Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports Provide Window into Campaign Finance

Citizens:

Before I get to today’s blog post, thank you citizens for your loyalty and support.  You are the reason that I invest so much time and effort into the Milton Coalition Blog.  My goal is to provide a source of objective information about Milton’s government that is free from politicians’ spin. Since re-activation in mid-August of 2021, the Milton Coalition Blog has received over 4,000 views.  And subscribership (readers that subscribe to the blog to receive it by email) has increased by more than 50%.  Now that the election is past, I will be publishing fewer posts.  However, I did want to let you know that I am creating a page called “Bits and Pieces” where I will publish shorter, less-polished writings about Milton politics and government.  These writings will not be pushed out to email subscribers, so you will have to periodically visit the Bits and Pieces page to read the latest.  (Some of these pieces may eventually evolve into full-blown separately published posts.)  Following is a link to the Bits and Pieces page:

Bits and Pieces

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Following is a link to the campaign finance reports for the 2021 election cycle in Milton:

Milton Campaign Finance Reports

This website is managed by the Georgia Government Campaign Transparency and Finance Commission (GGCTFC), formerly the State Ethics Commission, and is an easier and quicker means for accessing campaign finance reports than the previous method of submitting Open Records Requests to local government authorities.  I am also attaching a pdf file of instructions for accessing campaign finance reports (that was provided to me by the City of Milton.)

Georgia law requires the periodic submission of campaign finance reports from candidates for political office.  This begins with the filing of a Declaration of Intent (DOI) prior to any fund-raising or any campaign expenditure.  Subsequent to the DOI, periodic reports (Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports, or CCDRs) are required to be submitted that show sources of financing and uses of funds.  CCDRs are a kind of combined income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement.  A breakdown of uses and sources of funds is also provided. 

For all contributions > $100, the exact amount of the contribution (and date of contribution) must be provided along with information on the contributor:  name, mailing address, employer, and occupation.  In-kind (i.e., non-monetary) contributions must also be listed, with an estimate of the value of the contribution.  For example, if a supporter hosts a meet-and-greet for a candidate, that meet-and-greet cost must be included in the CCDR.  (Tip to Citizens:  Contribute less than $100 if you desire not to be identified in a candidate’s CCDR.)

CCDRs must be completed perfectly.  If a mistake is made and found by an unscrupulous adversary of a candidate, an ethics complaint can be lodged with the GGCTFC.  Although a mistake may be trivial and honest (a calculational error or unintentional omission), the originators of such complaints will claim that you are “under investigation.”  The GGCTFC’s bar for admissibility of such complaints is low and the GGCTFC is painfully slow in adjudicating complaints, so that some complaints—even those based on nothing—can take years to resolve . . . meanwhile, your opponents will bash you for months with claims that “you are under investigation.”  Such strategies are clearly dishonest, but unfortunately effective.  And Milton has a very long and sordid history of such complaints.  I know this because a frivolous complaint was leveled at me.  However, I can proudly state that my opponents could not even nail me on a technicality.  I strongly believe that the GGCTFC does more harm than good.  The Commission has allowed itself to become a weapon for unscrupulous political miscreants, often aligned with establishment politicians (who know all the angles), to bully honest citizens and to interfere with citizens’ exercise of First Amendment liberties. 

The CCDRs can be an interesting read.  Particularly interesting are reading about the sources of funding.  In Milton, citizens need to be particularly alert to developer money being contributed to campaigns, although often developers will not identify as “developers” but use other occupational titles, like “retired”, to disguise themselves.  So sometimes a little detective work is needed.  And often the funny money in Milton comes out after the election when Special Interests seeking favors pay off a candidate’s campaign debts.

Another tip for citizens.  If you intend to speak at council at zoning hearings AGAINST developers’ applications, you might consider contributing <$250 to a candidate.  In you contribute $250+, then you have to complete a disclosure form 5 days before the pertinent matter is heard by the Planning Commission, which normally occurs a few weeks before the date for Council to address the matter (and long before most citizens engage on zoning issues).  This state law only applies if you are speaking AGAINST a developer’s proposal.  I believe that this law is an unconstitutional means for silencing Free Speech and was clearly the result of successful lobbying by the Georgia’s powerful development industry.  I have urged the Milton City government to lobby for repeal of this law, but my plea has so far fallen on deaf ears.  Jan Jones is Milton’s representative in the Georgia Assembly, where she serves as Speaker Pro Tem, making her the second most powerful representative in the Assembly.  Milton needs to engage her to change this unfair and unconstitutional law.

Citizens should be able to use the above link in the future to access additional future CCDRs for the 2021 Milton election. I am also attaching a pdf with instructions on how to access CCDRs.

Advocating For Good Governance,

Tim

Note:  I believe that the City should be publicizing the availability of these CCDRs to citizens or even prominently posting these reports at their website or FB page.  In general, the City’s communications are far too slanted toward Public Relations rather than providing important information to engage citizens in the governance of the City.

(More) Reflections on Elections: The Back Story on Milton’s Run-off

The above graphic provides the results of Tuesday’s run-off for Milton City Council District 1, Post 1.  Congratulations to Ms. Andrea Verhoff, who won with nearly 63% of the vote.  Thank you to both candidates, Ms. Verhoff and Ms. Tucker, for running for Milton City Council.  Our community benefits from competitive elections.  Unfortunately, Milton historically has had very few competitive races.  In 2021, 100% of the races in our sister cities (Johns Creek, Alpharetta, Roswell, and Sandy Springs) were competitive.  However, in Milton, only 1 in 4 races (25%) in 2021 were competitive.  This is not a statistic that citizens should be proud about.  A lack of competitive races has negative consequences for Milton’s governance.  I’ll have more to say about this in a future blog post.

Today’s post provides some perspectives on the District 1 run-off.  The most interesting story of the race was the steep drop-off in support for Ms. Tucker between the general election and the run-off.  In the general election, Ms. Tucker garnered nearly 46% of the vote; in the run-off, only 37%.  What happened?  It seemed that a run-off victory was easily within Ms. Tucker’s grasp.  Ms. Tucker needed to capture only a sliver of the votes for the 3rd place finisher, Adam D’Anella, and/or else persuade a small number of new voters to come aboard.  A distant second in the general election (with 34% of the vote), Ms. Verhoff had a much steeper hill to climb to capture a majority of voters.  Surprisingly, given Ms. Tucker’s garnering 37% of the vote (vs. 46% in the general election), it seems that not only did Ms. Verhoff capture nearly all of the earlier D’Anella votes, but she stripped away significant support from Ms. Tucker—i.e., voters changed their minds about Ms. Tucker—and perhaps attracted a large number of new voters.  So what were the factors contributing to this dramatic change of fortunes for the candidates?  Following is my take on the five factors that resulted in such as big swing in support away from Ms. Tucker and toward Ms. Verhoff.

Endorsements.  Two endorsements were key.  The first was the endorsement of Adam D’Anella, the 3rd place finisher in the general election, which netted Ms. Verhoff perhaps a few hundred votes.  The second, and more important, endorsement was that of incoming mayor, Peyton Jamison, who right now is an immensely popular politician in Milton.  (Caution:  With such popularity comes high expectations for Mr. Jamison.  Delivering on these expectations will be a challenge and require significant expenditure of Mr. Jamison’s accumulated political capital.)

