Last Wednesday, though she was too ill to make it downtown for the Fulton County commission meeting, vice chairman Joan Garner cast several votes via telephone on issues that were close to her — public health.
Garner, who died Tuesday at 65 after a lengthy battle with breast cancer, was an activist long before she was a politician.
Her wife, Fulton State Court Judge Jane Morrison, said at last week’s commission meeting that in all their old photos, Garner was wearing a “Stop AIDS Now” T-shirt or button.
“It’s been her life’s work,” Morrison said.
Elected vice chairman in January, Garner had been a member of the board of commissioners since 2011. She was “universally admired and loved,” said John Eaves, the Fulton County chairman.
Eaves called Garner a “consummate professional,” saying she did what was right for people “just because it was right.”
“She really fought with her heart and acted with her heart,” he said. “She championed issues that shouldn’t be specific to a particular party.”
Before she was elected as a Democrat to represent Fulton’s District 4, which includes Midtown and neighborhoods west of downtown Atlanta to Fulton Industrial Boulevard, Garner was the president and CEO of the Historic District Development Corporation.
Mtamanika Youngblood, the chairman of the board, said the two had been friends for at least 20 years. Throughout their friendship, she said, Garner was “smart and thoughtful and sharp and doing things in the best interest of humanity, broadly.”
“She was a genuinely caring person,” Youngblood said. “She was always engaged in something.”
Garner was pleasant and friendly, Youngblood said, and smiled and joked even while she was sick. Last year, when Youngblood was ill before the inaugural gala for an organization both helped found, Sweet Auburn Works, Garner stepped in.
“You could always count on her,” Youngblood said. “You knew she would know what to say and she would be good at it.”
Garner was invested in her Old Fourth Ward community, said Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, a friend and neighbor. Hall’s wife, Natalie, was Garner’s chief of staff.
The commissioner was a foodie, Hall said, and he would often run into her and Morrison at restaurants in Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park. She was jovial and funny, with a bright smile, and loved her dog, Juniper.
Garner was also recognized by her colleagues as a calm, reasoned leader who would look for similarities, not differences.
“She didn’t see the usual things that would keep people divided,” Hall said. “She was a nontraditional elected official, the kind we need more of… She was always bright and concerned and a solid pillar in our community. She gave her time and talent and treasure.”
In addition to her role at the county level, Garner was a vice president of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. , and was past Chair of the National Association of Counties’ Healthy Counties Initiative Advisory Board. She also chaired that group’s Medicaid and Indigent Care Subcommittee, and the Health Policy Committee.
She had been involved in the Atlanta community for many years, including as a member of the transition team for Mayor Maynard Jackson and as a Senior Advisor on Gay and Lesbian Issues during his administration. Garner served on the Atlanta Olympic Citizen’s Advisory Commission, and has been a member of boards ranging from the Atlanta Beltline Affordable Housing to Southerners on New Ground.
At last week’s meeting, in addition to voting via the phone, Garner was honored via a teleconference by commissioners and the state’s county association. Fulton will be naming a conference room at its new health building for the commissioner, and a scholarship that helps students interested in county government and health and human services will also bear her name.
Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she was “so pleased” that commissioners could show Garner what she meant to the county.
At the meeting, Commissioner Bob Ellis praised Garner for her “tireless” advocacy and Commissioner Lee Morris said her “calm, wise demeanor is always a delight to have with us.”
Garner said she was “deeply touched” by the gestures, which usually come “after our life has ended.”
“It really fills my heart and I will carry this with me forever,” she said last Wednesday. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”
Garner is a native of Washington D.C. who made Atlanta her home in 1978. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of the District of Columbia and a master’s degree in Organizational Communication from Howard University.
Fulton County flags are at half-staff in Garner’s honor, and the commission will have a moment of silence at its meeting Wednesday.
A special election will be called to fill the remainder of Garner’s four-year term. She was reelected in November.