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Posted by on October 5, 2012.

Letter to the editor: Shepard lays out his reasons for suspending his campaign for Brookhaven mayor

Thom Shepard

In an open letter dated Oct. 5, former Brookhaven mayoral candidate Thom Shepard said he is suspending his campaign rather than formally withdrawing from the race.

“I have decided that while it is necessary for me to leave my public campaign suspended, as I simply need to focus on other work with respect to the city startup, I will not withdraw my name from the ballot at this time,” Shepard said in his 2,800-word letter setting out his reasons for ending his run.

Shepard was among four candidates seeking to become the first mayor of Brookhaven. On Oct. 3, he did not appear among the candidates taking part in a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Ashford Park and Drew Valley homeowners associations. During the debate, he confirmed he was ending his campaign.

Candidates Larry Danese, J. Max Davis and Sandy Murray continue to seek the mayor’s post.

Here is the text of Shepard’s letter explaining his decision:

 

October 5, 2012

An Open Letter from Thom Shepard to the Citizens of the Future City of Brookhaven, Georgia,

On October 3rd I decided to suspend my campaign for Mayor of Brookhaven. It was not a decision I wanted to make.

To understand my decision I really need to go back to why I decided to run for mayor.

I participated in the election process of both Dunwoody and Chattahoochee Hills and met most of the candidates and introduced to them many of the concepts, tools and vision I have gained experience with around the country where leaders are taking their cities and rural areas towards a more sustainable vision of preservation, conservation and great walkable and bikeable urban design and development.

I was frustrated during both of the elections because the candidates who seemed to understand, in my personal opinion, both the very important technical, legal and engineering issues of transitioning from county services, and as well understood the importance of a greater vision to lead the city into the future simply were not necessarily the most skilled at asking for money and as such winning votes. So it seems that those who had strong experienced political backers or had political finesse had a strong advantage over those who were doing the hard work of city start up and really understood some of the important technical issues of creating a city from scratch.

In considering candidates, citizens must realize that the potential elected officials need to understand the minutia of the previous government from which we will inherit our municipal code, as we cannot legally change much of this at startup.  We will then go through a public and political process of changing and creating laws, adjusting zoning and planning issues for the short term and then hopefully creating our own clear vision for Brookhaven with our comprehensive plan. Then and only then can we consider transitioning to one of the contemporary zoning codes. Such codes have been designed from the ground up to promote walkable, bike-friendly communities, great urban design, preservation, conservation- and transit-oriented development. If we choose the right path in this process we can allow each community of Brookhaven to define clearly what it wants for its future, in concert with the rest of the city. Our communities can be both different and unique as well as part of a greater, and very connected, vision.

The first five new cities, excluding Peachtree Corners and their city lite model, all had, to some degree, the same problem that Brookhaven now has. Those who wrote/sponsored the “Act to incorporate the City of Brookhaven in DeKalb County”,” Reps. Mike Jacobs and Tom Taylor and Sen. Fran Millar made two very substantial mistakes.

First they did not follow the advice found on page 15, and repeated, of Oliver Porters 2006 book “Creating the New City of Sandy Springs,” where he stated, “A major improvement in a new city’s ability to start operations would be to have created a better timeline. An interval is needed, six months minimum, between the time that the elected officials, or an appointed body has the authority to make binding deals and the start or operations.” My only addendum to this quote would be that so much has changed since 2006 that I do not feel that six months is still necessary as the previous cities have all now shifted to split service contracts and the wide variety of contractors has created a healthy environment of competition. Municipal legal council could better define an ideal timeline, however it is obvious to all involved that 5-8 working days is simply absurd. We can do it but it puts huge pressure on volunteer committee members and volunteer legal counsel and greatly limits our options, creativity, public input and bargaining power with contractors and the county.

To briefly explain split service, when Sandy Springs started they went with one master private contractor to provide all of the services taken over from DeKalb except the police force. While there were advantages to this model is was also expensive. This contractor then sub-contracted to other vendors or provided services in-house. The analogy would be hiring a general contractor to build your house vs. hiring all the sub-contractors yourself. The trend now is for the city manager to hire these sub-contractors. The only problem is that since the council/mayor have not been elected, they cannot hire a city manager, and he or she cannot be part of this process of writing the RFPs, selecting contractors and making major decisions as to the structure of the city. As well there are three separate elements to consider:

  1. Working with DeKalb County on services we ca not take over immediately.
  2. Transitioning immediately to basically provide almost the exact same services as DeKalb County, only hopefully with higher quality and better service for hopefully the same or better price.
  3. Having the long term vision to guide Brookhaven to change to the kind of city and structure model to be the conservation, sustainable and yet development and economically vital city we all know it can be.

