(Last Updated January 16, 2022)
Bit and Pieces is a new feature of the blog. Milton politics and government is an amazingly rich source of material for the Milton Coalition Blog . . . so much material that I could probably publish a few dozen posts each week . . . . if I had the time or inclination . . . but I do not. However, I do not want to completely ignore emergent ideas and stories that readers might find interesting or useful. So this is the page where I will park these ideas and stories and develop them over time . . . perhaps even develop them enough that I may eventually publish them as individual blog posts. Each piece will have a title and a notation of when the piece was last updated. Please feel free to reach out to me with topics you might like me to address.
Lame-Duck Final Push To Effectively Ban Farm Wineries – An Amazing Feat of Hypocrisy and the Epitome of Double Standards (Last updated December 15, 2021)
I attended Monday’s Milton City Council meeting and spoke for the first time in 3 years. I felt compelled to speak (about farm-wineries). Although I continue to follow important issues at the City, I quit actively engaging in city government at the end of 2018, when it became clear to me that the candidate that I helped elect (some would say my role was dispositive), Laura Bentley, was not going to honor her commitments to voters, particularly her promise (one of 3 platform planks) to “shift power back to citizens.” Furthermore, it was clear that Laura was not going to uphold the principles and policies that so many of us had fought so hard for in the run-up to her election. At the Crossroads alone, Laura supported all 28 variances and a special use permit that did irreversible damage to the Crossroads, to good governance, and to citizens’ trust in Laura. In less than a year, Laura had squandered all of her political capital. Laura went from being the most powerful, most respected politician in Milton to just another dissembling and promise-breaking Council member. And this gets me back to why I spoke before Council . . .
As Laura’s rolls off council (along with Mayor Lockwood and Council Member Longoria), there is a rush to pass a slew of text amendments to Milton’s zoning laws. Given that there will be 3 new council members taking their oaths in January, it seems prudent that Council not address such important issues on their way out the door. Such actions are an affront to good process and disrespectful toward the incoming council members. And I say this as a supporter of some of the amendments, such as repeal of CUP (Community Unit Plan) zoning, which developers have used (or have attempted to use) to achieve have-it-their-way zoning. Eliminating CUP zoning reduces the power of Council . . . and thereby does in a certain sense shift power back to citizens. However, what caught my eye were text amendments meant to regulate, but I would contend effectively prohibit, farm-wineries. These amendments seem to be just another dreary chapter in the Moore-Bentley-Cookerly crusade against the Painted Horse and more generally against farm-wineries (although my sense is that the Painted Horse is grandfathered under laws in place before these amendments). It is a battle that has become very personal, and at times positively middle-school. We deserve better from our elected representatives. The Painted Horse crusade is absurd when compared to Matilda’s, which was the main message of my comments before Council. And oddly, the two council members that led the charge for Matilda’s, Paul Moore and Laura Bentley, are the same council members leading the opposition to the Painted Horse and farm-wineries. Even for politicians, it is an amazing feat of hypocrisy . . . and the epitome of double standards. You can watch my public comments by clicking on the following link and advancing to 1:27:30:
In my comments before Council, I focused on a few areas. First, I pointed out the differences in approaches to parking between Matilda’s and farm-wineries. In the case of Matilda’s, there were essentially no standards vs. specific and onerous standards for farm wineries.