Tucker’s Links to Lusk, Kunz, and Mega-developers.  In the run-up to the run-off, Ms. Tucker’s ties to the Lusk-Kunz faction (and certain associated developers) came into sharp focus.  After Ms. Tucker’s first place finish and sensing a certain victory (and perhaps wanting to take credit for it), these political operators became quite public in their support for Ms. Tucker . . . a kiss of death in my opinion.  Quite frankly, Miltonites are fed up with the factional politics (Moore-Bentley vs. Lusk-Kunz) and are looking to make a clean break with the past.  In Ms. Verhoff, they perceived (hopefully they are correct) an alternative to Milton’s long-warring factions.  I suspect that none of the District 1 candidates were wise to Milton’s past politics, and Ms. Verhoff was fortunate to not have a date to Milton’s political dance, enabling her to strike a stance of independence.  However, it seems Paul Moore, needing a lifeline now that Laura Bentley is rolling off council, is now sidling up to Ms. Verhoff; she would be wise not to attend to his advances.  (I suspect Mr. Moore will be a casualty in the 2023 elections, unless he decides it is in his best interest to step aside “to spend more time with his family.”)

Character Issues.  In the run-off, questions about Ms. Tucker’s character were raised that damaged Ms. Tucker’s candidacy.  A website, therealjamitucker.com, was created (and thankfully has now been taken down) that provided screenshots from Google searches about Ms. Tucker.  While some (not all) of the assembled information (if true) was troubling to me, most of the information did not meet my standards for inclusion at the blog because it lacked context, related to non-local issues, or was partisan.  And some of the provided information was just plain out-of-bounds (and probably counter-productive), particularly questions about Ms. Tucker’s military service.  (Clearly Ms. Tucker is a veteran, although I was baffled by her vagueness in describing her service.)  The only issue I felt worthy of mention at the blog was Ms. Tucker’s views on 5G, which are not supported by the fundamental concepts of physics.  I do not believe that Ms. Verhoff was behind the Real Jami Tucker website, but rather it was the creation of progressive activists in Milton—ironically, some of whom were previously closely aligned with Bill Lusk and Matt Kunz.

Partisanship.  Republican-Right-Conservative Vs. Democrat-Left-Progressive distinctions were an important factor in the election.  This is unfortunate as partisan politics do not translate at the local level.  The predominant issue in Milton is land use and on this issue, citizens across the political spectrum are closely aligned.  Democrat, Republican, and Independent Miltonites are united in their desire for low intensity development, preserving Milton’s rural heritage, conserving greenspace, and most importantly strict adherence to Milton’s zoning laws.  Accordingly, partisan appeals are a dangerous distraction . . . and frankly, a way for Milton’s Mega-developers to change the conversation.  Partisan appeals provide cover for Council Members misbehavior in zoning matters.  In 2019, needing to draw attention away from his advocacy of a music venue at Birmingham Crossroads, Paul Moore resorted to this tactic in securing Republican establishment endorsements—a significant factor in his victory.  In 2021, partisan appeals were again made (but this time backfired).  Understanding that Milton is deeply red, the Tucker campaign made a partisan pitch to Conservatives.  This pitch energized Progressives, who overwhelmingly supported Ms. Verhoff . . . much of this support based on Ms. Tucker’s stance on partisan state/national issues with little relevance to local politics.  However, the partisan pitch did not resonate with a big chunk of more discerning Conservatives (and some more discerning Progressives) that rightfully focused on issues of land-use (and good governance).  So although it seems that a majority of Milton’s citizens likely voted based on partisanship, a discerning plurality (that focused on smart land use, not partisanship) swung the election decidedly in Ms. Verhoff’s direction.

Election Expertise.  Ms. Verhoff benefited from election consultants that engaged her after the general election and provided invaluable advice and assistance.  Conversely, Ms. Tucker cast her lot with political meddlers that fancy themselves to be political savants; they are clever by half.  Their playbook is Ron Wallace’s Power of the Campaign Pyramid:  Hope is Not a Strategy.  I bought Mr. Wallace’s book in 2017 and read enough of it to realize that Laura Bentley could easily thwart Bill Lusk’s re-election if Team Lusk followed Mr. Wallace’s playbook.  And in fact, our 2017 campaign resulted in the biggest blow-out in Milton politics, with Laura Bentley garnering 71+% of the vote against an entrenched incumbent that had served on Council since the City’s founding. And it seems a modified version of the Campaign Pyramid playbook was followed by Ms. Tucker’s campaign, with predictable (and losing) results.  Just a handful of people in Milton truly know how to win elections and fortunately Ms. Verhoff tapped into a few of these people; Ms. Tucker did not.

Conclusion. 

Obviously, with 63% of the vote, Ms. Verhoff’s victory was decisive.  However, was it a mandate?  And if so, a mandate for what?  I would contend that Ms. Verhoff’s win was not a mandate (for anything) because it was achieved on a shaky foundation (and her platform was too vague and feel-good).  Most Verhoff votes were more anti-Tucker than pro-Verhoff.  Clearly, Adam D’Anella was the first choice of 1) Milton’s minority of progressives and 2) the Moore-Bentley-Cookerly faction . . . interesting because Moore got the endorsement of the Republican establishment in 2019 and Cookerly has hosted Republican events at her home.  Both progressives and Moore-Bentley-Cookerly supporters swung to Ms. Verhoff when it became obvious that Ms. Tucker 1) was a favorite of many on the far right end of the political spectrum and 2) was backed by Lusk and Kunz.   However, there is a more important Verhoff segment of voters (that span the political spectrum) that voted for Verhoff because Ms. Tucker seemed aligned with Milton’s Mega-developers.  These voters are more hopeful about Ms. Verhoff than confident in her, given her failure to provide any substantive policy specifics.  These same voters are also tired of factional politics.  This is all to say that Ms. Verhoff needs to reassure her voters, particularly those concerned about development and factionalism, that she is going to 1) push for strict adherence to Milton’s zoning laws and 2) be an independent voice for citizens (not Council factions or their Special Interests).  Bucolic bromides about smart land use won’t pass muster with Milton’s more discerning voters who crave precise policy prescriptions . . . and who ultimately provide the winning margin in Milton’s elections.

As for Ms. Tucker, I hope that she stays engaged in Milton’s politics, as she has promised.  The community benefits from viewpoint diversity and from spirited debate.  However, to be effective as a community advocate, Ms. Tucker will need to put distance between herself and the Lusk-Kunz faction.  And she will need to maintain a laser-like focus on smart land use and good governance.  And lastly she must assiduously avoid appeals to partisanship and steer far clear of state and national issues that lack relevance to local government.  Milton’s government is rich in opportunities—some quite obvious—for improvement, so Ms. Tucker should have no problem finding issues ripe for advocacy.

My wishes for both Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff are wisdom and fortitude in their future political ventures.

Advocating For Good Governance,

Tim

A Letter to the District 1 Candidates: City Government & Politics Lessons Learned

Following is a letter sent to District 1 Candidates For City Council thanking them for their strong stances advocating for Town Hall meetings with City Council (and separately with appointed City leadership). Included is advice to the winner, based on my experience with city government/politics and the lessons I learned . . . often the hard way.

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Ms. Verhoff and Ms. Tucker:

First, thank you for both responding to my Town Hall challenge.  And more importantly, thank you for taking a strong stand to advocate for Town Hall meetings.  Beyond the ballot box, it is important to provide myriad and substantive mechanisms to citizens for holding government accountable.  One of you will have the honor and privilege of representing citizens on council.  Whoever it is, I hope you will advocate for other best practices for improving accountability, such as increased transparency—for example, making available in a consolidated document the voting and attendance records of council members.

More generally, I hope that you will focus more attention on good governance—i.e., how Milton is governed, with a focus on process and principles (vs. policy/outcomes).  Good outcomes can only be achieved through good processes characterized by fairness, transparency, rigor, accountability, and honesty.  Milton’s government—both council and staff—routinely deviate from principles of good governance . . . with predictable results:  unnecessary community division and a loss of trust/confidence in government, often involving a diversion of precious resources.

