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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mayor Reed: Sell the jail — or tell us who else to fire

Volume 38 Issue 48 Feature

On Wednesday, after more than three hours of often heated discussion and debate — following many more hours of meetings in recent weeks — the Atlanta Council's Finance Committee finally agreed to advance a proposal to sell the city jail to the full Council for a final vote.

But not before Mayor Kasim Reed, acting in the role as the deal-closer, offered some pretty unpleasant scenarios if the committee failed to act.

"We are no longer in a financial position to carry a $30 million annual loss," he told committee members, referring to the expense of running the Atlanta Detention Center. If the jail isn't sold to Fulton County, Reed warned, "we're going to lay off a substantial number of employees."

But the mayor made clear he wasn't trying to rush committee members into a decision on the jail deal — but he did need them to send it to the full Council. The unspoken — actually, make that spoken — message of his talk was: Move it along.

Still, after all of the financial data and information presented by administration staffers showing that the jail had never paid for itself and indicating that the jail could never avoid costing the city millions, a number of folks — including Councilman Michael Bond, who's been given the OK to take part in jail discussions despite an arguable ethical conflict (see below) — used the public comment time to argue that the ADC could be a revenue generator.

Two city jail employees stepped up to the mic to argue that the city could make money by leasing jail space to other jurisdictions, a point echoed by Sunday Paper news editor Stephanie Ramage, who at moments seemed to be on the verge of tears.

And then there was Councilman C.T. Martin, who was in rare form in his chosen role as an agent of disruption, anarchy and conspiracy-mongering. After offering the caveat that he hadn't yet decided how he'd vote on the proposed sale of the jail, he then proceeded to impugn the motives, integrity and basic human decency of everyone else in the room.

Martin marveled at his colleagues' ability to live with their consciences. He accused the mayor of "balancing the budget on the back of our employees." And he singled out administration officials — by name — for servings of harrasment and innuendo.

At one point, Martin called for Deputy Chief Operating Officer Duriya Farooqui to approach the mic so he could ask if she was somehow related to any member of the "previous regime." The answer was no and Martin declined to explain the point of his question, but it seems likely he was implying that Farooqui, a native of Pakistan, is related by marriage to David Edwards, former policy adviser to ex-Mayor Shirley Franklin. Edwards' wife is Indian.

This from the councilman who's always the first to accuse others of racism.

At any rate, the committee eventually voted to send the matter to the full Council without recommendation. The Council next meets April 19, after a two-week break. Can we wait that long until our next dose of fun?

UPDATE: Regarding Bond's participation in the jail debate, you may recall that city Ethics Officer Ginny Looney was deliberating last week on whether the fact that Bond's brother works at the jail should disqualify the councilman from voting on or even discussing the sale of the facility. Since Bond's vote could directly impact whether his brother keeps his job with the city or loses it, it was questioned whether his involvement would run afoul of a prohibition on Council members to vote on matters in which they have a "personal or financial interest."

On Monday, however, Looney gave Bond approval to continue taking part in jail discussions. Here's the main summation of her reasoning:

In this case, it is unclear whether the legislation authorizing the lease and sale of the jail to the county is favorable or unfavorable to city employees. It is clear from the terms of the sale agreement that all employees now working at the jail will lose their jobs with the City and will need to reapply for their jobs. Under the proposed terms for the sale, however, the County agrees to give current employees the “first opportunity” to apply for jobs at the facility and to use its “best efforts to retain current City employees.” This commitment increases the likelihood that city employees will be rehired… [Therefore] any effect that the legislation will have on your brother’s employment is uncertain.

Hmm, I don't a have dog in this fight, but I'm not sure I follow the reasoning here. I don't think it makes sense to argue, as this position seems to, that a conflict of interest exists only we can confidently predict whether an elected official's family member would be able to get a decent job after leaving the city's employ.

To me, it's reasonable only for the city to consider whether an elected official's vote could have a direct impact on a family member's employment status with the city. Bottom line: If the jail is sold, Bond's brother would lose his current job with the city and no agreement exists that requires the county to rehire any particular jailers. Any speculation on the likelihood of his subsequent hiring by the county — not to mention whether that job would pay as well or have equivalent job benefits, etc. — seems well outside the purview of the ethics board.

Just sayin'.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post identified Duriya Farooqui as director of performance management, her previous title.

Also, I previously referred to Councilman Michael Bond having a "potential ethical conflict," but changed the wording to "arguable ethical conflict" to reflect the fact that he's been cleared by Looney.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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