Atlanta And The Southeast The City Of Atlanta: In Good Hands

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviews the Hon. Shirley Franklin, Mayor of Atlanta.

Editor: Mayor Franklin, would you tell our readers something about your professional background?

Franklin: I came to government as a community activist and teacher. I have had a long-standing interest in politics and public administration. In 1978, when Andrew Young was considering running for office, I started working with him and, in time, that led to my entering city government as the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. From there I moved on to become Chief Administrative Officer, which is the city's top appointive position, for eight years. During that time I balanced the budget and managed a number of major projects, including Underground Atlanta, the construction of a new City Hall and upgrading the court facilities. I continued to serve under Mayor Maynard Jackson as the Chief Operations Officer, which meant I was responsible for some 75% of the city's operations, which covers the water supply, airports, zoning issues, and so on. I then left city government to work with the Atlanta Olympic Committee for five years as Vice President for External Affairs. Following the 1996 Olympics, I formed my own management consulting firm, which served a wide variety of mostly non-profit and small business clients, and I am very proud to say that our work with the East Lake Community Foundation led to the revitalization of one of Atlanta's most blighted neighborhoods.

Editor: Could you give us some idea of the factors that went into your decision to return to politics and run for the mayoralty of Atlanta?

Franklin: While I really enjoyed working in the private sector, I was encouraged by a small group of women - also in the private sector - and by my two mentors, Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, to reconsider my decision to stay there. Having been in city government for 13 years, I knew that arena very well, and I was dissatisfied with the image that city government was then projecting. I thought that the previous administration had lost some ground in terms of public trust. Atlanta is a progressive city, and I believed that, given my experience in public administration, I had at least some chance to win. I confess I was surprised - and gratified - that I did.

Editor: You mentioned the1996 Olympic Games. What has that meant for Atlanta?

Franklin: The Atlanta Games were a great boost for the city. We were playing on the world stage, and hosting a very successful Olympics gave us a great deal of confidence about ourselves and our city. The 1996 Olympic Games set the stage for Atlanta to move into a new century defined by community cooperation, regional leadership and a glowing reputation of international significance.

Editor: You became Mayor of Atlanta in January of 2002. For starters, would you give us an overview of the position and its responsibilities?

Franklin: Atlanta has a strong mayor form of government, which means that the person holding that office is the city's CEO. Atlanta has 7,000 to 8,000 employees. Its airport is the busiest in the entire world. In recent years the value of its business permits has exceeded $2 billion each year. Each of the city's municipal services - police, fire, parks, sanitation, water and sewers, and so on - is a major undertaking. And, in addition to serving the city, many of these services are extended to the region. The city is also the commercial, educational and arts hub for the entire region. I would have to say that the position is rather more than a full-time job.

Editor: When you became Mayor of Atlanta in January of 2002, you faced a budget gap of some $90 million. A year later you were presiding over a city with a budget surplus of $47 million. This did not just happen. Would you share with us the steps you took to ensure the city's financial integrity?

Franklin: Atlanta has had a strong credit rating going back to the 1920s. I came into office, however, and learned that the budgeting had become a process of spending and not accounting for anything. The city had been overspending - spending more than we were collecting - for a decade or more. Having learned, rather suddenly, that we faced a shortfall for 2002, my administration put together a budget during the first six weeks of office, that would balance the budget and put the city back into operating in the black. The key element, after the analysis of the original 2002 budget, was the willingness of the City Council and the administration to take the really difficult steps, which included tax increases, service cuts, personnel layoffs and then monitoring. The next step was to develop a turnaround plan that enabled us - in addition to overseeing a balanced budget - to continue to advance some 20 initiatives that could not be ignored if the city were to live up to its commitments to the public. At the end of the year we discovered - largely as a result of having been much more aggressive on collections and on not spending funds which had not been committed - we had built up a swing of some $47 million in the budget. Today we are into the third straight year of having taken in more than we spend, and our current budget surplus is in the neighborhood of $71 million. All of this serves, of course, to reduce the city's need to borrow money for its day-to-day operations.

