Who you going to believe—me or your lying eyes?

If you want to know a person’s true character, pay attention to what they do not what they say. A person’s actions tell the real story of their values, their principles and their truth. Today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution story on Atlanta City Council members who received transportation campaign funds challenges the core principles public servants take the oath to honor.

The story is one of the most interesting of this local campaign season. The Citizens for Better Transportation 2016 was funded to advocate successfully for passage of the city’s T-SPLOST. Businesses large and small heeded the Mayor’s call for funding that ponied up $1.2 million. The Committee was established by a respectable Georgia lawyer, Robert Highsmith, who has close political ties to the Mayor and to the Georgia Republican Party. Highsmith served as the Committee’s treasurer. The Committee relied on seasoned campaign staff including the mayor’s brother, Tracy Reed, to manage the campaign. The referendum passed and all was well except instead of spending all of the $1.2 million, the team spent less than it raised. Now the integrity test is what do you do with the funds that were not spent. Should the Committee adhere to the law and return the funds on a prorated basis to the donors, donate to an IRS approved charity or create a slush fund? It seems as if the Committee decided on the latter.

Integrity is what you do, when no one is watching. The Committee decided the donors wouldn’t care if they returned the funds back to them. After all, big corporations have more than enough money to spare in the robust economy City Hall has created. And there aren’t any worthy charities that are struggling to fund their social or educational services for the sick, unemployed, students short of college funds or seniors in need of help to pay their utility bills. I guess the homeless are all sheltered and the hungry can do without a meal for the night. The Westside Future Fund must be fully funded. So is United Way of Greater Atlanta and Hosea Feed the Hungry. All the children who want to attend early learning centers and schools must be accounted for. Grady Hospital must have all the money they need for indigent patients and the Atlanta Police Foundation has funded all the houses necessary for police and firefighters.

According to today’s AJC, the Committee decided it was best to use the extra $700,000 for political campaigns and not the needs of Atlanta’s residents. That may be a moral dilemma but choosing to fill out the required state disclosure form in a way that indicates there were no remaining funds, is a question of character.

This case is similar to the actions of Councilmember Michael Julian Bond whom I have known for many years and I am an admirer of his parents and grandparents.

Bond accepted a contribution for the maximum amount allowable by the law from the Committee, and is rumored to be receiving additional financial help in the form of anonymous mailers and other campaign services. This shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s paying attention, since Bond accepted $12,800 from a city contractor that has been ensnared in the ongoing federal corruption probe, and before that he racked up 300 ethics violations for which he promised to pay a $45,000 fine — the largest in Georgia history!

Bond has yet to make the first payment…and if he’s able to hold onto his council post, I wonder if the Citizens for Better Transportation committee can find a legal justification for covering his debt.

You decide. Is it a mere oversight and a lapse in judgement? Or is it an intentional illegal act to gain power and influence no matter the law?

It all reminds me of the punchline from comedian Richard Pryor’s joke about him getting caught cheating on his wife and he says, “baby who you going to believe—me or your lying eyes?”

Flint–The Poison of Politics

flintPrior to the environmental fiasco in Flint, I would never have imagined the likelihood that an elected official would make a budget decision that would poison an entire city. It is unimaginable, yet here we are. For those unfamiliar with the widely publicized story, a brief summary is offered.

In 2011 when many cities had still not recovered from the 2008 economic recession, the financially strapped city of Flint was taken over by the state. Then Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, retained emergency managers to cut costs and manage the struggling city.

Two years later, it was decided that Flint should break away from the Detroit water system that pulled water from Lake Heron and join a new water district. In April 2014, Flint switched its water system and started drawing water from the Flint River. There are lead pipes throughout the system and in older homes with copper water pipes that were held together with lead solder, the lead corroded the water. The World Health Organization has said that lead poisoning can cause adverse neurological effects.

The problem is now headline news as reports of sick school children who now have lead poisoning, state EPA officials have resigned, truck loads of donated water arrive in Flint everyday and both the state and federal government officials have declared a state of emergency for the city.

I wish this was just about a bad budget decision, but the cries of environmental racism can’t be overlooked. And not just from political candidates hammering for sound bites. New York Times columnist, Charles Blow wrote,”An entire American city exposed to poisoned water. How could this be? It is hard to imagine this happening in a city that didn’t have Flint’s demographic profile — mostly black and disproportionately poor.”

If not racist it is clearly unjust, unfair, and unacceptable.

The Legacy of Fort McPherson in 100 Years

LRAShortly after the start of my 2002 term as mayor, an influential Council member and I wrangled behind closed doors over an issue and we were unable to repair our relationship until years after I left office. The point of contention was whether the city should strongly encourage, almost insist, that a major retail development include a significant number of mixed income apartments and condominiums. Her argument was she didn’t want to lose the investment and the developer’s interest by insisting on the inclusion of mixed income housing.

