April 26, 2018

Round Table Democracy in Decatur, Georgia

The City of Decatur, founded in 1830 is a community of 18,000 people which sits on the edge of Atlanta.  Within its 4 square miles are houses like the old bungalows valued by renovators, some of the oldest public housing in America, and two town squares or commercial districts. Three public transit stops are within the city limits. And, as seen in the “Decatur Round Tables” project, it can also enjoys a vigorous civic life.

Over 450 citizens were involved in the Decatur Round Tables project that was organized by Jon Abercrombie in partnership with Everyday Democracy. The goal was to involve residents from every part of the community in the envisioning of the city.

Support Of Local Government

The effort received the support of local government from the start. The City Council, City Manager’s Office, Downtown Development Authority, and a number of other organizations were heavily involved. The organizers were reacting to a number of controversies, including contentious school board elections and a zoning battle over a parking deck built by Agnes Scott College in the middle of a residential neighborhood. In addition, tensions were rising between longtime residents of color and newer residents, many of whom were young and white.

To help residents address these challenges, the organizers and residents wrote a discussion guide that included sessions on growth and development, race relations, and education. 

A Key to Success: The Leadership Map

The organizing team created a “leadership map” of formal and informal associations in the community (109 in all). Each group listed on the map — from gardening clubs to neighborhood associations — was asked to recruit Round Table participants from its membership. “We took the map to every meeting and presentation we did, as a way of showing people the scope of the Decatur Round Tables.”

The Round Tables and the resulting actions changed things. City Hall created a new position for a Neighborhood Liaison who worked directly with neighborhood associations. An action team that emerged from the Round Tables, working with the city leaders created a broad-based strategic planning process, which was led by an urban design group in 2000. A neighborhood action team led by Lyn Menne of the City created the Decatur Neighborhood Alliance, which brought the leadership of all of the city’s neighborhood associations together for support, training, and planning. And the Decatur Recreation Authority reported that the Round Tables helped them ‘reorient’ the way they work. Finally, some Round Table participants formed a new group, the Decatur Greens, to advocate for and to create new parks and green spaces.

Addressing Concerns of Senior Citizens

One of the concerns voiced by many participants was the plight of older African-American residents in Decatur, who were finding it harder to stay in their homes as property values — and taxes — rose. An action team identified and helped senior citizens qualify for tax abatement plans and reverse mortgages.

Zoning Issues Spawn a New Study Circle

One example was the zoning process, which had often led to angry debates and misinformation. After the first round of circles concluded, a new challenge arose: a developer wanted to build a 200-unit condominium complex in a neighborhood zoned for residential use. Working with the city government and the neighborhood association leadership, the Round Table Team designed and conducted a “mini study circle” format that brought the developer, the architect, and the residents together in an even-handed, low-key meeting that allowed for honest discussion and an expression of opinions. Subsequently, the condominium proposal was dropped, but the team had created a better system for dealing with controversial issues.

Looking to the Future: How do you build citizen participation into city life? 

This question defines the overall challenge now facing Decatur: how do you build citizen participation more fully into the way the community conducts its business? “We need to have elected decision makers, but we also need enough of a democratic setup that all people have access to power,” says City councilman Jim Baskett. The City won’t be dictating any answers to this question; instead, in true democratic fashion, they’ll be using Round Tables to find out what citizens think. “We should be asking citizens what they want when it comes to the future of democracy in Decatur,” Baskett says, “and we should be open to whatever they suggest.”

In 2010, twelve years after the original Decatur Round Tables, the city repeated the process as part of the new ten-year strategic plan. This link will take you to the rest of the story.