The Dunwoody Homeowners Association hosted a City Council candidate forum Oct. 15, asking questions ranging from such topics as density in Perimeter Center, traffic and stances on apartments.
The forum was held at the Kingsley Raquet and Swim Club and attracted approximately 50 people, including Mayor Denis Shortal, state Sen. Fran Millar and DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester as well as members of the City Council and many DHA members.
The forum was broken up into approximate 45-minute sessions for each race — Post/District 1, Post/District 2 and Post/District 3. This story is broken up by race with each candidate’s answers to several questions.
The Reporter Newspapers Voters Guide on the candidates can be found by clicking here.
Post/District 3: Henry Biernfeld, Tom Lambert
This is an open race after Councilmember Doug Thompson announced earlier this year he was not seeking re-election.
On what is wrong with Dunwoody and how would they fix it:
Henry Biernfeld said, “Traffic is a really big issue.” He proposed more traffic signal synchronization and perhaps more intersection improvements to help with congestion.
Tom Lambert said the city has focused on its first 10 years making up for the years of neglect from DeKalb County. He said he’d like to see major projects, such as the Tilly Mill Road and North Peachtree Road intersection, completed at a quicker pace. “That’s a great improvement, but that’s one in 10 years,” he said.
The two were asked about the size of the police department increasing each year over the past decade despite the number of residents remaining about the same and if they supported the department’s growth.
Bierenfeld said the city must do what it can to protect its aging residents from criminals and agreed with planned growth of the police department.
Lambert noted that while the city’s residential population has not grown, its commercial businesses have doubled, specifically in Perimeter Center. “As that area continues to grow, the police department also needs to grow,” he said. He said he rode along with a police officer over the summer and believes the money the department receives is being well spent.
On a question of the city should use its development authority to purchase land to ensure the kind of development it wants, both candidates said it was unwise for the city to get into the real estate business.
On a question about density, especially the addition of more apartments in the city:
Biernfeld said that when apartments are built, they look good the first five to 10 years, and then traditionally fall into disrepair and said careful consideration should be given to more apartments being added to the city.
Lambert said Dunwoody has 50 percent rentals and 50 percent owner-occupied residents while he said the number should be 60-40 or 70-30 in favor of owner-occupied homes. He said he generally opposes more apartments. He also noted there are two Dunwoodys – the neighborhoods and Perimeter Center – and said he supported mixed-use developments over apartments because they don’t tax the city’s infrastructure like apartments do.
On how to serve senior citizens in the city, Lambert floated his idea that the old Austin Elementary School building obtained during a land swap with DeKalb County to build a new AES could possibly become a senior center.
Bierenfeld said more outreach by the city to the senior population to ask them what they want could be useful. He said there are also opportunities for senior to serve as mentors and volunteer for numerous community organizations and said the city could perhaps sponsor some senior facilities.
Lambert said he supported a long-term fight to work to change the state constitution to allow for an independent school district in Dunwoody while Bierenfeld asked residents to consider the heavy load of running its own school district.
Post/District 2: Jim Riticher, Bobby Zuckman
Jim Riticher, who is running for his second term on the council, touted what he said were successes – the land swap with DeKalb County for a new Austin Elementary School, the purchase of a new City Hall and ongoing paving of city’s streets.
Zuckman said he moved to Dunwoody two years ago from Brookhaven and said he wanted to focus on walkability and bicycle safety for residents and also wanted to make Dunwoody a more vibrant area.
On how they see Dunwoody in 10 years:
Zuckman said he hopes to see more vibrancy as well as improvement in communication between the city and residents. He said his young parent friends tell them they do not know what is happening in the city and are not able to go to City Council meetings at 6 p.m. held every other Tuesday. One resident from the audience said they can watch recordings of the meetings posted to the city’s website. He also said he felt there was disconnect between young, active residents and the city’s leadership. “As the community gets more involved, we will see a lot more young families move here,” he said.
Riticher said the city has “done great work” in obtaining public input for its master plans, including its recently approved parks master plan that includes funding for a band shell and rectangular athletic fields. He said that process is successful and will take place again when the city decides what it wants to do with the Austin Elementary school site.
On how much density is too much density in Perimeter Center:
Riticher said Perimeter Center has lots of apartments and developers have rights to build more apartments. “I’m not generally in favor of new apartments in Perimeter Center,” he said, adding that one of the reasons Dunwoody incorporated was because residents said DeKalb County was allowing too many apartments be built. “But we can’t say no to everything and have to allow for incremental growth in Perimeter Center,” he said.
Zuckman said he believed “smart growth is the key phrase.” Density is inevitable, he said, and the city should put more focus on multi-use paths for walking and bicycling in Perimeter Center. “I would like to see if we do move to add more apartments, they are of a certain caliber,” he said. He added that the key is to make Dunwoody a place people want to live for the next 20-30 years as opposed to transient residents.
