By Maria Saporta
From all outward signs, it appears as though there is a détente between the Atlanta Mayor City Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council.
Speaking at State of the City Business Breakfast on Jan 19 — while noting a host of accomplishments during his first two years as mayor, Reed gave credit to the Atlanta City Council and its president, Ceasar Mitchell.
“I want to acknowledge Ceasar Mitchell, president of the Atlanta City Council. Working with the Council, everything we accomplished in that video, we accomplished together,” Reed said at the breakfast. “They push back and they debate, and they are an essential part of the city.”
Reed ended his talk with an aspirational message.
“I’ll put my Council and the business community of Atlanta against any city in the world,” Reed said. “We are going to choose to be first again. This city has been built by business people and by political people. This town is an intentional town. We have got to be that again. I need this Council and this business community to be proud again.”
The mayor’s words could be an indication that there’s a new willingness to forge a working relationship with the Atlanta City Council.
But beneath the surface, the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch has not always so gracious.
Tensions have surfaced on a couple of key issues — reforming the city’s pension plan and awarding new airport concession packages — and they’ve exposed a power struggle between the mayor and council as well as a diversity of views among Council members.
Such tension is to be expected. In fact, such tension is healthy for the city’s ability to move forward with sensible and balanced policies.
President Mitchell has been in a unique position as the presiding officer on council. The president does not vote on legislation except if there’s a tie. His main power comes from naming the chairs of the City Council committees and by setting a tone in the way he runs City Council meetings.
In a recent far-reaching interview, Mitchell reflected on his first two years as president — the second most powerful position at City Hall — and his thoughts on how council has performed his role.
“When the new Council was elected, you would find me on every street corner saying this is the most experienced, competent and educated Council in a generation,” Mitchell said of his colleagues.
“But I realized, as we started to get into the pension discussion, that while we certainly had a competent and educated Council, there was a hesitancy on the part of Council — a collective reluctance to advocate or ask the tough questions.”
For Mitchell, the Atlanta City Council needs to play an independent role that is a counter-balance to the policies of the administration and the mayor.
“It is important for Council to exercise vigorously its responsibility as the governing body of the city and the branch of government that is charged with doing analysis, asking the appropriate questions and assuring that the checks and balances that citizens expect occur,” Mitchell said.
It was in that spirit that Mitchell appreciated City Councilwoman Felicia Moore’s willingness to challenge the mayor’s initial pension reform proposal. She offered an alternate proposal that had the backing of the city’s labor unions by taking an approach for more moderate reform.
“It was all right to look at both these ideas and to look at something that married these two,” Mitchell said of the two plans — the administration’s plan that had been put forward by then Finance Committee Chair Yolanda Adrean and Moore’s plan.
In fact, it was a compromise of the two plans that passed City Council by a 15-0 vote, which also had the support of the city’s employee unions. Mayor Reed has touted such unanimity when pointing to pension reform as one of his successes.
But the reality at the time of the debate was that the mayor had been impatient and frustrated with some on City Council for challenging his initial pension reform plan, one that likely would not have passed.
As Mitchell sees it, that moderating role was an appropriate role for City Council even if it led to tensions with the executive branch.
It also helps explain why Mitchell, in December, named Moore as chair of Council’s powerful Finance Committee — a move that generated criticism within the Reed administration and the community at large.
“I have a lot of respect for Felicia Moore, and Lord knows we don’t always agree, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a public servant,” Mitchell said. “It is appropriate to have her in the role of finance chair because of her willingness to ask questions and her willingness to do the hard work.”
Mitchell also raised some eyebrows when he named Michael Julian Bond to chair the Public Safety Committee. But again, Mitchell respected Bond’s experience, his confidence and his independence in reviewing the city’s policies.
“I was a little surprised by some of the reaction,” said Mitchell, adding that time will show that both appointments were wise moves. “What I believe people will see as Felicia Moore as chair of finance is that citizens and taxpayers will be well-represented when it comes to financial responsibility and fiscal restraint.”
Mitchell, who calls himself a “facilitator,” said the current relationship between Council and the Reed administration is not unusual.
“I think the mayor does respect the legislative process, but he’s only going to respect it as much as those legislators demand respect,” Mitchell said. “It’s in our human nature to be a little apprehensive about being challenged and to be a little sensitive about being questioned.”
Interestingly enough, the day that Mayor Reed took office a little over two years ago, he addressed the Atlanta City Council, saying that in his heart he is a legislator. After serving in both the state House and Senate, Reed has certainly learned the fine art of the legislative process. It is in the mayor’s nature to enjoy the give-and-take (and sometimes combative nature) of what it takes to pass legislation.
Meanwhile, Mitchell has been pushing the City Council to implement a strategic plan that would give greater power to the group with the addition of a chief of staff.
“We want to modify the organization to be more of a policy-making body and not just a policy reviewing body,” Mitchell said.
Asked about his plans for the future, Mitchell, 43, said he intends to run for another term as City Council President in two years.
“I don’t intend to run for mayor against the incumbent mayor,” Mitchell said. “But I also do not intend to serve as City Council president forever.”
Asked if he would run for mayor after Reed had left office (the mayor can’t serve more than two consecutive terms), Mitchell did not answer directly.
“This is a city in which I was born, a city that raised me, educated me and nurtured me. It gave me an opportunity to serve. I will be forever indebted to Atlanta. I will look for ways to serve this city for the rest of my life.”