The Sandy Springs City Council held its “historic” first meeting May 15 at its new home in City Springs’ Studio Theatre, a large, theatrical venue where Mayor Rusty Paul welcomed a modest audience in artistic terms.

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” he said, paraphrasing the storm-tossed heroine of “The Wizard of Oz” who finds herself in a magical landscape.

The Sandy Springs City Council and Mayor Rusty Paul prepare for their first meeting in City Springs, while Rabbi Joshua Heller readies the invocation, on May 15. (John Ruch)

An invocation was given by Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah, who called the new council chamber a “place of holy work” and prayed it will be a “place of justice and mercy, a place of integrity and honest debate,” where the doors will be closed to the “self-interested” and “open to the poor and humble of spirit.”

Audience members gather in the public seating while city department heads line tables at the first City Council meeting in the City Springs Studio Theatre May 15. (John Ruch)

The meeting was also a debut for part of the City Springs Performing Arts Center, as the Studio Theatre is primarily intended for artistic performances, while doubling as an official city meeting space. It is a 3,700-square-foot box with walls paneled in wood and fabric and a tall bank of steeply tiered, folding seats that retract into a wall when not in use. The Studio Theatre is in a transitional space between City Hall and the PAC’s main Byers Theatre area in a single gigantic building. Most of the PAC remains under construction, with a grand opening coming in August.

The exterior of the lobby of the City Springs Performing Arts Center, which will have its arts-event grand opening in August. (John Ruch)

Officials have previously described the City Council meeting’s furnishings as a literal theater set that is rolled out when needed. At least for the first meeting, the set-up was more remote and less intimate than the old council chambers at the Morgan Falls office park, with a feeling of watching a play or movie. Seated at a table set back from the edge of a roughly two-foot-tall, curtain-flanked stage, the mayor and council members appeared farther from the audience and each other. They spoke through microphones wired into a speaker system whose volume initially surprised Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, though the room’s highly engineered acoustics made regular speech relatively easy to hear. The theater-style lighting made pools of light on officials and left the audience area dimmer.

Rabbi Joshua Heller prepares to give the invocation at the May 15 City Council meeting. (John Ruch)

The speaker podium was much farther away as well and positioned under strong spotlights. There was no dedicated seating for many city staff members, who sat among the audience. Some furnishings are still in the works, officials have said. Also still on the way is official city signage, both within the council chamber and on the building exterior, which has no logo yet despite officially opening on May 7. A set of flags – city, state and American – was the only official decoration at the debut.

The old City Council chamber at the Morgan Falls office park as it appeared during a city meeting about a street project in 2016. (File/John Ruch)

Visibility was better than in the former space, as the Studio Theatre has no columns blocking the view, and three screens roughly 8-by-10 feet in size made agenda materials easy to read — and a public comment countdown timer rather intimidating. The room’s acoustics and atmosphere seemed to discourage audience chitchat, at least for the debut.

Three large screens — two behind the council dais and one hanging over the public seating — display agenda materials during a presentation by city Recreation and Parks Director Michael Perry. (John Ruch)

The $229 million City Springs is a generally high-tech facility – the PAC is managed by a subsidiary of Comcast – but council meetings there will remain low-tech in one increasingly unusual way: the city still does not provide live or recorded video of them. Most neighboring city governments broadcast video of City Council and other official meetings, including Atlanta, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Johns Creek and Roswell, as do the county governments of Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett. Besides written minutes, Sandy Springs offers only audio recordings of council meetings, which are not broadcast live and must be requested some time later from the City Clerk. City Communications Director Sharon Kraun said there is no plan to switch to video, citing a lack of public demand and anecdotal reports that such broadcasts make meetings run longer.

Aside from a few official comments about the “historic” inaugural meeting, the significance was generally downplayed, with officials moving ahead with business as usual. Paul suggested that the audience members make a note so they could one day tell their grandchildren they were at the first council meeting at City Springs, but added that the city was not providing any commemorative notes itself.

Among the members of the public in attendance was former City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, who was recognized by Paul and applauded for his work on the City Springs planning.

City Springs is a new mixed-use civic center that also features a park, apartments and retail and restaurant space. The 14-acre site is bounded by Mount Vernon Highway, Sandy Springs Circle and Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads. City Hall stands on a new internal street called Galambos Way after the city’s founding mayor. For more information, see citysprings.com.

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