Every major battle I have witnessed in Milton ultimately issued from gross failures in governance . . . and ignoring legitimate concerns of citizens.  It is critical for council members and our staff to be proactive in engaging citizens—not just passively listening to the community, but actually providing mechanisms for citizens to engage in governance.  Consent of the governed consists of much more than conducting clean elections; consent might begin at the ballot box, but it does not end there.  Consent of the governed means securing the rights of citizens to participate in government . . . it means protecting and even encouraging the exercise of fundamental liberties, like freedoms of speech, assembly, and protest.  We must make it easy for citizens to engage; the health of our republic depends on it.  (I have been the target of multiple attempts to limit my exercise of my fundamental freedoms.)

Please also never forget that the collective wisdom of citizens always trumps the wisdom of any individual council member or even the council as a whole.  A council member may have more data/information than citizens, but citizens are collectively wiser.  A key responsibility of council members is to tap into the vast reservoir of community wisdom to improve our government, and ultimately, improve the community.  I initially got involved in politics because I wanted to truly “shift power back to citizens,” but unfortunately power has actually shifted away from citizens over the past 4 years.  Ultimately, your responsibility is to manifest the will of the community within the boundaries of the rule of law and through the application of good governance principles (including maximizing citizen engagement in governance).

Usually underrated as a virtue and always in short supply, courage is a necessity for success in representing citizens.  The development industry has infiltrated our city government and has distorted politics in Milton.  Powerful developers recruit candidates, manage/finance campaigns, and exert undue influence through their proxies.  And yes, they buy influence in our city government.  What is it they seek?  Generally they seek higher intensity of use.  For residential development, this usually means higher density enabled by sewer extension and granting of variances.  An example is the subdivision across from Cambridge High School.  For commercial development, it often means bastardizing use permits and again liberal granting of variances.  An example is approval of the music venue at Birmingham Crossroads, which involved many unchallenged misrepresentations, a re-purposed festival use permit, and 12 variances . . . and egregious abuse of process and blatant disregard/disrespect for the legitimate concerns of nearby residents.  You will have to display backbone in fending off Special Interests and their requests.

It is also important to put aside ego in the exercise of your duty of representing citizens.  Take your duties seriously, but not personally.  Do not follow the lead of many of your predecessors and wrap your identity up in city politics.  Unfortunately, Milton politics often attracts the unaccomplished and the insecure in their sad and elusive quest for relevance and achievement.

In Milton, politicians have been routinely ejected office (or dissuaded from seeking re-election).  To understand Milton politics requires a study of past divisive issues, such as:  the CSO; the Ebenezer re-zonings; fights over community septic and sewer extension; approval of 28 variances and a bastardized use permit at Birmingham Crossroads; and the Painted Horse fiasco.  Please invest the time to understand these issues and be careful not to buy into the political narratives (as I did) posited by Milton’s two warring factions (Lusk-Kunz and Moore-Bentley) that have been waging a war based on personality politics (rather than on policy or principles/process) since the City’s founding . . . to the detriment of the community.  Be careful not to align with either faction.  Both factions are pushing false storylines.  They are only united in their mutual animus toward each other and their advocacy for the prerogatives of their Special Interests.  And on issues of policy, there is really not a dime’s worth of difference between the two factions.

Above all, citizens must trust you.  There is incredible power in the truth.  Trust is foundational to good governance.  Miltonites have not been shy about rejecting representatives that have lost their trust and confidence.  Always remember that trust is hard to earn but easily lost.  Say what you mean and do what you say.  Make very clear to citizens the principles that you will apply to reach decisions.  Make it very clear that you will respect your oath to uphold the law, especially local zoning laws.

My apologies for the long letter.  I wanted to convey to both of you some of the lessons that I learned while immersed in city politics.  Win or lose, I hope you will stay engaged in local government and encourage other citizens to engage.  The quality of our local government is highly correlated with citizen engagement.

All the Best,

Tim

Tim Becker

Candidate Promises:  Important Victory In Up-Hill Struggle For Town Hall Meetings

Last week, I issued a challenge to both District 1 candidates, Jami Tucker and Andrea Verhoff.  And great news . . . both candidates rose to the challenge and unequivocally promised to advocate for quarterly, video-taped Town Hall meetings with the City Council and (separately) City Staff leadership (i.e., City Manager Krokoff and his direct reports).  Town hall meetings are a best practice that the City of Milton has been grossly negligent in NOT adopting.  And done right (as I have described above), town hall meetings could be a game-changer for good governance.  Town Hall meetings are the single most effective tool in ensuring government accountability . . . and that is why Milton’s government has been roundly reluctant to implement Town Hall meetings.

Citizens, I am not naïve that the promise made by the District 2 candidates is . . . well, just a promise . . . and of course, politicians are promiscuous with promises and virtually virginal when it comes to keeping such promises.  However, you have to start somewhere . . . and an unequivocal promise to advocate for Town Hall meetings is an essential first step. 

I am also not naïve that there will not be stubbornly strong resistance from certain quarters.  I fully expect Council Members Moore and Cookerly will be defiant.  Mr. Moore is the consummate backroom politician and has much to answer for.  Will he really want to face the Milton mob?  And whatever does one wear to a tar-and-feathering?  As for Ms. Cookerly, I doubt she wants to mix with Milton’s commoners.  On Veterans Day a few years ago, she would not stoop to extend her hand to veterans (I was one of them) that came forward for the Mayor’s Veterans Day proclamation.  (I was frankly offended and embarrassed for our City.)  And does Ms. Cookerly really want to field questions about the city making a passive park out of the greenspace it bought (in my opinion, overpaid for) contiguous with her estate?  (My hope is that Adam D’Anella might challenge Ms. Cookerly in 2023. 🙂 )  And the strongest pushback is likely to come from City Manager Steve Krokoff, who for 4+ years has diligently dug moats between the city government fortress and its subjects.  Krokoff’s finely tuned corporate-like Public Relations machine regularly spews out look good/feel-good stories and other propaganda to distract citizens from Krokoff’s problem-plagued administration.  Krokoff controls the City Council meeting agendas . . . does he really want to let citizens see behind the curtain?

So yes, the city’s acceptance of Town Hall meetings will be an up-hill battle, but a battle well worth waging . . . and a great way for newly elected council members to demonstrate to citizens that they care about good governance and about advancing citizens’ prerogatives.  No more business as usual at City Hall!

Following are the responses I received from candidates Verhoff and Tucker.  Thank you to both candidates!

Ms. Verhoff’s response follows:

Ms. Tucker’s response follows.  I have edited out some of Ms. Tucker’s email that was not directly relevant to the issue of Town Hall meetings.  However, in fairness to Ms. Tucker, I have included her full response along with my initial challenge email as a pdf file.

Unfortunately, the current campaign is mostly focused on extraneous issues.  My candidate challenges are intended to re-focus the campaign on critical and potentially differentiating issues:  good governance and smart land use.  Accordingly, I am pleased that both candidates have made an unequivocal commitment to Town Hall meetingsI urge other citizens to take the opportunity to challenge the candidates on issues of policy and process.  One great benefit of campaigns is that they (can) force debate on issues of importance to the community.  A competitive race requires candidates to take stands . . . that is, if we citizens challenge them to take such stands.  I do hope that both candidates communicate stronger, more specific stances on land use, particularly the approval of variances.

