Atlanta’s Future Depends on a Coalition

I am sharing my recent response to a reporter who asked me to describe my relationship with the state and Governor Perdue when I was mayor and what advice I would offer the next mayor.

We had a good relationship in the sense that we shared information and ideas from our first meeting. Our agreement was to talk directly to each other instead of using third parties to intercede. The Governor and state legislators were unfamiliar with how large water/sewer systems operate and are funded. After they were briefed, they offered to help with loans and ultimately with the MOST (municipal option sales tax) for water and sewer. Then Cobb Chairman Sam Olens was very helpful as was the Democratic leadership including States Senator Nan Orrock and State Representative Calvin Smyre. I urged the Governor to be aggressive in funding water infrastructure planning and to consider long-term water planning.  He started some of this work.

I offered to help find funding solutions to pay for the NASCAR museum but he declined the offer.

We had a generally good relationship for eight years.

It is hard to compare the types of relationships men and women have to same-sex relationships even in high levels of government. Models of leadership in most of American industries and in public/private sectors remain defined by how men relate to each other.

Now politics is much more complex at every level – Tea Party, establishment Republicans, Trump Republicans, loyal Democrats, AltRight, and newcomers. There are many new challenges with the added complication of social media and technology.

We have entered an era of Coalition, not party or race, politics in Atlanta. Leaders who succeed will be collaborators, good listeners, and honest brokers not merely charismatic and well-spoken politicians. Atlanta Maynard Jackson remains the best model of a superb coalition politician. His coalition of black and white voters, young professionals, neighborhood and faith leaders, when Atlanta’s population was predominantly white, catapulted the city and him to the national status. From here to tomorrow the prospect of the city’s future success depends on a coalition of committed engaged Atlantans.

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.

Will Georgia Solve Its Water Problems?

When compared with others the answer appears to be – not anytime soon.

Yesterday California Governor Jerry Brown announced a bold $24 billion water plan and last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that the United States is experiencing the worst drought in 25 years. High temperatures and lack of rain is, “the most serious situation we’ve had, probably, in 25 years, across the country,” Vilsack said. “Sixty-one percent of landmass of the United States is currently being characterized as being impacted by this drought.”

Yes I’m known as the Sewer Mayor but the truth is water is just as much a part of Atlanta’s sewer story. Becoming more educated about sewer and waste water during my first term as mayor due to the federal mandate to fix Atlanta’s sewer system — offered me lots of opportunity to learn about water issues from storm water management to drinking water challenges in Atlanta and Georgia.

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Celebrate The Earth, Everyday!

This year, the United States observed Earth Day on April 22. Atlanta’s own, Laura Seydel spoke at the National Celebration on the Mall in Washington, DC. As an activist and environmentalist Seydel is an eco-living expert dedicated to creating a healthy and sustainable future, visit her website for more information.

Senator and former Wisconsin governor Gaylord Nelson is environmental activist who created the celebration on April 22, 1970. This was a banner period for national environmental policy setting. The first Earth Day was the same year that President Nixon authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act became law in 1972. The protection and preservation of the environment is no longer edgy and fringe debate. It’s mainstream from national discourse about climate change to personal responsibility for water conservation. Government agencies, environmental advocacy organizations, environmental studies in school and colleges and media have awakened the real connection between Americans and our relationship to nature.

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Why MOST Will Pass!

Polls are not what they used to be – expensive and infrequent. Now most politicos are using polls to gage the sentiments of voters and target groups on a regular basis. Recent Georgia polls show Newt Gingrich winning the Georgia primary, President Obama enjoying solid African American support and leaning Latino support, Mayor Kasim Reed enjoying solid Atlanta voter support among African Americans, and MOST. Important – renewal of the City of Atlanta’s water and sewer sales tax looks favorable for passage even if Democrats don’t vote in large numbers on March 6.

The Municipal Option Sales Tax (MOST) for upgrades to the city’s water and sewer system is one issue that voter support cuts across race, family income level, political party, gender, religion and age. Thanks to eight plus years of business and civic leadership most Atlantans haven’t forgotten the days when the city was paying millions in fines to EPA and the threat of a moratorium on sewer hook ups resulting in a damper on economic investment.

Atlanta has spent over $2 billion to make water infrastructure and system improvements using the city’s procurement process to engage world class vendors – small, minority and global businesses. The passage of the MOST next week will provide funding for the next phase, by no means the remainder, of needed water and sewer improvements. The early campaigns for the MOST were comprehensive in their scope and focused on educating the public about the essential need for clean water, rivers and streams for public health and business.

Some say, I among them, that the Upper Chattahoochee RiverKeeper did Atlanta a favor when they sued the city. Their suit forced the city and metro leaders to face their enormous responsibility of investing in water infrastructure, the value of experienced professional leadership in designing and implementing the water investment program and the need for everyone to sacrifice to make the investment. These are the factors that make the Atlanta Clean Water Program work, that have helped pass the MOST in 2004 and 2008 by wide margins.

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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