Because our legislators did not follow this advice, we have put huge time pressure on the future council and mayor. These is simply not time for them to be sworn in and have time to review, adjust and most importantly solicit some of the best possible vendors and city managers in the country. Much of this work will in fact be done by a body appointed by the Governors Commission and their volunteers with very little input from candidates as they are specifically excluded from much of the process.

This is a rather incredible strange twist on democracy.  We are forming a brand new government, a remarkable and historic event, and specifically excluding, out of legal necessity and due to the design of the city enabling legislation, the very people who will be the potential leaders, and who will be democratically elected by the citizens of Brookhaven, from a substantial portion of the formation process of the city.  We are in fact asking the future mayor and City Council to play a strange blind-dating game with a pre-selected group of contractors and city managers.  Despite this folly, since the start date was written into the original bill, known as “an Act to incorporate the city of Brookhaven in DeKalb County,” signed by the governor of the state of Georgia and ratified by the future citizens of Brookhaven, it is now set in stone and we must just deal with it.

We are fortunate, though, with the savvy of our Governors Commission, their volunteers, and many citizens leaders not to make the same mistake as Dunwoody.  They chose to (as Senator Weber described in the strangely restricted meeting last week) hand over the RFP writing/evaluating/startup management in an unusual no-bid contract to Boyken International. This was done by officially telling Boyken there was no guarantee they would be paid for these services by the newly elected city council and mayor. This was required as the Governors Commission that handed them this work of writing and managing RFPs could not legally make such a commitment of the city. And yet interestingly Boyken did do this major work, without having to bid on it, with no official promise of pay, and thus had huge control over the formation of the city. Boyken was paid by the city for these services once council and mayor were elected and although their pitch was to “work themselves out of a job selflessly” and hand over these duties to the city manager it is my understanding they are still being employed for similar contracts. Let it be noted that it is my understanding that Boyken International builds luxury resorts in the islands and is not a firm that historically wrote RFPs, hired city managers or specialized in urban design, sustainable planning or providing city services.

The so-called educational meeting last Monday organized by Mike Jacobs and Fran Millar was basically a sales pitch for Boyken International and Dunwoody’s current sub-contractors, and only Dunwoody’s sub-contractors. It might be noted in the invitation a lot of restrictions were placed on who was welcome to attend and it was billed as a rather closed meeting between candidates, the Governors Commission, their invitees and the Dunwoody leadership. I found it very strange Mr. Jacobs chose to ban the press from this meeting and then for Mr. Jacobs to days after the meeting that the public was largely welcome. This was not my impression as a candidate attending and I am deeply disturbed by the problems this has created in fostering a bias to a small group of contractors with most of the Governors Commission and candidates in attendance.

Further, many of those who were invited to speak simply stayed for the rest of conference where we were encouraged to question freely. It is very awkward to ask a tough question about Boyken International and then later realize people were coming and going freely and that Don Boyken was one of them and was probably privy to such questions. I personally feel betrayed by the Mayor of Dunwoody and the statement he made at the beginning of the meeting and what he allowed to go on in a very formal setting of the Dunwoody City Council, with the press specifically excluded.

This huge gaff and distraction is the most serious issue that led to the suspension of my campaign for Mayor of Brookhaven. But to be clear it is not the only reason and alone would not have led to this decision had it not been for the mounting challenge of the other nine reasons.

Back to my discussion of the time table and Brookhaven. The problem that cities have encountered in my opinion is that because of the unfortunately truncated timeline, the previous cities have not had much choice or bargaining power on items 1 and 2 and 3 (from several paragraphs above) during initial startup and as such by the time they get to visioning a more sustainable and livable future they are as encumbered by existing infrastructure as most existing cities. This in fact goes to defeat the whole benefit of “starting fresh” as a new city. So if we elect a mayor and city council who do not have a clear sustainable vision for the future of Brookhaven, and they do not look for this in the city manager they hire or require this capability in the contractors they pick, it simply will not happen in the next 5 or 10 years, except in much smaller increments and in limited ways. The beauty of starting a new city is that you can start with a fresh vision, fresh city manager, fresh contractors. The pitfall is if you start wrong it is incredibly difficult to change at a later date. Structure and politics become institutionalized and are very difficult to change. What we are in government structure on Jan. 1, 2013, is what will define what Brookhaven can be for the next decade. These are big decisions, being made in a frantic hurry, without a lot of the right questions being asked.

