnatural slope to a storm water retention pond.

Approximately 1 acre of trees were clear-cut just for the retention pond which is required for this project. The retention pond is along Peeler Rd at Cherring Dr. You can see the pile of tree debris where the retention pond will be located.

All the trees were clear-cut in 1 and 1/2 days by monster sized Timber equipment. The grading will quickly and permanently destroy the rolling terrain.

Some mothers have commented that without trees at the Childrens' Playground, the equipment is sometimes too hot to touch. With fewer trees now, everything in the area will be even hotter.

It is shocking what is happening to Brook Run Park and Dunwoody's forest.

This project should have a Stop Work order issued before the grading begins. The project should then have appropriate reviews.

Thank you.
Paul Lowry, PE Licensed Engineer
Laura Potts, AIA Licensed Architect