As I got close, I could see the hamlet's only dock was smashed on one side. So I tossed out the hook, swam ashore and asked if I could dock my boat. "No, mon, big fight goin' on," a woman told me.
It turned out that the dock -- a rather formidable one for a village of maybe 20 or 30 people -- had been constructed by the government as an economic development engine. Think of it as the islet's version of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Over the few years since the dock had been built, bitter competition had evolved over who would control its cash register. As I understood it, three extended families had vied for the treasure. One night, someone blasted the pilings on one side of the dock with dynamite; the rival squads pointed fingers at each other.
The feud spread to other affairs. The town boasted one policeman, and he sided with one of the factions, harassing the other teams. There was vicious competition over who would manage the sole satellite dish.
I -- always a reasonable man -- suggested that they were shooting themselves in their collective foot. Cooperate and rebuild the dock, I sagely urged, and all will profit. The townspeople looked at me as if I were nuts. When I asked about the availability of a mechanic -- that's a term loosely applied in the Bahamas -- I was warned that whomever I hired would anger the other clans, and I might find some big holes in my boat. I sailed away.
Time warp back to circa now, Atlanta, Republic of Public Policy Idiocy, a place that gives a whole new dimension to the word "balkanized." Size aside, the only difference between Atlanta and the tiny Exuma town is that we haven't dynamited our major economic engine. At least in that respect we are careful not to kill a goose that lays so much golden graft.
We are a farrago of petty, competing government entities. We can't even agree on what Atlanta means. I tell people I live in Atlanta, but I don't, technically speaking. I'm a Lawrencevillian.
I tried calculating the number of state, county and municipal agencies that could affect my life as I travel from Gwinnett County through DeKalb and into Fulton each day. I got to 50 and, with no end in sight, gave up. What's really scary is that most of these agencies don't talk to each other. Oh, sure, there's a show of regionalism at the Atlanta Regional Commission and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, but we all know it's a pathetic sham.
For a start, no one wants to confront the essential, unforgiving truth about Atlanta. Our prior prosperity -- a bubble that burst three years ago -- was based on the fallacious notion that you can grow forever. Sorry, pal, it doesn't work. Two problems:
First, growth eventually eats up all available resources, ruins the qualities that attracted people in the first place, and stresses infrastructure beyond capacity. Florida and Alabama are ready to go to war over "our water," and we face a collapse of the construction industry if we don't squeeze every drop of water into new development. We painfully know the price of inadequate roads, and as a community we are perplexed at the conundrum of growth outpacing new highways no matter how fast we build them. Everything from sewers to police forces to jails to schools is in crisis -- and the root cause is unrestrained growth. Some sort of sensible commuter rail and intown connecting trains (City Council President Cathy Woolard's Beltline) are critical to weave together the region -- but Gov. Sonny Perdue just killed rail funding.
Second, the governmental framework for the metro area is outdated, a condition reached in all likelihood before the War of Northern Aggression. The Atlanta municipal government was designed for a town, became barely adequate for an emerging city and is totally dysfunctional dealing with a metro area. County and city lines have little relationship to reality.
Woolard likens metro area officials to "bully boys lobbing cannonballs over fences and not really caring who they hit or what damage they do."
The solution some officials propose to remedy government chaos is the opposite of big-picture thinking -- they want to carve little new cities, such as Sandy Springs, so that sanity can be applied.
What we urgently need is a Moses to lead us out of the wilderness. Instead, for the most part, we have political dwarves.
Then there's Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. For many, she is to politics what sweet tea is to Southern cuisine. She is, indeed, an improvement over Bill Campbell. But John Dillinger and Lucky Luciano would likely have run more honest governments than Campbell did.
Franklin has confronted problems -- the sewers, homelessness, the failed private water authority. She had no choice, of course. On balance, I'm sure she deserves credit.
But Franklin has hardly been a bridge builder. She wants to shove a sales tax referendum down the county voters' throats. Fulton Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel has, correctly, vowed a fight.
Meanwhile, Fulton is facing its own crises. For example, because of gross mismanagement, waste and probably a little criminal neglect, the 16-year-old, $50 million jail is a catastrophe, unsafe for prisoners and the public alike. The price tag for a new one? Maybe $200 million or so. Who is going to pay?
Thirty years ago, I reported on Miami's attempt to address the same problems we face today. A broad coalition formulated a play to create a two-tier government. Big things -- long-range planning, police, major infrastructure -- were assigned to a metro government. And Dade County was to have been carved into 50,000-person "service areas" -- replacing existing cities -- where citizens would have considerable say in priorities.
The plan collapsed due to petty politics. The need for mayors, police chiefs, commissioners and all of their attendant factotums would have dramatically decreased. Opportunities for corruption and nepotism would have plunged. Consolidation reached the halfway point and died, and the Magic City suffers for it today.
Miamians were, however, successful in passing a visionary, far-reaching funding plan that enabled the city to address its critical needs for decades to come.
For Atlanta, until we admit that we're a 4 million-person metropolis and work down through tiers to the local level -- as opposed to allowing a fractious collection of scalawags to kill our future -- things will only get worse. Much worse.
We need a metro government. We need far fewer politicians and appointed sinecures, and a few more statesmen. For a start, Fulton's jail should be run by a law enforcement professional, not a political hack. More important, someone needs to step forward and convene a process that will map out a workable plan for the next hundred years.
Franklin isn't good at delegating, and she hasn't learned to galvanize her citizens and employees into a crusade for the city. But I think she could. Otherwise, our future is about as bleak as that little Exuma enclave.
Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com.
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