Most Valuable Player
In November, Atlanta residents waited for an announcement that would help guide their city into the future. It was not the outcome of the general election in which Atlantans chose their next mayor — those results were all but certain. With more than 90 percent of the vote, the incumbent Shirley Franklin handily won re-election to the city’s highest office. Instead, the long-awaited announcement revealed the city’s new slogan: “Every day is an opening day.”
The baseball-tinged phrase represents the culmination of Mayor Franklin’s year-long, public-private marketing effort to position Atlanta as a key tourism and business destination. Community leaders have long felt that Atlanta — center of the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan area — had outgrown its segregation-era motto, “The city too busy to hate.” For Franklin, the new slogan reflects not only how far the city has come from the days of the civil rights movement, but how far she has come too.
A self-proclaimed “child of the sixties,” 60-year-old Franklin earned an undergraduate degree from Washington-based Howard University, where she first became interested in politics and civil rights, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She entered Atlanta government in 1978, serving as commissioner of cultural affairs for Mayor Maynard Jackson. She was later named chief administrative officer under Mayor Andrew Young, and then stayed on as executive officer of operations when Jackson was reelected. After Franklin ran her consulting firm and played a key role in the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, both Jackson and Young urged her to run for the top job.
Since winning a tight race in 2001, Franklin has earned praise for bringing transparency and efficiency back to city government. Her commitment to social issues, such as homelessness and education, would make her 1960s forbears proud, while her business acumen and focus on public-private partnerships reflect a 21st-century governing style. For bringing those forces to bear on reforming Atlanta government, Franklin is the 2005 American City & County Municipal Leader of the Year.
All mayors feel the weight of history, but Franklin may have entered office under greater pressure than most. As the first African-American woman to lead a major southern city, Franklin is keenly aware that both admirers and critics closely scrutinize her actions. “It was important to me to represent the African-American heritage we have here in Atlanta in a way that would translate around the world every day,” she says. “I wanted men and women to see me in this role, so they would not have to explain to their granddaughters why a woman could not be mayor of Atlanta.”
In addition, Franklin knowingly stepped into a political and financial quagmire left by former Mayor Bill Campbell, whose term ended amid a bribery and tax fraud scandal and an $82 million budget deficit to boot. Nevertheless, Franklin waged a positive campaign that focused both on her municipal experience and her commitment to cleaning house. “I expected to run successfully on the professional experience that I had,” she says. “[The people of Atlanta] said, ‘We want an honest, transparent administration.’ I heard them, and my overarching goal was to restore public trust in city government.”
To address the deficit, Franklin quickly cut 1,200 jobs from the city’s payroll, laying off half of her own staff and cutting her own salary. Franklin, a Democrat, also worked closely with the city council, Republican leaders and the business community to approve a 1 percent increase in the sales tax and a 50 percent increase in property taxes. She instituted an ethics code for all municipal employees and asked a team of 75 private firms to conduct a massive audit of city government. For those proactive steps, this year, Time magazine named Franklin one of the nation’s five best big-city mayors, calling her a “restorer of faith.” Franklin also received a 2005 Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for her “principled and bipartisan leadership” in making budgetary decisions.
To stave off the inevitable objections to the payroll cuts and new taxes, Franklin waged tireless educational campaigns to ensure that everyone understood that the changes were in their best interests. “[Consultants] found that the city’s costs per employee were 30 to 35 percent higher than comparable cities. By the end of 2003, we had lowered that cost per employee ratio to 5 percent,” Franklin says.
While whittling bloated programs, she also reinvested in understaffed and underfunded areas, such as public safety. “There were a number of agencies that were operating at a D, D-, or F level,” says Lynnette Young, the city’s chief operating officer. “Now those agencies are at the C or B level. The next question is, how do we take it to the next level?”
Franklin’s efforts to balance the budget have paid off; in February, the city reported an $18 million revenue surplus. “If the city cannot pay its bills, it cannot be a positive force,” Franklin says. “We [decided] that we were going to bring our budget back into the black and [keep it there]. We are now bringing back employees, such as police officers and firefighters. If the city is not safe, no one is going to invest in it.”