Advocating for Accountability,

Tim

Town Hall Meetings – First Failed Attempt in 2019.  I have previously experienced the pain of defeat in my quest for Town Hall meetings.  I lobbied Council Member Laura Bentley in early 2019 to advocate for Town Hall meetings.  I believed that she needed to make amends for her advocacy in 2018 for 28 variances (and a bastardized use permit for a music venue) at Birmingham Crossroads.  However, shortly after I began lobbying for Town Hall meetings, Laura hastily announced she would be conducting her own “community update.”  It was her first and only such meeting during her 4 years in office.  And in a carefully parsed email, Laura expressed her opposition to public Town Hall meetings (with full council) . . . so much for her promise to “shift power back to citizens” . . . yet another broken campaign promise in Milton.  Laura did promise to take up the matter with City Manager Krokoff.  However, not unsurprisingly, neither Laura nor Krokoff ever got back to me about Town Hall meetings, and Krokoff never put Town Hall meetings on council’s agenda.  (This highlights an important issue in Milton.  Citizens need more transparency and more influence in the process for developing City Council meeting agendas.  I will blog more about this in a future blog post.)  Hopefully, citizens will prevail in Round 2 of the battle for Town Hall meetings.

Variances Are a Four-letter Word in the 2021 District 1 Race

I have scanned the Facebook pages, websites, and other communications from the two District 1 candidates:  Jami Tucker and Andrea Verhoff.  And oddly, neither candidate mentions zoning variances, never mind states a position on variances.  It seems that variance is a dirty word on the campaign trail . . . danger lurks in even the mention of the word.  However, I would contend that variance is the most important word of the campaign.  Why?  Because the most contentious land-use issues in Milton invariably involve the granting of variances . . . often, heaps of variances.  And the reality is that with enough variances, a developer can get away with building nearly anything in Milton—no matter how smelly, unsightly, or loud.  Liberal granting of variances means that citizens have no reasonable certainty about what gets located near their properties, including development that would seriously diminish enjoyment of their property and/or lower their property’s value.  That is wrong!  In our wildest nightmares, none of us living near Birmingham Crossroads could have reasonably contemplated approval of a music venue (in the most rural part of Milton) that pumps out loud music 30+ Saturday nights per year.  And worse, slews of variances are granted on a regular basis in Milton, regardless of the composition of council.  In fact, over the past 4 years, the granting of variances has increased dramatically . . . for example, 28 variances were granted at Birmingham Crossroads alone in the span of less than a year (2018).

Of course, securing valuable variances often means befriending enough council members and/or paying them off (legally) by buying the product/services of their businesses, etc.  And Miltonites should not kid themselves that this is not happening.  It is happening and unfortunately it is all legal. 

Furthermore, both of the long-feuding factions in Milton—the Lusk-Kunz faction and Moore-Bentley faction—are united by their stance on variances.  Both factions conveniently assert that “citizens don’t understand or care about variances.”  Both factions cynically ignore the perspectives of nearby residents that will be most impacted by the variances.  Both factions self-servingly assert that their projects are “special” and “good for the community” and therefore justify granting major exceptions to Milton’s variance ordinances.  The sad truth is what differentiates the long-battling factions in Milton is not their views on policy or governance but ONLY their representation of different Special Interests.  What we rather need in Milton are representatives that uphold the rule of law and that represent citizens (not Special Interests or personal interests).  We need candidates that are not afraid to talk about variances and to take a strong stance against the liberal granting of variances . . . and then follow through on their campaign stances when they sit on Council.

And what might constitute a strong stance on variances?  I would like to hear both candidates pledge:

  • I will only grant variances for minor zoning deviations where hardship is clearly proven.  This accords with historical variance practice and with Milton’s strict variance law.
  • In very rare cases when granting variances for major zoning deviations might be prudent, I will only vote for major variances if there is overwhelmingly (80+%) support from nearby residents most impacted by the variances.
  • I will never allow use permits to be re-purposed by variances to allow uses not explicitly listed in Milton’s laws.

Wow!  Wouldn’t it be great to hear a politician actually commit to upholding the law (that BTW they swear to uphold) and to protect the property rights and property values of residents?  Wouldn’t it be great to have Council members that don’t cravenly cave and cater to the Special Interests (and personal interests) and instead make duty to the community their first and only priority?

Unfortunately, what citizens so far have heard from the District 1 candidates are mostly platitudes about land use meant to offend no one, but also guaranteed not to impress or inspire anyone.  These are what I call “pro-puppy” stances on issues . . . pledges that all candidates make and about which no one disagrees . . . pledges to uphold the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.  Kumbayah!  Or to preserve what makes Milton “special.”  Kumbayah!  Or to preserve greenspace.  Kumbayah!  These sorts of cotton-candy promises—sugary sweet and mostly air—do nothing to advance the land-use discussion or to address the important issues facing Milton—most especially the wanton granting of variances to Special Interests.  These District 1 candidates’ promises are appeals to populism rather than practical policy prescriptions.  Citizens deserve better.

So my message to candidates Tucker and Verhoff is don’t bob and weave on the issue of variances.  Rather speak loudly and clearly about variances.  Let there be no doubt that you stand with citizens (and against Special Interests) and for the rule of law.  Let your views on variances ring out across the Milton you have pledged to preserve. Keeping Milton “special” means being a Grinch and a Scrooge when it comes to gifting variances.

Advocating For Honesty and Clarity About Variances,

Tim

Note:  It has come to my attention that some citizens believe I am behind anonymous websites and posts about the District 1 candidates.  I want to be very clear.  My ONLY platform for my views has been (and is) this blog.  I do not run or otherwise direct any other websites, Twitter accounts, or other platforms.  I do not anonymously post my views anywhere.  Furthermore, my standards for this blog are high.  I am strictly non-partisan, as I do not believe partisanship translates well at the local level; my readers span the ideological political spectrum.  I do not address state or national issues.  I do not address personal issues and steer well clear of criticisms that might be perceived as personal attacks.  (However, I make no apologies for being harsh and direct in my criticism.)  I only ever mention politicians by name; private citizens, even those who are politically active, are off-limits.  My focus is primarily on process and principles, but also on policy.  However, the comportment of politicians in the conduct of their office or campaigns is also fair game.  My focus is on issues where there is broad consensus in the community—i.e., eliminating the influence of Special Interests, particularly favors for developers.  Above all else, my goals are good governance in Milton and increasing citizen engagement/education.  I welcome the frequent feedback and input I receive from readers—whether they agree with me or not.

I do not intend to endorse a candidate in the District 1 race at this blog.  Rather my intent is to provide my perspectives, backed by facts, to assist voters in drawing their own conclusions about which candidate will best serve the citizens of Milton.  Another purpose of the blog is to press the candidates to address the most serious issues in Milton and to hopefully elevate the political discussion.  The community benefits from honest and ferocious debate among friends about policy, principles, and process.  (Conversely, the community suffers when that debate degenerates—often on social media platforms—into vicious personal attacks and character assassination.)

A Challenge to the District 1 Post 1 Candidates to Take a Position on Town Hall Meetings

First, I want to thank readers of the Milton Coalition Blog. Since the blog was reactivated 3 months ago, the blog has received over 3000 views (and this does not include views by the many readers that receive blog posts by email).  Blog traffic is trending sharply upward. The blog is now being read by more than 200 citizens each day.  One purpose of the blog is to stimulate engagement of Milton’s citizens, as I believe good governance and citizen engagement are highly correlated.  Another purpose of the blog is to promote accountability in our government.  The high traffic to the blog means that the Milton Coalition blog often shows up on the first page of search engine results for local candidates and current/former elected officials, ensuring that an alternative exists to candidate/council member narratives and the City of Milton’s PR (and the Milton Herald‘s vanilla reporting).  So whether you agree with me or not, thank you for visiting the blog and considering my perspectives.  Vigorous debate and an informed citizenry are essential elements of a well-functioning democracy.

