Atlanta region faces lull in leadership at a critical time

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.

Atlanta LINK delegation thanks organizer Kellie Brownlow (center) for a job well done. Clayton Commission Chair Eldrin Bell (left) applauds while Cobb buisness leader Jim Rhoden exits the stage after giving her the roses (Photos by Maria Saporta)

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.

Georgia DOT Commissioner Vance Smith, Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership's John O'Callaghan; and Atlanta Regional Commission Chairman Tad Leithead at Boeing's facility outside Seattle

“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.”

Seattle Mayor Mike McGuinn stands with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed after dinner

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.

: Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center; talks to Kevin Greiner, president and CEO of Gas South; David Connell, president and CEO of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce; and Mara Holley, senior vice president and regional director of Wells Fargo.

“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.

LINK delegation visits the Boeing facility in Mulkilteo. Taylor Rice, chairman of he Henry County Chamber of Commerce; sits at the same table as Stacey Abrams. minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives; and Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center

“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.

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.

14 replies
  1. a transit fan says:

    “The most pronounced void exists at the Atlanta Regional Commission”

    Remarks like these remind me what an interesting game we have going. Why should we seek potentially historic–presumably courageous–leadership from a career administrator whose tenure depends on a favorable majority of the sitting board.Report

    Reply
  2. Rob Augustine says:

    Great to see the Saporta Report!

    While the vacancies and leadership transitions at ARC are of some concern, it seems to me that the area of greatest concern is the continued failure of our region to adopt and follow a coherent plan for regional developments, including transit and other areas. The upcoming vote on the additonal sales tax is a fundamental example of this leadership failure. Voters are going to be asked to approve additional sales taxes, yet no coherent plan is evident. Even worse, voters in DeKalb and Fulton will be asked to add this new tax onto their current MARTA payment. This is moronic and will likely doom the whole, really badly needed initiative. Again, no leadership exists that I’ve seen over the past two decades and longer to bring this region forward once and for all.Report

    Reply
  3. mc says:

    Augustine nailed it; As a transit rider and Fulton voter, nothing wants me to see the transit tax pass unless we have a plan with details provided;Report

    Reply
  4. Fan of the Region says:

    The suggestion that there is a lack of leadership at the ARC now that Chick, Tom and Tony have left suggests that their leadership was apparent prior to their deparature. This is an issue that’s been brewing all during their tenure and which they were unable to tackle. They are excellent practitioners but not necessarily implementers. Secondly, it is much easier to gain support for a concept like Concept 3 but if you asked voters to vote on the tens of bilions of dollars to support Concept 3, that would be a much different story. Leadership means not posting rumors, working together despite differences and getting it done!Report

    Reply
  5. Burroughston Broch says:

    The process calls to mind Nancy Pelosi saying about the Obamacare bill, “You’re going to have to pass it to find out what’s in it.”

    Voters in Fulton and DeKalb are not in the mood to buy a pig in a poke.Report

    Reply
  6. Fan of the Region says:

    I’m a DeKalb voter but spend over 75 % of my time driving in other counties. I don’t care if DeKalb gets one project if it makes commutes better. it’s not like we’re all driving around our own counties all day……Report

    Reply
  7. SpaceyG on Twitter says:

    If you polled metro Atlanta, asking them to name ONE thing the ARC has done for them, or even one thing they can recall ARC riding herd on, do you think you’d get anything back but a bunch of blank stares, shrugs and sheepish expressions?

    Heck, it’d be like polling Georgia voters and asking them what their senator, Saxby Chambliss, has done for them… or for Georgia. (Trust me, I’ve done that before, via MOS (Man On the Street) interviews. OMG… you don’t even want to know the results of that little exercise!)

    I’d call this a communication problem… not necessarily a *leadership* problem. But it could very well be some of each. Of course this is assuming ARC actually does stuff that’s useful for Georgia/Georgians. And I’m pretty sure they do.Report

    Reply
  8. Eric Hovdesven says:

    I agree with Mr. Augustine. As a DeKalb resident, daily MARTA rider and transit proponent, I can’t support a regressive 1% sales tax for transportation (even if half is for transit) if the region hasn’t demonstrated a commitment to plan AND implement proper transportation AND land use development.

    Perhaps my biggest fear is the regions demonstrated inability to actually implement what looks like good plans. Even if the transportation list proposed for the 1% sales tax looks good I would still not be able to trust that it would actually be built. Especially the transit portion.Report

    Reply
  9. Jamie says:

    The Atlanta’s biggest “leadership” problems are that its leaders are more interested in hiring executives whose main skills revolve around power lunches, golf matches, and photo opps than doing what’s necessary to implement real progress for Atlanta’s citizens. This isn’t the executives’ fault, it is the fault of the power brokers and executive search firms who “choose” them. Most of the major agencies that “run things” in Metro Atlanta are headed by political types who are BFFs with the power brokers, NOT people who can get things done – most of them aren’t waiting for photo ops, they’re working…..Report

    Reply
  10. Dialog not Diatribe says:

    Jamie’s response is the exception that makes other comments stand out as informed, concerned, and committed to Atlanta. I’m glad to know there’s a forum for intelligent discussion of complex issues affecting Atlanta now and in the future.Report

    Reply
  11. Faye Nelson says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I am tired of voting to increase taxes based solely on an “idea” of what will alleviate transportation problems. Show me a full, detailed plan that includes realistic financials and includes all counties. MARTA is a disaster that never has had proper leadership and certainly is not the answer. Maybe the lack of votes to fund on our part will create a sense of urgency on part of out govt.Report

    Reply
  12. mike dobbins says:

    First, old styles of leadership and the craving for them have to go; leadership that is not broad-based, that depends on the Commerce Club for its legitimacy, that only deals with the interests of the powerful will no longer succeed in leading the region and in fact hasn’t for many years – witness transportation, water, public education. Then, on regional leadership, the real question is: how and why did Krautler, Weyandt, and Landers come to leave the ARC? More or less all at once? These are three gents whose distinguished leadership, among many other achievements, crafted the LCI program (Weyandt), arguably the most effective voluntary regional growth shaping program in the country; the Transit Planning Board and “Concept 3,” the first really meaningful sign of progress in developing a region-wide transit consensus (Krautler and Weyandt), and Landers who exposed key leaders to the rest of the nation’s metro best practices – expensive but effective. Letting proven, effective leadership go has to have a story behind it: an investigative reporter, if there are any left, should ferret it out.Report

    Reply

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