ARC citizen members election stirs up nostalgia and tension

By Maria Saporta

Usually, when the Atlanta Regional Commission holds its election to pick its citizen board members there’s little news or drama.

But the Citizen Member Election held on July 14 was an exception — both for who was elected and who wasn’t.

First, who was elected. The big news was that Liane Levetan, the former CEO of DeKalb County, was nominated by current DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis to fill a vacant position (Citizen District 7).

Levetan had been a longtime member of the ARC board in her former position, and she even ran to become ARC’s chair in 2000, but she lost out to then Gwinnett County Chairman Wayne Hill.

“I’m pleased to be going back on the ARC board ,” said Levetan, who will sworn in at ARC’s board meeting on Wednesday, July 27. “Burrell told me there was a vacancy and would I consider doing this. I’m a regional person.”

Levetan said she has a particular “passion for transportation,” and she had been a big supporter of MARTA when it was passed in Fulton and DeKalb. “I believe we need a regional, seamless transit system, which we don’t have today.”

The other new citizen members (who will join the board on Jan. 1, 2012) are:

· Robert Stephens, a retired Brigadier General in the U.S. Army who currently is vice president of external affairs at Clayton State College (District 2);

· Bob Reeves, an accountant from Fayetteville who is a professional bowler (District 3); and

· Mike Houchard, a retired regional director with the U.S. Department of Labor who is from Rockdale County (District 6).

But the real drama occurred over two people who were not elected to the board.

Protocol usually calls for the top elected official from a jurisdiction or district to nominate the citizen member from their area.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed nominated Anita Wallace Thomas, a partner with the Nelson Mullins law firm specializing in commercial litigation, for District 4.

She has been active in the community serving on the boards of the Southwest Atlanta YMCA and the Atlanta Youth Academy. She is one of the founders of the a non-profit organization — Granting Atlanta’s Wishes. And she serves on the advisory board of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

Reed nominated her for the district seat currently held by Dave Sjoquist, who has been an economics professor and director of the fiscal research program for Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

Although Reed did not attend the Citizen Member election, he had let it be known that Thomas was his pick. Also Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves told the gathering of Reed’s preference.

Then Cherokee County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens nominated Sjoquist for the District 6 seat that represents only the City of Atlanta. And Sjoquist won the election. Word has it that Reed was not a happy camper that his choice had been turned down.

Asked about the election outcome, all Reed would say was: “No comment.”

But that’s not all. Thanks to redistricting, two districts were combined into one — putting two existing members in the same district, made up primarily of Fulton County.

Those two members were Eddie Moore, president of the Imani Environmental Group who is from Alpharetta; and Julie Keeton Arnold, president of Keeton-Arnold Communication who is from Dunwoody.

During the meeting, Eaves nominated Moore to represent newly-formed District 12. But again, the choice of the top elected official in that jurisdiction lost the election. Keeton Arnold ended up being elected to represent that district.

Eaves did not respond to an email asking for his thoughts about that outcome.

According to folks familiar with the situation, there may be some movement behind the scenes that could resolve the conflict. Because the new board won’t be installed until January, there are several months to work on a solution. Click here for a current list of the ARC board.

Either way, currently there are some frayed feelings— resurrecting some of the past polarization between the region’s most urban areas and the suburbs. Some people also expressed concern that there could have been a racial undertone to the vote given that both Reed and Eaves are black.

It also might not have been the smartest political move by the ARC board to alienate the Atlanta mayor, who clearly has a direct line to both Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston.

In fact, an irony that was not lost by one observer — only last week, Reed and Deal announced that the region had received a $270 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation to build new toll lanes along I-75 and I-575.

Reed used his personal connections in Washington, D.C. to help the region get those dollars even though they are not coming to the City of Atlanta.

Deal and Reed met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on June 1 during a joint trip to Washington, D.C. to advocate for federal funding of the toll lanes.

At a special reception Monday evening to help raise money to pay for a campaign to pass a new regional transportation sales tax, Reed and Deal could not say enough nice things about each other.

“I couldn’t ask for a better working partner,” Deal said of Reed. “He can make the right contacts. It did help that I served with Ray LaHood in Congress. But he knew the guy who is above Ray LaHood (ie: President Barack Obama).”

So which jurisdictions will benefit from the toll lane project?

Cobb County, the home county of ARC Chairman Tad Leithead; and Cherokee County, the home county of ARC Vice Chairman Ahrens.

ARC Citizen District Map_w Reps_as of 01.01.12

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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