Below is the text of an email that I sent to the 2 candidates for Milton City Council for District 1 Post 1.  I strongly believe that town hall meetings are an excellent means for ensuring accountability, honesty, and transparency from both elected representatives and Milton’s appointed leaders.  On a regular basis, citizens should be afforded the opportunity to engage in respectful public dialogue with government officials to understand their stances on major issues facing Milton and the principles by which decisions are made.  Town hall meetings are a governance best practice that Milton is long overdue in adopting.  Town hall meetings are a key mechanism for shifting power back to citizens.  I will publish the responses of both candidates to my challenge (once my Friday deadline passes).  From my perspective, candidate stances on town hall meetings are an important indicator of whether candidates are truly interested in good governance and in constructively and substantively engaging citizens to ensure community prerogatives are the top priority.

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Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff: 

First, congratulations on earning your way to the run-off election for District 1 Post 1.  Representing the citizens of Milton is a great honor and privilege.  Thank you for stepping up to run.  Having been immersed in Council Member Bentley’s campaign in 2017, I know that running for local office requires a lot of time and effort and sometimes is painful.

As you might know, I have been steeped in Milton politics for over 6 years as an advocate for good governance, so my focus has been more on process and principles, and less on policy.  I believe more attention needs to be devoted to the architecture of government.  As a former naval officer and a strategy consultant, I know that good outcomes (i.e., policy) are only possible through good processes.  And good process is a result applying the following principles to government design:  rigor, fairness, transparency, honesty, and accountability.  Milton deserves a government as good as its citizens.  At my blog, I have floated many no-brainer, easily implementable suggestions for improving governance.  However, there is one idea that stands above the rest and could be a game-changer for good governance in Milton:  town hall meetings.  Town hall meetings are a widely recognized best practice in municipal government.  So I am issuing a challenge to the both of you to take a position on town hall meetings and provide an answer to the following question: 

Do you support and will you advocate for quarterly, videotaped (and live-streamed) town hall meetings of citizens with City Council and separately with appointed city leadership (i.e., the City Manager and his leadership team) to engage in two-way, respectful Q&A and dialogue? 

A simple YES or NO answer will suffice.  However, if you wish to elaborate on your answer, please feel free to do so (but limit responses to 200 words and to the issue of town hall meetings).  If you do not respond by November 19th at noon, I will assume that your answer is NO.  I will publish each candidate’s responses at the blog.  In responding, please understand that many of Milton’s most concerned citizens (my conservative estimate is 200+) are blog subscribers or are non-subscribers who visit the blog on a regular basis.  Furthermore, recent blog traffic has been increasing dramatically in the run-up to early voting; voters are hungry for substantive information on the candidates.  Blog readers are not only informed citizens that vote but often citizens that care enough to exercise influence within their social networks to advocate on issues and/or promote candidates.  This is an opportunity to reach those citizens.

I look forward to your responses. 

Advocating for transparency, honesty, and accountability through town hall meetings, 

Tim Becker

District 1 Candidates Need to Make Honest, Clear, and Specific Land-Use Commitments to Citizens

The run-off for Milton’s District 1 City Council seat is November 30th.  The two District 1 candidates are Ms. Jami Tucker and Ms. Andrea Verhoff.  So far, both candidates have disseminated mostly vague and vanilla positions on various issues.  However, playing it safe in Milton does not win elections.  Milton’s voters are smart, caring, and discerning.  Voters can usually smell BS, and right now the there is a fetid odor permeating Milton.  Candidates have been especially ambiguous about their stances on land use.  However, I strongly believe the winning candidate will be the one that enunciates specific positions on land use that best align with citizens’ perspectives. 

As I have often discussed at this blog, land use issues overshadow all other issues in Milton.  Council spends 70-80% of its time on land use.  The remaining development potential of land in Milton is $1B to $3B.  That much development money sloshing around is bound to distort politics/governance in Milton . . . and it has . . . to the detriment of the community.  Developers have not been shy about recruiting and financing candidates that will do their bidding at Council.  And that developer influence has metastasized in myriad ways:  rezonings to higher density; approvals of bushels of variances; repurposing of use permits through variances; 5 extensions of sewer; passage of developer-friendly ordinances; and selective enforcement of zoning regulations by staff.

I suspect that neither District 1 candidate really understands much about land use processes or policy . . . or has even given them much thought . . . not unlike many sitting members of Council.  Like all politicians in Milton, Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff have paid obligatory homage to Milton’s rural heritage.  And they have promised to uphold Milton’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP).  However, the CLUP is not legally binding and it is often vague, and thus open to differing interpretations.  Conversely, Milton’s zoning laws are legally binding and much more precise.  Milton’s zoning laws have been honed over time and reflect case law and long-standing land-use practices.  Ideally, zoning codes should also incorporate into law the intent of the CLUP.  Accordingly, it is much more important that candidates pledge to uphold Milton’s zoning laws (than Milton’s CLUP).  

Through this blog post, my objective is to assist the candidates in refining their positions and more importantly, to help citizens make better decisions about the two District 1 candidates.  Accordingly, I have formulated a baker’s dozen of land-use commitments that I hope both candidates will embrace and that might serve as a guide to citizens in sizing up the candidates.  These 13 land-use commitments reflect common sense and long-standing zoning practices.  They are not radical in the least.  These commitments also offer a solution to many land-use problems in Milton that have caused deep division . . . they offer a reasonable path to a logical, coherent, consistent and citizen-centric land-use policy that respects the rule-of-law—a bedrock principle of good governance.  The commitments are based on principles of fairness, transparency, rigor, and accountability.  These principles are meant to level the playing field for citizens, with an emphasis on protecting citizens’ property rights and values, while blunting the pernicious backroom influence of Special Interests in Milton.  My strong belief is that a candidate unwilling to make and honor these 13 land-use commitments does not deserve the votes of Milton’s fine citizens.

