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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Feisty Franklin finally snaps at Norwood — UPDATED

click to enlarge Mary Norwood
  • Mary Norwood

What took her so long?

Since January, Councilwoman Mary Norwood has campaigned for mayor in large part by dissing Shirley. Not directly, mind you. I have yet to hear her attack Franklin by name or enumerate her failings. But Norwood has pursued a passive-aggressive smear against City Hall and, by implication, the mayor. Shirley has mostly sat by silently, but this week she snapped.

It began the morning after the murder of Standard bartender John Henderson, when Norwood appeared at the photo-op vigil to lay the blame for the robbery/shooting at the mayor's feet for having furloughed police officers.

"What we have seen is cuts [in police hours] made without consultation and collaboration,” she declared. But that wasn't exactly true; Franklin had previously argued that the city didn't have enough money to keep all employees at full force without a tax increase. Norwood opposed the increase, but never suggested an alternative .

Throughout the mayor's race, Norwood has criticized the city's bookkeeping. Fair enough; city finances famously ran aground in early '08 because of lousy accounting practices that had persisted for decades. But, again, Norwood hasn't proposed any solutions; instead, she simply dismisses the city's budget as impenetrable, inscrutable, unknowable. As I've said before, boasting that you can't make heads or tails of the city's finances wouldn't seem to be the smartest campaign strategy.

And at Sunday's mayoral forum, when Norwood was asked — twice — what she's done during her seven years in office to repair the city's finances, the councilwoman effectively used the excuse that she hadn't been able to make reforms because the mayor had been keeping her down.

"Atlanta has a strong mayor/weak council form of government," Norwood explained. "There are [pieces of information] I've asked for for years that I haven't been able to put my hands on."

But it was Norwood reference to the city's "Enron-type accounting" that apparently proved the last straw for Franklin, who dashed off a news-release response:

The accounting issues at Enron involved fraud and criminal activity.  If Ms. Norwood has knowledge of fraud or criminal activity in connection with the City's finances, her obligation as a public official is to report them immediately to the US Attorney, and I call on her now to do just that... To publicly assert criminal activity in the absence of proof violates basic principles of fairness and decency.'

Now, it could be argued that Franklin is overreacting, that Norwood likely used a poorly chosen comparison and didn't mean to imply actual fraud, only sloppy bookkeeping. I'm guessing that's the case.

But the truth is that many, if not all, of the bad accounting practices have been eliminated over the past year and a half. The city brought in a new chief financial officer recruited from the corporate sector who, according to other Council members, has done a solid job of getting the budget in hand.

The problem in past years was that the city couldn't determine with any accuracy how much money it had. It didn't know how much money was left over at year's end, nor did it know how much it would have to spend in the upcoming year. During the Campbell years, the administration simply made up the budget as it went along, shifting money from one department to another and leaving it to the auditors to pick up the pieces.

But those days appear to be largely over. Don't get me wrong — like every other government around now, the city's flat broke. It may even be in worse financial shape than some because it has no cash reserves to fall back on, but the cutbacks and layoffs you've been reading about are primarily the result of the same crummy economy that's battering everyone.

Last month, Franklin held a press conference to announce Atlanta's monthly budget numbers. This represented a big leap forward for a city that, not long ago, couldn't have told you its annual budget numbers.

It could be that Norwood didn't get the memo — although Franklin says otherwise:

"The City's Chief Financial Officer, Jim Glass, has demonstrated exemplary competency and integrity in all the City's financial matters, and I know that he is making significant improvements in the City's financial practices and policies. Those improvements have been reported regularly and openly to the City Council on which Ms. Norwood serves and to the public."

It remains to be seen how much traction Norwood gets from bashing the administration, but it seems Franklin is determined not to let her get away with it.

Update: This morning, city CFO Jim Glass also sent out a release saying he had called Norwood to protest her Enron comment:

During the call I explained to Ms. Norwood that “Enron accounting” meant fraud and I stated that during my 10 months I have seen no evidence of such criminal activity.  To use the terminology she used Sunday night during the mayoral debate was a direct affront to not only my integrity but that of all of the employees in the Department of Finance.

Then this part was quite interesting:

During my phone call with Ms. Norwood, she apologized profusely and said she recognized the efforts our department was making to correct antiquated financial practices.  She also stated that she had made a public comment correcting her allegation against the Finance Department, but I have not seen any such public statement of support for the important work we are doing every day.

_________

I am extremely disappointed that she has demonstrated a lack of courage to publicly make such an apology to the members of the Department of Finance and attempt to amend some of the damage she has done.

Ouch.

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