Past ARC Chair Sam Olens: Is it time to elect a metro leader?

The Atlanta region is like Rodney Dangerfield. It don’t get no respect.

For decades, efforts to create a regional mindset have had mixed results.

Barriers are torn down just to be rebuilt — creating divisions between the inner urban core, the closer-in suburban counties and the exurban counties; between cities and counties; between the northern and southern parts of the region.

And while elected officials in all the various cities and counties in the 10-county area that makes up the Atlanta Regional Commission all agree that our problems cross over the borders of their jurisdictions, they all understand that when it comes to decision-making time they must take care of their voters first.

It’s called political survival. Certain elected officials have taken regional position at the cost of their own electability — think Jack Smith, the former chairman of the Fayette County Commission.

Smith lost his seat last fall partly because of support for regional cooperation and for transit. In fact, Smith lost his commission seat to Steve Brown, who submitted a resolution for Fayette County to abandon any plans for mass transit.

A similar story line could be playing out in Cobb County. Commission Chairman Tim Lee is supporting the draft list of transportation projects passed by the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable, which includes a rail line from the Arts Center MARTA station to the Cumberland area in Cobb.

But the rail line, which would be a critical leg in a regional transit system, is being opposed by some key players in Cobb, and it is unknown whether that will impact Lee’s ability to be re-elected.

Something is wrong when our elected officials are punished for supporting a plan that is in the region’s best interest.

This past week, the Regional Leadership Institute convened its 2011 class in St. Simons, and one of the panel participants was Sam Olens, who currently is Georgia’s attorney general and former was chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission as well as chairman of the Cobb County Commission.

Olens knows first hand the limitations and potential of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

In a phone interview after his panel discussion, Olens said he believes that now might be the right time to change the “ARC’s statutory framework” so that it would have a “region-wide elected chairperson.”

In other words, electing a regional chair of ARC would create a position that could be considered a metro mayor — having someone whose constituency would be the whole 10-county region rather than just a slice of the area.

“Everybody complains that ARC doesn’t do enough, but few people have read the statute to see how little power it has,” Olens said. “Having someone elected from the region — it would be a healthy discussion.”

Currently, there is a search underway for a director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. But if it were up to him, Olens said that if there were to be an elected regional chairman, he or she would actually become the full-time leader of ARC and there would be no need for director.

Serving on that panel was Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, who put it this way.

“If we are going to hold the Atlanta Regional Commission responsible, then we’ve got to have somebody who is elected who has that responsibility,” Bolling said.

Back during the gubernatorial administration of Roy Barnes, there was a widespread belief that only the state could create a regional mindset. There even was talk that Gov. Barnes had emerged as Atlanta’s metro mayor because of the power of his office as well as his interest in regional issues.

It was Barnes who created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which was designed to help address the Atlanta region’s transit and traffic issues. But GRTA had a near-fatal flaw. The governor has the power to name every board member, which undermines the region’s ability to determine its own destiny.

Now it is Gov. Nathan Deal’s opportunity to show what kind of leader he will become. The first major test was when he signed an executive order for a Transit Governance Task Force with House Majority Caucus Chair Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula) and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) serving as co-chairs.

The other members of the Task Force are Sen. Butch Miller (R-Gainesville), Sen. Ron Ramsey (D-Decatur), Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta), Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain, Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-DeKalb), who chairs the MARTA Oversight Board, the mayors of the City of Atlanta, the City of Riverdale, the City of Johns Creek, and the county commission chairs of Gwinnett, Douglas and Rockdale counties.

Given its state-dominated structure, it is unlikely that the Task Force will give proper respect to the governance structure proposed by the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Transit Implementation Board.

The ARC delicately negotiated a governing body that gave representation to those who invested in transit. As more counties invested in their transit services, they would get a voting seat on the governing body.

It will be telling whether the governor’s task force gives the region control over its transit operations or whether it will make the state in charge — a state that has been reluctant to invest in transit as a mode of transportation.

Giving the Atlanta region greater power to govern as one body — be it through an elected ARC director or through regional governing bodies — would be a step forward in giving the metro area greater respect and helping it define its own destiny.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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