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The ever-changing ‘State of the Region’ brings new leaders to the forefront

By Maria Saporta

Change certainly is underway at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Not only does it have a new executive director — Doug Hooker, who officially will start Nov. 14. But soon there will be another key vacancy within the organization’s most high profile areas.

Kellie Brownlow, chief of ARC’s local government services division, will be leaving the metro organization on Nov. 18 to become director of economic development for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, reporting to Nick Masino.

Brownlow and her division put together two of the ARC’s most critical annual programs — the annual LINK trips to other cities and the annual Regional Leadership Institute. Both programs are critical to building closer relationships between leaders in the region.

Brownlow, who has been with ARC for 11 years, said she would have enjoyed working with Hooker at the helm.

“I have known Doug for most of my professional life,” she wrote in an email to friends and colleagues. “I respect and admire him and there is a certain level of comfort knowing that I am leaving ARC with a strong and competent leader who I know will do this organization and the Atlanta region proud.”

Brownlow did say that she will be available to help in the planning of the 2012 LINK trip, which will be going to Washington, D.C. from April 18 to April 21.

Also, she said she intends to continue working on regional issues — just from the new vantage point of the Gwinnett Chamber.

And that’s not the only change that’s underway.

Earlier this summer, there had been quite a controversy stirred up during the election of citizen members to the ARC board. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed nominated Anita Wallace Thomas, a partner with the Nelson Mullins law firm, as one of the citizen members from Atlanta.

But David Sjoquist, an economics professor who has been director of the fiscal research center at Georgia State University, was serving in that position, and he was re-elected to the board instead of the mayor’s pick.

That set off a bit of a firestorm within the organization with Mayor Reed clearly upset that his wishes had been ignored. Usually, the protocol at the ARC lets the top elected official in a jurisdiction pick the citizen member or members.

The issue ended up resolving itself when Sjoquist voluntarily resigned from the board, effective at the end of the year.

Asked why he decided to resign, Sjoquist answered simply: “Because the mayor asked me to.” Sjoquist has been serving on ARC’s board for 10 years.

In his letter of resignation addressed to ARC Chairman Tad Leithead, Sjoquist elaborated further about his decision to resign.

David Sjoquist’s letter:

I had looked forward to continuing to serve the region because there are things I wanted to work on and because I wanted to continue to make a difference. With the adoption of the ARC strategic plan, I looked forward to helping put in place procedures for implementing that plan. I believe I could have played an important role in shaping the regional economic development strategic plan that ARC is developing. And, I looked forward to working with a new executive director.

I have thought long and hard about the Mayor’s request that I resign, and have sought the advice of many individuals whose opinion I value. Several suggested that I continue to serve. However, over the past four weeks it has become abundantly clear that my continued service would likely result in significant harm to the ARC and the region. Therefore, I have reluctantly concluded that I must reject the re-appointment to the Board that was to be effective January 1, 2012. Thus, my service to the Board will end December 31, 2011.

I apologize to those Board members who supported me and hope that their action has not and will not cause them any difficulties.

I have enjoyed working with you the past 10 years and wish you and the entire organization the best going forward.

What is telling about that story is seeing how Mayor Reed has become a force to be reckoned with, not only in the Atlanta region but beyond.

As further evidence of his growing influence, Reed was one of the three keynote speakers at the ARC’s State of the Region breakfast on Friday, Nov. 4. Reed gave a rousing talk that re-affirmed the regional bond that had developed during the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable negotiations.

“I really believe a shift occurred through that process,” Reed said. “We can see a way forward — it shows what can happen when leaders across our region get to know each other. That’s when we are at our best.”

Although people in the region would probably bristle at this title, during his “State of the Region” talk, Mayor Reed sounded as much as someone who was Metro Atlanta’s mayor as he was the City of Atlanta’s mayor.

He made a passionate plea for the passage of the one-cent sales tax for transportation next year; about the importance of MARTA, about the Port of Savannah, and about the need to stretch beyond our comfort zones as we tackle the tough issues of the day.

“Atlanta has always punched above its weight,” Reed said, comparing the city’s spirit to a boxing match. “We have always stretched.”

Maria Saporta

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.


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