Politics

How to Win Friends and Repair a City

Atlanta needs all the help it can get. Luckily, it has a mayor who knows where to get it.
by | April 2004
 

Last fall, the president of the Georgia Senate, Eric Johnson, published a letter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was polite, as public rebukes go, but just barely.

The subject was Atlanta's sewers, or, more precisely, Atlanta's desperate need for help in fixing its sewers. After four decades of deferred maintenance and a federal consent decree that city officials had ignored for years, the bill had come due. Under its new mayor, Shirley Franklin, Atlanta was embarking on a $3 billion overhaul, but it was also staring at astronomical water and sewer rate increases for residents. The new rates promised much hardship for Atlanta's large population of poor people--who in a few years might be paying a total of $100 a month--and for its businesses, especially hotels, which in this convention-dependent city could be paying $100,000 a month by 2008. Not surprisingly, Franklin wanted help from the state and the federal government in defraying the cost.

Johnson's letter was his way of saying "forget it." Atlanta had repeatedly shrugged off its responsibilities, he said, and now had to pay the price. "I will fight any effort to shift the costs of Atlanta's sewer repairs onto the taxpayers of our state," Johnson wrote. "And I will not participate in any effort to ask that America's taxpayers share in your costs, either.... Atlanta is already costing Georgia's taxpayers plenty. I will not ask them for any more."

As unsympathetic as the letter might have been, its symbolism was even more barbed: a white Republican from Savannah lecturing the black Democratic mayor of a majority-black city on its spendthrift ways. It's not hard to imagine a disastrous chain of events: fury in political circles, an angry press conference at City Hall and shattered relations between the state and its capital city.

And that makes what actually happened all the more interesting. Franklin and Johnson had a private meeting. Shortly afterward, the Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, stepped forward with a commitment to put together a $500 million loan package. Then the GOP-controlled Senate agreed to Atlanta's request that it be allowed to vote on a sales tax increase to defray the repair costs. That bill's sponsor was Eric Johnson himself. A Journal-Constitution reporter called these events "the biggest pre-Christmas happy hour since Tiny Tim and Scrooge patched things up."

Actually, a lot of people are getting along surprisingly well with the city of Atlanta and its mayor these days. Since taking office in January 2002, Franklin has engineered a remarkable turnaround in the city's credibility and public demeanor. She is on friendly terms with the state's leaders. She has plunged into regional efforts to deal with metropolitan transportation, economic development and watershed dilemmas. She meets regularly with officials from the fast-growing suburban counties that surround her jurisdiction. And she has cajoled members of Atlanta's powerful corporate community into serving on task forces that deal with everything from expanding the city's park system to revising its ethics code to exploring the problems of the homeless. "She and I talk every week," says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "If my phone rings at 7 in the morning, I know it's Shirley."

All this bonhomie is in large part the result of Franklin's political candor, nuts-and-bolts understanding of what makes her city tick and willingness to tackle Atlanta's problems head-on. "Before her," says Eric Johnson, "Atlanta hadn't been taking leadership, they were viewed as corrupt, no one trusted them. I think she has the highest integrity personally, but she has also gone out of her way to make everybody know there's a new atmosphere."

Yet what makes the 58-year-old Franklin one of America's most intriguing mayors isn't just her persona, it's her determination to master the trickiest balancing act in urban politics today. Franklin has decided that making progress on her city's challenges means working with everyone from the governor to suburban county commissioners to regional business leaders and nonprofit executives-- as she says, "I'm looking for friends for Atlanta." At the same time, she admits it's far easier to enlist their help if the city can show it's willing to take responsibility for straightening out its own messes.

As reasonable as this may sound, it's a daunting task. To build the trust she needs among state officials and business leaders, Franklin has to bolster the political will within the city to make hard choices The state sewer deal, for instance, could not have been put together without the stunning rate increases Atlanta has asked residents and businesses to pay. Yet to sustain political support for such burdens, Franklin needs to show measurable progress in improving their lives-- which she can only do with the help of people who want to see her city step up to the plate first. Franklin has juggled these demands with aplomb so far; the trick will be to continue doing so as the cost of putting Atlanta on a solid footing takes an ever bigger bite out of citizens' wallets.

