Leadership in metro Atlanta is in a state of flux at one of the most crucial moments in the region’s history.
Those nagging questions of leadership were ever present during the 15th annual LINK (Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge) to Seattle from May 4 to May 7.
The annual LINK trips provide a windowpane on the state of the Atlanta region, and the 2011 trip was no exception.
But this trip felt particularly weighty given a widespread appreciation of what was at stake for the Atlanta region — will we be able to develop a strong consensus in the 10-county metro area around a regional vision that will compel voters to pass a one-cent sales tax for transportation in 2012.
The most pronounced void exists at the Atlanta Regional Commission — the 10-county entity responsible for planning the future of our metro area. The top three staff positions at the ARC are unfilled, and there’s great consternation over how that will impact the region’s ability to coalesce around a vision that will capture the imagination and support of the majority of people living in metro Atlanta.
Outgoing director Chick Krautler did not attend LINK. Instead, interim director — Emerson Bryan — attended.
It also was the first LINK trip without Tony Landers, ARC’s retired director of community services who had coordinated the first 14 LINK trips. But his understudy — Kellie Brownlow — put together a nearly flawless trip logistically.
The third ARC vacancy is that of director of comprehensive planning, a post formerly held by Tom Weyandt, once considered the odds-on favorite to succeed Krautler. Weyandt, however, did attend the Seattle LINK trip in his new role as senior transportation policy advisor for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Much of the chatter on the trip focused on who could be the next ARC director — and whether it should be someone who was on the LINK trip so that he or she already would have a deep understanding of Atlanta regional issues as well as the political dynamics and sensitivities of the position.
Among the names that surfaced in conversations included (in alphabetical order): Renay Blumenthal, senior vice president of public policy at the Metro Atlanta Chamber; Ray Christman, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition; Faye DiMassimo, director of Cobb County’s Department of Transportation; Doug Hooker, Southern states director of the Akins North America engineering firm; Ross King, executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia; and Malaika Rivers, executive director of the Cumberland Community Improvement District.
ARC Chairman Tad Leithead told LINK attendees at the closing discussion session that it was still early in the selection process, but that the organization was “not disabled” in the interim.
“I’ve told many of you on the trip that the decision of hiring our new executive director is the most important decision we will make since I’ve been on the board,” Leithead said.
(Other chatter on the trip circled around speculation that Vance Smith, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, had lost the support of a majority of his board members. And word was that Jeff Mullis, the Georgia Senate’s transportation chairman, was interested in the job. Both Smith and Mullis were on the LINK trip).
The LINK trip also exposed the fact that the region is being pulled in many different directions when it comes to the transportation bill. Transit versus roads; county commission chairs versus the region’s mayors; urban versus suburban versus ex-urban parts.
Somehow all these elements will have to come together in an awkward process aimed at selecting a list of transportation projects for the region. Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, was concerned the region would end up with a “dim sum” project list rather than “a cohesive list.”
It’s a far cry from the broad-based, unprecedented consensus that had been reached a couple of years ago when local and state leaders unanimously endorsed a regional transit plan called “Concept 3.”
That same group also worked tirelessly on a plan for regional transit governance — linking all the region’s transit systems into one seamless entity. Once again, all that hard work has been muddied by other efforts at the state legislature and various transportation agency politics.
Such painstaking decision making is nothing new in Seattle. It took about a decade for the city and the state to reach consensus to remove the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct blocking Seattle’s access to its waterfront and replace it with a tunnel.
But progress on that project has stalled after Seattle “elected a mayor who made it his single focus to kill that downtown road option,” said Phil Bussey, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. That has led to a severe case of buyer’s remorse in Seattle as Mayor Mike McGinn’s popularity has plummeted.
McGinn too found the “Seattle Process” lacking. “You have to find all your points of agreement before you can work on your disagreements,” he told the LINK delegation.
Atlantans also heard from former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, a national leader in sustainability, who lost his re-election bid in 2009 to McGinn.
Nickels would not comment on McGinn other than saying: “I have lost a lot of blood biting my tongue.” He then went on to say that several factors caused him to lose the election — the economy, an angry electorate and his leadership style.
“I came into office wanting to get things done, and I was wiling to spend political capital,” Nickels said. “You do pay a price for that.”
Asked if would run for re-election, Nickels replied: “You never say never,” which the Atlanta delegation took as a yes.
The LINK trips also are a wonderful way to get to know local leaders and their true character when they’re not on their home turf.
One wonderful example in Seattle was when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was left behind by the LINK buses at the Experience Music Project, where he had lost track of time while enjoying the attraction.
“I laughed so hard,” Reed said when he realized he had missed the bus and had to fend for himself in trying to rejoin the group. Reed had traveled to Seattle minus any security guards, and he actually seemed to enjoy his solo adventure.
The LINK trips offer great tangible and intangible benefits.
“I thought the trip was about Seattle,” said Jan Jones, Georgia’s House Speaker Pro Tem, who was on her first LINK trip. “It was not about Seattle. It was about the Atlanta region and the people on the trip.”
It also was about the people who were not on the trip — particularly John Eaves, Fulton County Commission chairman. Eaves said he needed to be in Washington, D.C. to attend the National Association of Counties meeting. But DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis managed to do both.
For Eaves, it was a lost opportunity to have some off-line discussions with both proponents and opponents of splitting the northern part of Fulton County into Milton County.
As Post Properties CEO Dave Stockert said: “One of the most beneficial parts about these trips is that people on different sides of the aisle are able to get together in a depressurized setting. I saw Stacey Abrams (Georgia House Minority Leader) and Jan Jones engaged in a long conversation. I think that’s helpful for the region.”
And right now, the region needs all the help it can get.
Note to readers: Several stories about the Seattle LINK trip can be found throughout SaportaReport.