Pipe dreams and realities
Politicians often portray themselves as hard workers, ready to deal with the down-and-dirty concerns of everyday residents. Few go so far as Franklin did when she declared herself the “Sewer Mayor.” Atlanta’s century-old sewer system, prone to sending foul-smelling sewage into local waterways, was in such bad shape that at one point the city was being fined $20,000 a day. Franklin could not balance the budget while ignoring a system that literally was sending funds down the drain.
Franklin perceives the sewer system as just one part of a larger effort to protect Atlanta’s streams and rivers. To begin, she asked a panel of environmental experts led by the president of Georiga Tech to design the Clean Water Atlanta program. To ensure the program’s integrity, the panel members’ firms could not bid on sewer work. Ultimately, the program recommended a $3.2 billion overhaul of the city’s water and sewer systems.
Although the mayor secured loans to help fund the proposal, much of the overhaul’s burden will fall to taxpayers. In 2004, many residents endured a 45-percent increase in their water bills, but the mayor’s office notes that revenue from the sales tax has already offset most of that increase. “I had raised taxes, I had laid off employees, and people were saying that I was going to ruin my political career [with the rate hikes],” Franklin says. “I was stunned when the [Republican] governor and Republican legislative leaders started talking about why this was good for Georgia. We began to tell the story of clean water and the role it plays in our lives, and when it plays such an important role, we have to pay for it.”
“She’s not afraid of telling people what they don’t want to hear, and the fact is you can’t fix the sewers without the money,” Young says. “It’s not that people aren’t willing to deal with bad news. People appreciate the truth.”
Franklin also supports an ambitious proposal for a 22-mile network of urban parks, trails and transit stations. “I am very passionate about the community I live in,” she says. “And you can’t have a healthy community without clean air and clean water.”
Franklin’s second-term agenda focuses on education, homelessness and economic development. At the center of her education agenda is the “Next Step” program, which began in 2005, in which the mayor vowed to hear from every public high school senior in the city through a series of meetings. Again, the mayor turned to the private sector for assistance — collecting major donations from Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola. The program includes traditional job fairs and college financial aid but is distinguished by the extraordinary openness the mayor has shown to students. She even gave out her private cell phone number, and if a senior needed stamps to mail college applications or a new laptop to study computer science, she made it happen. “We talk about education in America as if it’s going to cost a billion dollars,” she says. “Sometimes what we need in these grants is the flexibility to give people what they need.”
In 2003, Franklin unveiled the “Blueprint to End Homelessness in Atlanta in 10 Years.” A key part of that plan, the 24/7 Gateway Center, opened for business this summer providing the city’s homeless with showers, beds, and access to job training, medical facilities and medicine. Critics, however, have blasted the Gateway Center and the mayor’s ban on panhandling as superficial quick fixes that fail to address affordable housing and economic development. Some also note that rising water bills and taxes disproportionately affect poor people. Franklin counters by reiterating her commitment to providing 2,000 affordable housing units each year, a number she says the city is “on track” to reaching.
Finally, Franklin continues to implement the city’s economic development plan, focused on healthy neighborhoods, job creation and physical infrastructure. The plan aims to create 60,000 new jobs in the city, as well as 24,000 jobs related to the expansion of the city’s airport. “We realized two years ago that we did not have a plan for stabilizing the city’s economy over the long term,” Franklin says. “This plan speaks to how we’re going to address education, crime, under investment in key corridors in the city, and the affordability of the city.”
When asked about her ambitions for higher office, Franklin will say only that she is keeping her options open while stressing the importance of mayors to the national discourse. “[Mayors can] attack a problem locally in a way that informs the national agenda,” Franklin says. “The point is to set that bar high and do whatever it takes. We did that with the sewer system.”
For now, Franklin is content to be mayor of a thriving city too busy to be stuck in the past. “I love public service,” she says. “I enjoy the challenges, and I feel blessed to serve the city of Atlanta at a time like this.”
Kim A. O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.