At his “state of the county” address last month, Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves spoke of a new willingness to partner with local cities to tackle tough regional problems.
Buoyed by re-election and backed by a new County Commission that’s eager to get things done, Eaves has twice met with the county’s mayors to find common ground. Even longtime critics of Fulton’s operations are taking note.
But at least one political leader has remained aloof: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
He and Eaves have disagreed for years on issues ranging from the county’s overcrowded jail to the fate of Turner Field. Some say they’ll have to overcome their differences if Georgia’s largest county is to address pressing problems like criminal justice and transportation.
“At the end of the day, they’ll have to work together,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood.
But that could be a tall order. While Reed has always been upfront with his opinions, remarking in 2013 that “the county doesn’t do anything, anyway,” Eaves has become increasingly vocal with criticisms of the mayor.
On Thursday, Eaves asked Attorney General Sam Olens to investigate a possible ethical violation by Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, an attorney and Reed ally who was recently appointed as executive director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.
Eaves has questioned the appropriateness of Bottom’s dual role, said the move lacked transparency and called it a “power play” by Reed as the mayor seeks to control negotiations over the sale of Turner Field.
Reed blasted Eaves on Friday, noting that the authority board, which has both Atlanta and Fulton members, unanimously approved her hiring. Reed and authority leaders maintain that her appointment was ethical and appropriate.
“I think it’s just a lot of histrionics and now his behavior is just funny to me,” said Reed, accusing Eaves of playing politics.
The dust-up over Bottoms’ appointment underscores how prickly their relationship remains, despite their protestations to the contrary.
On Friday, Eaves sent the mayor a letter proposing a meeting of city and county officials. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Eaves said it’s important for the meeting to go beyond “perceived personality conflicts between me and the mayor.”
“It’s got to be about the county and the city,” he said.
Reed had declined an interview, but his spokeswoman issued a statement earlier this week calling concerns about their personal relationship a “manufactured conflict.”
Spokeswoman Anne Torres said Friday afternoon that the mayor hadn’t yet received Eaves’ request, but that he is “willing to listen and talk” with the chairman.
In recent years, Atlanta and Fulton have been at odds over a number of issues: the fate of Turner Field, sales tax negotiations, the area’s homelessness problem, proposed annexations and even the treatment of circus elephants. At times, they’ve taken to Twitter and the media to air their disagreements.
In an ongoing dispute over the county’s criminal justice system, Reed has repeatedly expressed his frustration, saying the county runs a “turnstile jail” that releases too many inmates who re-offend.
“As with any two bodies of government, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County have different priorities,” Torres said. “To date, the city’s relationship with Fulton County has been driven by the county’s failure to address public safety issues, specifically the lack of a comprehensive plan to address the cycle of recidivism in our overcrowded jails.”
Eaves has made criminal justice his signature issue. He led Fulton’s efforts to address problems at the overcrowded jail – efforts that prompted a judge to end federal oversight of the facility last month.
While Reed maintains Fulton County has far to go, he has softened up his tone in the last year as both men have pledged cooperation on criminal justice issues.
But so far, those pledges seem to come up short. For example, each leader created his own criminal justice task force.
Other tough issues may lie ahead. Eaves has embraced a new state law that allows counties to propose transportation projects and seek funding from voters. But it’s unclear whether any Fulton County effort can succeed without Reed’s backing.
Torres said the mayor would need to see a specific proposal before offering an opinion.
Relations between the leaders have gained new attention as Eaves seeks to set a new tone of regional cooperation.
Though other mayors have welcomed his overtures, Reed has been conspicuously absent from the meetings Eaves has organized.
Fulton officials say Reed was invited, though Torres said Reed is “not aware of these meetings.”
Some think the mayor’s personality is hindering regional cooperation.
“Kasim’s just got too big an ego,” Roswell’s Wood said. “He’s not a collaborator. He’s a strong leader and he’s done a great job as mayor. But collaboration has not been his forte.”
Others say Eaves has to overcome his reputation as a nice-guy chairman who is unable to take tough stands and round up needed votes.
“I think people have told him that he looks weak and lets the mayor push him around, and that you’ve got to show yourself as being more influential,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat who has also clashed with Reed.
As for his part, Eaves says he’s confident city and county relations will remain strong, regardless of who holds elected office.
