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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ceasar Mitchell scolds Council, guts his political career

Quick, who was the last person elected Atlanta City Council president to later become mayor?

Actually, it's a trick question. Before famously unseating Sam Massell as mayor in 1973, the late Maynard Jackson served as Council president, but he hadn't been elected to that position. Rather, Jackson was elected vice mayor on the old Board of Aldermen and the job was changed to Council president during a mid-term charter revision. In the process, the city's second-banana position was greatly diminished as Atlanta adopted a strong-mayor form of government.

Since then, Council presidents Marvin Arrington, Robb Pitts, and Lisa Borders all lost mayoral bids. Put simply, the job is not a stepping stone to the mayor's suite.

Why the history lesson? To add some context to what essentially must be a political obituary for the seat's current occupant, Ceasar Mitchell.

Two Tuesdays ago, moments after the City Council voted 12-3 to approve proposed airport concessions contracts following eight hours of intense discussion, debate, and testimony, Mitchell opened fire on his exhausted colleagues from the podium:

We have a process that is in keeping with the citizens’ expectations of us and our role as Council members: to represent, to deliberate, to be transparent and to ensure accountability in city government. Unfortunately, in this process, I don’t believe we’ve been able to exercise those virtues and those responsibilities. Not because the administration came to us and said, Please vote now, even though we just gave you this (information) seven or eight hours ago. We’ve put ourselves in harm's way because we chose to put in place a process, or lack thereof, on our own volition, when we had the power and authority to put in place a process the citizens expect of us.

I realize the above statement is somewhat vague. In order to put it in proper context, you should know that Mitchell had called several Council members a few days before the Jan. 3 meeting to urge a delay of the airport vote. Clearly, he was unpersuasive. So his rebuke to Council that night was motivated at least in part because he felt they had erred by voting too hastily.

But I submit that Mitchell also took his colleagues to task out of frustration at being unheeded, ignored, and rendered irrelevant. Frustration at his own inability to bend the Council to his will. Frustration, finally, at seeing his political aspirations slipping away.

The Council president's authority is limited to running meetings and appointing members to committees once a year. He can't introduce legislation. He doesn't vote except to break a tie. He can't speak at Council meetings — apart from enforcing the Rules of Order — unless he first steps aside as president and a Council members calls on him. In short, any real influence a president wields over city policy and the Council's actions stems from his or her personal relationships with its members and the mayor.

Past Council presidents have made their mark to varying degrees by dint of their own forceful personalities and behind-the-scenes politicking. Arrington and Pitts served as vocal opponents to the corrupt scheming of the Campbell administration. Cathy Woolard commanded respect because of her professional, no-nonsense style, and she leveraged her position to serve as an early champion of the Atlanta Beltline. And while Borders didn't have a strong policy agenda to push, she used her keen management skills to help the Council run smoothly. It should be noted that both Woolard and Borders had good working relationships with then-Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Mitchell, on the other hand, has long struggled to find his footing. During his first months in office, he brought in a professional management consultant to assist the Council in drafting a long-term strategic plan for itself. That effort soon petered out.

Last year, when Mayor Reed began his push for pension reform, setting a June 30 approval deadline for Council, Mitchell stepped in front of that speeding train by asking the Council to schedule a series of work sessions that would likely have pushed back the vote until September. The mayor pushed back, the Council balked at stretching the matter out until fall, and the end-of-June deadline was met.

At the time, I described the political dynamics of the pension reform debate as a face-off between, on the one side, a hard-charging mayor skilled in the art of legislative arm-twisting who aims to satisfy a major campaign promise; and, on the other, a less-experienced Council prez trying to claim a leadership role in the proceedings in order to build a record of accomplishment. I still believe my analysis, however cynical, to be generally accurate in terms of raw politics: Reed won and Mitchell lost.

Smarting from that loss, Mitchell subsequently stripped Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean of her chairmanship of the important Finance and Executive Committee in apparent payback for not supporting his efforts to delay the pension vote. While that action was widely noted, it hasn't resulted in greater obedience. Transportation Committee Chairman C.T. Martin dutifully guided the airport concessions matter to its scheduled vote, despite Mitchell's entreaties to slow things down.

And so, we arrive at Mitchell's address to Council that capped the Jan. 3 meeting. My own view is that the Council president was scolding his colleagues for not following his advice, that he was venting his frustration at feeling disregarded and disrespected.

When I later asked Mitchell about his statements, he described them as "a simple and polite footnote on the discussion" said not out of frustration or scorn, but out of concern that some Council members were voting too hastily, before they had a full understanding of the details of the concessions deals involved.

Whatever the intent, the remarks will only serve to further alienate the Council that Mitchell seeks so desperately to lead. The reaction of members I contacted varied from mild irritation to bewilderment at such an apparent political misstep.

This isn't a pleasant article to write. I like Ceasar personally — I can't think of anyone who doesn't — but I have an obligation to describe the dynamics of how our city government works. Early on in the Reed administration, I voiced concern that the mayor wasn't doing enough to build personal relationships with Council members. I now realize it wasn't necessary for him to make friends in order to be an effective leader. Reed is nothing if not up-front: He tells people what he wants to do, when he wants to do it, and why they should support him. And if there's dissent, he's willing to use both the carrot and the stick to get things done.

Politicians respond well to that kind of directness, which is why Reed has notched a series of policy victories while the more deliberate, less decisive Mitchell has largely met with frustration. If Mitchell still harbors any hope of beating the curse of the Council prez and becoming mayor some day, this is a problem he'll need to fix.

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