By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
Commissioner Shirley Johnson led the charge in keeping the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency board independent from the city commission last year.
This year, her position changed and last month she asked the newly elected commission to support her request to take over control of the board.
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners agreed to remove the existing seven members from the board, which is charged with eliminating slum and blight from parts of the city, and place themselves as the board members.
That means that more than 75 programs and multi-million dollar budget of the agency will be under the purview of the commission.
Commissioner Johnson said she spent the last year watching the board and was displeased on the lack of movement in developing the West Atlantic Avenue corridor, also known as The Set.
“I watched and I listened and I learned something was amiss,” she said. “The land is ripe for picking and there has been no demonstrable movement in four years.”
She cited the repeated failure to redevelop three blocks of land on West Atlantic Avenue and the failed negotiations to bring Publix to that area as some of the reasons she changed her mind.
“It was probably one of the worst decisions, I could make leading the charge,” she said of her previous support of the independent board. “It was a mistake. Now is the time to hit the reset button.”
Commissioner Ryan Boylston cast the sole dissenting vote on the take over. He said he wanted to discuss the topic and get a few meetings under the new commission’s belt before making a major decision. It was the commission’s first regular meeting.
The fact that the topic was on the first agenda of the new commission was alarming to some residents. Others said the time has come for elected leaders to take control over the agency’s decisions.
Talks of the take over have been thrown around for the past several years. It was a major topic during the 2017 election cycle. In a narrow 3-2 vote, the previous commission kept the board independent. This year, no candidates pitched platforms regarding disbanding the board.
Commissioner Adam Frankel said he wants to keep the board independent, but supported the take over as long as it is temporary.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia who supported the take over last year, agreed.
“This has been off track for a while,” she said. “Let’s get it back on the right track and then reconstitute it.”
Commissioner Frankel brought up a concern he had with a specific CRA board member, who shared anti-Semitic posts on their Facebook page. Without identifying the member, Frankel who is Jewish, called the posts he saw offensive.
The posts were made by Reggie Cox. They were re-posts of memes and videos.
“That’s a big deal to me,” Frankel said. “I believe people have First Amendment rights. They can post whatever they want. They can say whatever they want. However, when they represent a city board, it takes it to a different level.”
City staff estimate commissioners will likely have to fill the agency board seats for about a year before they can reconstitute the board.
The agency’s April meetings were canceled while city staff figure out logistics of the new board. The commission will likely meet as the agency board for the first time this month.