  1. Citizens Right to Enjoyment of Their Property.  I believe citizens have a right to enjoyment of their property and therefore citizens are entitled to reasonable certainty regarding: 1) permissible uses of nearby properties and 2) granting of variances (or other deviations from our zoning law).
  2. Granting of Variances.  I will follow historic zoning practice and I will only vote to approve variances for minor deviations (from zoning law) and only when hardship is clearly proven.  I agree with and will follow the City Attorney’s advice on variances (as articulated in the video at the bottom).
  3. Use Permits.  I am opposed to re-purposing of special use permits with variances to sanction uses not currently allowed under Milton’s zoning laws.  If the community desires that properties be approved for new purposes not currently allowed, then council must follow the process for creating a use permit for that new purpose and only approve new uses that are overwhelmingly supported by the community.
  4. (Rare) Exceptions for Major Variances.  For exceptional cases where a variance seems prudent for a major zoning deviation and/or hardship cannot proven, I will insist on overwhelming support (80+%) from nearby residents.  I will not interpret lack of community opposition as support for such variances; I will proactively seek the input of nearby residents when major variances are being considered.  In exchange for approval of exceptional major variances, I will insist upon conditions that provide benefits to the community commensurate with benefits provided to the developer-applicants who are being granted a major variance.
  5. Upholding the Rule of LawI advocate for strict adherence to Milton’s zoning ordinances.  I will always uphold the rule of law.  I understand that some discretion is allowed within the boundaries of the rule.  Within such boundaries, I will bow to the will of citizens.
  6. Maintaining/Strengthening Milton’s Zoning LawsI will never vote for any proposal that relaxes Milton’s zoning laws, except to approve 1) new use permits or 2) re-zonings that are overwhelmingly supported by the community—most especially nearby residents.  I will work hard to close loopholes, eliminate inconsistencies, and increase clarity in Milton’s zoning laws.
  7. Fairness for CitizensI pledge to work to improve Milton’s zoning processes and level the playing field for citizens.  This includes giving citizens equal opportunities to speak and the last opportunity to speak at all zoning hearings.  It also includes providing document packets for all zoning hearings at least 10 days in advance of such hearings (to allow citizens sufficient time to review the zoning application and supporting documents).  I pledge to work with Milton’s representatives to the Georgia State Assembly to revise state laws that present hurdles to citizen participation in the zoning process (and more broadly in local politics/governance).
  8. Campaign Contributions from DevelopersI will never accept campaign contributions from developers or from others with a substantive interest in development. 
  9. Meeting With DevelopersI will never meet one-on-one with developers or their representatives.  I will only participate in such meetings with staff present.
  10. Comportment of Developers Before CouncilI will not tolerate developers or their representatives threatening or lying to Council/staff or otherwise acting in bad faith.  I will not tolerate developers or their representatives interrupting or demonstrating other disruptive behavior at Council.  When appropriate, I will use “point of order” to appropriately admonish developers at Council meetings.
  11. Videotaping CZIMsI advocate video-taping of all Community Zoning Information Meetings.
  12. Sewer ExtensionI will never vote to extend sewer beyond areas where it is currently permitted by sewer maps.
  13. Town Hall Meetings.  I support transparency and honesty in zoning hearings.  Accordingly, I support quarterly video-taped town-hall meetings where citizens can engage council in respectful, two-way dialogue to better understand Council members’ reasoning in zoning (and other) matters.

Land-use is complex and I could elaborate much more . . . but won’t.  The above 13 commitments represent a good starting point for putting Milton on a better path to sensible land use and attractive community development that reflect the prerogatives of citizens while respecting the rule of law.  However, I encourage Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff to supplement and strengthen this list of commitments and make it their own. Citizens deserve honest, clear, and specific commitments about land use from candidates for Council.

Advocating For Smart Land-Use,

Tim

In 2018, Council flagrantly disregarded the advice of the City Attorney and Milton’s variance laws to approve the elimination of buffers at Birmingham Crossroads, thereby creating legal precedents that have the potential to eliminate important zoning protections for the community.

Reflections on Elections:  Seismic Shifts and Successful Strategies

Source: Fulton County Election website

On election day, traffic to the Milton Coalition blog spiked.  It seemed that citizens were seeking perspectives on the Milton City Council District 1 election—sadly the only competitive race in Milton.  And seeing no recent comments on this race at my blog, voters reached out to me by text, phone, and email to get some sense about how to vote.  Voters expressed understandable frustration that candidate communications lacked substance and were undifferentiated.  True.  Specifics were lacking and candidates were playing it safe.  True.  Every candidate was pledging to preserve Milton’s rural heritage, to ensure public safety, and serving up various other versions of motherhood-and-apple-pie.  True.  For many voters, it seemed the District 1 race was a crap shoot.  True.  However, as I have often explained at this blog, to understand Milton politics requires 1) knowing the political back stories (and there is always a back story) and 2) relying on intuition, based on experience. 

Having been steeped in Milton politics for 2+ years, I have learned to connect seemingly random dots (Facebook likes from certain people, placement of yard signs on certain properties, comments from well-placed sources, etc.) to discern patterns.  For example, it was very clear (and not terribly surprising) to me that each of the long-battling factions in Milton had their preferred candidate, leaving one unaligned candidate.  Clearly, Jami Tucker is supported by the Lusk-Kunz (LK) faction and less clearly (but clearly enough) Adam D’Annela was favored by the Moore-Bentley-Cookerly (MBC) faction, with Andrea Verhoff the odd person out . . . perhaps not a bad place to be, if Ms. Verhoff plays her cards right. 

At the top of this blog post, I have provided the final results from Tuesday’s election (a screenshot from the Fulton County Elections website), and the 2021 election results actually speak volumes about the state of politics in Milton . . . when compared to the elections of 2017 and 2019.  In 2017, Laura Bentley secured 71+% of the vote, beating incumbent Bill Lusk; it was the biggest blow-out in Milton’s election history and the result of a superior campaign strategy and a hyper-diligent ground game.  It was the culmination of two years of hard-fought victories against existential threats to the community and the cultivation of a large cadre of passionate citizen advocates.  Paul Moore was a beneficiary of the momentum of the 2017 election, riding the Bentley wave to garner 63% of the vote in 2019.  Accordingly, viewed in the light of the previous two elections, D’Annela’s poor third-place finish (22.6%) in 2021 represents a seismic shift in Milton politics . . . a swing of nearly 50 percentage points relative to Bentley’s 2017 victory and a thorough repudiation of the status quo. 

Now I suspect some D’Annela backers will assert that Mr. D’Annela ran an anemic campaign.  And perhaps this is true, but frankly difficult to argue given the lack of differentiation among the candidates.  I would posit an alternative explanation, supported by my conversations with citizens and with long-time watchers of City politics.  I strongly believe that Tuesday’s results were a rejection of the Moore-Bentley-Cookerly (MBC) faction and a clear message from citizens that they expect much better from their elected representatives.  Our council members must mean what they say and must do what they say.  If you promise to shift power back to citizens, then DO IT (or at least try to do it).  Milton’s citizens want coherent and logical policy-making that is free of personal animosities and the influence of Special (or personal) Interests. Sadly, the 28 variances granted at Birmingham Crossroads and, worse, the abuse of process associated with these variances, were the undoing of the MBC faction.  However, it took the sordid Painted Horse saga to bring into stark relief the inherent hypocrisy and illogic of the Birmingham Crossroads decisions.  It was clear to all but the most blinkered citizens that the owners of The Painted Horse were treated unfairly in light of the preferential treatment given to the Birmingham Crossroads music venue.  And I believe it is this realization that caused voters to reject Mr. D’Annela, who unwittingly became a proxy for the status quo in Milton. 

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s results raise more questions than they answer . . . questions that appropriately addressed will lead to electoral success for Ms. Tucker or Ms. Verhoff.  For example, now that Ms. Tucker’s alignment with Lusk-Kunz and big Milton developers has become obvious, are voters willing to jump from the frying pan into the fire and give the Lusk-Kunz faction (and their Mega Developer friends) a second chance?  Should/will Ms. Tucker distance herself from the Lusk-Kunz faction?  If not, how will Ms. Tucker justify her alignment with Lusk and Kunz?  How will Ms. Tucker explain her support from Milton’s developers?  And does Ms. Tucker, a newcomer to Milton, understand the history of Milton’s politics and specifically the citizen backlash that occurred in 2015 – 2017, culminating in Ms. Bentley’s election?  Does Ms. Tucker understand citizens’ legitimate concerns about the strong influence of developers in Milton, who aggressively recruit and fund candidates that will push their agendas (e.g., liberal granting of variances) at Council?

And Ms. Verhoff has perhaps more difficult issues to navigate.  Will Ms. Verhoff realize she is the underdog and take the risks needed to win?  Will Ms. Verhoff present a true third alternative to the two factions (that have dominated politics since its Milton’s founding) or will she align with the MBC faction, in the hopes that D’Annela voters will swing to her side?   Will the latter strategy alienate much of her base who seem to desire a non-aligned candidate and a clean break with Milton’s political past?  Will she differentiate her positions with specifics or continue to play it safe?  Will Ms. Verhoff talk more about good governance and less about policy?  Will she draw a (much) starker contrast with her opponent and her opponent’s backers?