“The structure of a good partnership is still there,” he said. “The structure preceded the current elected officials. I suspect the structure will be there in the future.”
A timeline of recent conflict between Atlanta and Fulton County
2010-11: With Fulton County under a federal order to decrease the population of its jail, Atlanta officials offer to sell the city jail to the county for $40 million. The city raises that price to $85 million a year later, saying Fulton officials didn’t take negotiations seriously when they had a chance to buy the facility. The city then offers to lease space to the county, but a judge later says the city’s price is “unreasonable. Atlanta wanted to charge Fulton significantly more than it charged a federal agency for jail space.
2012: Atlanta residents almost lose county animal control services over a dispute involving the treatment of circus elephants. The County Commission had voted to become the first jurisdiction in Georgia to ban the use of bullhooks to control the animals. But the city refuses to go along, siding with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Amid the dispute, the city’s animal control agreement with Fulton County nearly expires – leaving no one to deal with stray and dangerous animals in Atlanta. But a last-minute deal averts a crisis.
2012-13: Fulton County and its 14 cities begin negotiations over how to divide revenue from a 1-cent local options sales tax. Thirteen of the cities – all but Atlanta, which gets the biggest share of the money under the existing arrangement – ask for a bigger share. Reed complains that the county didn’t send elected officials to the negotiations, leaving him without a partner who could cut a binding deal.
2013: Though Fulton County played a role in planning Philips Arena, Turner Field and the Georgia Dome, the county is left out of negotiations for a new $1 billion Falcons stadium. Reed takes the lead in brokering the deal.
2013: In a radio interview, Reed says he opposes efforts by Republicans in the General Assembly to reshape Fulton County government. But he doubts most people would notice. “The county doesn’t do anything, anyway,” the mayor says. Says Eaves: “He’s very politically astute. I’m not sure what his strategy is here. I certainly feel conversation and collaboration and working together is a much better alternative to follow, in terms of addressing whatever issues are that need to be addressed.”
2013: After a series of high-profile crimes, Reed slams Fulton’s “turnstile jail” system, accusing county judges of treating criminals “with more respect than they treat law-abiding citizens.” He lambastes the county for repeatedly failing to solve its jail crisis and accused some judges of being too lenient with repeat offenders. Eaves says the reality is more complicated and says the county is addressing its problems.
2013: Reed, a full-time mayor, expresses frustration with Eaves’ lack of authority. Eaves is a part-timer, and just one of seven county commissioners. He runs commission meetings and signs contracts, but otherwise has little power. “There’s nobody to deal with because they have no individual leader who is capable of making an agreement,” Reed says. “I like John Eaves, and I think he is a decent man. But in order to work with someone they have to be able to deliver a majority (vote).”
2014: At the beginning of his second term, Reed pledges to re-engage Fulton County leaders in a discussion of public safety. He says he’s working to change the tone of the conversation with the county. Eaves agrees a collaboration is needed, but defends the county’s efforts to reduce recidivism and the root causes of crime. Both officials create their own task forces to address criminal justice issues.
2014-15: Nearly a year after the Atlanta Braves announced they are moving to Cobb County, Eaves says Fulton County wants a say in the fate of Turner Field. Citing an opinion by the county attorney, Eaves also contends the County Commission must approve any sale. Reed says he’s happy to speak with Eaves as “a courtesy,” but says any sale won’t require the approval of the County Commission or the City Council. Only the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority has the ultimate say on any sale, according to the mayor, and the city controls a majority of the seats on the authority board.
2015: The County Commission supports allowing residents of unincorporated south Fulton to decide whether to form a new city. Cityhood supporters partly blame Reed for its failure to pass the General Assembly this year. The mayor has courted residents of Sandtown and other unincorporated communities, selling the benefits of annexation into Atlanta. The city now is trying to annex more than 1,000 acres, and has filed a lawsuit to overturn a state law prohibiting the valuable Fulton Industrial Boulevard commercial district from being annexed into the city.
2015: The Atlanta-Fulton Recreation Authority Board unanimously votes to hire City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms – a Reed ally – as executive director. Eaves calls the hiring a power grab by Reed and criticized the agency for not publicly posting the position. He says he’ll ask county attorneys to review its legality. Reed says the appointment is legal and ethical.
For a detailed look at recent conflicts between the City of Atlanta and Fulton County, visit www.myajc.com.