Opinion: Choosing Atlanta’s next mayor

On Tuesday, voters in a runoff election will choose the city of Atlanta’s next mayor.

That day’s choice is an important one, with an impact that will simultaneously encompass and stretch far beyond the city limits.

With less than one-tenth of the metro area’s population within its borders, it’s indisputable that the city punches well above its weight in its importance to the greater region. Given its status as an economic and cultural colossus, Atlanta’s the nexus for this metro’s global brand.

The city that’s long helped show the world what world-class really means deserves a candidate who can keep that momentum going.

After a grueling election campaign involving more than a dozen candidates, November’s election brought the choice down to a runoff between Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood.

Strong currents of race, class and politics swirl around this contest. They shouldn’t be the deciding factor. We’d urge that voters studiously consider the city’s progress as measured by things like its improved financial position in recent years and a successful quest for MARTA expansion. In choosing who should next lead Atlanta, we expect voters will also weigh the downside of an ongoing City Hall corruption investigation that’s resulted in some A-lister guilty pleas and prison terms.

There’s a largely illustrious history in the mix too. Frederick Allen observed in his book “Atlanta Rising” that, “In almost every instance, I’ve found that the cliches about Atlanta mask a far richer truth — that for all of the city’s good fortune, it could not have risen to become the foremost metropolis of the American South without the hard work, hard-headedness, forward thinking, bluster and occasional sheer brilliance of its leaders, black and white.”

The city’s next mayor must prove worthy of keeping that torch lit, and held high.

This newspaper stopped making election endorsements in 2009, so we won’t now tell Atlantans who deserves their vote. We will offer here some recommendations on qualities and skills needed in Atlanta’s next mayor. Our hope is that the electorate will consider these points between now and when they cast ballots on Tuesday.

The Atlanta Committee for Progress offers a concise, sound set of prescriptions to, in its words, help Atlanta “go higher.” They should be heeded both by the winner Tuesday, and the voters who will make that decision. Key points include:

  • Maintaining city financial reserves at a level above 20 percent of the city’s operating budget. The ACP notes that “Atlanta must continue to strengthen its balance sheet, improve its expenditure-to-reserve ratio and maintain a well-funded pension plan. It must be prepared to respond to the next economic downturn and unforeseen circumstances, without draining its cash reserves.”

Notable progress has been made here during Mayor Kasim Reed’s tenure and it should continue under the coming administration, we believe.

  • Economic mobility improvements: “Our city cannot fulfill its potential unless more of our citizens have access to the middle class. Rising income inequality is a major barrier to overall growth and development of the city. A quarter of Atlanta’s residents live in poverty while unemployment rates for low-skill and mid-skill jobs outpace the region. No one wins if the city is divided between the haves and the have-nots.”

We agree, and how the next mayor handles issues like affordable housing in a gentrifying city will greatly affect this goal. Much more remains to be done.

  • Increase student achievement: “Raising the number of students who graduate not only from high school but also from college and/or technical schools is critical for the success of the city. The school district’s leaders have worked to improve high school graduation rates and those efforts must continue.”
  • Improve transit: “Atlanta’s voters recognized the needs for new investments through the passage of new general obligation bonds, the T-SPLOST and a tax increase for expanding MARTA. To improve commutes, reduce congestion and connect all city neighborhoods, Atlanta should continue to effectively invest in public transportation access while adopting policies that promote livable, walkable neighborhoods with mixed-income development.”
  • Public safety: “Since 2009, major crime in Atlanta has dropped a remarkable 37 percent, including a 20 percent reduction in violent offenses, under the leadership of first Chief George N. Turner and now Chief Erika Shields. Mayor Kasim Reed deemed safety as his number one priority and expanded the city’s police force to 2,000 police officer positions — for the first time in the city’s history.”

The ACP wisely espouses a target of reducing crime by 15 percent through increased use of high-tech crime-fighting tools and a strong focus on redirecting youthful and repeat offenders toward productive lives.

Allen’s book offers additional thoughts about Atlanta’s success. “Atlanta’s history is a tale of clever, ambitious men and women who exploited their natural advantages while leaders in other Southern cities failed to do so,” he wrote. “Time and again during the past half-century, Atlanta’s pathfinders managed to pick the right fork in the road.”

Making the next decision on the right path falls to city voters Tuesday. We hope they choose well.

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