By Maria Saporta
On Dec. 4, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson came one vote shy from being elected chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Then 15 days later, his fellow mayors in Gwinnett County ousted him as their representative on the ARC board in one of the most abrupt whiplashes of regional power in recent Atlanta history.
The move is all the more symbolic given that Johnson led the metro area to its greatest moment of regional cooperation in October 2011 when he chaired the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable — 21 elected leaders from across the region who unanimously voted on a $6.2 billion list of transportation projects to present to voters on July 31, 2012.
Although the transportation referendum was solidly defeated by voters, the fact that Johnson — Georgia Tech’s retired band director — had been able to orchestrate consensus among his diverse peers was viewed as almost miraculous.
Somehow the magic of the moment never was properly translated to voters who may not have understood how difficult it is to get the many mayors and county leaders in urban, suburban and exurban areas to work together for the good of the Atlanta region.
It is still a mystery as to why Johnson’s tenure on ARC’s board took such a surprising dive in December. Even Johnson doesn’t fully understand what happened.
In a telephone conversation in late December, Johnson recounted how the situation unfolded from his point of view.
“Before I ran for chair, we had an election for the (mayor’s) representative from Gwinnett,” Johnson said. “It was a regularly scheduled meeting of the mayors of Gwinnett. I came to the group, and I told them I would like for you to vote on whether you would like for me to be your representative as the mayor from Gwinnett. It was a unanimous vote (in Johnson’s favor). Then to be sure we had done everything right, I sent a letter to Doug.”
The letter was sent to Doug Hooker, ARC’s executive director, who responded that he was “happy to have you back.”
Then on Dec. 4, ARC had what could be called an historic vote for chairman with four candidates — Johnson, Rockdale Commission Chairman Richard Oden, Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan and Kerry Armstrong, a citizen member who is a developer with Pope & Land and chair of the North Fulton Community Improvement District.
It took 12 ballots to elect Armstrong as the new ARC chair, succeeding Tad Leithead, who also is a citizen member who has worked for developers and chairs the Cumberland Community Improvement District.
(To see a breakdown of the results of each ballot, please go to the bottom of this column. As far as we know, never in ARC’s history has it taken so many ballots to elect a new chair — possibly reflecting the growing factions on the board).
Back to Gwinnett and Johnson’s fate, after the ARC chairman vote, Phillip Beard, who chairs the Buford city commission (the equivalent of mayor), called Gwinnett County Chair Charlotte Nash to set up another vote for the mayoral representative on ARC’s board.
A telephone conference call among 12 of Gwinnett’s 13 eligible mayors was held on Dec. 19, and a majority of them voted to oust Johnson and elect Nancy Harris, the mayor of Duluth, in his place.
Johnson still is confused as to why there was a change and why the group didn’t wait until early January when the mayors were already scheduled to meet in person well before the next ARC board meeting on Jan. 22.
“I have already been elected the mayor’s representative before I ran for the ARC chair,” Johnson told the group. “I don’t think we should do this on a phone vote.”
But he was over-ruled by his colleagues.
Repeated emails and a call to Beard to ask him why he wanted a change on the ARC board were not returned.
In a series of emails, Nash acknowledged that she did call the election saying she was following state law that states “the Commission Chair has the responsibility to call the election for the mayoral representative at the end of the incumbent mayor’s term.”
Actually Johnson’s term doesn’t end until Jan. 6, which is another sticking point about why there was such urgency to have a conference call on Dec. 19.
Asked why the mayors wanted to make the change, Nash’s emailed response was: “That is better discussed by those involved.”
But this situation actually points to greater challenges in our region.
One regional observer said: “I do think that when somebody takes a higher regional profile, there is a potential backlash.”
In other words, because we have so many fractured and disjointed governments throughout our region, we may end up punishing those who try to work on a regional playing field.
Yet that doesn’t fully explain the dynamics in this situation. Since October 2011, Johnson’s regional halo dimmed. He became chair of the Metro Atlanta Mayors Association (MAMA) and was part of the growing political power base of mayors in the region, a force that has alienated the county commissioners who traditionally have held the upper hand on ARC’s board.
Johnson also ended up getting into a power struggle with county leaders in DeKalb over the appointment of a citizen member, which cost him some friends on the board (and could explain why he didn’t become chair of ARC).
Because of the stand-off between mayors and commission chairs, ARC’s citizen members, who represent 15 of the 39 board members, now may be the most powerful voting block on ARC’s board.
But many of these citizen board members are not who we would normally think of as community leaders. They tend to be developers or in the real estate or professional service sector with a vested interest in robust development. In other words, there are few, if any, neighborhood activists, preservationists, cyclists or environmentalists on ARC’s board.
So with a potpourri of mayors, county commission chairs and citizen members from the city, the close-in suburbs and the exurbs, we now have a dysfunctional region with everyone going in different directions — often at cross purposes.
That’s why Johnson’s ability to get a unanimous 21-0 vote at the Roundtable in October 2011 was a special moment in time — one that will be hard to recapture any time soon. Remember, several of the leaders who were willing to support a regional plan are no longer in office — take Fayette’s Jack Smith or Henry’s B.J. Mathis.
And now Johnson, who is still the Mayor of Norcross, is taking off his regional hat — which he and others view as a missed opportunity.
“I really felt like I added, and could continue to add, to the regional dialogue with state legislators,” Johnson said. “I had the time to do it. And I was willing to do it. It’s about building relationships. That’s what we need to do in the region.”
Breakdown of the votes for ARC chair on Dec. 4
39 board members with 36 present
(20 votes needed to be elected chair)
Four candidates: (in alphabetical order)
Kerry Armstrong, Bucky Johnson, Richard Oden and Tom Worthan
Armstrong wins by acclamation.