By Maria Saporta
Three men made their case this week to be the next chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission — which brings together leaders in the 10-county region — to work on regional issues, such as transportation, water, land-use and the needs of our aging population.
The three declared candidates are Charles Bannister, chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission; Tad Leithead, a citizen member who was an executive at Cousins Properties who now has his own public affairs consulting firm; and Jack Smith, chairman of the Fayette County Commission.
All three spoke of the need for local elected officials to understand that they need a regional mindset to deal with these issues rather than just represent one particular jurisdiction.
ARC needs to elect a new chairman because Sam Olens, who has been serving in that role for the last four years, is running for state attorney general.
There will be a vote for a new chairman at the next ARC board meeting on Dec. 2. Other candidates could decide to enter the ring at that meeting.
The current three candidates that already of declared their interest in being the next chairman were each given five minutes at this week’s ARC board meeting to make their case as to why they would be the best choice.
They spoke in alphabetical order with Bannister going first.
“This is truly a great group, an exceptional group of leaders,” Bannister told his fellow board members.
Bannister told them that he has been in elected positions for 34 years in Gwinnett — as a council member and then mayor of Lilburn, as a state legislator and as Gwinnett’s chairman. He also has had his own insurance and financial services agency.
“I’ve been on both sides of many tables, and I understand the challenges and opportunities that we face in the fast-growing diverse region that we are,” Bannister said, adding that metro Atlanta’s competition is no longer Birmingham and Charlotte, but major cities around the world.
He said the most prominent regional issues are transportation and water.
“We simply can not prosper without each of those items,” Bannister said. “We need more roadway capacity, but we also need as much transit opportunities as we can get for mobility.”
Bannister then expressed frustration with the state legislature for not letting the region vote to tax itself to make transportation improvements.
“We need more attention to regional issues,” Bannister said. “We need to cultivate relationships with the state and federal government. We simply have not achieved here what we can.”
Then Bannister said he was convinced that there are “better days in front of us.”
Leithead told his colleagues that it’s been a “great honor and privilege to serve” on ARC’s board.
“I’m not here running against Chairman Bannister or Chairman Smith,” he said. “I would support either one of them should they be elected chairman.”
Leithead said he was motivated to serve as chairman for two reasons. “I believe I have the experience and qualifications for this job,” Leithead said. “Two, I have a tremendous amount of passion.”
Leithead joined ARC’s board in 2000, and he now serves as chairman of the Transportation and Air Quality Committee.
It was the late Manuel Maloof, former chairman of DeKalb County, who encouraged Leithead to get involved with regional issues because he had an opportunity to make a difference.
Leithead then addressed two issues that make his candidacy different. “We have never had a citizen member of ARC,” Leithead said. “With all due respect, I believe that not only can a citizen member serve, I believe the time has come.”
The other sensitive issue is Leithead’s position. Although he left Cousins, a top Atlanta developer, Sept. 1, Cousins is his top client, and some have expressed concern that there could be a conflict of interest.
“As I develop my company and build my business, if I think they represent a conflict, I won’t accept those contracts,” Leithead said, adding that he would seek advice from the ethics committee.
The third candidate, Fayette’s Smith, said he used to be one of those people who would complain about the government. When people would ask him why he didn’t run for public office, he would say: “Do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck?” And then someone told him that if he didn’t run, he had no room to complain.
Fayette commissioners elect their chairman for a one-year term. But Smith said that if he is elected ARC chairman, his fellow commissioners have pledged their support for him to remain as Fayette chairman.
“I’m from one of the smaller counties,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean we have any less or any more understanding of how metro Atlanta works.”
Smith said he admired Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for her work as sewer mayor and her willingness to reach out to the rest of the region.
The issues of transportation and water are important, Smith said. But leadership is just as important.
“This group probably has the most influence on what happens under the Gold Dome than any other group in the state of Georgia,” Smith said. The success of ARC depends on its ability to put aside individual concerns and think as a region.
“If you elect me chairman, I promise you I will give you 110 percent,” Smith said.
Another interesting note: Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd was sworn in as the mayor’s representative from DeKalb County. Up to now, Floyd has resisted serving on ARC’s board. Floyd has been Decatur’s mayor for 18 years, and he currently is president of the Georgia Municipal Association.