When asked about supporting Mayor Denis Shortal’s attempt this year to ban DHA members from serving on city boards, such as the Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Commission, Riticher said he believes there needs to be an “arm’s length separation” between the bodies for legal reasons “to make sure our planning and zoning decisions do not get questioned on appeal.” He said he also disagreed with the state Attorney General’s office citing the city for violating the Open Meetings Act. “The attorney general was not operating with all the information,” he said.
On what to do with the old Austin School Elementary building, Zuckman said he believed the building could be utilized as a community-based activity center. He also said more studies need to be done on what to do with the property to ensure its vision is what’s best for residents in the long run.
Riticher said the city could use some additional field space and that the “big question” is what to do with the school building itself. “We need the public’s input, input from staff on what it would cost to renovate that building,” he said, adding it would be costly. “There are so many unknowns at this time,” he said.
Post/District 1: Pam Tallmadge, Joe Hirsch
Pam Tallmadge, the incumbent, is seeking election for her first four-year term. She is wrapping up a two-year term to fill out Mayor Shortal’s term when he stepped down from the seat to run for mayor. She said there is a huge learning curve to serving on the City Council and she is now understanding the nuances of the seat and that is why she was seeking re-election.
Joe Hirsch, who sued the city in 2012 over its refusal to install a sign condemning the Public Works director, started off his comments by saying he believed Tallmadge was a “very nice lady” but that the city needed to get away from the “establishment.” “I’m the person who can make the changes,” he said.
When asked about their views on density in the city, Hirsch took issue with the mayor and City Council’s recent decision to approve a 16-story office building and 10-story hotel on a small portion of Perimeter Mall’s parking lot adjacent to the Dunwoody MARTA station. A development proposed for that site last year was for a 20-story office building. The council only approved 16 stories last year, and the developer ended up dropping its project making room for the new development.
Hirsch said the approved development is “bigger and more dense” and is expected to increase traffic by 7 percent. He questioned Tallmadge’s vote in favor. He also said there needs to be more affordable housing because police officers he knows cannot afford to live in the city.
Tallmadge stood by her vote. She said the hotel and office building will be directly connected to MARTA and that the developer has stated a corporate headquarters plans to locate in the office building and it was a benefit to have the company in Dunwoody. Tallmadge said she does not want to see more apartments in Perimeter Center, but does agree that affordable housing options need to be made available for millennials, school teachers and police officers and suggested east Dunwoody may be a good place for that kind of redevelopment.
On whether or not they support high-rise condos being built in Perimeter Center that is currently popular in Buckhead:
Tallmadge said she generally supports that idea, but would have to get more information on such proposed developments. A major concern would be parking, but if people who work at State Farm or other major businesses in Perimeter Center could also live there, it would benefit the city, she said.
Hirsch said he thought high-rise buildings would be great in Perimeter Center for younger people and older people. He then went on to say the DHA continues to play a role in working with developers on proposed projects and questioned the optics of Tallmadge’s ability to remain neutral in certain instances because she is a volunteer organizer for the annual DHA July 4th parade. “How she can separate herself and be an independent person … I’m concerned about that,” he said.
Tallmadge said she has helped plan 13 July 4th parades and it is her favorite volunteer position. Volunteering to organize the parade does not have anything to do with how she votes on the council, she said. She said she listens to recommendations from the city’s Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals and staff and appreciates that DHA brings discussion on proposed developments to residents.
On what to do with the old Austin Elementary School site:
Hirsh said he can bring fresh ideas to the city, including his idea to build a bike track at the AES property. He said the debate over bike lanes and where to build them in the city could be remedied by giving cyclists a single place to go to ride safely. “They could go in circles without interfering with our streets,” he said.
Tallmadge said the council is working with the Dunwoody High School youth city council club that she helped found to get recommendations on what to do with the property. One idea she has is for the old school to become a cultural arts center.
On expanding the size of the police department:
Tallmadge said she sat on the Budget Committee and supported the hiring of new officers this year. “We double our population Monday through Friday” with people working in Perimeter Center, she said.
Hirsch said the police department is the “holy grail” of political topics. “Of course we all want more safety,” he said. But he questioned what some of the department’s money was going toward, that perhaps the hirings were too “top heavy.” He also questioned the department’s decision to send officers to different cities to learn about Twitter. “I support the police, I just think we should ask more questions about where the money is going,” he said.
Hirsch also questioned Tallmadge’s use of her city email when answering constituents’ questions if they are graduates of Dunwoody High School and if they wanted to be part of the Wildcat Fund. He said it was unethical for a city council member to ask for a donation to the fund via her city email.
Hirsch said such emails to constituents happened several times in 2016 and that it gave the impression that Tallmadge was saying she could help the person if they made a donation to the Wildcat Fund.
Tallmadge responded by saying the Wildcat Fund is not just about fundraising but also about being involved in DHS activities and promoting the school. “I was not fundraising,” she said.