Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul says the city may require face masks for everyone in public and that the Performing Arts Center may remain closed until 2021.

Speaking in a pandemic-dominated “State of the City” address July 9, Paul said COVID-19 also affected the city’s long-running dispute with the city of Atlanta over water rates, which is heading into binding arbitration now delayed to September at the earliest.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

“It looks like, given the spike in the virus, that we probably are just going to wipe out the rest of 2020,” Paul said of the event schedule at the PAC at City Springs.

Paul told a virtual audience of more than 100 people in the event hosted by the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce that he has a directive ready that would require face masks to be worn.

What he doesn’t have is consensus among City Council or certainty that Sandy Springs could enforce it. Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order that only encourages, not mandates, masks supersedes all other COVID-19 related directives by cities or counties and puts the legality of the directive in question. Atlanta and Brookhaven are among Georgia cities that have already issued mask-wearing orders in defiance of Kemp’s decision.

Before Paul told his audience that a face mask mandate was at the ready, he made a plea to Sandy Springs residents.

“I just want to start by asking people to please use masks when you go out into public,” Paul said. He acknowledged the governor was strongly encouraging state residents to wear masks.

“I know a lot of people, particularly senior citizens, who are very worried about catching this disease. And it is spiking again,” he said.

The sudden increase in cases starting after the Memorial Day weekend has the city considering what it might need to do to help control the spike in cases, with a face mask mandate one of the ideas. The mask mandate would come only with council consensus, he said.  Pulling back on what the city already has reopened could be another step, he said.

City residents should expect the Performing Arts Center at the City Springs Center to remain closed  into 2021, Paul said. The latest cancelation there was a planned July 17 concert with the rock band Drivin N Cryin.

Racial dialogue

The state of the city is that, like the rest of the nation, it has been caught in a societal perfect storm, he said. First the pandemic took hold.

“Add to that the social justice, civic unrest issues that we’ve been working through as a society not just in Sandy Springs, not just in Georgia but across the whole country. It’s been boiling for some time and it boiled over in Minneapolis with George Floyd,” Paul said.

The city is launching a racial dialogue process, through the company Civic Dinners, as a response to the calls for change, Paul said.

The process involves “a series of small group, community-wide meetings to discuss racism and the issues that surround some of the emotion and anger that have boiled forward as a result of these incidents,” Paul said. “We have to understand that not everybody sees the community the way we see it.”

Paul said the discussions are intended to continue beyond the initial sessions. What city officials learn from the discussions could lead to policy changes and other developments, he said.

As of July 9, 20 groups had been formed with 43 active participants registered. Only one of the 20 civic discussions was full. The first scheduled discussion was set for July 10. Residents can sign up at the city’s Civic Dinner web pages.

Atlanta water dispute

The years-long dispute between the cities of Sandy Springs and Atlanta over local water rates is heading to arbitration, Paul said.

Atlanta operates Sandy Springs’ water system. Sandy Springs has alleged that Atlanta incorrectly uses water system funds and arbitrarily sets higher rates. Sandy Springs has made various legal challenges seeking lower rates or control of the local water system.

According to Paul and City Attorney Dan Lee, retired federal 11th Circuit Court Judge Stan Burch will decide the dispute. Burch was appointed as special master to preside over the arbitration, Lee said after the address. COVID-19 has Burch planning to reschedule the arbitration hearing to September. Lee said that two cities lack an intergovernmental agreement thought to be required and that if one can be reached with lower rates, Sandy Springs would sign on.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.