Second, the political power team that wrote the act decided the Governors Commission would be held accountable to the Georgia Open Meetings Act. While normally this would be a great idea, since we are on such a terribly short time schedule, it basically disables the ability to meet quickly and work hard. Weeks have been lost of valuable time to do the work described above because those who know these issues could not gather until they went through the formalities required by open meeting rules. Further all candidates are excluded from these discussions even if they might have very valuable knowledge and information. The deadlines to submit RFPs in time for them to legally be ready for the newly elected mayor and council and for them to accept them ASAP so contractors can ramp up city operations is just too close to foster much besides taking over DeKalb County services pretty much the way it has been done. We can and will do it, but it does remove time for detailed thought and creativity.

I am actually thrilled with the open nature of the Governor’s Commission and the way they are handling this structure, they simply need six months to work under this legal requirement to accomplish the work I think we would like to see done. Instead, because of the extremely short time table handed to them by our state legislators, they will have to go with the simplest process possible that can be done professionally. We simply will not have time to think about how we as our own city would want to do things differently than the six cities that came before us. We cannot consider that we are the first city totally inside the perimeter with a DNA that is much less suburban than the previous cities, a city that in its southeast corner can connect with the Beltline trail-and-rail system and that planning for such a city with true urban potential is much different than cities that are more or less locked into their very car-centric suburban nature.

So getting back to my decision to suspend my campaign. There were about 10 reasons I made this decision on Wednesday and frankly while the pressure had been building I did not consider such a decision until mid day when I realized, weighing everything that had happened the previous couple weeks, I could not move forward with the kind of professionalism I felt was necessary for my campaign. I was simply spending too much time on what I feel are critical issues for the city and where my personal knowledge and involvement is necessary. While some of the reasons for putting my campaign on hold relate to the challenge of putting aside existing projects and commitments and being able to fully dedicate to a campaign and as well the job, of mayor none of these were deciding factors. The main deciding factors all relate to the pressure created by the shorted timeline created by our state legislators and the fact that it is simply impossible to mount the kind of innovative campaign I would like to run, while still being as involved in the RFP/City Manager Evaluation process that I feel is necessary for me personally.

However, after sitting thru the debate organized by Erica Mymudes and Victor Herec I realized two things.

One, I felt there was not enough discussion of the kinds of vision I feel is necessary to be part of the mayor race if we really want to be one of the greatest cities in America when it comes to biking, walkability, urban design and small business friendly development. While the walkability of the Dresden LCI is good, the LCI does have flaws that need to be discussed. There are clearly reasons to both love and hate the LCI and we need to have that discussion and realize that there are much better examples than the Brookhaven LCI. There are much better code models than the overlay and as a city we can incorporate everything good about the LCI without some of the substantial shortcomings inherent in implementing such a tool under DeKalb County. As an independent city, we can protect the financial interests of those who have bought into real estate and who have plans for development in the LCI area while at the same time creating models to fairly solve some of the mistakes and move towards a more comprehensive model for the entire city.

The second thing is that this debate, and the way it was organized independently by a community, has opened the door for a level of discussion and questions at the community level that I have not previously witnessed in other cities. If the other three districts follow the lead of the Ashford/Drew Valley group of communities there is a clear opportunity for us to have the kind of discussions necessary to balance both the dramatic transition of services from DeKalb County to our new city as well as fostering a clear vision of what we intend to become in five years. There were some great public candidate discussions in the other cities, but I now feel ours will far exceed their efforts in scope and volume.

Because of this I have decided that while it is necessary for me to leave my public campaign suspended, as I simply need to focus on other work with respect to the city startup, I will not withdraw my name from the ballot at this time.

In closing, I have to say I am thrilled to have seen how many people have stepped up at the community level and shown leadership. It is because of this leadership outside of the political process that I am confident that Brookhaven will be the most successful city yet and will take full advantage of its unique position as the first new totally ITP, and potentially great urban city of Georgia.

Thom Shepard

thom@ruralurban.org

 

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