- Arielle Kass The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
John Eaves is widely praised for a collaborative style that helped steady a Fulton County Board of Commissioners once mainly known for its backbiting and ineffectiveness.
Before resigning as the board’s chairman last week to run for mayor of Atlanta, he was instrumental in spearheading infrastructure improvements in the county, from library renovations to increased sewer capacity, and guiding the heads of Fulton’s many cities to consensus on a series of transportation issues.
To many, that’s Eaves’ strength. He’s a peacemaker, a characteristic they say served him well in nearly 11 years on the commission. Others say he was too malleable, a perceived weakness that could hurt his chances as he pursues his next endeavor.
Later this year, he’ll face at least seven major candidates vying to lead a city with challenges in transportation, growth and crime.
“John’s kind of been like a choral conductor, an orchestra conductor, trying to make sure we’re all on the same sheet of music,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said of Eaves’ decade at Fulton’s helm. “I’m disappointed that he’s leaving.”
Eaves has many fans in Fulton County and the region. But perhaps his biggest critic is the man who currently occupies the office he seeks.
The feud with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is deep. The pair have publicly disagreed about the Braves’ move to Cobb County, Fulton’s role in the sale and redevelopment of Turner Field, the best way to reduce homelessness, Fulton’s longtime inability to improve conditions at the county jail and the transportation tax that voters ultimately passed last fall.
Reed has questioned Eaves’ ability to lead the city, saying in a statement penned by spokesperson Anne Torres that, “the best part about him quitting his job as the quasi-leader of Fulton County is that he will no longer be involved in public service once he loses his ill-fated race for Mayor of Atlanta.”
In case that left any doubt about Reed’s thoughts on Eaves’ ability to win the job, when asked about his resignation to run for mayor, spokesperson Jenna Garland said, “We offer our congratulations to Mr. Eaves on his retirement from public service.”
The latest polls show Eaves has a long road ahead in his quest. He was tracking in the low single-digits in the race. As of his last financial report, July 7, he had raised a total of $137,682 and had $55,279 cash on hand. By contrast, Mary Norwood, who is leading in the polls, had raised more than $1 million and had $653,278 cash on hand. Eaves and his campaign staff say because he no longer has to focus on county business, he will have more time to fund raise and campaign, and they expect him to rise in the polls.
Eaves, for his part, said his record speaks for itself. Mayors across the region “saw me as a better partner than they saw the mayor of Atlanta,” he said.
“We’re almost polar opposites,” Eaves said of Reed. “People see my method of governing as more inclusive. People want to be heard. They want access to city hall. They don’t feel that way now.”
Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, said because several new cities formed before and during Eaves’ tenure, his relationship with them could have easily been “really adversarial.” But his governing style as a consensus builder kept the lines of communication open.
“I think that’s a big deal,” said Franklin, who said she plans to stay out of this race but twice endorsed Eaves in his bids for county chairman.
Most of Eaves’ first two terms were difficult, with a board of commissioners that seemed to relish disagreement more than action. While Eaves was an early voice in favor of the eventual restructuring of Grady Memorial Hospital, much of his tenure was marked by dysfunction on the board — as was the norm for the Fulton County Commission.
“The first seven years of being chairman of Fulton County was not fun,” Eaves said. “I wasn’t satisfied with what I wanted to accomplish.”
But redistricting by the state legislature changed the makeup of the board. With new commissioners, Paul said, Eaves “really came into his own.”
“I didn’t expect anything out of the Fulton County Commission when I first came on. They’d been irrelevant for so long,” said Paul, who was first elected in 2013. “They’ve gone from irrelevancy to almost indispensability.”
Eaves took advantage of the changes to become a regional leader, Paul said. Charlotte Nash, the Gwinnett County chairman, echoed the sentiment, calling Eaves “a bridge builder.”
“He has been a part of creating one of the most functional Fulton County Board of Commissioners in recent history,” Nash said in a statement. “The ability of the current board to work together more effectively has helped Fulton County make progress, including developing a more collaborative relationship with its cities.”
Eaves has also won praise for professionalizing the county, hiring former BellSouth executive Dick Anderson as the county manager and bringing on board a team of seasoned leaders. Eaves looks for incremental progress, Anderson said, though some wish he was a more forceful leader.
Robb Pitts, the former county commissioner who plans to run for chairman, said Fulton hadn’t had a strong chairman for more than 20 years.
Fulton Vice Chairman Bob Ellis said it’s been clear that Eaves has the best interests of the county at heart.
“I do think John has tried to build consensus among a fairly diverse board, representing a diverse county,” said Ellis, a Republican, about Eaves, a Democrat. “Collaboration is going to be critical going forward.”
Looking relaxed Wednesday in jeans and an untucked, red-checked shirt, Eaves said he thought he’d done “a damn good job” leading the county.
There are some things he wishes he could have done more work on before leaving office. Those include lobbying the legislature for laws that would allow the county to offer long-term relief from high property assessments, and implementing more programs to decrease in homelessness and reduce new cases of HIV and AIDS.
Still, he rattled off a list of accomplishments — the transportation tax cities approved last year will allow them to widen roads and improve traffic flow. The county jail is no longer under a consent decree for overcrowding and other issues. The county has reconfigured its board of health and is outsourcing behavioral health services in the hope that more people will be treated.
“Despite the partisan difficulties, some significant things happened in Fulton County,” Eaves said. “I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. I did the best I could do.”