By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, apparently at the urging of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, has removed its executive director Violet Travis Ricks and replaced her with Atlanta City Councilperson Keisha Lance Bottoms.
At a specially-called meeting of the Authority on Tuesday, Chairman William K. Whitner – a city appointee, proposed a severance package for Ricks and the appointment of Bottoms. There were enough members for a quorum, and the proposals passed.
Not so fast, said Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves after finding out about the “unilateral” move by the Mayor and the City.
The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority is supposed to be a partnership between the city and the county, but he said that under the Reed administration, the county has been forgotten and ignored. Because the City has six votes on the Authority and the County has three, the Mayor has not felt as though he has needed to consult with the County.
But Eaves problems with the latest actions by the authority go far deeper than a power play by the City.
“This clearly was not done in a transparent way,” Eaves said in a lengthy telephone conversation Friday morning. “First the removal of the current director was questionable. There was no evidence that her performace was not satisfactory.
“Then the process of finding a replacement is at best nebulous. There was no process. There was no search. The board members were in the dark. They didn’t know that Keisha Lance Bottoms was under consideration.
“Frankly a decision was made for the board by the Mayor. This was not a transparent selection process. This was a unilateral decision.”
When asked to respond to Eaves’ concerns, City of Atlanta spokeswoman Alnissa Ruiz-Craig sent over the following statement:
“Councilwoman Bottoms has served the residents of the City of Atlanta honorably for over five years. Her distinguished career on the Atlanta City Council includes sponsoring legislation that addressed our city’s unfunded pension liability, established stronger enforcement on panhandling and ensured that women working for the city receive equal pay for equal work.
“While we disagree with Mr. Eaves’ comments, we appreciate him sharing his views. The appointment is not only legal, it is ethical and received approval from the City’s ethics officer and recreation authority attorneys. I am confident that she will be able to continue her service with the Atlanta City Council and serve as executive director of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority with integrity.”
But Eaves still believes that a search would have given the Authority an opportunity to find the most qualified individual to head the authority rather than have someone who was hand-picked by Mayor Reed.
Plus Eaves said there are several serious issues about having a City Council person serving AFCRA’s executive director while still being a city employee.
“You have a sitting city councilperson who is already being paid $60,000 a year being offered a position with a salary of $135,000 a year – both funded by taxpayers.” Eaves said. “That’s double-dipping, and to me that’s just wrong.”
That means Bottoms, who is considered to be one of the Mayor’s closest allies on Council, will be making a total of $195,300 a year when she starts her new job on June 1.
And Eaves is concerned about whether Bottoms can be a fair representative for the county after she echoed the mayor in criticizing Fulton County on various issues.
“She is a City of Atlanta elected official,” Eaves said. “She is being placed in an administrative position where she’s supposed to be neutral and represent the interests of the city and the county. There’s no way that I believe she’s going to be impartial to the interests of the city and county.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the news Thursday that Bottoms had been named the new executive director of the Authority.
It is a pivotal time for the Authority because there will be several key decisions on the horizon – the redevelopment of Turner Field, the negotiations with new owners of the Atlanta Hawks over the future of Philips Arena, Zoo Atlanta’s expansion and its need for a new parking deck as well as the ownership of the Olympic cauldron as Atlanta celebrates the 20th anniversary of hosting the Olympics next year.
Reporter Katie Leslie spoke to Bottoms, who told her:
“When you look at what’s happening with the city in relation to the Authority, it’s an incredible time,” Bottoms said. From a professional standpoint, it was “easy” to make the decision to have a role in that, Leslie wrote.
When asked about possible conflicts of interest, Bottoms told Leslie that as executive director, she will not have a vote in any board decisions. She said she will recuse herself from any potential votes that face the City Council involving authority-managed properties.
There is precedence, however, that when former City Councilmember Davetta Johnson Mitchell was selected to head the Authority, she was required to resign from City Council, Eaves said.
But Chairman Whitner said that Mitchell had already left City Council when she became executive director of the Authority, so she had not been required to resign from office.
Nina Hickson, the Ethics Officer for the City of Atlanta, issued a ruling on behalf of Council member Bottoms, which summarized that “there is no per se conflict of interest under the City’s Ethics Code” to stop her from serving in both positions.
But Hickson went on to say: “Although the Ethics Code may not prohibit a sitting Council member from serving as an executive director of AFCRA, a complete ethical analysis of the issue requires the Council person as well as the AFCRA board to evaluate whether the arrangement creates an appearance of impropriety or causes a reasonable taxpayer to question whether the interest of a Council member serving in this position impairs that person’s ability to act in the best interest of the City. The Ethics Code does not specifically regulate ‘appearance of impropriety.'”
In a statement that he released to the general media, Eaves said: “AFCRA is an entity charged with being a good, nonpartisan steward of taxpayers’ funds. It is responsible for making facilities decisions in the public interest. Paying a political figure to oversee the board smacks of cronyism and is extraordinarily questionable. Neither I, nor our County Attorney, was consulted in advance and have not received any form of communication from AFCRA.”
AFCRA Chairman stood behind the choice of Bottoms.
“As we look at the myriad of policy and legal issues facing the Authority in the coming years, it is important that the new executive director be positioned to address these issues while enhancing our communications with the key stakeholders, including the City of Atlanta and Fulton County governments,” Chairman Whitner said in a statement. “With experience as both an elected official and attorney, Mrs. Bottoms is uniquely qualified to lead this organization, and we are thrilled that she has accepted the position.”
In the interview, Eaves expressed a sense of sadness that the relationship between the city and county had deteriorated to the point where there’s almost no communication between him and the Mayor..
“The relationship between the City of Atlanta and Fulton County when Shirley Franklin was mayor was cordial and respectful,” Eaves said. “We met together; we talked; we had a partnership. That has not existed under the Reed administration. This had been a historial alliance. But that partnership during this administration has been challenged.”
Eaves, who is not one to invite confrontation, said that this time the Mayor had gone too far.
“He’s gone well beyond the boundaries of what’s acceptable,” Eaves said.