ARC leadership
Anna Roach,ARC's executive director, with Kerry Armstrong, ARC"S board chair, during the 2022 LINK trip to Austin (Photo by Maria Saporta)

For the first time in a decade, it appears there will be a contested race for the role of board chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

A contest would be significant on lots of levels — the racial representation of the region, the suburban versus urban evolution in the Atlanta region and how the ARC reflects the changing metro area.

Kerry Armstrong, an executive with the Pope & Land real estate firm, has been chairing the board for the past decade. Armstrong is a “citizen member” on the board representing Gwinnett County. He succeeded Tad Liethead, another real estate executive who also was a citizen member, and he has chaired ARC’s board since Jan. 1, 2014.

ARC’s Anna Roach with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens during the 2022 LINK trip to Austin. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Word has it that Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens is considering running for ARC board chair. If Dickens is successful, it would be the first time an Atlanta mayor has headed the ARC, the metropolitan planning commission that currently consists of 11 metro counties.

In an interview about the recent LINK trip to Montreal, Dickens skirted the question of whether he was running for ARC board chair. The backdrop of Montreal was directly relevant to this conversation.

The Mayor of Montreal, Valerie Plante, also presides over the Communauté Métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM), ARC’s counterpart in the French-Canadian metro area. The statute of CMM stipulates that the mayor of the largest city in the region of Montreal will chair its board.

Dickens visited with Mayor Plante during the Montreal LINK trip and discovered they are only three days apart in age.

“We talked a lot about the similarities and the differences in our cities,” Dickens said. “Yes, she’s the head of their regional commission, and it’s something that’s been discussed in Atlanta. I definitely see the value in that. We’ll see how all that takes place.”

At its meeting on Oct. 11, the ARC will entertain nominations for board chair. Elections will take place at the Nov. 8 ARC board meeting.

Fulton County Commission Chair is championing Dickens’ candidacy for board chair, saying it’s time for a change — partly because of the growing diversity in the region. Since the establishment of ARC in 1971, all its board chairs have been white males, with the exception of then City Councilman Ira Jackson, who served as chair in the late 1980s.

All white men
Council for Quality Growth’s 2021 panel with chairs of the Atlanta Regional Commission (L-R) Wayne Hill, Sam Olens, Tad Leithead and Kerry Armstrong. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“It’s been all white males but one,” Pitts said. “It’s not that I have anything against white males or Mr. Armstrong, but times have changed.”

Armstrong did not respond to repeated texts asking whether he was going to run for re-election and what he thought about the possibility of Dickens running for the post.

Meanwhile, Pitts is actively supporting a possible Dickens run.

“I told Mayor Dickens I would work enthusiastically to get the 21 votes that he would need to become the next chair,” said Pitts, who has met with Armstrong to talk about the upcoming election. “I know the mayor has talked to him and told him he was going to run. I would hope Kerry Armstrong would take the high road and bow out from running for re-election and not put people in a position to have to choose between him and the mayor of our capital city.”

In conversations with key members of ARC’s board, a contested race between Dickens and Armstrong would put many in a difficult position of having to choose between two regional leaders. The vote, however, is a secret ballot, so they do not have to publicly declare how they would cast their votes.

Nicole Hendrickson, chair of the Gwinnett County Commission, actually has appointed Armstrong as a citizen member, and she is reappointing him for another term — allowing him to run for ARC chair.

“My appointment is not advocating for him or against him running for chair,” Hendrickson said of Armstrong. “I look at it as who can do the job. It’s time-consuming. My experience is that the board chair of AC has been very involved on all levels of the organization and not just the board. If the Mayor is willing to put his name in the hat, I believe he would step up and do the job.”

Lisa Cupid, chair of the Cobb County Commission, gave a similar response.

Cobb’s Lisa Cupid and Fulton’s Robb Pitts share a moment after a 2022 LINK feedback session in Austin. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“I know Andre as a colleague of mine at Georgia Tech. I feel he is a forward-thinking, charismatic leader who is very likable,” Cupid said. “Kerry is continually present. Because of his tenure, he comes across as a hallmark of the organization. They both bring strengths to the table. It will be a difficult decision.”

Clayton County Chair Jeff Turner said he would have to weigh the merits of each candidate.

My only concern about the mayor is time,” Turner said. “My question for the mayor: If you win the spot, are you going to be able to carry on in a way that’s productive for ARC? I’m used to the chairperson being accessible and open. I’m looking forward to the mayor telling me why he would make a better candidate.”

Michael Thurmond, CEO of DeKalb County, welcomed the possibility of a contested race.

“It will be an opportunity to debate or at least discuss the path forward for the Atlanta region,” Thurmond said. “As long as it’s done in a respectful and inclusive way, the Atlanta region can only benefit from that. It will be an opportunity to explore broadening the agenda of ARC in order to address a rapidly diversifying and more urbanized Atlanta region.”

Changing look of the region
Clayton’s Jeff Turner with Gwinnett’s Nicole Hendrickson during the 2022 LINK trip to Austin. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Thurmond also described the attributes of both candidates.

“No one should underestimate Kerry Armstrong and the goodwill and support he’s been able to build and harness in the last decade as board chair,” Thurmond said.

On the other hand, Dickens, “being the mayor of the capital city of our state provides him with a credible and influential platform.”

Thurmond said he’s been impressed with Dickens seeking to “build coalitions beyond the corporate limits of Atlanta.” 

Dickens has been much more active regionally than his last two predecessors. Dickens attended both of the LINK trips since he’s been mayor. He also attended his first ARC board meeting only days after becoming mayor.

In our interview, Dickens spoke of the importance of having regional relationships as the metro area faces similar challenges — from transportation to crime to sustainable development to housing affordability.

“These challenges that we face, they don’t start right at our border, and they don’t stop at our border,” Dickens said. “Going to Montreal was a must-do for me because that’s where we talk about these things together.”

Special: Atlanta Regional Commission.

ARC’s board has 41 members, including 11 county commission chairs, 12 mayors in the 11 counties plus the mayor of Atlanta, as well as 15 citizen members. Historically, the suburban areas have tended to dominate ARC’s board, especially when there was no active participation on the part of the Atlanta mayor.

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the Atlanta mayor has never run to chair ARC’s board.

The last contested election for ARC board chair took place in 2013 when four candidates were vying for the post. It took a record of 12 ballots before Armstrong was able to garner a majority of the votes to get elected. He has since won re-election for every two-year term.

For Thurmond, a contested race is more significant than a possible match up between Dickens and Armstrong. More importantly, it’s an opportunity for the Atlanta Regional Commission to reflect on how the region is becoming more urban and diverse in terms of race and ethnicity.

“An Armstrong versus Dickens contest would be a watershed moment in the history of the ARC,” Thurmond said. “Let’s see what happens.”

Special: Atlanta Regional Commission.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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