As we embark on this journey, let’s start with the stipulation that Atlanta is an International City. We know that because our leaders keep saying so.
Construction cranes have been busy erecting new offices, and our Hometown Airline keeps its planes packed as business people stream in and out of our city.
So when the spiritual leader of this Very Important City wants to go somewhere way far away to extol our civic virtues, one can’t expect his mayoral posterior to be planted in coach seating. Maybe the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., could endure coach. Certainly the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., should.
But coach seating for Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed? Hizzoner himself? Not on your global life!
Nor should his traveling mates — at least the important ones — be subjected to the indignities of coach.
So when Reed and his team of nine flew to Cape Town, South Africa, earlier this year, the city shelled out nearly $90,000 to make that trip happen. Of that, about $80,000 was in airfare, and $68,000 of that the luxurious variety.
Now, one can argue that $90,000 could pay the annual salaries for two cops or fill 2,000 potholes. But the person making that argument knows nothing about establishing one’s International Brand.
No, this wasn’t a junket. This was, according to City Hall, a “wide-ranging mission focused on boosting entrepreneurship, resiliency and the arts and entertainment industries.”
Africa is set to boom, city officials say, and they want Atlanta to be poised in the front seat. Not back in coach.
The press release announcing the Cape Town trip boasted that “in 2016, Georgia exported $129.5 million in goods and services to South Africa.”
Impressive. Until you look at last year’s press release: “In 2015, Georgia exported $172 million in goods and services to South Africa.”
I’m not big on international business. But it seems you want to get more money each year. Maybe this mission’s focus was to pull South Africans aside and say, “You’re not downloading enough Gucci Mane or drinking enough Coke. C’mon, bottoms up.”
On Sunday, April 30, Team ATL boarded a plane for the nine-hour trip to Amsterdam — where they stretched their legs for 90 minutes — then flew 11 hours to South Africa.
To make sure they hit the ground running without stiff necks, the mayor and five of his compadres settled in Delta’s international business class. A regular seat to Cape Town costs $2,500. But that won’t do for important officials of an International City doing global business.
So, in business class were Reed; resilience officer Stephanie Stuckey Benfield; chief of staff Candace Byrd; Chris Hicks, head of Atlanta’s film office; international affairs director Claire Angelle; and city attorney Cathy Hampton, who was also set to leave the city just days after she got back from the trip. (So this was like a going-away gift.) Those tickets cost between $9,892 and $12,664.
Human resources director Yvonne Yancy got stuck in coach, as did two cops who serve on Reed’s security detail. Theia Washington Smith, head of Women’s Entrepreneurship, flew over on coach, but someone must have taken pity on her because she returned on business class at a cost of $4,200.
Why send these officials? Because, “each participant is a leader in their field and has valuable experience to share,” the city’s flack wrote me, adding: “Mayor Reed believes in taking advantage of every opportunity to strengthen our global reputation because increasing our international ties and our global presence leads to a stronger, more vibrant economy and a thriving cultural community.”
Now, before the end-of-April trip, Channel 2 Action News reporter Richard Belcher started sniffing around, hearing this one might get expensive. Belcher and his blood rival, Dale Russell from Fox 5, started insisting some records must exist. But they were repeatedly told there weren’t any. (Actually, there were records, because some tickets were purchased in March.)
Finally, last week the city gave up the info.
State open records laws say records should be turned over after three days. The city did so in three months, although the spokeswoman told me that “full expenses were not available prior or immediately following the trip,” and expense reports were turned over to the media “once all records were available.”
Reed blasted Channel 2 Action News as “shameful” for running the story on Tuesday, July 18, Nelson Mandela’s birthday. But if the city had been more amenable to open records laws, Belcher could have aired the story on June 10 — Hizzoner’s birthday.
Once the trip’s costs became public, grumbling ensued.
Reed responded that the city was getting some “non-governmental organization” to donate the difference between business-class tickets and coach, some $40,000. In fact, Reed said he always intended to have an outside org pay for the luxury seats. I asked for some pre-trip correspondence showing that such an agreement existed. Haven’t seen any.
I called professional spoilsport Sara Henderson, who heads Common Cause Georgia. She has problems with this trip on many levels — the reasons for such trips, the cost of them, the luxury seats, the delay in giving up records.
Sure, lots of big shots fly business class on long trips. “But when it’s taxpayer money, it’s different,” she said. “If you’re tired and a little cramped, well, that’s what it means to work for the public. There’s no reason you should spend almost $13,000 for a ticket. It gives the appearance of not caring how the money is spent.”
As for some Secret Santa coming forward to pay for the seats, she said that should have been worked out in public before the trip.
“To come after the trip, that’s suspect,” she said. “It gives the appearance of trying to buy favor with the city.”
Hmmm. Looks like someone needs to call old Cramped Neck Henderson at Common Cause and explain how International Cities conduct business.