From school system scandals to local government corruption, 2013 was a year of highs and lows in metro Atlanta. Below are some of the highlights of the year gone by:
School System Shakeup
In February, the DeKalb County Board of Education approved the separation agreement with former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson and approved Michael Thurmond as interim superintendent. Thurmond is the former Georgia Labor Commissioner. Also in February, Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order accepting the Georgia Board of Education’s decision to suspend six members of the school board. After a federal court hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story affirmed Deal’s decision to remove the school board members. Six new members were appointed in March. This summer, the school board adopted the 2013-14 consolidated budget of $1 billion, and kept the millage rate at 23.98.
Former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis was sentenced to 12 months in custody after admitting to a misdemeanor obstruction charge by Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker. Patricia Reid and Tony Pope were also sentenced, with Reid getting 15 years sand Pope getting eight years. Lewis has appealed his charge and has since bonded out.
On Aug. 19, Andrea Sneiderman was found guilty on nine counts in her federal perjury trial, and not guilty on four counts. Sneiderman’s husband Rusty was gunned down outside the Dunwoody Prep Preschool by her former boss Hemy Neuman in 2010. Sneiderman was initially charged with perjury counts as well as murder charges, but the murder charges were later dropped by DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James. Sneiderman was sentenced to five years in relation to her perjury trial. DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams gave Sneiderman credit for her year under house arrest, as well as sentencing her as a first offender.
The nine-member Atlanta school board now has six new members following the election. Some were voted out because of the recent scandals to hit Atlanta Public Schools, including the CRCT cheating one (In March former Superintendent Beverly Hall was among 35 defendants indicted in the CRCT case, and the trial is set for later this year.)
Following the local elections, there are two new faces: Cynthia Briscoe Brown and Jason Esteves. Brown defeated incumbent Seat 8 at-large member Reuben McDaniel, the board chairman, and Esteves beat Lori James for the Seat 9 at-large position vacated by Emmett Johnson, who did not seek re-election.
On Feb. 14, President Barack Obama visited College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, then spoke to a crowd of students, parents, residents and local city and school officials at the Decatur Recreation Center, where he discussed the importance of early learning programs for children. In August, 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medal winner Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas visited Stone Mountain as part of DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton’s youth empowerment breakfast. Another notable visit included the Dalai Lama, who spoke to a crowd at Emory University in October about the possibility of a secular ethic uniting and transcending moral differences.
CEO Under Fire
On Jan. 7, DeKalb County police detectives executed a search warrant of former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis’ home and county offices. Ellis addressed the media a few hours later and said he was informed about the matter shortly after testifying before a grand jury investigating county watershed operations. Ellis was indicted June 18 on 15 counts by a grand jury relating to the January search warrant that include theft by extortion, making false statements and conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision. In July, Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Ellis and appointed District 5 Commissioner Lee May as interim CEO. A grand jury recommended a reorganization of the county government in August, and afterwards May made public his view that the county should get rid of its CEO form of government.
Toll Free Ride
To the delight of many, the fees at the Ga. 400 toll plaza ended in November. Gov. Nathan Deal announced in mid-2012 that the tolls would be removed, but drivers in the metro area have been expecting the change since the tolls were erected in 1993.
Voters back then approved the Ga. 400 toll under the condition that it would be removed 20 years later. The State Road and Tollway Authority initially wanted to extend the toll fees another 10 years, but the governor said “no deal.” The tollway authority will no longer see the $20 million that the tolls produced annually.
New connector ramps connecting I-85 southbound to Ga. 400 northbound and Ga. 400 southbound to I-85 northbound will be completed by the middle of January.
The Fulton County Board of Commissioners dished up its fair share of issues, from Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand’s company car to a south Fulton tax hike and from fighting crime to taking care of its inmates.
Also on the docket was the $626 million 2014 annual budget, with outcry from the public protesting slashes to arts and Grady Hospital funds.
Nearly $500,000 in arts money dodged a bullet, but the board has not yet voted on whether $25 million to Grady will go under the knife in an attempt to overcome a $70 million shortfall.
Though votes were taken publicly in 2012, Paulding residents were surprised in October to learn Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport’s operating board had signed a tenant which planned to establish the first air passenger service in metro Atlanta outside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Signing of New York-based Propeller Investments prompted the board to change the name of the facility to Silver Comet Field and allow Propeller to begin work to renovate the three-year-old airport terminal building in anticipation of passenger service.
Propeller officials said the passenger service was part of a larger plan for recruiting aerospace-based industries at the airport, which could potentially produce thousands of local jobs for a community in which three of four residents travel outside Paulding to work.
The board also authorized airport officials to begin work to lengthen the runway by 600 feet and widen the taxiway by 50 feet.