With Matilda’s, the applicant provided a laughable, cartoonish plan for parking. It was called “orchard parking.” It was clearly inadequate, but nevertheless blessed by city staff as sufficient. (This was yet another demonstration of the incompetence of city staff . . . as if more examples are needed.) Citizens requested that parking for Matilda’s and the restaurant 7-Acre be considered together as clearly the parking would be shared; city staff refused citizens’ pleas. Within just a few months of approval of Matilda’s, the Matilda’s property owner engaged Georgia Power in discussions about creating a second parking lot north of the concert venue under Georgia Power’s transmission lines; an agreement would be needed to encroach on Georgia Power’s easement. Clearly, he understood that the parking plan he has submitted was inadequate. However, an encroachment agreement with Georgia Power was never signed and filed. Additionally, the City never approved a north parking lot. Nevertheless, the property owner proceeded to create both a south and a north parking lot. Without permission from the City, he covered 2+ acres with gravel. He also removed all of the vegetation under the power lines–in violation of Georgia Power’s rules. A citizen alerted the city to the spreading of the gravel, the unlawful creation of the north parking lot, and the lack of an encroachment agreement. According to the City, the property owner asserted he had an encroachment agreement with Georgia Power, a falsehood repeated by the City Manager without any proof of an agreement. The City Manager stated that the laying down of gravel was troubling and that environmental remediation might be required, but to my knowledge, nothing was done by the City to address this situation. Furthermore, citing public safety concerns, the City Manager allowed use of the north parking lot on a one-time basis; I believe the City Manager was trying to avoid embarrassment to himself and his staff. Citizens were assured that Matilda’s was not again permitted to use the north parking until a City Council hearing and the approval of a variance for the parking. However, Matilda’s continued to use the north parking for its 2nd and 3rd concerts. Instead of citing the venue, the City flip-flopped on the issue, with the City Manager allowing use of the un-approved north parking lot until the matter could be heard by Council. When the matter came before Council, Matilda’s was granted the variance, without so much as a scolding. However, the story around parking gets even worse. At the original hearing, Council eliminated the buffers around the entire property, even areas far from Matilda’s (and 7-Acre restaurant). This means cars can be parked within 10 feet of the property line with Birmingham Park. Contrast this with the proposed standards for farm-wineries: parking must be 100+ feet from property lines and screening provided. So Matilda’s gets to park cars 10 feet (from Birmingham Park) with no screening, while farm-wineries must park cars 100+ feet and provide screening. Why the big difference? Cronyism. And it gets even worse. 7-Acre is allowing cars to be parked along Birmingham Highway immediately east of 7-Acre restaurant. This creates a safety hazard, as cars entering the Crossroads from the west have an obstructed view of cars to the north traveling southbound. The state has advised the City that this parking is not permitted and is unsafe. Milton’s City Manager has chosen to ignore the state. Bear in mind that the City has bent over backwards to accommodate parking requests for the NW corner. It is also troubling that Matilda’s parking is being used for 7-Acre patrons. In essence, a variance has been granted to accommodate parking for Matilda’s (most of it on AG-1 zoned land) but is being re-purposed as parking for a commercial business. The property owner should be required to apply for a variance for 7-Acre for the re-purposed parking. And I believe such as variance should be denied . . . that is, the property owner should be required to build parking in accordance with the Birmingham Crossroads overlay (i.e., the parking should follow the same standards as those applied to the other 3 corners of the Crossroads.) What are the key takeaways here? Cronyism is alive and well in Milton. And don’t believe City Manager Krokoff when he tells you that he “stays above the fray.” The truth is that Mr. Krokoff often wades deep into the fray to further the whims of certain council members, even targeting specific citizens with the City’s PR apparatus. And readers should also understand that some of the variances granted by council attach to the property (not the use), so these valuable variances are perpetual, enhancing the value of the property with variances while diminishing the value of surrounding properties. It’s true what they say about the rich getting richer . . . and the poor (average citizens without agents on Council . . . low friends in high places) getting poorer. Variances mean that our community gets built out in ways that lower our property values as loud noise, bad smells, and unsightliness (legalized by variances and catalyzed by legal precedent) metastasizes across Milton.
