Recent firings by Mayor Reed a contrast to Atlanta City Hall under Maynard Jackson

By Maria Saporta

After the news broke of the Friday firings of two key officials from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, once again I was struck by how much City Hall has changed over the years.

On May 20, Reed parted ways with Miguel Southwell, aviation general manager who was in charge of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; and Jo Ann Macrina, commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management.

It reminded me of when Reed fired another watershed commissioner – Rob Hunter – early in his first term. When talking to a local civic group at the time, Reed answered a question about water bills.

“What do you want me do to do? Fire him twice?” Reed asked the group while getting a laugh.

So contrast that to one of my favorite stories of public service.

george berry

George Berry stands with Maynard Jackson’s widow – Valerie Jackson and Richard Stogner, who also worked at the airport at the facility’s 30th anniversary (Photo: Hartsfield Jackson International Airport)

Back in early 1974, a relatively young George Berry was serving as the city’s Chief Administrative Officer – a holdover from Mayor Sam Massell’s administration.

Newly-elected Mayor Maynard Jackson, then only 35 years old, approached Berry and said that he wanted his own guy in that role. So he suggested that Berry discreetly go try to find another job.

Berry quickly ended up finding a post with Cousins Properties.

Mayor Jackson then held a press conference at City Hall.

“Today, we are losing a fine public servant,” Jackson told reporters during the announcement that Berry was leaving the city. “But we are not really losing him because he is still going to serving the city – but he will doing it from the private sector.”

Berry always appreciated the way that Mayor Jackson gracefully handled his exit from the city.

A few years later, Jackson was planning to build the new Hartsfield Airport (posthumously renamed in his honor), so he called Berry at Cousins. Would he consider becoming the city’s aviation commissioner and oversee the construction of the new airport?

Berry said yes.

George Berry Elaine Alexander

George Berry greets civic leader Elaine Alexander at a 2014 alumni reunion and celebration of Mayor Maynard Jackson’s 40th anniversary of taking office (Photo by Maria Saporta)

How many people do you know go back to work for someone who has fired them? But Berry did because Jackson had treated him with respect and grace.

While at the airport, Berry did something else that should go down in the history books of public service.

As a longtime observer of Atlanta government, Berry knew there might be intense pressure from outside forces to get some of the lucrative contracts that would be awarded with the building of the new airport.

So he first called on the District Attorney’s office. Would they be willing to regularly come to his office at the airport and ask to see his financial records and ask questions about the construction project?

And then Berry went to see the editors of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and he told them that the new airport would the biggest capital project in the city’s history. He suggested they assign a reporter to cover the airport, and he promised he would provide all the info he could about the project.

Both the D.A.’s office and the AJC agreed.

From that point on, whenever anybody approached Berry about getting some special favors out of the airport, Berry would say: “I wish I could help you. But I’ve got the D.A.’s office looking over one shoulder at everything we’re doing. And I have got the paper looking over the other shoulder at what we’re doing.”

George Berry

George Berry in a YouTube video done for Young Harris College

Berry helped Mayor Jackson implement a ground-breaking minority-majority joint venture program at the Atlanta airport, and there never were any questionable issues related to the ethics of how the new facility was built.

For me, both of those stories reveal best practices in public service.

Of course, the city has changed significantly from those days.

On Monday, Mayor Reed did allow reporters to ask questions about the future of the airport and watershed management.

Both the airport and watershed will be spending millions, if not billions of dollars, in the coming few years – on capital improvements. The airport plans to invest $6 billion on projects over the next couple of decades.

When asked what assurances taxpayers would have that contracts would be awarded in an ethical manner, Reed responded aggressively.

“My administration has gone through more scrutiny than any other administration,” said Reed, detailing how the city has turned over reams of documents and emails, has won multiple lawsuits. “Rather than talk about my ethics, I’m going to do what I do – live them.”

Mayor Reed press conference

Mayor Reed’s press conference May 23 with new team members (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Reed did add he would be open to some kind of outside oversight of the city’s bidding of contracts, and he added that he soon would be meeting with the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a group of high-level business and civic leaders who help advise the mayor and his team.

Mayor Reed also made no apologies of how he manages the city and how he makes personnel decisions.

“When I’ve had to make a call, I’ve made the call,” Reed said – making it clear he wouldn’t be “ham-strung” by the ticking clock of his administration (the next mayor’s race will be November 2017). “My team knows – when you work for me, you run your department until you don’t.”

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.

10 replies
  1. Richard says:

    Superb column.  Right on target.  Atlanta leaders have historically found graceful ways to accomplish difficult challenges.  Mayor Reed: not so much.Report

    Reply
  2. Wormser Hats says:

    Simply put, Reed comes across as a bully even when he’s defending a rightfully-made personnel decision. Having met him while he was still a state senator, it was clear the man lacked a certain classiness when it came to responding to issues about which he was unfamiliar. 
    All that said, he’s not been a patently corrupt or bad leader for the city, just not a very inspirational one.Report

    Reply
  3. scfranklin says:

    Maria, thanks for another inspiring story about Maynard Jackson. Forty years ago he stunned Atlanta and the country with his election. Never one to duck the hard decisions of the job he brought vision and compassion to the position. Highlighting his relationship with George Berry highlights his toughness and his compassion and gives us a chance to celebrate George and other appointed officials who served in leadership positions during Jackson’s term of office. CheersReport

    Reply
  4. yourkidding says:

    Mr. Southwell is known for his talent and integrity.  Before coming to Atlanta he was rated as one of the best airport managers in USA.
    Why was he fired?  That seems to left out of the news coverage.Report

    Reply
  5. Wormser Hats says:

    yourkidding  I too found it odd that Mr. Southwell was quick to call the TSA to account for security checkpoint delays, but gets fingered by Reed as culpable in the agency’s inefficiencies.Report

    Reply
  6. EveryLastWord says:

    When the Southwell firing broke on Friday, my first thought was that this is about hizzoner positioning himself to run for whatever as the toughest SOB around.  The Macrina firing was a double down. Whether these folks were failing in their jobs or not, I cannot say.  But it’s a sure bet Reed is going to handle such matters in a pugnacious way.Report

    Reply
  7. Kim Karr says:

    I do agree with the Mayor and the police that we have the most corrupt judicial system in the country. The Judges and the DA’s have got to be on the take. They are constantly letting murderers never serve any time and that’s insane. The gangs know they have free reign here and its only going to get worse.Report

    Reply

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