Term limits and mandatory training for Neighborhood Planning Unit board members are among NPU system reforms proposed in legislation under consideration in a City Council committee. The ideas are not getting a warm welcome from Buckhead’s NPUs A and B.

“While I know that there are some NPUs that have a troubled history and the changes probably are designed to address some of their issues, they would be a major setback for the effectiveness of NPU-A,” said Brink Dickerson, the NPU-A chair, in a private email he shared with the Reporter.

“Overall, the ordinance appears to be a general solution to particular problems,” said NPU-B’s board in written comments provided by chair Nancy Bliwise. “We believe it is best to address the problems of specific NPUs through targeted solutions rather than a general rewrite of the code.”

“We get the argument all the time that [says], ‘Our NPU does it right,’” said District 3 City Councilmember Antonio Brown, who is a sponsor of the legislation. But not all do it right, he said, and “across the board, there are bad players.”

The legislation, which is on hold pending more feedback from NPUs and the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, is part of quiet movement to reform and invigorate the 45-year-old system. The Center for Civic Innovation, a downtown nonprofit, is researching the system for possible reforms and aims to launch a public survey in late spring or early summer. Last year, in a technical but significant change, the city directed NPU staff members to report directly to the City Planning commissioner’s office in an attempt to improve communications and public participation.

The NPU system was established in 1974 by Mayor Maynard Jackson as a way for residents to give input on the city’s long-term development plan, in an era when many American cities created similar neighborhood groups. Today, there are 25 NPUs around the city, each named for a letter of the alphabet, serving a broader purpose of giving and getting information on virtually every city department.

Brown said he is concerned that there is “huge disenfranchisement that happens within the NPUs” due to differing methods of operating them. Among the changes proposed in his legislation are the following:

  • Each sub-neighborhood could be in only a single NPU. (Four cover parts of Buckhead today, including A, B, C and E, and some of its neighborhoods cross current NPU boundaries.)
  • Bylaws must follow a city-provided template.
  • NPU officer elections to be administered by the City Clerk and the city can review results at someone’s complaint.
  • NPU boards will be “uniform,” with a chair, vice-chair, secretary, parliamentarian and one member designed from each registered neighborhood association that holds monthly public meetings.
  • NPU board members can serve no more than two consecutive terms in the same position and no more than three consecutive terms in any position.
  • Each household can have only one representative on the board.
  • Board members must have annual training on conflict resolution and parliamentary procedures, and can be removed from office by City Planning officials if they don’t.
  • A city NPU coordinator will attend all monthly meetings.
  • NPUs are prohibited from establishing accounts at financial institutions.

“We’re still going through the details. Nothing is set in stone right now,” Brown said.

Other common issues with local NPUs, such as unannounced agenda changes and difficulty in hearing board members’ discussions, are not touched by the legislation. Brown said his intent is not to tell people how to run meetings. “It’s really important that NPUs are autonomous, that they have the autonomy they seek,” he said.

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit of Buckhead’s District 8 is wary of the proposal. “Our NPUs are in different places in terms of how they function,” he said. The city should provide training and guidance when needed, he said. “But I don’t want the NPUs that are functioning well, [for them to be in a situation where] the law of unintended consequences to come into place.”

Dickerson has concerns on how it would change NPU-A, which has several vice-chairs and allows two members from the large Chastain Park Civic Association. “I have a hard time getting members to show up at meetings, and cannot imagine that I am going to get all of them to go downtown on a Saturday to get training. Moreover, we do a good job and do not need training,” he said in the email.

As for term limits, he said, “it takes the typical member a couple of years just to understand the zoning ordinance.” He said that NPU-A has had about five chairs in its history and “it has worked just fine.”

NPU-B voted in opposition to virtually every major point in the legislation, saying it would make unnecessary changes and created burdens. “Why fix what is not broken?” its comments asked.

Meanwhile, the Center for Civic Innovation is a year into its self-appointed review of the NPU system. Executive Director Rohit Malhotra said the group continues to meet monthly with the Planning Board and unidentified stakeholders, and has formed an advisory board whose members include former city planning chief Leon Eplan and Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, a marketing expert and former wife of Mayor Jackson. The next phase of the group’s effort, Malhotra said, is “a citywide survey, canvassing effort and in-neighborhood events” to raise awareness about the NPU system and find out whether and how people engage with it.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.