Second, I pointed out the stark contrast between the loudness rules for Matilda’s vs. the proposed loudness rules for farm-wineries. Readers might recall that originally the Matilda’s applicant stated that the music would be so soft (mostly amplified acoustic, we were told) at Matilda’s that he likely would not need a variance to the festival use permit’s requirement that loudness not exceed 60DB (at the nearest property line). (Note also that the AG-1 limit for noise is 55DB at the nearest property line.) However, when the matter came before the Planning Commission, City staff recommended allowing a maximum of 85 DB at the nearest property line–8X louder than the noise ordinance for AG-1 zoned properties and approximately 6X louder than allowed for a festival use permit. This 85DB standard was subsequently approved by the Planning Commission chaired by Paul Moore. This is very LOUD! It is the same loudness as a freight train traveling at 45 mph at a distance of 100 yards. And 85DB is the loudness at which OSHA requires hearing protection in industrial environments. Thankfully, City Council dialed back the maximum loudness to 75DB and in a later hearing to 70DB. Contrast this standard with the currently proposed standard for farm wineries . . . no music allowed, regardless of the loudness. So 70DB for Matilda’s (dialed down from 85DB proposed by staff and approved by the Planning Commission) vs. no music at farm-wineries, regardless of the loudness . . . an egregious double standard. Why shouldn’t farm-wineries be allowed to host music if the loudness meets AG-1 noise standard . . . which is 1/3 the loudness approved for Matilda’s? And it should be noted that Matilda’s can sometimes be heard 1.5+ miles away, so draw your own conclusions about whether the City is enforcing the liberal loudness standards it set for Matilda’s. The City’s lack of enforcement of these standards has worn down citizens, who no longer complain to the City. This is a frequent strategy of city staff (and some Council members): ignore citizen complaints until citizens give up. In May, the Matilda’s music was so loud that I texted Council Members Bentley and Moore and the City Manager: “Hearing Matilda’s at my home. It is that loud.” I received no response. Although I had previously heard Matilda’s music, I had never before contacted the City about the loudness of Matilda’s. And it is exactly this sort of response (or lack thereof) that deters citizens from any criticism of the City.
Another proposed (third) encumbrance to farm-wineries is an amendment to Milton’s zoning that requires a use permit for farm-wineries. It is interesting that a use permit is being proposed for a purpose that is designated “by-right” in Georgia state law. Requiring a use permit for a by-right use seems a contradiction in terms. Combined with other restrictions (prohibition of music, not allowing patrons to stray more than 20 feet from the tasting room, onerous parking restrictions, etc.), it is quite obvious that the City is effectively banning farm-wineries while tip-toeing carefully around state law permitting such farm-wineries. Meanwhile, the music blares away at Matilda’s . . . while the City turns a deaf ear and blind eye to the concerns of nearby residents. As I stated at Council, the stark contrast between Council’s devil-may-care attitude toward Matilda’s vs. its suffocatingly strict treatment of The Painted Horse and farm-wineries raises basic issues of fairness.
In summary, a number of encumbrances are being imposed on farm-wineries that practically ensure that no new farm-wineries will be allowed in Milton. These efforts to effectively ban farm-wineries are in stark contrast to the approach to Matlilda’s where City staff and Council ignored Milton’s zoning process and zoning law to permit a high-intensity music venue that regularly blasts music to the surrounding countryside. Why the difference in treatments for Matilda’s vs. farm-wineries? Well it comes down to personal agendas of Council members (in the case of Matilda’s, Paul Moore’s personal agenda) and cronyism (i.e., favors for friends). These personal agendas and cronyism drove staff and council to ignore both the rule of law and the will of citizens. And this effort to subvert good governance was led by the two District 2 representatives . . . the very same people who had previously spoken most forcefully against cronyism and high intensity development in Milton. They sure fooled me and many other Miltonites. Make no mistake about it . . . hypocrisy and double standards are alive and well in Milton.
New Year . . . Same Old Politics? (Last Updated January 1, 2022)
Well, it is a new year in Milton. I wonder what New Year’s resolutions have been made by Milton’s illustrious council members. I hope that their top resolution is to improve good governance in Milton. Good governance is foundational to good policy . . . and this is an axiom of government that has been mostly lost on Milton’s politicians since the founding of the City. However, there might yet be hope for Milton. Three new council members will be sworn onto Council at the next Milton City Council meeting. Hopefully, at least one of these new council members will have the courage and wisdom to promote principles of good governance: honesty, transparency, accountability, fairness, and primacy of the rule of law. And my hope is that the new council members will reject Milton’s two factions: Lusk-Kunz vs. Bentley-Moore. It is helpful that Laura Bentley is no longer on council and has been replaced by a citizen that has experienced firsthand Milton’s personality politics (practiced by Ms. Bentley). Hopefully, the middle school machinations that have plagued Milton’s politics since the city’s founding are rejected in favor of mature adults making decisions based on strict interpretation of our laws and citizens (vs. Special Interests) prerogatives. Time will tell . . .
