Atlanta Airport concession fallout is painful to watch 

Mayor Kasim Reed snaps back ... but why?

It's the old playground rule: When you've been beaten up over and over again, at some point you need to hit back. That's what Mayor Kasim Reed did last week when, during the Atlanta City Council's marathon meeting to approve airport vendor contracts, he took the microphone to blast Common Cause Georgia.

"Common Cause does not have clean hands," the mayor said of the government watchdog group.

If you aren't already convinced that his administration rigged the bidding process to steer contracts to cronies — and no direct evidence has surfaced at this writing that it did — then Reed's frustration is understandable. For weeks, Common Cause had criticized the transparency of the vendor selection process, calling for the release of the names of members of the committee tasked with evaluating the bids and selecting the winners. Earlier this past summer, the group challenged the city to enact "pay-to-play" legislation to curtail campaign contributions to city officials by would-be contractors — the unavoidable implication being that such donations are influencing the awarding of contracts.

"I've watched my name get dragged through the mud," Reed protested to the Council, and it was clear from the nodding that several of them felt similarly besmirched.

Unfortunately, the answer is not to try to discredit a long-standing and well-regarded watchdog organization. Reed had prepared a set of posterboards to show, in his best litigator style, that Common Cause was hypocritical because some of its board members who'd previously run for office had accepted campaign contributions higher than the limit the group proposed for Atlanta. Thankfully, he didn't end up delivering his full presentation.

Common Cause was correct in pointing out that aspects of the airport bidding aroused suspicion, specifically the city's decision to restart the entire process in September after almost half the vendors bungled their applications. Later, when the freshly released list of winning vendors was revealed to include a number of Reed associates and campaign donors, more questions arose.

Let's face it, there will always be questions when tens of millions of dollars are at stake — especially at an airport that has long proven irresistible to corrupt businessmen and the politically well-connected. Asking those questions is Common Cause's job.

But the mayor is also correct in pointing out that campaign contributions of the kind he and Council members received are both legal and commonplace across the street at the Gold Dome. That doesn't make the practice more palatable, but it does argue for a holistic, statewide approach. And we agree that the city had good reason to withhold the names of the evaluators to prevent more unseemly arm-twisting.

If Reed had held a press conference weeks ago to address concerns and to clarify the city's rationale in throwing out the bids and withholding names of evaluators, it might have helped defuse what became a tense situation. The mayor instead waited until the final vote to attack his critics so as not to appear weak. The problem is he looked defensive and thin-skinned, which is arguably worse.

In the end, the Council approved the contracts overwhelmingly, with some usually skeptical members and an outside auditor touting the integrity of the process. The real show of strength would've been to weather the innuendo, accept the victory, and move on.

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