ATLANTA CITY COUNCIL DROPS A BOMBSHELL
The bomb might be coming later, but the shell has already been launched. Today, the Atlanta City Council proposed to curtail the mayor’s power to form an administration, giving more authority over high-level appointments to the council’s 16 members.
Two council members, however, are fighting for their right to be rubber stamps.
And the conversation among the council members was laced with some shocking admissions, among them this gem from Councilman C.T. Martin: “We are just passing the money along. Eighty-five percent of what we do is we pass the money.”
When it comes to setting up an administration, the council has always had the power to refuse to confirm a mayor’s pick for any of the top cabinet positions, such as police chief, fire chief, city attorney, commissioner of parks and recreation, commissioner of public works, etc. However, the council has never used its power to deny confirmation, because, as explained in today’s council meeting, there has been no standard, uniform process for vetting and screening the mayor’s picks.
At present, Mayor Kasim Reed has five such positions, among them police chief and fire chief, awaiting confirmation by the council.
But, last Friday, Council President Ceasar Mitchell sent a letter to Reed after he and other council members had met with the mayor to talk about changes to the process of administration-building. It was the day after Reed had hosted a town hall meeting intended to allow the public to meet the top three police chief candidates.
In his letter to the mayor, Mitchell wrote “As you are well aware, most, if not all executive, agency and commissioner level leadership appointments are subject to confirmation by the City Council. In the past, the City Council’s confirmation process has been largely informal with the exception of a perfunctory legislative procedure. In an effort to bring greater structure, predictability and effectiveness to our confirmation process, the City Council has developed a set of procedures and guidelines for confirming executive leadership appointments.”
The council will hold a work session on the proposed new process on June 18 in an effort to keep ahead of the mayor’s recent picks for top-level positions. The mayor said he would choose a police chief in 10 to 12 days after the June 3 town hall, so the police chief's appointment would be affected by the new procedures if they are approved by council.
According to Mitchell’s letter, the new process has three objectives: To be more navigable for those candidates vying for jobs, Second “this structured approach will allow the council to collect standardized information about a candidate which will enable a more informed evaluation of his or her qualifications.” Third, the process should provide greater transparency and more detail between the mayor and the council.
There are two main requirements for the mayor’s would-be appointees under the proposed legislation: 1) A dossier should be given to council along with the name of any mayoral appointee 2) Each candidate will participate in a round of interviews and presentations with council.
The dossier should include a copy of the job description used to attract applicants; a behavior/motivation profile by applicant; the job department’s mission and goals; the resumes of the top three candidates for the job; statement of the candidate’s qualifications; responses to the evaluative questionnaire.
The “evaluative questionnaire” is divided into four sections: 1) Vision, mission, goals and objectives, 2) Quality background (“are there any aspects of the candidate’s background that have the potential to impede the candidate’s performance in this role?”) 3) Behavior and motivational traits (this may include a form like the Myers Briggs personality test) and 4) Level of skill (does the candidate align with this role?)
“We presented this to the mayor last Friday and he is looking it over as we are,” Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, chair of the council’s human resources committee, said during today’s full council meeting.
Councilman C.T. Martin, however, the longest-serving member of council, objected to the proposal.
“These are requirements we can’t meet ourselves. I could swallow this a little better if a citizens committee were appointed,” he said.
It was a surprising comment because, indeed, citizens committees have been appointed, most notably for the police and fire chief searches, but the mayor, according to critics in the community and with organizations represented on those committees, has manipulated their processes.
Martin felt that the mayor should be allowed to make his own mistakes without dragging the council into it.
Sheperd countered “I you look at what we are asking for salaries, I think we are doing our due diligence by getting more information about these appointments.”
The police chief is one of the highest paid in the nation, with a salary of about $220,000 plus benefits.
“The way we have been doing it,” Sheperd continued. “is that they would interview with us for about 10 or 15 minutes and then we would vote them up or down and I have never heard of anyone being voted down. What is wrong with us making a process? I think a resume and 10 or 15 minutes is not enough information.”
Sheperd and Councilwoman Felicia Moore explained that the proposed process is based on the confirmation hearings at the federal level. There, the executive branch will appoint a department head and then the legislative branch either confirms or refuses to confirm the president’s pick after a sometimes lengthy series of hearings.
Martin said that he has talked with appointees before, and if he did not like them, he said “I let them run their mouths and when they were done I said goodbye…If the administration chooses someone who fails then that’s on them not on us.”
Martin continued “That falls on the administration. I believe in giving them the team they want and then if they mess up, it’s up to us to reveal it. It’s that [mayor’s] team.”
In essence, Martin promoted the notion of giving the mayor enough rope to hang himself—and did not mention his own responsibility as a councilman to the citizens, or that perhaps the citizens’ needs are more important than allowing the mayor to fail so the council can look good.
Councilman H. Lamar Willis agreed with Martin.
“You have to let them pick the players they want to play with,” he said. “If we get to decide, then we get the responsibility for failure as well.”
Willis warned that making critical comments to the mayor’s appointees or otherwise scaring them off could backfire on the council as well.
Neither Martin nor Willis seemed even remotely aware that this sounded cowardly or like an abdication of responsibility on their parts. Moore explained that the council members won’t be picking the people to fill the posts, they will just be arming themselves with better information before they go blindly rubber-stamping the mayor’s appointees, which should make the mayor more transparent about them.
She reminded Martin and Willis that the council does, by virtue of its charter, have a responsibility to vet the mayor’s picks, otherwise why would the charter even require the appointments to be confirmed by the council? The council, she noted, in its role as the elected representatives of different parts of the city has a responsibility to offer a balance of power.
“The 15 council members plus one mayor equal the City of Atlanta,” Moore said. “The council can choose what we approve. We don’t have to just rubber-stamp whatever the mayor says.”
She added “I will never, ever dilute my vote as a council representative. People elect us because they have work and lives and they expect us to represent them. Now, do we want to take those appointees and rubber stamp them or do we want to be more deliberative?”
Alex Wan, who is serving his first term on the council and represents much of Midtown, expressed his support for the proposal.
“It is a tool that each one of us can use to the extent that we want to or that we do not want to,” Wan said.
Willis responded that the real problem lies on the back end of the appointment process—after the mayor’s appointees have screwed up. Then, he said, there are no hearings or accountability.
“You’ve got a table and a chair waiting for you for that conversation,” Council President Mitchell said. “I think that’s the next step.”
Martin was not swayed. He said he was not interested in the confirmations. He said he wanted to be a council member, not a mayor.
“Have you seen his desk?” Martin asked regarding the mayor. “There is a stack of papers that high and meetings and things he has to go to. Let’s face it, the power in this government is in that office over there. He makes the decisions. Really, after that, we are just passing the money along. Eighty-five percent of what we do is we pass the money.” SP