CHANGING DIRECTION

There was a time, of course, when a big-city mayor in search of "friends" generally looked in only one direction: toward Washington. Chasing federal largesse for everything from highways and sewers to anti-poverty funding was a way of life. In 1982, an uproar ensued when E.S. Savas, an aide to President Reagan, drafted a report taking cities to task for relying too heavily on federal programs. Support from Washington, Savas concluded, had transformed mayors "from leaders of self-reliant cities [into] wily stalkers of federal funds. All too often the promise of such guaranties has created a crippling dependency rather than initiative and independence." The report generated such a storm of protest that Reagan publicly distanced himself from it. He also, however, began the process of cutting and reshaping federal aid.

By the 1990s, it was becoming increasingly clear that pinning a city's fortunes on substantial money from Washington was a fool's game, and a different attitude began to take hold among many mayors: the sense that in effect Savas had been right, and they could do just fine on their own.

Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist argued that federal policies had actually hurt cities more than they had helped, and he pulled out of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which he believed paid too much attention to Washington. "You can't build a city on pity," Norquist insisted. Meanwhile, in New York, Rudolph Giuliani was demonstrating that a mayor who focused on issues such as safety and clean streets could create a sense of dynamism and give urban life a chance to reassert itself.

In a sense, Franklin is amalgamating the two approaches, except that rather than looking to the federal government for help, she's looking everywhere else. This is a strategy that big-city mayors across the country may have little choice but to adopt, whether they recognize it or not.

In part, it's a simple function of money. Atlanta is hardly the only city facing extraordinary infrastructure costs, as local governments in every region confront deferred maintenance on bridges, roads and transit systems and federal environmental mandates on sewers. Indianapolis, Cleveland and Providence are all raising water and sewer rates as they struggle to come up with the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars they each need to bring their sewer systems into compliance with environmental regulations.

So, too, with the costs of meeting demands for better public schools and for boosting homeland security--federal mandates may be plentiful, but federal money is not--and with the costs of improving parks, neighborhoods and other amenities that urban fortunes depend on these days. Finding the resources to meet all those needs demands creativity and an ability to build partnerships at every turn.

At the same time, it's more evident than it used to be that cities' fortunes are tied inextricably to the fortunes of the communities around them. Their economies are linked, their watersheds acknowledge no political boundaries, they inherit one another's air-quality problems, their residents' cars jam one another's streets. This is hardly news, but metropolitan political leaders haven't exactly built a strong track record of taking it to heart.

"For too long, the various counties and cities in the metro region spent all their time on their own governance issues and insufficient time on how their actions affected their neighbors," says Sam Olins, chairman of the commission government in Cobb County, the huge suburban jurisdiction to Atlanta's northwest. "This doesn't take a degree in public administration. It just takes common sense."

OUT OF THE RED

That may be, but in the years before Franklin took office, there wasn't a great deal of common sense on display in Atlanta City Hall. Franklin's predecessor, Bill Campbell, was smart, articulate and impressive in person, but his two terms were also calamitous for the reputation of city government. In addition to possessing an argumentative and thin-skinned nature, Campbell paid attention to the wrong details: He micro-managed personnel decisions but ignored major budget issues. He got into constant spats with the business community, disregarded the city's regional profile and engendered a deep pool of ill will toward Atlanta among politicians around the state.

By the time Franklin took over, the city was on the fiscal ropes, although not many people knew it. One of the new mayor's first moves was to bring in several teams of consultants--some of them paid for by the Metro Chamber of Commerce--to get a handle on finances and to help reorganize the human resources, procurement and information technology systems. A group from Bain & Co., working pro bono on the city's finances, discovered that, instead of the $21 million surplus Campbell's last budget had shown, the city was actually deep in the red.