Bottomline.  Ms. Tucker has the advantage of momentum associated with a near-victory in Tuesday’s election.  Ms. Tucker’s disadvantage is her now obvious alignment with the Lusk-Kunz bloc of Milton politics and the potential continuation of the long-running, destructive battle between Milton’s factions (and the continuing influence of Special Interests each side represents).  Ms. Verhoff has the advantage of non-alignment with Milton’s traditional factions and the opportunity to present herself as a fresh, independent voice on council . . . a break with Milton’s political past.  Ms. Verhoff’s disadvantage is that she is an underdog that so far has played it safe and is a largely a cipher to citizens.  Ms. Verhoff has only a short period of time to differentiate herself from her opponent and to make a strong positive impression with voters.  And unless Ms. Verhoff distinguishes herself, Milton’s voters may play it safe and go with the leading candidate, Ms. Tucker, and the devil they know, the Lusk-Kunz faction.

My advice to both candidates is to not underestimate the intelligence and the concern of Milton’s voters.  In the past, the citizens of Milton have not shy about unceremoniously kicking dishonest, uncaring, and incompetent politicians to the curb.  Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff need to both up their games.  Listen to citizens.  Respect citizens.  Be honest and straightforward.  Provide policy specifics.  Stress your commitment to the rule of law and fairness.  Emphasize accountability and competence. Lead with integrity.  Unequivocally repudiate the influence of Special Interests in Milton. Demonstrate courage.

I will continue to blog about the upcoming run-off election in Milton in hopes of elevating the discussion and nudging the candidates to stake out specific positions and to reveal their true allegiances.  My desire is that more attention be directed to issues of good governance (i.e., improving the process for how things get accomplished in Milton).

Advocating for Good Governance,

Tim

Note:  I have not met with or otherwise communicated with either Ms. Tucker or Ms. Verhoff or their campaigns.  I am not endorsing either candidate (at least not at this time).  Right now, I have substantive concerns about both candidates. Many rumors have been swirling about Ms. Tucker’s political past (and present).  Certainly, informed voters would be well advised to perform internet searches on both candidates to better understand their backgrounds—political and otherwise.  My blog is fact-based, so I will not relate or otherwise perpetuate rumors about candidates unless citizens provide me with direct evidence (e.g. screenshots) that would substantiate relevant concerns about either Ms. Tucker or Ms. Verhoff.

Painted Horse (Part 3):  Milton’s Ghost of Politics Past Rears It’s Ugly Head

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

–William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Unfortunately, Milton continues to be haunted by the ghosts of its sordid political past (which seems a fitting topic for the Halloween and election season).  The recent City Council hearings pertaining to The Painted Horse are a stark reminder that Milton’s politics and government remain mired in political rivalries dating back to the founding of the city.  Fittingly, these hearings come at the end of Laura Bentley’s first and perhaps last (she has opted not to run for re-election) term on Council.  On Monday night, I attended the hearing on Milton’s alcohol ordinance involving myriad changes that clearly targeted The Painted Horse and are intended to effectively shut down this winery.  (Paul Moore has indicated as much in a previous council meeting.)  The hearing was a clear abuse of process and yet another embarrassing example of Milton’s politics of personal destruction.  The gravity of Milton’s long history of dirty politics is strong.  While the cast of characters changes, Milton’s political shenanigans remain drearily the same, with citizens perennially on the proverbial short end of the stick.

Monday’s hearing was painful for those of us who previously were so hopeful about the future of Milton and invested heavily in the cause of reform.  For 2 years (2015 – 2017), a citizens’ rebellion defied Milton’s political forces that so often drag our government down into the muck and mud.  Good governance was on the march.  Organized citizen advocacy achieved important victories on critical issues of policy by fending off cluster housing ordinances, re-zonings to higher density, HOA-run community septic systems, and other existential threats to the community.  I was proud to play a leadership role in these victories through this blog, the posting of petitions, emails to concerned citizens, and other advocacy.  Over time, those of us in the vanguard of change realized that sustainable change would only be achievable through substantive reform of Milton’s governance processes.  We determined to invest our accumulated political capital in such reform.  Through revisions to Milton’s municipal code, the very architecture of government would be changed to ensure greater fairness, transparency, accountability, and rigor.  (James Madison would be proud.)  Milton would become a model for other cities.  But to effect such a transformation, we needed a caring, tireless and courageous advocate on City Council . . . enter Laura Bentley. 

2017 Campaign Theme: Shifting Power Back to Citizens

In December of 2016, Laura Bentley convened a meeting of six of us to choose a candidate for District 2 Post 1 in the upcoming 2017 elections . . . we chose Laura.  And Laura’s defining campaign plank was “shifting power back to citizens” . . . that is, permanent changes to the framework of government that would survive Laura’s tenure on Council and put Milton on a steady, steeper upward trajectory . . . defying the downward pull of special interests and personality politics.  Within the rule of law, the prerogatives of citizens would reign supreme.  Most importantly, Milton would actually follow its laws (and long-established zoning practice) in only granting variances for minor discrepancies that met all 4 tests for hardship (prescribed in Milton’s zoning laws). 

To effect such reform, we knew that Laura would need a landslide victory.  Through various platforms, an appeal was made to volunteers and voters.  Thankfully, citizens answered our clarion call to action, enthusiastically contributing in various ways to Laura’s candidacy.  The groundswell for good governance was undeniable . . . Laura captured 71+% of the vote, defeating a well-financed, politically-experienced incumbent who had been on council since Milton’s founding.  The investment of our hard-earned political capital had paid off at the polls.  Good governance was within grasp . . . Laura surely would make it happen . . . citizens were clearly behind her . . . Laura’s election was mandate for change . . . Laura would be unstoppable.

But alas, it was not meant to be.  To the great dismay of her supporters, within 3 months of her election, Laura disavowed the core principles of the citizens’ movement that elected her.  In the context of her support for a multitude of variances (28 in total for 3 separate properties) at Birmingham Crossroads, Laura stated to me “Tim, I know how you feel about process, but citizens don’t care about process; they only care about outcomes.  They don’t understand or care about variances.”  (Laura was parroting Joe Lockwood.)  Laura further stated that the City Attorney had advised her that council had “discretion” in granting variances, which Laura interpreted as nearly limitless discretion.  (Interestingly, the City Attorney asserted otherwise in the Crossroads hearings, stating that Milton’s ordinances do not allow granting of variances to improve outcomes and advised—in lawyer speak—against approving the very variances that Laura supported. Click on the below link to hear Jarrard’s guidance.)  Laura’s flip-flop on variances (and more broadly on re-architecting government), whereby she wholeheartedly adopted the stance of her 2017 opponent, caused a permanent rupture in Laura’s relationship with me and many other staunch supporters.

City Attorney’s Advising Against Granting Variances

And so it was that Laura became untethered from principles of good governance and alienated from most of her supporters.  Milton’s politics quickly reverted to the old ways.  Nothing substantive has been accomplished to fundamentally change the architecture of government, to further good governance, or (in Laura’s words) to “shift power back to citizens.”  In fact, in many respects, Milton governance has regressed since I became involved 6 years ago.  For example, earlier in 2021, the Charter Commission, which previously met every 5 years and was one of the few checks on Council power, was disbanded by City Council.  This fundamental change to Milton’s charter went virtually unnoticed by citizens.