In losing, I learned an important lesson as a leader. There are times when having the right answer means that public policy married with best practice may be illusive especially when a community has suffered years of disinvestment and disappointment.

Sometimes leaders and those they represent will accept less than the best answer because any answer seems better than the risk of no development at all. Best practice doesn’t always prevail. Fortunately, Atlanta has best practice economic and community development models for reference. Two key points are worth noting.

The transformation of City Hall East into Ponce City Market would not be possible without the public investments in the Old Fourth Ward Park, which in turn is accelerating the transformation of the Old Fourth Ward. The public investment in the Beltline is what is attracting the private investment in the adjacent commercial and residential real estate in neighborhoods around the 22-mile Beltline corridor. Public investments in infrastructure supporting Atlantic Station has generated investments and growth in West Midtown. Key to these success stories is that public investment is “unlocking the value” of properties that would otherwise not attract that type of investment.

Opportunities for public investments that can have transformative impacts on urban neighborhoods are rare. They should not be wasted. We now have general consensus on how these investments – when the opportunities arise – should be shaped and structured. The objective should be to make strategic public investments in infrastructure that will increase the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods and “unlock” the value of developable property in those neighborhoods. By attracting private investment in residential and commercial properties, those neighborhoods can put on a new trajectory.

The original plan for Fort McPherson followed this approach. The master plan as approved by the Board included a public investment in a 150 acre greenspace that would rival Piedmont Park in its size and amenities. The Board anticipated that this investment – combined with transportation and streetscapes – would attract private investment in residential and commercial properties yielding 4,600 units of mixed income housing (20% of it affordable and over 300 units of transition housing for homeless), and 4 million square feet of commercial property that could support nearly 5,000 new jobs.

At the insistence of then Governor Perdue, who some thought wanted to make the mixed use, mixed income, comprehensive revitalization of Fort McPherson part of his legacy, the implementation Authority was established by the Georgia legislature. Neither Governor Perdue nor the legislature ever adopted the policy or dedicated incentives to the development as expected then.  The Great Recession hit Atlanta housing industry hard, I left office in 2010 and Governor Perdue left the following year. ]

If the US Army wants to sell the base so be it, but this has been public land paid for and developed with public dollars for years. The base has been a stabilizing factor for this section of the city for decades and its’ purchase and redevelopment offers a rare opportunity for the surrounding neighborhoods to gain the amenities they have been without for decades.  It also allows the city to leverage the dollars spent on the purchase with the highest and best long term use of the 400 plus acres.

As a product of two mayoral terms before assuming office myself, changing course is not unfamiliar territory even when established best practice is documented. As one who embraced the concept of the Atlanta Beltline, the Atlanta Streetcar, the National Center of Civil and Human Rights, the name change of the airport, who championed the city and community’s $6 billion in water and airport infrastructure and who launched major initiatives to eliminate homelessness and human trafficking, I understand the power of a great new idea that shapes new policy and creates new economic development opportunities. I also understand the importance of balancing public interest with private interest and making sure the public benefit wins every time. As a student of Mayors Jackson and Young I learned underserved communities deserve the best investment of resources and talent and full access to the decision making process.

As a member of the Regional Commission on Homelessness I am equally concerned about the city’s and the Authority’s commitment to the spirit and letter of the Authority plan for addressing homelessness. This plan was negotiated in good faith, reviewed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and vetted in numerous public meetings by the Atlanta City Council. Atlanta remains a city with many people who have so little income they qualify as living in poverty. Thousands are homeless. Some 39% of Atlanta’s children live in families whose income qualifies them as living below the poverty line. Homeless children and their families need our focused attention and renewed commitment to use every available, reasonable and sensible resource to offer them opportunities to improve their economic condition.

Imagine a homeless family that relocates to the new Fort McPherson community who is able to reunite as parents and children in a transformed and planned community with other families of diverse backgrounds within a few Marta stops of the tens of thousands of jobs at Hartsfield Jackson airport and downtown. This community would be few blocks from the colleges and universities of the Atlanta University Center, a few miles from Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, two Marta stations connecting them with jobs, commerce, Emory Midtown Hospital Healthcare, Grady Hospital AND a new private investment from one of America’s most innovative entertainment and businessmen. The new community should be nothing less than inclusive of the aspirations and dreams of the current residents and businesses, those who are most in need and those who have the power and resources to invest tens of millions of dollars into new ventures.

This property represents the most important economic development asset for south Atlanta that the city fathers and mothers will have for a hundred years. Limiting the development options to one or the other seems short sighted knowing what Atlanta has learned about the transformative power of public infrastructure investments

New Website Coming Soon

scf website

Blogging regularly on topics from national politics to aging as a baby boomer has made my acquaintance with social media and the Internet a lot smoother than I anticipated. In the very near future, I will launch www.Shirley-Franklin.com.

