As region becomes more diverse, Atlanta Regional Commission trying to catch up
By Maria Saporta
The in-person gathering of former chairs of the Atlanta Regional Commission drove home the point.
Something was missing. There was not one woman or Black person among them.
The Council for Quality Growth brought together three former ARC chairs – Wayne Hill (1998 to 2002); Sam Olens (2005 to 2010); and Tad Leithead (2010 to 2014); along with current ARC board chair Kerry Armstrong (2014 to now) for a session with its Emerging Leadership Initiative at Piedmont Center. The only other living former ARC chair – Crandle Bray of Clayton County (2002 to 2005) – was unable to join.
But it struck me that, with one exception (see note below), only white men have chaired the ARC in its 50-year history. That’s a rather amazing fact given the growing diversity in the Atlanta region’s population. Today, 39 percent of the region is white; 39 percent is Black; 12 percent is Hispanic; and 7 percent is Asian.
The conversation among ARC’s board members was moderated by Doug Hooker, executive director of the regional planning agency that encompasses the 10 metro counties and the City of Atlanta. Coincidentally, Hooker is the first and only Black executive director of ARC (if you don’t include Emerson Bryan who served as interim). Last week, Hooker announced his intention to retire on March 31, 2022.
During the discussion, Hooker observed that women make up more than half of the region’s population.
“There’s no woman up here, as you can see,” Hooker said of the panel.
Armstrong explained that ARC has 39 board members, and they have to self-nominate if they want to be board chair.
“From my experience, no woman member of the board has nominated herself,” said Armstrong, who said he had urged Gwinnett Chair Charlotte Nash to run for the position instead of him. “Charlotte Nash would have been better than me. I think it’s a matter of time.”
Through the lens of 2020 and 2021, however, the lack of women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians as chair of one of the most important regional entities in metro Atlanta feels jarring.
But as Armstrong stated: “It will come.”
The complexion of the ARC board definitely has evolved to be much more reflective of the region. The board includes the top elected officials in each county and the City of Atlanta. After the 2020 election, eight of the 10 commission chairs are Black and four are women. Only two of the region’s 10 counties are chaired by white males – Cherokee and Fayette.
If the mayor of Atlanta is included, that would add another Black woman leader, but Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has never attended an ARC board meeting, which means she hasn’t been sworn in.
Consider this: On July 1, ARC will grow to 11 counties with the addition of Forsyth County, which is chaired by Cindy Jones Miller, who is white.
Clearly the elected leadership in the region is beginning to reflect metro Atlanta’s population.
In doing research for this column, my colleague Maggie Lee put together a graphic showing the amazing shift that’s occurred in the Atlanta region over the past 50 years. In 1970, the 10-county region’s population was 78 percent white and 22 percent Black. There was only a minuscule number of people who identified as any other race or ethnicity (less than 1 percent).
The panel ARC board chairs did offer great reflections on the role of the agency and how it has strived to create a regional mindset to address transportation, water and numerous other interests, such as the needs of an aging population and metro wide support for the arts.
“We had come through a difficult time,” Olens said. “There was enmity between the City of Atlanta and the rest of the region. I spent a lot of energy bridging the divide between OTP and ITP.”
His partner in helping bridge that divide was then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who made regional relationships a priority of her administration.
“I would like to give a lot of credit to Shirley Franklin for working with the region,” said Leithead, who is now executive director of the Lilburn Community Improvement District.
Olens agreed. “You need two to tango,” he said. “Shirley, you could work with.”
All the ARC board chairs lamented the fracturedness that exists today.
“We have tried to get all the puppies in the box and get everyone working together,” Armstrong said. “Right now, everybody wants to pick a fight. I’m tired of it. We do have inequity in our region and a need for affordable housing. We’ve got to work together.”
Wayne Hill, who was chairing the Gwinnett Commission when he served as ARC’s chair, said elected leaders have a responsibility to his or her constituents. It was sometimes hard to put the needs of the region above the jurisdiction they represent. But serving on ARC’s board helped change that dynamic.
“Everyone realized we were a region, and we had to work together,” said Hill, who is now a marketing executive for Atlas.
“The Atlanta Regional Commission is all about cooperation, and my observation is that there’s not that much cooperation on any front,” Leithead observed.
Olens also complained about “hyper partisanship” in today’s society. “The vast majority of politicians care much more about their re-election than about policy,” Olens said.
Up until Leithead, all of ARC’s chairs had been elected leaders. Leithead was the first “citizen member” to be elected chair. He was succeeded by Armstrong, also a citizen member. It is worth noting that both citizen members come from the real estate sector.
Armstrong said he became interested in ARC when Hill was chairing the board.
“I realized ARC has a lot to do with transportation and water,” said Armstrong, who is managing director of Pope & Land. “As a real estate developer, why would I not want to be involved?”
Everyone agreed “inequity” was one of the biggest challenges facing the region. Several mentioned housing affordability, and ARC has formed an affordable housing task force.
Several emerging leaders asked about the future transit plans.
“It’s not about a plan,” Armstrong said. “There are plans out the wazoo. The problem is funding and political will.”
“Transit is a necessity,” Leithead chimed in.
With ARC turning 50 later this year, and with next year’s departure of Hooker, change is inevitable.
Hill, the most senior leader on the panel, turned to the emerging leaders in the room.
“Are you folks in the room willing to step up?” Hill asked. “It’s going to be on y’all. A lot of change is coming. It’s time for everybody to quit arguing and fighting. Do the right thing, and your legacy will follow.”
Note to readers: The Atlanta Regional Commission was formed in 1971. Its predecessor – the Metropolitan Planning Commission – was formed in 1947 with just Fulton and DeKalb counties and the City of Atlanta. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s territory has expanded with the growth of metro Atlanta.
Second note to readers: A long time chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission was Manuel Maloof, who was head of DeKalb County. Maloof was of Lebanese descent. Although he generally was considered to be a white male, Maloof is as close as ARC has come to having diversity among its board chairs.
Third note to readers: Long-time ARC communications leader – Julie Ralston – reached out to me after the column was published to let me know ARC has had one Black chairman. Atlanta City Councilman Ira Jackson served as chair in the late 1980s (Julie that it was 1985 to 1989), succeeding Ernest Barrett of Cobb County. Manuel Maloof succeeded Jackson, who later went on to be general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (and was later convicted in an airport corruption trial).
How to get involved:
The board of the Atlanta Regional Commission meets on the second Wednesday at 1:30 pm to 3 p.m. in January, March, May, July, September, and December. The next board meeting will on May 12. For a complete list of ARC board members and upcoming meetings, please click here.