Editor: What are the principal matters on your agenda at the moment?

Franklin: The first and foremost item on the agenda is maintaining financial stability and increasing the city's financial reserves. We are also working on creating a better working environment for our employees so that the city is an employer of choice and not one of last resort. This involves an investment in training across city government, in updating salaries and in adding an incentive feature for performance so that the city's employees are properly compensated for the services they provide. In addition, we are anxious to pursue a parks and green space initiative which could cost the city upwards of $250 million over the next five to ten years.

Another goal is to eliminate homelessness. We have 6,000 people who live on the streets of Atlanta, and we are now into the second year of a program to provide job training, jobs and shelter for this population. We are also very concerned to ensure that every child in the public school system is working with a plan that takes them to the next stage in their development, whether that means additional schooling, college, vocational training or a job.

Editor: Please tell us about your administration's relations with the Atlanta business community.

Franklin: My administration has a close working relationship with the business community, both with individual corporate partners and with the Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Business League and others. I believe that it is the responsibility of government to work with business in support of a healthy economy. This is nothing new. Atlanta's policy of working with the business community goes back to its founding, and the most successful eras of the city's history are those that have witnessed close and honest relationships between the public sector and the business world. We believe that all of our major initiatives are going to be public-private partnerships, and the lines of communication are open.

Editor: In the competition for new investment, what do you say to business people considering Atlanta?

Franklin: Atlanta has many things to offer. With over a dozen colleges and universities in the area, the city is a center for higher education. That helps to give the city a youthful personality, in addition to providing a foundation of academic excellence that is very good news for employers looking for a highly educated, motivated and skilled workforce. Secondly, we are a transportation and logistics hub and, indeed, have been since the city's inception. Atlanta was a railroad center at the time of its foundation, and today its network of roads, railways and air transport facilities connect it with the world. Atlanta owns and operates the world's busiest passenger airport, and its cargo operations are growing each year. It is also a vibrant place where a corporation's employees can be engaged in a variety of civic and community activities - the city's volunteer network extends to a great variety of cultural and social service activities, and the cultural scene - the arts, music, theatre, museums and so on - is extraordinary. Atlanta is also a great sports town. We have four professional teams, and, of course, a variety of colleges with teams engaged in many different sports. We also have access to superb golf courses, tennis facilities and even skiing. There is something for everyone. Finally, although Atlanta is a large business center, its quality of life is that of a relatively small community. Whether one lives in the city itself or commutes from outside, there is a commitment to the place that would indicate that the people who live here love it. I am not sure you always find that elsewhere.

Editor: Atlanta has been an important center for the legal community for many years. Can you give us your thoughts on the contributions that lawyers and law firms make to Atlanta?

Franklin: The legal community has made a tremendous contribution. In addition to helping business remain healthy, the lawyers and law firms have been a powerful presence in every civic, community-oriented, charitable and non-profit initiative that I have been connected with, whether sponsored by city government or entirely private. Individual members of that community have been the difference between success and failure in some of these initiatives, in my view, and the initiatives have been of the first importance. The restructuring of our court system was spearheaded by a committee led by a King & Spalding retired partner, Horace Sibley, and another retiree from that firm, Byron Attridge, made an enormous contribution to our initiative to help the homeless. Alston & Bird, another major Atlanta law firm, has been heavily engaged in our parks program. Holland & Knight and Powell Goldstein have also been very generous with their time and talents. Indeed, the city's chief procurement officer is a former partner at Holland & Knight, and we are grateful to the firm for sending him on to us. In addition, there are hundreds of individual lawyers from large firms and small, from corporate legal departments, and academic lawyers and law students, who engage in pro bono activities which serve to enhance the quality of life in Atlanta. They honor the legal profession, and they constitute one of the pillars of our community.

Editor: At some point you will hand over the mayoralty to someone else. What do you hope to have accomplished at that point?

Franklin: I would hope that we will be remembered as having tackled the tough problems. And to have reached out to the region and beyond to make new friends for Atlanta. In this new century it is extremely important to recognize that we are all - even our greatest cities - part of a larger community.