Residents reacted by moving to challenge the required court approval of publicly-backed bonds for the taxiway widening. They also asked the Federal Aviation Administration to reconsider its earlier rapid approval of work to lengthen the Paulding airport’s runway after maintaining airport officials disguised their intent to use the runway work to aid in the establishment of passenger flights. Airport officials said the project already was planned for its current customers and tenants before Propeller came on board.
A Paulding state court judge approved the bonds – though an appeal was pending at year’s end. However, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to do a more rigorous review of the runway work – delaying passenger service until at least 2015.
The road more traveled
I-75 became the focus of attention as the Georgia Department of Transportation promoted a plan to transform a grassy median into express lanes.
Advocates and opponents weighed in on both sides of the issue, the latter praising its economic development aspects, the latter questioning whether public safety was adequately considered.
Almost Never on Sunday
Voters went to the polls in 2013 with choices including city council seats in Dallas and Hiram, and approval of retail sales of alcoholic beverages on Sundays in Dallas and the county’s unincorporated areas.
County voters in a March vote decided against Sunday sales outside the cities. However, in a November election, Dallas voters approved Sunday sales within their city limits.
Hiram voters chose new councilwoman Kathy Carter to succeed Earlene Graham, who did not seek re-election.
More than three years after submitting their initial application to the city of Alpharetta, members of the Islamic Center of North Fulton are getting their new buildings. Thanks to a September city council approval, the 2,500 square-foot mosque on Rucker Road will be transformed into a 7,900 square-foot worship and activity center.
In May 2010, city council voted against the expansion based on an agreement the mosque had, reportedly, made in 1998 with surrounding neighborhoods to not try to expand. Residents were concerned that the center would cause an increase in traffic and will cause noise and light pollution.
The city offered to help the center find a suitable property for its expansion, but Islamic law says once a place of prayer and worship has been established, it cannot move.
After the denial, the mosque’s representatives filed a lawsuit against the city, saying they had been “unreasonably” limited and discriminated against based on their religion.
But after several court rulings and appeals, it was decided on the federal level that the city must consider the project again. A condition added to the approved expansion says the center cannot expand its square footage again for 15 years.
East Point Changeup
Election Night upsets swept almost an entire governing body out the door as East Point voters selected a new mayor and four new city council members during nonpartisan municipal elections.
Jannquell Peters triumphed in a runoff victory to become the new mayor, unseating Earnestine Pittman in the latter’s try for a second term.
Also out are council members Marcel Reed, Sharonda Hubbard, Jacqueline Slaughter-Gibbons and Patricia Langford.
Part of the changeover may have been linked to the reports of a “missing” $200 million, which auditors said was not actually lost by the city but the handling of which had the “appearance of vendor/employee impropriety.”
In The Line of Duty
In April, Alpharetta police officer David Freeman sustained several gunshot wounds after pulling over a black Isuzu truck near 221 S. Main St. According to police officials, Freeman stopped the suspected shooter, Marietta resident Curtis Hicks, 52, for a tag violation, but Hicks opened fire, wounding Freeman, and drove south toward Roswell.
When Freeman called for backup, officers from Alpharetta and Roswell chased Hicks down Ga. 400.
During the chase, Hicks opened fire on police vehicles striking patrol cars, officials said. Hicks eventually wrecked his car on Ga. 400, and when officers approached him, he continued firing his gun. The police returned fire, killing Hicks. Freeman was rushed to North Fulton Hospital and began recovering.
A legendary sports team received White House honors, but a survivor’s widow was not invited.
The late Charlie “Tinky” Leigh was the first African American to enter the NFL directly from high school in 1968 and by 1971 he was a running back for the Miami Dolphins.
In 1972 the team went undefeated all season and won Super Bowl VII in 1973, for which President Barack Obama honored the team in August.
Leigh’s widow, Marie Leigh, of south Fulton, said the Dolphins Alumni Association did not allow family members or widows to attend the White House ceremony.
Another team in the spotlight belonged to Creekside High School, whose Seminoles football team overcame the death of defensive back De’antre Turman early in the season to beat powerhouse rival Tucker for the state title Dec. 13 at the Georgia Dome.
“Through the death of our teammate, we all came together and it made us even closer,” running back Dexter Knox said. “Everybody fought for one cause and we got it done.”
Other Top Stories of 2013:
The Republican-controlled House and Senate, during its 40-day session in the winter and spring, approved most of the bills to reform the Fulton County government, led by a Democratic-majority board of commissioners.
Following the 2012 elections, when allegations ranging from failing to mail or accept the proper absentee ballots to inadequately instructing and equipping poll workers, the Fulton County Elections and Registration Division was investigated by the State Elections Board.
In May, North Point Mall shoppers were shocked when Alpharetta police had to evacuate the premises and restrict public entrance for several hours to investigate a bomb threat, which turned out to be a hoax. Police arrested 28-year-old Omari Glenn Ryden for allegedly issuing the threat and charged him with making terroristic threats, making a false alarm and making a false 911 report.