Fulton panel combatting HIV struggles to gain its footing

Over a year after being established, a committee tasked with addressing HIV in Fulton County finally held its inaugural meeting. But the panel includes just one person openly living with HIV.

The Fulton County HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care & Policy Committee is tasked with carrying out the policy priorities of the Fulton County Task Force on HIV/AIDS. That task force spent two-and-a-half years developing a plan to end HIV in Fulton. The county has the second highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the country in counties with 100,000 people or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

In September, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners was criticized for failing for over a year to convene the first meeting of the committee. That first meeting happened Friday, but there are still three empty seats on the 14-person commission.

Each of Fulton's seven county commissioners appoints two committee members. Commissioner Liz Hausmann has not appointed either of her members. Commissioner Marvin Arrington has only appointed one of his two members.

Neither Hausmann nor Arrington responded to questions from Project Q Atlanta about why they haven't made their appointments or when they would.

“I don’t want to bog down the process, but when we don’t have all the members appointed, we don’t have everyone here … I don’t want to elect officers at this time,” said Jeff Graham, a committee member, longtime HIV advocate and executive director of Georgia Equality.

Other committee members agreed, and temporary officers were elected until the three remaining spots are filled and the bylaws are approved.

There was also concern about communication issues. Committee members said they were not given adequate notification about the inaugural meeting, and that the public was not made aware of it until the last minute.

Committee members Nicole Roebuck and Zina Age were unable to attend because they were taking part in an HIV/AIDS conference out of town. Roebuck is the executive director of AID Atlanta, and Age is the founder and CEO of Aniz, Inc.

Neighborhood and Democratic Party activist Josh McNair called the process “disorganized at best.”

Reese McCranie, the City of Atlanta’s deputy chief equity officer, had concerns about communication issues as well.

“There’s not a direct way for us to engage with the commissioners,” he said.

The committee is working with the county to address the issues before bylaws are approved.

'This group is actively looking for people living with HIV'

 

Another issue tackled Friday was that the committee is not representative of those affected by HIV.  

McNair (second photo) is the only black gay man on the committee. There are no transgender women on the committee. HIV disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men of color and transgender women.

HIV activist Shyronn Jones is the only person living openly with HIV on the committee — she asked the members during the meeting if any were living with HIV and none raised their hands.

“This group is actively looking for people living with HIV,” committee member Melanie Thompson (top photo) said to the members of the public in attendance. “Particularly people of color. Young, black, gay. Women of trans representations.”

Thompson is the principal investigator for AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta. Both she, Graham and Matt Pieper, the executive director of Open Hand Atlanta, volunteered to step down from the committee if it would make it more representative of those most impacted by HIV.

Thompson was elected interim chair of the committee but said that the permanent committee chair should be someone living with HIV. 

“I think the important thing is this committee has finally met,” Thompson told Project Q after the meeting.

She said the “limitations” of the committee are that it is not fully appointed and it’s not representative of the HIV epidemic in the county and in metro Atlanta. 

“Anyone who has interest in serving on this committee can certainly contact us,” Thompson said, noting that they created an ad hoc membership committee to address the issue. An ad hoc bylaws committee was also created to make changes to the bylaws before they’re approved.

The committee is also working on scheduling the next meeting, which they said will likely occur after the midterm elections on Nov. 6 but before Thanksgiving.

Fulton County Commission Chair Rob Pitts opened the meeting and left soon after. A representative for Fulton Commissioner Natalie Hall said Hall would be there before the meeting ended, but she never appeared. 

Members of the HIV committee include Thompson, Graham, McCranie, Age, Peiper, Jones, McNair, Roebuck, gay civic activist Bob Gibeling, Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorney John Warchol, and Anne Spaulding, who is an infectious disease specialist and an epidemiology professor at Emory.

UPDATE | Arrington responded to Project Q after this story was published saying that he is "looking for someone who lives in my district that is qualified and passionate to serve on this board" and that he is open to recommendations.