Monday, May 12, 2008

She's the mayor, not the queen

Posted By on Mon, May 12, 2008 at 9:28 PM

Although it's fun to watch Mayor Shirley Franklin and AJC Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker lob rhetorical grenades at each other, one thing is clear: Tucker was entirely right in describing Atlanta's "sorry financial shape" as Franklin enters the final months of her regime. If anything, the AJC editor was too polite.

One thing is also clear. Criticize the mayor, even mildly, and you'll get a blast of vitriol from her office. One public official, for example, had the temerity to tell me that she doubted the mayor's commitment to the transportation component of the Beltline. After all, other cities — Charlotte (which is quickly stealing Atlanta's title of "Business Capital of the South") and Denver come to mind — have actually greatly expanded transit systems while we have, um, drawn pretty maps. That official told me that the "mayor came after me like a low-flying missile" for daring to express an opinion, a very well-founded opinion.

Last year, I became curious about the mayor's travel records. She is almost always on a trip, it seems. There were two things that I learned from my curiosity: First, in City Hall, ethics are relative (you could also call this "Franklin Exceptionalism"), and the city's financial management was awful.

The first point was that, despite clear laws, Franklin was in violation of the ethics code in not disclosing when non-city sources picked up her bill for dozens of trips. For example, "prohibited sources" — those not allowed to provide junkets for city officials — are defined as outfits that lobby the city. The mayor has taken many trips clearly in violation of that rule because, well, she basically said the rules don't apply to her. When the city's Ethics Board said she was wrong, she interpreted that to mean that she didn't have to disclose all of the groups that had lavished travel goodies on her in the past, just that she would obey the law in the future. Franklin is an honest person, but that response is the sort we'd expect from Bill Campbell.

Still, the context of the city's current awful financial state — $140 million in the red, with rank and file city employees bearing the brunt of firings while the brass keep their cushy jobs, and with residents facing staggering hikes in taxes and fees — makes the travel story even more interesting.

I had made an open records request of the mayor's city-paid-for travel records. What I received was a bunch of chaos. No organization, no thought. Some city factotum actually gave me enough of the Franklin's personal information, including her personal credit card records, that identity theft would have been a snap and I could have emulated the mayor's globe-trotting. I warned the mayor of what her staff had done, but didn't receive much in the way of thanks. Indeed, one of her aides shot back that they were only required to produce records, they weren't required to keep neat records. That should scare the bejesus out of every Atlanta taxpayer.

The unanswered question was: How in the world could a "corporate" mayor tolerate such mismanagement and slovenliness?

Another column I wrote last year sheds light on that. In April 2007, I reported that under Franklin's tenure, the city payroll has swollen by about 2,000 people, a 27 percent increase. The mayor's aides tried all sorts of linguistic gymnastics to explain the increase, such as the sewer project. But all cities have major public works projects. Atlanta has 1,822 employees per 100,000 people. Charlotte has 1,080, Miami has 966 and Tampa has 1,363. Even eliminating the sewer repair workers, and Atlanta is still higher that Charlotte and Miami.

That's one good reason the city is in financial disrepair.

The mayor claims sweeping credit for attending to the sewers after other mayors neglected them. That's correct, sort of. Two federal court orders forced Franklin to begin the sewer repairs. It's not as though she woke up one morning with a fervent desire to be the "sewer mayor." But now that the repairs are underway, what do we know about them, other than the torn-up streets? Well, the $3 billion sewer fix has grown to $4 billion (and I'll bet it gets to $5 billion before Franklin leaves office, although that fact may remain well hidden until it can be dumped onto a new mayor). Which reminds me of the airport expansion project, which has grown from $750 million to $1.5 billion. Or the new City Hall computer system that soared in price from $22 million to $46 million.

What the city officials are very good at is creating spin. Unavoidable delays have hiked costs, they say. Those aren't really city employees, they're "enterprise" employees collecting a city paycheck. And so on, and so on. What we don't hear from Franklin is that those excuses from her subalterns simply aren't good enough. Nor does she ever embrace the blame.

I believe Franklin has been a good mayor. Maynard Jackson, a couple of months before he died, told me that every time Franklin opened a desk drawer in City Hall, more of Campbell's skeletons jumped out. Franklin had a daunting task, and the trump suit in her legacy deck is that she restored confidence to the city. People are moving back here, people have a good feeling about the city's direction.

But if Franklin really wants the glory of a legacy, the tactic of savaging allies, such as Tucker, who are only stating the very, very obvious, isn't going to work.

That's called "killing the messenger." Journalists didn't hide or forget to pay mountains of unpaid city bills. Scribes didn't cause the billions of dollars in cost overruns. Columnists didn't invent the sloppy record keeping at City Hall.

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