"It was a very intense process," says Franklin, "with a dozen people doing a 20-year analysis of the city's budget, revenues, expenditures. In the previous years, it had spent well over its revenue. So while the city was holding property taxes low, in fact we were spending ourselves into a hole." Franklin's team eventually announced a gap of $82 million for 2002--"because at some point you just had to settle on a figure," Franklin says--although it probably amounted to more than $90 million, or over a fifth of operating expenditures.

Franklin's response was to tell residents that in order for things to be fixed they were going to have to share the pain. She persuaded the city council to raise property taxes, cut nearly 1,000 jobs from the city payroll and, in announcing a series of other budget cuts, began by slicing her own salary. Since then, she has set out to overhaul everything from yard waste collection to the municipal courts and corrections systems.

Through all of this, Franklin has mastered the political art of appearing to be non-political. It is an art she learned over two decades as an aide to previous Atlanta mayors. Franklin was commissioner for cultural affairs under Maynard Jackson in the 1970s, then chief administrator for Jackson and his successor, Andrew Young, in the 1980s. Later, she spent five years helping to organize Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games. In each job, she managed to maintain credibility among widely disparate interests and factions. She also benefited from a tendency of those in power to underestimate her.

"I always thought she was little and cute, but I'd say 'Beware!' that first impression," warns longtime Atlanta political figure Michael Lomax, who is now head of the United Negro College Fund. "She's a powerful intellect, a tough personality and a person of extraordinary integrity. She's become formidable in her mature years."

Franklin insists that in forging coalitions with unexpected partners, she is merely responding to what voters told her they wanted during the 2001 campaign. "They wanted a mayor," she says, "who could relate to the state leadership and relate to the region." But Franklin is also responding to reality: Without allies, it would be difficult to solve any of Atlanta's significant problems. "There is no issue the city faces that can be solved alone," says Bill Bolling, a longtime civic leader.

MEETING THE CRITICS

There's no better example than the sewer crisis, which has forced the active involvement of an astounding array of players. At heart, the problem dates to several decades of infrastructure neglect, but the immediate catalyst was a pair of consent decrees, in 1997 and 1998, which the city agreed to after it was sued for violating the federal Clean Water Act. As is true in many other cities, the century-old sewer system in Atlanta combines sewage from households and businesses with runoff from the streets, and it has a tendency to overflow during heavy rainstorms, dumping raw sewage into the South and Chattahoochee rivers.

The consent decrees imposed deadlines for fixing the system, but very little had been done when Franklin took office, even though failure to meet the deadlines carried with it the threat of fines, contempt of court citations, and the very real possibility of a ban on new sewer hookups, which would effectively halt all development in Atlanta. Franklin created a task force, headed by Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough, to look at the city's options, then based the $3 billion overhaul plan on its work.

The challenge, of course, was how to pay for it. With the state and federal governments in fiscal distress, it became clear that help from those quarters would be limited, and the city's water and sewer rates would have to rise dramatically, if only to forestall court action. At the same time, the resulting rate increases were unsustainable for either the city's businesses or its residents, and the only way for the city to roll them back even in part was to get help from somewhere on the outside to underwrite the repairs.

For much of 2003, nothing seemed to be happening. A majority on the city council, worried about constituent anger, refused to pass the rate increase that Franklin was proposing. Governor Perdue and Senate leader Johnson ruled out any state grants, while other Republicans at the state capitol suggested that Atlanta ought to sell its international airport and use the proceeds for sewer repairs. Perdue did eventually offer a $100 million loan, but Franklin rejected it. "Though a generous offer compared to the zero we'd gotten before," she says, "$100 million wasn't going to significantly help the people or the ratepayers." And the Fulton County Commission, which had to approve any sales tax increase for Atlanta, voted against one three times.

Behind the scenes, however, progress was being made on two fronts. The Metro Chamber of Commerce, worried by the prospect of Atlanta failing to fix its sewers and appalled at the possibility that a federal court would shut down development, created a task force on the problem, headed by Lee Thomas, president of Georgia Pacific and EPA administrator under Reagan from 1985 to '89. And Franklin hired a lobbyist to represent the city at the state capitol: Linda Hamrick, an influential white Republican who was a friend of Eric Johnson's and a board member of the state's Christian Coalition.