Milton is Often Not Friendly to Small Businesses

This brings me back to The Painted Horse.  On Monday night, Laura (and Paul Moore) led the charge against the Painted Horse.  For 3+ hours, City Council mercilessly pencil-whipped Milton’s alcohol ordinance.  Some 100 changes were considered by Council.  The result is a complex and convoluted alcohol ordinance that likely will drag Milton into a legal quagmire about what sorts of entertainment/recreational venues are acceptable in Milton . . . a most unadmirable legacy bequeathed to citizens by Ms. Bentley.  And council’s actions beg a number of questions.  Is it really Council’s role to wallow in the details and write ordinances?  Or rather isn’t Council’s role to provide guidance to staff and then hold them accountable for writing sensible ordinances?  Of course, it must be remembered that a farm-winery is a by-right use established under state law.  Accordingly, is it reasonable to suppose that a court will uphold an alcohol ordinance (or other measures) clearly intended to subvert state law and effectively ban farm-wineries in Milton?  Will Council Members Bentley, Moore, et al dip into their pockets to cover the legal expenses for the City and the Painted Horse should a court rule against Milton’s interference?  Consider that Milton’s alcohol ordinance includes a ridiculous provision that prohibits Painted Horse patrons from straying more than 20 feet from the tasting room building (and enjoying the beauty of the farm with its vineyards).  The 20-foot adjacency restriction appears an unreasonable encumbrance, meant (along with other interference) by Lilliputian members of Council to tie down and tangle up The Painted Horse and to carry out a personal vendetta against the owners.

Unfortunately, the Painted Horse saga is a sad reminder that Laura’s election did not result in shifting power back to citizens and that good governance continues to elude Milton.  However, I suppose there is a certain measure of poetic justice in the fact that a co-operator of The Painted Horse, Juliette Johnson, will succeed Ms. Bentley as the District 2, Post 1 City Council representative.  Perhaps, Painted Horse’s owner, Pam Jackson, will run against and displace the last remaining representative of Milton’s Old Guard (and other District 2 representative) Paul Moore (who political slithering dates back to the City’s first election when he was a candidate).  Based on her background, Ms. Jackson seems a smart, accomplished, and courageous professional and business owner . . . just the sort of person we need on council.  And, of course, Milton certainly has a storied reputation for ejecting misbehaving Council members (or else prompting them not to run to run for re-election to avoid certain defeat at the ballot box).  I remain hopeful.

Advocating For a Break With Milton’s Political Past,

Tim

Note: In future posts, I will speak to 1) Paul Moore’s central role in past and present dysfunction in the Milton City government and 2) City’s Manager Krokoff’s failure in his basic responsibilities as chief executive at City Hall.

District 2 Council Members: Posturing as Protectors of the People and Promoters of Principle and Process

Tonight’s City Council meeting agenda includes issues having impact on two local businesses:  The Painted Horse and Billy Allen’s Piano Bar.  And these issues shine a bright light on a sad state of affairs in Milton.  Unfortunately, the misbehavior of Milton’s two District 2 Council Members, Paul Moore and Laura Bentley, is bearing bitter fruit for the community.  Citizens’ trust in Milton’s City government is waning (notwithstanding the City’s non-stop stream of look-good/feel good Facebook posts).  And increasingly, it is difficult to distinguish local politics from Washington politics.  This loss of confidence in Milton’s municipal government was both predicted and predictable.  Both Paul and Laura led the variance parade at Birmingham Crossroads . . . with 28 variances and a bastardized special use permit granted in 4 separate hearings over the span of less than a year.  In the case of Matilda’s,  Paul and Laura cavalierly disregarded both the rule of law and citizens’ concerns in favor of their own and their friends’ personal interests . . . to the detriment of the community. 

Now the results of Council’s poor decisions are metastasizing elsewhere in Milton.  Other applicants before council are demanding equal treatment—aka fairness.  And they make a good (and probably legally sound) case for such like treatment.  You see, Council’s approval of Matilda’s at Birmingham Crossroads set the bar very low for what is accepted and acceptable in Milton . . . “open borders” for all sorts of businesses.  The owners of the Painted Horse (a winery) and now Billy Allen’s (a piano bar) are asking for (much) less than was granted to Matilda’s.  And when you contrast The Painted Horse with Matilda’s, you see the obvious illogic and incoherence in Milton City Council’s land use approach.  After all, The Painted Horse owners are saving an equestrian property, operating a by-right business, regulating alcohol consumption, and abiding by Milton’s noise ordinance.  This is in stark contrast to Matilda’s, which is located on a marginal property (bisected by high voltage transmission lines), operates under a bastardized (by 12 variances) festival use permit, is BYOB, and pumps out music that is 15 DB above Milton’s approved noise limits and sometimes can be heard 1.5 miles away.  The “intensity of use” (a term of art at Council) is much lower at The Painted Horse.  It strikes me that farm-wineries actually 1) offer a wonderful opportunity to save equestrian properties and 2) align well with Milton’s rural character.  The same cannot be reasonably asserted about Matilda’s.  Farm wineries might actually provide apposite means for Milton to distinguish itself in Atlanta’s north metro area.

Realizing they’ve lost the trust of Milton’s voters, Paul and Laura are now posturing as protectors of the people and as promoters of principles and process.  Their worship at the altar of good governance is unconvincing and shameful.   Long ago, both Paul and Laura ceded the moral high ground and opted instead for the political low road, a well-worn path in Milton that has often led to defeat at the ballot box (or to politicians wisely choosing not to seek re-election).  Let’s get real.  In light of their slavish support for Matilda’s, Paul and Laura’s opposition to The Painted Horse has little to do with the people, principles, or process.  Their opposition appears transparently personal and their goal seems nothing short of running the Painted Horse owners out of business. 

Paul Moore Campaigning For City Council at Matilda’s (2019)

It is interesting to note that in re-purposing a use permit with 12 variances for Matilda’s and then taking a subsequent strict stance against any additional music or other entertainment venues, Paul and Laura have effectively created a well-protected monopoly for Matilda’s in Milton.  It is also interesting to note that many of Paul’s allies have privately acknowledged that Paul erred in his blind advocacy for Matilda’s and in his blatant circumvention of due process, but excuse him by stating that his was a “crime of passion” . . . akin to a mama bear protecting its cubs.  This is nonsense.  Paul knew better but didn’t care.  And unfortunately (but predictably), City leadership turned a blind eye to ethical and due process violations. Lastly, it is interesting to note that Paul and Laura reached out to residents near The Painted Horse to understand their concerns, but Paul and Laura never engaged citizens that were to be impacted by Matilda’s–perhaps because nearby residents were nearly unanimous in their opposition.

I encourage citizens to attend tonight’s hearing.  It should be a good show.  Political hypocrisy at its finest.  If you can’t make it, following is a link for watching the meeting virtually.

In closing, it is worth noting that come January 2022, Milton will have three new City Council members.  I am hopeful.  These prospective Council Members would be well-advised to closely watch tonight’s hearings and learn some valuable lessons . . . a principled process is the only path to good outcomes and to restoring trust and confidence in local government.

Advocating For Good Governance,

Tim

Note: I want to emphasize that I was not opposed to Matilda’s being re-located to Milton. My objections were to a circumvention of due process and the rule of law; re-purposing a use permit with myriad variances; and total disregard for the concerns of nearby residents. I believe that a suitable home for Matilda’s in Milton could have been found by following principled process. This would have involved creating a use permit for music venues in Milton, assuming citizens wanted music venues in AG-1 zoned areas of Milton. It would have meant finding a location that did not require variances that remove basic protections to the community. It would have required clear support from the community, especially those most impacted by the music venue. And finally, it would have followed an ethical, transparent, fair, and rigorous approval process.