The privatized town of Sandy Springs


This time a post by our PHD candidate Els Leclercq, who wrote an interesting piece on Sandy Springs, Atlanta, USA: a privatized white-flight city that handed off about every service to private enterprises.

The city of Sandy Springs used to be a wealthy suburb to the north of Atlanta. However, following a referendum in 2005, 94% of its residents voted for Sandy Springs to become a city in its own right. This decision demonstrated the discontent with the county’s policies of redistribution of the tax revenue to less affluent parts of the county. Citizens consequently voted a mayor and six Councillors who embarked on a bold project of creating a public-private partnership, outsourcing all municipal services to a private contractor.

This route was chosen for several reasons including recognition of the amount of time it takes to establish an effective municipal apparatus but also -more importantly- out of belief in, and support for the competitive working of the market following the logic that one can achieve the best quality for the lowest price. During the first years, the city services were outsourced to the consultancy company CH2M Hill, but when the contract ended in 2011, the City Council appointed five different companies to manage the General Government and Financial and Information Services for a total of 10 million dollar for the next 5 years. The change of contractor saves the City around 7 million a year, claims the City Manager.

How does a privatized city care for its public space and the democratic process of creating this  space? In January 2012 the City Council announced the start of a City Centre Master planning exercise. A design consultant led the process and embarked on a participatory route which has so far lasted for 6 months. In those months local citizens were offered numerous opportunities to participate or comment on the draft plans. The whole process has been made completely transparent through a website, on which all information of the community sessions, draft proposals, etc. can be found. Although some participants claim their comments were not taken into account, the majority of the people thinks differently. So a private municipality and a democratic process to create public space can apparently be named in one sentence?

Comments (2)

  • Vincent Nadin

    I was intrigued by this post about Sandy Springs but I find that it’s another casualty of ‘political language’ or distortion of communication (and understanding) through choice of words. Sandy Springs cannot be accurately described as a ‘private city’. Disneyland might be described as a private city, but not Sandy Springs. As Els herself says ‘the residents voted for Sandy Springs to become a city in its own right’. Five minutes of web surfing confirmed that the city has the formal mechanisms that contribute to accountable government through a council and elections. I also found evidence of informal mechanisms such as direct consultation on planning and urban development issues.

    Sandy Springs is an example of a local government that made maximum use of ‘outsourcing’ or public-private partnerships. The Council retains democratic control. This approach is commonplace in the UK, and as a consultant, I have led the production of a local plan (including community consultation and participation) for a local authority in England.

    I mention this because the use of the term ‘private city’ undermines clear reasoning about the delivery of public services, particularly arguments around the taking of profit in the provision of services. The proponents of outsourcing can easily demonstrate that Sandy Springs is not a ‘private city’. Also, these emotive terms create and shape meaning. Ambiguity is inevitable, but we should do our best in universities to undermine distortion.

    More care is needed in the use of language, especially in ’design and politics’!

    Vincent Nadin

  • Els Leclercq

    I agree we should use our words carefully in politics, hence the use of privatized rather than a private council. In the Dutch language, the word city or town can also refer to the municipality, not just to the topographical location as in English.

    More interestingly, the way of outsourcing the majority of your council services to private companies could be seen as a more democratic way of organising your governing bodies than the way it is currently structured in most Western democracies. This of course, if the local public has a say in the selection process of the private companies. When the local inhabitants are not satisfied with the private bodies, the contract can be terminated and the current private bodies replaced by other ones who offer a better deal. In Sandy Springs, this is partly the case, because the mayor and 6 councilors are democratically elected by the inhabitants. Here local democracy could be greatly enhanced of course if local inhabitants also have a direct say in the selection of the private bodies. The question rises if this form of urban regime could be a step closer to transparent good local governance, like the social welfare system we have in this part of the world is sometimes quoted as the closest we have ever come to Marxism?

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