If you see blue lights flashing in your rear-view mirror, your heart skips a beat and you immediately think one of two things:
— 1) Drat! They got me for winking at the speed limit, or
— 2) Something terrible’s happened and the cops are rushing to get there.
Now add Category 3) Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is speeding to a news conference. Or a ribbon cutting. Or a party.
This week, my corporate cousins at WSB-TV, Channel 2 Action News aired a story that detailed the Mayoral GMC Tahoe blowing red lights, speed limits and even running up the shoulder of a crowded highway to pass saps stewing in their cars.
Blue lights were flashing and sirens blaring, of course, because what’s the fun of having a tricked-out Mayoral GMC Tahoe with a police driver if you can’t use all those cool toys? I mean, we all dream of being chauffeured through clogged traffic like we’re headed to Air Force One.
But before getting outraged, please understand that Hizzoner is a busy fellow with places to go in a hurry and we need to ease on over and clear the way or he’ll be late. Actually, he’s often late to events, so the blue lights keep him from being even later to those events.
Channel 2 Action News (“Action” as in sirens and squealing tires) titled this story, “Violation or Entitlement?”
I’ll venture an answer: Both!
The investigation started when Channel 2 reporter Lori Geary got a tip from a state law enforcement source that the mayor hurried to mundane events like they were five-alarm fires.
“Right away, Geary found no matter where the destination, Mayor Reed’s security detail, who are Atlanta Police Department officers and drive him in the SUV, find the fastest way,” the news report said.
Sometimes it’s difficult to capture on camera what you know to be true. But spotting Reed driving around with blue lights flashing turned out to be as easy as attracting a congressman to a klieg light.
He headed out from City Hall in emergency mode and arrived at events the same way. Ten times — 10 times on tape, mind you — they caught the Mayormobile speeding on surface streets and on highways, moving slowpokes out of the way and even rushing through red lights like they were merely a suggestion.
The mayor, as you might imagine, was less than thrilled to explain his mode of travel to those who had monitored him for several weeks.
“What I’ve done is to use a technique that many people in my job have used to go to multiple events during a small frame of time. But the bottom line is you don’t know what I’m doing. You don’t know what emergency it is,” Reed told Geary.
“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “My security team moves me through the city of Atlanta at multiple events at one time as you well know. There are some times in the evenings when I will have two, three, four events within 30-40 minutes of one another.”
And the over-scheduled pol hates to keep folks waiting at those two, three, four events.
Mayor: TV report is ‘frivolous, irresponsible’
The mayor muttered something about terrorism to Geary and Police Chief George Turner followed up, insisting that there have been thousands of threats against the mayor. If that’s the case, then police should forget the Tahoe and drive the mayor in one of the SWAT team’s armored cars.
The mayor’s office Tuesday called the report a “frivolous and irresponsible” effort to pump up ratings.
“WSB reporters have failed to consider the larger context and clear need to provide for the safety and security of Mayor Reed and his family,” the office continued.
Georgia code says “such siren shall not be used except when such vehicle is operated in response to an emergency call or in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law.”
It does not state, “except when rushing to a Google Fiber launch party at Ponce City Market.”
‘Blue lights and blaring sirens’
Former Mayor Shirley Franklin told me she remembers maybe a couple times using the blue lights. But she did seem a tad sympathetic to her successor. “One of the hardest things to do,” she said, “is to have a busy schedule and get places on time.”
You’re telling me. I deal with that worry every day and fight the urge to flip on my blue lights to signal all those lesser creatures on the road to get out of my way.
A groundbreaking in late September at the new Mercedes Benz HQ in Sandy Springs brought to light just how busy the mayor is. Gov. Nathan Deal came early, stopped at a nearby red light and used no sirens or blue lights. Reed came five minutes late, “with blue lights and blaring sirens.”
Deal told WSB he couldn’t remember the last time his security team used the blue lights, a statement that indicates his bromance with Reed is on the rocks. Perhaps it’s because Reed is opposing the Gov’s ballot effort to take over failing schools.
Interestingly, Reed is featured in a TV commercial urging voters to approve a sales tax increase that would help ease some of the traffic he is often able to avoid.
‘There is no special privilege’
The governor, whose job isn’t anywhere near as important as the mayor’s, referred Channel 2 to the head of his security detail, State Patrol Lt. Col. David Herring.
The colonel said the law is clear: “There is no special privilege to utilize the emergency vehicles to get from meeting to meeting. It would have to be an emergency.”
Such an opinion is no surprise. Fifteen years ago, state Attorney General Thurbert Baker called for the state to revoke Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s emergency equipment after “repeated misuses,” including an accident.
Oxendine was sort of legendary in local political circles for rushing to fires as part of his duty as Insurance Commissioner. It may be just a coincidence that there were often TV cameras at those fires.
Attorney General Baker, at the time, publicly chided Oxendine (and any other blue-light loving politician) by saying, “Every time you flip on that blue light, you can potentially create a situation of danger out there on the highway.”
So, folks, get out of the way if you see blue lights behind you. It might be someone important.