Brain drain awaits Reed at City Hall

By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Friday, December 4, 2009

Many empty chairs at City Hall will face Atlanta’s new mayor, who will have the daunting task of putting together a new leadership team for the city.

As of press time Dec. 2, former state Sen. Kasim Reed appeared to have won the Dec. 1 runoff, but the results were so close that City Councilwoman Mary Norwood was asking for a recount and the final results had not been certified.

No matter who ultimately takes office, the new mayor will have a lot of work to do.

Several top administrators already have declared their intention to retire or submitted their resignations by the time Atlanta’s next mayor takes office on Jan. 4.

Among two of the most notable vacancies will be the police chief and chief financial officer. But a host of other department and division heads also will be leaving along with decades and decades of experience.

“Fifty percent of the Cabinet could turn over,” said Mayor Shirley Franklin, who spent 21 years working in top leadership roles at the city. “Any new mayor has to address the central questions of how to attract and retain the highest level of talent in the public sector.”

Franklin said the city already has set aside a suite of offices at City Hall for the mayor-elect to house a transition team. Plus, she said she would be available to assist during the transition.

“I expect that the future mayor will do just fine and will need little assistance from me,” Franklin added. But she did share some advice of how she approached the same task.

“National and regional searches worked for me,” Franklin said. “It allowed me to put together an extraordinarily talented and experienced Cabinet that could make significant changes in the organization — to keep the car moving while we were changing the tires.”

Also, Franklin said that neither she nor former Mayor Andrew Young asked for blanket resignations from current department heads, deciding instead to take their time putting their teams together.

One of the most important searches for Franklin was hiring Lynnette Young, an experienced city administrator, to serve as her chief operating officer.

“Elections tend to be very messy things,” said Young, who is now running her own consulting firm. “Transition periods are very unsettling for all who serve at the pleasure of the mayor. People in the administration don’t know if they’re wanted or not.”

Young said the new mayor will have to quickly activate a transition and have to make “hard choices because you can’t run a government with no one in place” to implement the new agenda.

“It’s a bad position for both the new mayor and the city to be without leadership,” Young said, adding that the new mayor will want to build a team of people he or she can trust and are qualified to run city government.

The new mayor also will have a steep learning curve in city governance and will need to quickly develop a working relationship with the city council.

Councilman Howard Shook said it’s going to be the council’s duty to ensure that the new mayor is surrounded with well-qualified department heads.

Under the city’s charter, Atlanta’s chief financial officer and the head of the law department report to the council as well as the mayor. Also, council members vote to confirm the mayor’s nominees to other Cabinet posts.

Shook, who chairs the council’s Finance/Executive Committee, said the new mayor will take office with no experience running a big-city government.

“Atlanta City Hall is the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company in size and complexity,” he said.

With an inexperienced mayor at the helm, Shook said it will be more important than ever to have talented people on the job running the various departments.

He said Atlanta’s ongoing budget crunch is another reason the city will need capable leadership across city government.

“Cabinet heads will have to do more with less,” he said. “I’ll be looking for people who have successfully managed through a period of contraction.”

Councilwoman Felicia Moore said she’s most concerned about replacing Chief Financial Officer Jim Glass, the veteran business executive who answered Franklin’s call more than a year ago to cap a successful career by taking over as Atlanta’s CFO.

Glass has received widespread credit for restoring fiscal integrity to the city in the wake of a highly critical audit of Atlanta’s financial management practices last year and the subsequent resignation of former CFO Janice Davis.

“He’s the first CFO who didn’t have a career in front of him,” Moore said. “He could say, ‘This is how it needs to be done.’ In the future, I don’t know if we’ll get that.”

Franklin has named Roosevelt Council, chief of budget and fiscal policy, to serve as the acting CFO until the new mayor and council find a permanent successor for Glass.

Shook said he expects the incoming city council will seek to become equal partners with the new mayor. He noted that 10 of the 15 incumbents are returning to their council seats, compared with only seven when Franklin took office in 2002.

Franklin and the city council waged a power struggle off and on during her tenure as mayor, particularly during her last two years in office.

Their tug-of-war peaked last year when the council rejected Franklin’s proposal to raise property taxes, and she responded by furloughing police officers.

“This council is going to be much more entrenched than the one that awaited Shirley Franklin eight years ago,” Shook said. “You will probably have a council that will be a little more clear-eyed and inquisitive.”

Although she is on her way out, Franklin did leave her successor with one major piece of advice in putting a team together.

“I do think having a balance of men and women, racial diversity and experience is valuable when you are formulating major public policy,” Franklin said. “I would encourage diversity of opinion, diversity of experience, diversity of race and gender.”

Packing their bags

A host of Atlanta government department heads are expected to leave city government at the end of this year along with term-limited Mayor Shirley Franklin. Here is a list of definite and potential posts the new mayor will have to fill:

Definite departures:

Police Chief Richard Pennington

Deputy Police Chief Alan Dreher

Chief Financial Officer Jim Glass

Chief Operating Officer Greg Giornelli

Human Resources Commissioner Benita Ransom

Director of Communications Beverly Isom

Likely departures:

Controller Allison Leher

Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon

Atlanta Development Authority President Peggy McCormick

Senior Policy Adviser to the Mayor David Edwards

Director of Asset Management Lisa Gordon

Possible departures:

Deputy Chief Operating Officer Luz Borrero

Commissioner of Public Works Joe Basista

Acting positions:

City Attorney Roger Bhandari

Fire Chief Joel Baker

Sources: Published reports and City Hall insiders

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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