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Shorthanded city trust task force meets; mayor says it’s a challenge to enlist folks generally

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, speaking at the Atlanta Press Club on Tuesday, Credit: Maggie Lee Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, speaking at the Atlanta Press Club on Tuesday, Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

The Atlanta Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust met Tuesday evening, minus a member who had just turned in his resignation letter. The mayor said people are second-guessing their decisions to work with Atlanta, and called on the media to do more good news.

Joe Whitley was the person who resigned from the task force, which was put together this year to review the efficacy of Atlanta’s various ethics and compliance policies and procedures.

Whitley is a former U.S. attorney and is now an attorney at Baker Donelson. Baker Donelson is one of the law firms enlisted by the city to help respond to requests for information in a federal corruption investigation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported. And Whitley leads the firm’s government enforcement and investigations practice group.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, speaking at the Atlanta Press Club on Tuesday, Credit: Maggie Lee

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, speaking at the Atlanta Press Club, said the city should be open to scrutiny but not be turned into a spectacle. Credit: Maggie Lee

The paper has also reported that it started asking questions about potential conflict of interest: on this task force, might Whitley be reviewing the work of his own firm? Another member of the task force called for Whitley’s resignation; and as of Monday, Whitley wasn’t on the task force anymore.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, speaking at an Atlanta Press Club event on Tuesday, said she had tried to head off Whitley’s departure.

But Bottoms said that as she talked to Whitley, she decided that she couldn’t in good conscience ask him to continue.

“I thought, ‘Who wants to have to deal with that? Who wants to have to explain to their clients why they are they are being scrutinized for volunteering with the city?’” she said.

“I just think that if we love this city as we all do, if we care about this city, that the picture and the narrative … has to be more than we are a city of corrupt people with corrupt motives intent on doing wrong every day that we wake up.”

Hours later after that press club event, Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson would tell the task force that an outside attorney asked for an opinion had found no conflict of interest.

But Bottoms also said the “narrative around Atlanta” caused some people to not want to apply for the job of airport general manager.

Several times during her comments, Bottoms suggested the media do more good news.

“We should be open to scrutiny, we should be open to questions, but we cannot turn this city into a spectacle,” she said.

The Atlanta Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust, which met on Tuesday evening, is set to come up with recommendations for the city by September. Credit: Maggie Lee

The Atlanta Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust, which met on Tuesday evening, is set to come up with recommendations for the city by September. Credit: Maggie Lee

But City Hall is still overshadowed by that federal bribery investigation hat was first revealed in 2017, the year Bottoms ran for mayor to succeed term-limited Mayor Kasim Reed.

The campaign season that year coincided with guilty plea of a former chief procurement officer for conspiracy and the sentencing of two contractors on charges including conspiracy to commit bribery.

As a candidate, Bottoms announced an extensive ethics and transparency plan.

And some Atlanta City Council members too have been pushing for more transparency and accountability measures, like Council’s successful push for independent procurement review officers.

So there have been some changes in the last year and a half, like the legislation reworking the city’s ethics board into a new Board of Ethics and Independent Compliance, as well as the creation of the position of the independent compliance officer.

“Whatever reforms you come up with, whatever ideas you come up with … make sure that whomever is in that function has independence,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, addressing the task force on Tuesday evening.  “Because that’s how you get to higher-ups.”

In its budget for the year beginning in July, the city is set to spend $800,000 on the reworked ethics board, the compliance officer and staff.

The city also now has a website for publishing all the city’s spending down to the individual check level.

But Atlanta’s Open Checkbook hasn’t been updated since it was published in September, 2018, despite what are supposed to be quarterly updates.

“The delays have been due to the city’s transition to a cloud-based system. Our next upload is slated for July and for the first time will include credit card purchases,” read an email from a city spokesman about it.

Meanwhile, the public trust commission spent Tuesday evening getting some eduction, with presentations on the new compliance legislation and more.

The panel, heavy on jurists, spent about an hour discussing legal details with city staff, like the jurisdiction of the new office and the city’s Department of Law; and working through hypothetical examples of how complaints would be handled.

At the next meeting, they’ll hear from a specialist in ethics best practices and others.

The task force is set to report by September.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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