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The Promise a Local Politician Can Keep: a Clean City

Every neighborhood should be free of litter, debris and property- and housing-code violations. There's plenty that government can do, including helping residents understand their own role.

This is election year in many cities across the nation. It is the season when local officials will make big promises to create jobs, ensure public safety and provide affordable housing. Many of these promises cannot be fulfilled in a single term, if at all. I would like to recommend that candidates for local office promise something this election season that the community needs and that they can deliver on quickly: offer their residents a clean and beautiful city.

Of course, this starts at the neighborhood level — and with the neighbors themselves. Since my retirement from public life a few years back, I walk three to five miles most days, and if I am not walking, I ride 10 or more miles on my bicycle in and through various neighborhoods. This is the best way to take in the aesthetics of a neighborhood and hear what issues the public cares about most.

The neighborhood where I live is one of 25 I represented as an Atlanta City Council member several decades ago. It's typical of many in-town neighborhoods across the nation undergoing transition and gentrification. What makes it special is it was built around a park named for the educator and former slave Booker T. Washington. Washington Park has the distinction of being the first public park opened to African Americans in the state of Georgia, in 1919, and regrettably the only one in Atlanta that Blacks could use up until the late 1950s.

On any given day, there are people walking to and from the nearby transit station and along the edges of the park. I mingle among them and am sad to observe many pedestrians and drivers gratuitously throwing paper bags, used COVID masks, food containers, bottles, cans and other disposable items on the sidewalks and into the streets. Each time I observe this I cringe. I feel like running up to the culprits to ask if they ever gave any thought to what our neighborhoods would look like if everyone threw trash on the ground.

As a council member and much later as a deputy chief operating officer for neighboring DeKalb County, I got used to getting an earful from constituents complaining that the sanitation departments took better care of the more affluent areas on the Northside of the city. I often reminded them that sanitation workers were not throwing debris on the streets and sidewalks in our communities — they were.

But still I took their complaints seriously because not everyone was at fault. In addressing the problem, I convened task forces and initiated legislation aimed at addressing issues including public littering, illegal dumping, and property- and housing-code violations.

At the county, from the onset we made sure that all employees knew that having clean neighborhoods was a top priority for the chief executive and that there would be measurable outcomes. I made it clear that the departments needed to work collaboratively and avoid silos. Until then, there had been little coordination and no entity with overall authority and accountability. We designated my office to lead the collaboration, and this central point of coordination made a huge difference.

We also created digital dashboards where the public could track progress. But as much as technology aided our communication and accountability, nothing took the place of active and committed public officials.

An example of one such public official was Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of a major city in the South. When I was a council member, he liked meeting me at my house at 6 a.m. for coffee and then driving with me through my district so he could identify what needed to be done to improve the area's cleanliness. I remember the mayor dictating into a little recorder the issues he expected his staff to have addressed within a 48-hour window.

He was special in his high-touch and hands-on management style, but he also placed a high value on a clean city and believed that clean streets and green spaces brought psychological advantages to those of limited means. His attitude reminded me of my mother, who would proudly say to me that we may not have much but at least we were clean.

As much as keeping our streets clean from trash and other debris was essential, we knew that in order to make comprehensive changes we needed also to do a much better job of enforcing building- and housing-code policies. This entailed working closely with the judicial branch so that we could make better use of legal procedures known as in rem actions that allowed us to issue fines and place liens on private properties whose absentee owners were failing to keep them up. We even trained and deputized citizens to monitor code violations in their neighborhoods, send us photos and report habitual abusers.

A word of caution, though: When cracking down on violators of housing codes, special care must be taken to protect senior citizens and others on limited or fixed incomes to avoid them being inadvertently hurt by stricter enforcement.

One final strategy is to develop a comprehensive and highly visible marketing campaign in partnership with the private sector. Such a campaign should emphasize personal responsibility and place the onus on the individual where it primarily belongs.

Local governments are often not effective in delivering jobs and large-scale items like economic development. What they can and should do better is to ensure that every neighborhood, regardless of income, race or education, is clean and beautiful. If those running for public office this year would make and keep this pledge, our neighborhoods would be not just places that house our bodies but also places that nourish our souls.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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