Atlanta Regional Commission reflects at a post-election hangover meeting

By Maria Saporta

The mood was somber at Wednesday’s board meeting of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Three weeks earlier, the 10-county region resoundingly defeated a regional transportation sales tax that the ARC had worked on for the better part of two years.

And on Tuesday night, two of its county commission chairs lost their run-off elections — possibly in part to their support of the transportation sales tax referendum.

Clayton Commission Chair Eldrin Bell was among the ARC board members who met for lunch before the official board meeting to talk about an upcoming September work session for the organization.

B.J. Mathis, chair of the Henry County Commission, did not attend the board meeting following her loss on Tuesday, but she told ARC Chairman Tad Leithead that she planned to remain involved until her term was over.

“We lost some good people last night,” said Mike Bodker, mayor of Johns Creek, expressing concern that the newly elected leaders might not be as good. “What makes this regional conversation work is that we have good people.”

The conversation around the table actually portrayed a dual reality.

Citizen member Judy Waters, who has been on the ARC board a dozen years, said she had never seen the leaders of the region more unified than they were last year when they approved the $6.14 billion list of transportation projects.

“What we did was phenomenal,” Waters said. “This platform is the only platform where this many elected officials can gather and come together for the region.”

Tom Wortham, chair of the Douglas County Commission, said one of the positives that came out of the process was the trust that had been established among ARC board members.

“I wish we could have moved it to the rest of the region,” Wortham said. “I wish the trust that we had amongst ourselves should have been pushed out to our constituents.”

ARC board members said the referendum faced several obstacles. Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson called the legislation “onerous.” Others talked about the lack of trust that people have in government. And DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis said it was important to not underestimate the “difficult economy.”

For some, the bottom line was that “all politics are local” — and that the region’s parts might be greater than its whole, according to Dennis Burnette, a citizen member from Cherokee County. “We’ve just got to keep it locally relevant,” he said.

Leithead also acknowledged the price that some elected leaders have paid when they’ve become more regional in their thinking.

“The history of this organization is that with elected members, the more they participated regionally, the more liability it created for them locally,” Leithead said. “Something about this referendum created something of a setback.”

The ARC will hold a work session during the morning of Sept. 13 to look at some of the next steps for the organization. Leithead reminded the board that ARC’s scope of work extends far beyond transportation. It is involved in water and environmental planning, aging services, a renewed metro arts initiative and land use planning.

“That is our mandate — continuing to be a regional voice,” Leithead said.

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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