I am proud of the opportunity I was blessed to have as Atlanta’s mayor and the website will help tell the story of that service. When I left office in 2009, the following was true:

  • The city’s budget was balanced, furloughs were over, and City Hall was open 5 days a week
  • The city established its first real cash reserve in decades and a formula for calculating future revenue projections that would yield at least $100 million in cash reserves over four years – where it is today
  • The implementation of the $3 billion Clean Water program was nationally recognized and more importantly acknowledged for its accomplishment by the presiding federal judge
  • The Atlanta Beltline was launched to great fanfare
  • Nearly $4 billion in airport upgrades and a new International terminal was financed and under construction
  • The Regional Commission on Homelessness was underway and the city and private donors had raised $50 million to tackled chronic homelessness in the city by creating over 2000 new beds and vastly expanding regional cooperation and moving thousands from street and shelters to homes
  • Minority and female businesses benefited from record levels of business opportunities throughout government especially in the billions of dollars spent on water and airport infrastructure
  • Hundreds of the city’s lowest paid employees had their pay increased to living wage and hundreds of seasonal workers had pay increases and many were made permanent job offers

The majority of the Council and I did what it took to put the city on the course it is today. The city’s finances are faring better today because we took swift action when it was necessary and unpopular.

There are dozens of topics that will be covered on the website starting with the creation of the city’s public art program and the Atlanta Jazz Festival 30 years ago to story behind the acquisition of the Martin Luther King Papers, the development of the Atlanta Beltine and the creation of Office of Sustainability, the Mayors Youth Program, the Regional Commission on Homelessness and much more.  Stay tuned.

WHAT THE T-SPLOST MEANS TO ME

Like you, my friends and family have differing perspectives about the effectiveness of government and the necessity for more or less taxes to support local government, infrastructure investments and quality of life concerns.  Hardly anyone that I know believes the traffic congestion and air pollution in Atlanta is an acceptable living standard for a great city like ours.  Yet some of my friends voted for the T-SPLOST and others didn’t.

Now that the vote is over I have been asked what I think. Before I even begin to offer an answer to such a heady question, I should probably do a recap on what the T-SPLOST vote means to me.

It means almost 670,000 metro Atlanta voters have been paying attention to the mailings, e-mail blasts, radio, and television coverage. Most of them weren’t passive or uninformed. They differed in their views but they cared enough about this region, about the cities they live and work in to vote.

It means metro voters listen but don’t automatically follow business, civic or political leaders. Social media, smart phones and global internet access puts information at the fingertips of everyday voters, which allows them to conduct their own facts check and rally their “friends” and associates around their beliefs.

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It’s Education, Stupid!!!

Should Georgia continue on the collision course of balancing the state budget with cuts to education? Yes, if we are satisfied that only 67% of Georgia students will earn a high school diploma. Yes, if we don’t care about investing in a workforce that will and can tackle the dynamic challenges of the 21st Century? Should we balance the budget on the backs of students? Yes, if we are prepared to relegate a high percentage of Georgia youth to low-paying jobs and sporadic employment. Yes, if we prefer the startling statistic that in Georgia 1 of every 4 children lives in poverty according to the 2010 census. Yes, if we are satisfied that the Georgia economic recovery will lag behind the national pace.

Research conducted by CEOs for Cities determined cities gain significant per capita income for every percent increase in the college attainment rate of its residents. There is a direct correlation between per capita income and a city’s college graduation rate. Education attainmnet also affects the unemployment rate. Their website, http://www.ceosforcities.org/, provides links to the research for dozens of cities including Atlanta.

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Clean Water: Pay Now or Later

While March 6 is stacking up as a hot political contest for the Republican presidential primary in Georgia, it is also the date Atlanta voters (mostly registered Democrats) will decide how they will pay the remaining billion- plus dollars needed to complete the city’s almost decade-old Clean Water Program.

For too many years the city’s water and sewer systems were underfunded, water and sewer rates didn’t cover the full operational costs and funded few infrastructure upgrades. The issues came to a head when the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) went to court and forced a federal consent decree that required the city to invest nearly $2 billion in separating its sewers, sanitary sewer upgrades and other sewer operations and maintenance upgrades.

Infrastructure experts urged the city to include long neglected water upgrades too in the Clean Water Program. The combined projected bill in 2004 was nearly $4 billion making the investment one of the largest investments of any Georgia city in water infrastructure. When considered in the context of 50 years of underinvestment, the cost is worth the investment. However, the infrastructure cost hit the pocketbooks of every Atlanta water customer, large and small.

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