Torpy at Large: New mayor, new council prez, new independence? Hope so

Inauguration day is kind of like opening day in baseball — no matter how good, or bad, a team is, they all sit there at 0-0 with hope springing eternal.

On a brisk Tuesday afternoon, Keisha Lance Bottoms was sworn in as Atlanta’s 60th mayor, a woman who evokes the power of Black Girl Magic as a victory theme, a force that uplifted an underdog candidate to heroic heights.

That is an airy way of brushing past what ended up as an ugly, racially tinged election. But elections often are brutish and divisive, and then we must get past all that untidiness to work together. At least that’s what you always must say when coming in.

In the crowded chapel at Morehouse College, surrounded by an overhauled City Council, the newly inaugurated mayor told an enthusiastic and largely African-American audience, “Now is the time to put aside race and division and geography and politics, and invest in becoming One Atlanta.”

One of the warm-up ministers also used the term “One Atlanta,” while another hoped the incoming mayor and council could “bring Buckhead and Bankhead together,” which is Atlanta shorthand for rich whites and poor blacks.

It was a ceremony filled with imagery of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights struggles. It even included a delightful Andy Young history lesson, a circuitous oratorical journey somehow mixing Old Mayor Hartsfield, global business and Elton John.

One of the incoming mayor’s biggest plans is a $1 billion affordable housing initiative, which is currently a vow with details to be filled in later. The success of development around the Beltline and some intown neighborhoods has pushed up property taxes and rents, forcing out many Atlantans and threatening others, many of whom voted for Bottoms.

It would be the “largest housing investment in our city’s history,” said Mayor Bottoms, who as a mother of four indicates that she’ll be a kinder, gentler steward of the city.

The new mayor spoke of studying and cleaning up the city’s procurement process in light of the ongoing federal corruption probe, which has netted, embarrassingly, the city’s procurement chief. Again, the details of her plan will be fleshed out in coming weeks or months.

Mayor Bottoms promised sweeping ethics changes and also increased transparency, which, no doubt, caused her predecessor, Kasim Reed, to gasp in his front-row seat.

The Reed administration often guarded records like they were Kremlin secrets. So this sudden glasnost is news that I was glad to hear, because in the security line I encountered Stephen Deere, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new City Hall reporter who came here 10 weeks ago. I asked how things were going. He said he has filed numerous Open Records Requests with the city and has largely gotten squat. We’ll see what the new mayor delivers.

Before Tuesday’s main event, there were inaugurations for 15 City Council members, a couple of rows of municipal judges and incoming Council President Felicia Moore.

As a council member, Moore was famously an irritant to the erstwhile Hizzoner, often complaining about transparency and Atlanta administrations liking to treat council members like mushrooms — you know, keeping them in the dark and occasionally covering them with manure.

Council members don’t necessarily like it. But most have learned to live with it. Atlanta employs a “Strong Mayor, Weak Council” form of government, and council folk quickly learn that the best way to get along is to go along. Or they don’t get rec centers or street repaving.

I called Lee Morris, a former city councilman who served two terms back in the 1990s and often bumped heads with the infamous “Nod Squad,” the eight dutiful council members who unquestioningly did the bidding of former Mayor Bill Campbell.

When leaving in 2001, Morris called City Hall a “Kleptocracy.” He wasn’t far off. The feds back then had to buy handcuffs in bulk, saving the last pair for Campbell himself.

“It ranges from insiders with lucrative jobs to incompetent, overpriced firms who do work for the city,” Morris told the Atlanta Business Chronicle at the time.

Sixteen years later? Ummm.

Ambition has cleared the ranks of the previous City Council — four members ran for mayor and three more ran for council president. In all, seven of the 15 on the council are new.

With a new mayor coming in they must decide: Are they going to be a strong legislative branch? Or will they start nodding and get goodies for their districts?

“Any single council member is trading from a position of weakness,” Morris said.

But if you build up a coalition of like-minded and relatively courageous colleagues, then you can wield some clout.

Twenty years ago, Morris helped campaign for new blood on the council. One of the candidates he supported was a neighborhood activist named Felicia Moore.

“Felicia is as honest as the day is long and believes the council should be an independent branch of government,” he said.

Her independence has been seen as obstruction by some. And during the last election, the outgoing administration gathered up 10 current outgoing council members — and even a couple of incoming ones — to appear in an ad for Moore’s opponent.

It didn’t work. Moore won in a landslide.

A day before the inauguration, I spoke with Moore, who corrected me on my terminology regarding how Atlanta’s government is set up.

“It’s a strong mayor form,” she said, “but it doesn’t mean the council has to be weak.”

Perhaps, she said, her victory will show other council members that “maybe independence is not fatal.”

During her inaugural address, she alluded to checks and balances.

“It is the road less traveled and is not for the faint of heart,” said Moore, who has sat down with the new mayor.

And for the new members, does Lee Morris have any advice?

Sure, he said: “Keep your eyes open. Don’t assume things are as they appear. Look behind proposals for hidden agendas. And if you see something, speak up.”

And, if I may add, stop nodding.

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