Spurning Spin: Atlanta’s mayor leads with candor and can-do-ism
Mayor, Atlanta, Georgia
Soon after Shirley Franklin won Atlanta’s mayoral race in 2001, she asked a team of consultants who had volunteered their time to scour the city’s financial books. Week after week, they delivered more bad news: The budget deficit Franklin had to grapple with kept growing and was reaching catastrophic levels. The dreadful number finally settled at $82 million — more than one-fifth of Atlanta’s operating expenses.
Many cities were struggling financially then, in the wake of the dot-com bust and the September 11 terrorist attacks. But none, not even New York, had it quite as bad as Atlanta did. As the depth of Atlanta’s problems crystallized, Franklin confidently kept her cool. “She was unflappable,” says Peter Aman, the Bain & Co. consultant who headed up the inquiry. “The budget gap was going up by $10 million every week. She just said, ’O.K., we’ll have to find more cuts.’”
Franklin projected the same straightforward attitude in public. She didn’t waste time blaming the budget woes on her predecessor or trying to convince the media that the problem wasn’t as serious as it really was. Instead, Franklin simply leveled with Atlantans. We’re broke, she said, and while it would be easiest to put off the hard choices, we have to make them now.
What happened next is unusual in the world of politics. The mayor hiked property taxes by close to 50 percent and cut nearly 1,000 jobs from the city payroll. But Franklin’s popularity did not plummet in the polls; rather, the public became enamored with her just-do-it style. It helped that her bitter medicine had the intended effect: Atlanta’s budget not only stabilized, it ended the year with a surplus. “She confronts every issue head on,” says Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor. “She doesn’t try to spin it; she just does what she thinks is right.”
The same was true with the city’s sewer crisis. Atlanta’s outdated sewers overflow during heavy rains, pouring raw sewage into local rivers. Despite the threat of severe court-imposed penalties, the city had made little progress toward fixing the problem. Franklin asked a task force of engineers to study Atlanta’s options. She then forged alliances with state officials and local business leaders to support a financing plan to pay for the $3 billion fix. The package included a $500 million loan from the state and a penny increase in the local sales tax, which voters approved by a remarkable 3-to-1 margin. “She doesn’t enjoy being the sewer mayor,” says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. “But she said, ’we have to get this fixed. We can’t put it off any longer.’”
Such accomplishments are not the sort that most politicians dream about. Then again, the 59-year-old Franklin is not a typical politician. She’s never held elected office before — although she did know her way around City Hall, having served as the top administrator for two former mayors, Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, in the 1980s and early ’90s. She figures that if she governs well, the voters will be smart enough to know it. “People want someone who’ll just tell it like it is,” Franklin says.
Franklin’s choices have helped to restore public confidence in city government. In the wake of corruption scandals that had engulfed the previous administration, Franklin passed the toughest ethics law in Georgia. She regularly opens her office to short visits from city employees, who report problems in the ranks to her, and to citizens who want to bend her ear. “Sometimes people just want to be heard,” Franklin says.
Now that the worst of Atlanta’s crises are behind her, Franklin is turning to other priorities. She jumpstarted the $5.4 billion expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest, and is now in the midst of developing Atlanta’s first comprehensive plan for economic development. She wants to double the amount of city park space and to significantly add to the city’s stock of affordable housing. And Franklin’s efforts to cultivate good relationships with area leaders and the business community are beginning to pay off. For example, she has convinced six metro counties that homelessness is a regional problem that requires cooperation across local boundaries. “She’s able to operate both strategically and tactically,” says Aman, Franklin’s pro bono consultant. “We work with a lot of CEOs. She’s as good as any Fortune 100 CEO I’ve ever worked with.”
— Christopher Swope
Photo by Bob Mahoney