Just before noon on the last day of April, four Atlanta City Council members converged on a hastily erected podium in City Hall's marble atrium. They were there to express outrage that Mayor Shirley Franklin would, within hours, deliver a city budget that was likely to propose staff layoffs, cutbacks in city services and a tax increase.
Clearly, they wanted to publicly distance themselves from the budget – and, by extension, from the mayor. Franklin had left them out of the loop where the city finances were concerned, announced Ivory Young and Joyce Sheperd. Even with the city facing a $140 million shortfall, it seemed an odd position for two council members who had won their last elections with Franklin's public backing and financial help.
Joining them were C.T. Martin and Felicia Moore, two council members who have traditionally bad-mouthed the administration regardless of who occupies the mayor's office. "There's a dark cloud over this building right now," Moore intoned. She made sure to point out that the current financial crisis wasn't the council's fault, but rather Mayor Franklin's.
The city employees who gathered along the railings overlooking the atrium burst into spontaneous applause.
For the public denunciation of a mayor who, not two years earlier, was featured on the cover of Newsweek as being representative of an emerging breed of powerful women. A year before that, Franklin had been anointed by Time as one of America's five best big-city mayors, alongside NYC's Bloomberg and Chicago's Daley. She was profiled in U.S. News & World Report as one of the "Best Leaders of 2005."
Even a politician who's received every conceivable accolade must become a lame duck at some point. But it does seem an unusually precipitous fall from grace for a mayor to go from winning a "Profiles in Courage" award to being openly dissed by council members and city workers in the middle of City Hall while her own chief of staff looks on.
Franklin is catching flak from nearly all sides these days: from the council, where even longtime allies are voicing disappointment with the mayor's oversight of city finances. From the public – or at least those who show up to open-mic hearings and post angry comments on newspaper websites. And even from the boosterish daily newspaper. Earlier this month, when the AJC's Cynthia Tucker headlined a column, "Fiscal meltdown a blot on Franklin's tough tenure," the event elicited a collective gasp from local media watchers. Surely a corner had been turned.
In truth, even before the budget crisis, the mayor's luster had begun to dim – and, frankly, how could it not? After eight years of Bill Campbell's corruption and contempt for the public, Franklin brought a new openness, energy, professionalism and humility to the office when she became mayor in 2002. She succeeded in winning over jaded taxpayers, the local media and the corporate poo-bahs who'd bet against her in the election.
And when Franklin ran for re-election in 2005, not a single credible opponent dared challenge her and she received 91 percent of the vote.
All political careers have their ups and downs, but Franklin's downs have mostly come in the past couple of years. Some, such as the Kathryn Johnston shooting, were government-related scandals. Others were political missteps. Still others, such as the much-ridiculed Brand Atlanta PR campaign, were screw-ups by others that reflected unfavorably on the mayor.
Franklin surely wasn't helped by news last year that her former son-in-law had received a life sentence for drug trafficking, or that her daughter pleaded guilty in federal court because she tried to avoid detection when she transferred cash she'd received from her then-husband when he was on the lam into money orders.
But it took a surprise budget crisis to bring out the wolves.
Franklin came into office in 2002 like a one-woman government, working 14-hour days, meeting endlessly with department heads and openly discussing the city's problems and challenges with a refreshing candor.
The city was reeling – both financially and politically – from the mismanagement and indifference of Campbell, who left office under federal investigation.
He also left behind a $82 million budget deficit for Franklin to handle.
Peter Aman compares the state of the city then to that of a hit-and-run victim lying in the street: Yes, someone should call an ambulance, but first we need to stop the bleeding.
Aman is a senior partner with the Atlanta office of Bain & Co., an international management consulting firm that offered the incoming mayor a few months of pro bono assistance in sorting out city affairs. There were so many problems the company signed on for the next three years.
"People have lost sight of how broken the city was and how much has been fixed," says Aman.
One example sticks out in Aman's head: Auditors couldn't figure out why a public works crew was racking up so much overtime until it was explained that their street-cleaning machine sprayed water only out of one side. Therefore they had to go down every street twice until the machine could be repaired. The city's maintenance department had estimated it would be able to fix the machine – in another year.
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