Advice to New Council Members: Maintain Professional Distance From Krokoff (Last Updated January 2, 2022)
When Steve Krokoff was promoted from Police Chief to City Manager, I had high hopes for the City. Krokoff assured me and other citizens that he would take his role as head of Milton’s “executive branch” seriously. In this role, he would “stay above the fray” . . . his words. And I assumed a criminal justice professional–at least an honest and professional one–would care a lot about how things get done . . . process would be critically important. And Krokoff in an email to me assured me that process was his passion. However, over time, I realized that Krokoff was blowing a lot of smoke up our collective rear-ends. I saw example after example of an “executive” (quotes intentional) that demonstrated incompetence, poor leadership, questionable integrity and little concern for citizens. I saw an executive that seemed singularly focused on “protecting the city” and “playing politics.” Under the Krokoff regime, increasing distance has been put between citizens and their government . . . consent of the governed has been attenuated. Deep moats have been dug between citizens and their government. Early on, Mr. Krokoff began showing his cards. One of his first acts was to modify Milton’s ethics ordinance to provide up to $5000 to cover legal costs for staff and Council members against whom ethics complaints had been filed. None of our sister cities provide such legal assistance, perhaps because they see such a provision as a hurdle to the filing of legitimate ethics complaints.
I’ll have much more to say about Mr. Krokoff as I continue this post. However, suffice to say that new City Council members need to keep professional distance from Mr. Krokoff. They may have to show him the door. That is made more difficult if they’ve established a chummy relationship with Krokoff, as has been the case with some current council members. I believe new council members–if they are objective–will soon come to realize that there are serious problems down at City Hall and that much of the dysfunction can be traced back to poor leadership . . . and by extension a toxic culture of incompetence and corruption (by which I mean staff intentionally disregarding the law in its recommendations to Council and selective enforcement of Milton’s laws).
City Council: Glorified Community Service? (Last updated January 16, 2022)
It is often the case that candidates for Milton City Council, particularly candidates new to politics, will tout their community service in their campaigns. And I have often heard both first-time candidates, as well as long-serving council members, refer to service on city council as a continuation of their community service work–e.g., volunteering at school or working in a non-profit charity. And I suppose that in a certain sense, elective office can be viewed as serving the community, although city council members are paid. However, to view elected office primarily as a more glorified or more substantive form of community service is to fundamentally misconstrue and trivialize the grave obligations inherent in representing citizens. And to adopt such an unserious attitude toward governance is actually to do disservice to the community. After all, government is a serious business that deserves serious representatives who clearly understand their responsibilities.
A critical point of departure of government from community service is that government is granted police powers. This is a key distinction that underlines the seriousness of elective office. Police powers mean that the government has monopoly on legal coercion . . . and this includes a monopoly on legalized violence. In consenting to be governed, citizens give up some liberties in exchange for societal order and stability by investing government with such police powers . . . powers that government should exercise judiciously (but sadly often does not, even in Milton). A key responsibility of elected officials is to ensure accountability in the use of these powers–that is, to ensure such powers are not misused or abused; that such powers are applied fairly and without prejudice . . . that no one, not even their friends–actually, most especially their friends–are not above the law. And in fact, Milton’s city council members take a solemn oath to perform this duty to uphold the law.
“I do solemnly (swear) (affirm) that I will faithfully perform the duties of (mayor) (council member) of this city and that I will support and defend the Charter thereof as well as the Constitution and laws of the State of Georgia and of the United States of America.”
It is simple oath with a singular focus . . . a simplicity and singular purpose that makes its message compelling and clear: The duty of our city council members is to uphold the rule of law. And when they do not take this duty seriously–for example, when they trivialize elected office as just another variety of community service–council members commit a grave disservice to the Milton community and its citizens.