The key breakthrough came after Johnson sent his letter to the newspaper, rebuking Franklin and the city's demands for money. Hamrick called to tell him he really ought to sit down with Franklin, that they would actually like one another. Johnson called Franklin, and she accepted his offer. "Her attitude is if people say nasty things about you, apparently they don't understand, so you better meet with them," says the Chamber's Sam Williams.

What had rankled Johnson most was that Franklin sent out a letter to close to 200,000 Atlantans recommending that they get in touch with everyone from President George W. Bush to state legislators asking for financial help for the city. "His complaint," Franklin recalls, "was that I didn't give him a heads up--I should have called him. I explained that the element of surprise was part of our plan, but I appreciated that he didn't like it. Then I said that just because it was part of our plan didn't make it right. So he and I began to talk about what it was we really needed."

Meanwhile, Lee Thomas was serving as a broker between Franklin and Governor Perdue. Once the governor had been convinced that the state had to act somehow, he settled on amending a loan program for localities so that Atlanta could qualify for the $500 million Franklin had been hoping for, albeit over a 10-year period. Senator Johnson, for his part, agreed to help Atlanta make an end-run around the Fulton County Commission and vote on its own local-option sales tax. And in January, the city council finally agreed to pass Franklin's rate increases.

"Once the governor said, 'I understand this is a Georgia problem and I'll step into it,' Lee Thomas explains, "he communicated with legislators to say, 'We have to step up.' But they had to see the city was going to pass the rate increase. At the same time, the governor coming in was probably the big thing in helping us with the city council." For her part, Franklin happily gives credit for the arrangement to everyone else. "All I did," she told local business leaders in January, "was hold on by my fingernails until everybody else realized I was about to fall off a cliff."

RICHER AND POORER

With the sewer crisis largely behind her--"to say it's been smooth sailing is an overstatement," she confides, "but at least we're not bailing water"--Franklin has turned her attention to the broader issues facing Atlanta. Close to a quarter of the city's population lives below the poverty line, and although there are signs of gentrification dotted throughout the city's southern (read African- American) neighborhoods, there are still many places that look as though no one with any influence has paid attention to them for years. The city's overall population has been growing larger, wealthier and whiter. Demographic forecasts predict a metro region increase of 2 million people over the next 25 years, but not everyone is confident this will benefit the inner-city black community. Atlanta seems fated to endure a whole new round of stresses as it figures out how to apportion the benefits of its growth.

For a mayor who entered office facing a budget deficit, infrastructure crisis and economic downturn, Franklin provoked little overt opposition during her first year. But frustration is beginning to surface. The mayor's willingness to take uncomfortable measures to improve the city's image among outside power-brokers has raised questions in the poorer neighborhoods. Although the property tax increase, the water and sewer rate increases and a recent rise in property values haven't yet generated angry protests, they are becoming political issues. "She made a lot of people unhappy with some of the decisions she made," says Sandra Robertson, a longtime anti- poverty activist who runs the Georgia Coalition on Hunger, which sits in a depressed neighborhood in south Atlanta. Robertson is quick to add, however, that Franklin still enjoys not only her support but that of the people with whom her agency works.

For her part, Franklin has begun to talk about wealth-and-poverty issues. She has asked a cross-section of the community to advise her on homelessness, and on how the city ought to pursue a living wage for its residents. While the specifics haven't taken shape yet, she insists that they will. "The city of Atlanta's interactions with people of low income around issues of poverty are [limited to] law enforcement," she says. "That's how we interact with them. Well, we've got to shift that model." She is also looking for advice on persuading companies that fled to the suburbs to return to the city.

These are long-term strategies, and whether they'll pay off in time to forestall unrest among key portions of Franklin's constituency is anyone's guess. "The problem she faces is that Atlanta is a poor city," says Robertson. "It has this image as a prospering, glitter city, but it is a poor city. She does not have a large tax base to support the government. And then, there's a very strong, organized corporate community she has to deal with. So far, she's gotten a bye from the citizens, but it's not everlasting. Shirley is going to have to handle that, and that's why I keep her in my prayers."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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