Mary Norwood won election as chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods Jan. 10, establishing her return to the political spotlight after last year’s narrow loss in the mayoral race to Keisha Lance Bottoms. She pledged the coalition of civic associations will be a more advocacy-based group, and immediately delivered with the passage of a resolution that claims the city is not enforcing several sections of the Tree Protection Ordinance.
Echoing her past as a former city councilmember, Norwood also announced a new BCN structure of 11 City Council-like committees, dubbed “interest area groups,” to propose actions and connect with city and county government. Some of the groups are chaired by current and former officials in state and local government.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to have a year that is going to be a roller coaster and a fun ride,” she told an unusually packed room at Peachtree Presbyterian Church.
After her bitter, razor-thin loss to Bottoms in December 2017, Norwood spent months out of public life, but returned late last year to battle a townhome development, call for a new subway line, and to accept an attempted nomination to chair the Fulton County board of elections. She was the only nominee for BCN chair, according to outgoing chair Tom Tidwell, and was put forward by the other officers.
Almost exactly a year before, Norwood’s first public speech following the mayoral race was to the BCN, where she made political commentary about Buckhead not getting its fair share of city resources. The Bottoms administration later blasted those remarks as divisive. Norwood now speaks in softer tones about Buckhead’s role in the city and often alludes to a citywide political view. That continued in her first meeting as BCN chair.
“We cover, as a council of neighborhoods, the entire northern arc of the city,” she told the group. “We are an amazing organization, and if we do this well, our power will be amazingly helpful in not only helping things in our own part of the city, but throughout the city.”
In a brief interview after the meeting, she emphasized the citywide perspective again. “This is about every part of the city being served by city government. It is not exclusionary to exclude other parts of the city,” she said.
Founded in 2008, the BCN has long been influential in large and small quality-of-life issues, such as road projects and public schools issues. It frequently hosts notable speakers, recently including Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. Norwood says those functions will continue, but in a more coordinated way and with a more proactive, policy-affecting attitude, “so we are taking more positions and being very involved” in local and citywide quality of life.
Then there are the interest area groups, a committee structure which Norwood, acting something like the City Council president, has drawn up and explicitly correlated to relevant City Council committees. The interest areas include: Crime, Development, Finance/Taxes, Greenspace, Housing, Legislative Liaison, Streets, Traffic, Transit, Tree Canopy and Water.
Each interest area group has a chair, some of whom are notable experts. Outgoing state Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta), who recently lost the Buckhead-area District 54 seat, will serve as the legislative liaison. Finance/Taxes will be chaired by Michael Bell, the chief financial officer of the DeKalb County School District and former CFO for the city of Atlanta and DeKalb County. Valerie Sellers, a former Atlanta Police sergeant, will chair the Crime group. Others are chaired by well-known neighborhood advocates, and all are tasked with finding four other residents to sign on to groups that interest them.
Norwood also gave the BCN a well-received tutorial in using the City Council website to learn about legislation and meetings, and offering to personally drive anyone to City Hall to speak at a council meeting. She urged members to attend upcoming city meetings about budget shortfalls in the TSPLOST and Renew Atlanta bond programs, both of which affect transportation-related projects, and afterward said it will be up to the interest area groups to propose any BCN resolutions on that topic.
Throughout the meeting, Norwood gave occasional critical comments about city government. She remarked that “the condition of our streets is miserable”; called the city arborist’s decisions on allegedly dying trees marked for development-related removal “capricious”; and led some laughter at a city TSPLOST/Renew Atlanta meeting calendar that incorrectly dated upcoming meetings as 2018 instead of 2019.
Norwood also gave a taste of her leadership style, running a brisk and focused meeting. After cutting off a long-winded speaker, Norwood joked to some applause, “I’m going to be a really strong U-boat commander because that’s the way I run things.”