Mayors get to fire a lot of people. The way they go about doing it says a lot about them.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed surprised his city recently when he fired two agency heads on a single Friday. The move came with absolutely no advance notice and Reed refused to explain his thinking, even at an hour-long news conference he held the following Monday. “It came as a shock to people,” says Felicia Moore, a member of the city council who has sometimes clashed with Reed. “I found out about it like the rest of the public.”
Reed’s decision to fire Jo Ann Macrina, who’d been in charge of watershed management, was not terribly surprising. Her agency had suffered a slew of problems, including billing foul-ups, sewage spills and accusations of employee theft. But his decision to let go of Miguel Southwell, the head of the airport authority, seemed to come completely out of the blue.
A month earlier, Southwell had won an award from the Atlanta Business League as its “CEO of the Year.” More substantively, Southwell was just embarking on a terminal renovation and a $6 billion airport expansion, including a new runway. About all that Reed had offered publicly regarding his dissatisfaction was a complaint that an airport worker had yelled at people in a security line. The mayor said that talking through the details about his firing decision could open the city to litigation. That did nothing to reassure doubters.
Councilmember Moore and others wondered whether Reed could find and put in place a quality candidate to handle a major airport overhaul, given that the mayor has less than 18 months left in office. Reed insisted he wouldn’t be “hamstrung” by the fact that the city will be electing his successor next year.
Like a lot of mayors, Reed has seen turnover in some of the top jobs that answer to him. As far as he is concerned, this is the fundamental point: Southwell and other agency heads in the city serve at his pleasure. “When I’ve had to make a call, I’ve made the call,” Reed said at the news conference. “My team knows, when you work for me, you run your department until you don’t.”
He certainly has a point. But the abrupt firings and Reed’s decision to insist on his authority to carry them out without giving any reasons have led to complaints about a mayor growing increasingly imperious as his tenure in office approaches its close.