MAYOR REED AND THE CURIOUS CASE OF ATLANTA’S GARBAGE CONTRACTS

It was, Mayor Kasim Reed reminded Councilwoman Carla Smith, one week until Valentine’s Day.

The remark was not made in a discussion of roses and candy, but instead in one of sewer sludge and solid waste.

In late January, the mayor had vetoed the Atlanta City Council’s approval of three waste management contracts valued at a total of about $9 million because, he said, they had not been reviewed by his chief of staff, Candace Byrd, or Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman.

The mayoral veto has been used but rarely in Atlanta City Hall, in part because the council has had a track record, over successive mayoral tenures, of rubber-stamping whatever the mayor says. Reed’s use of it, which was underlined by his attendance at the City Council meeting on Feb. 7, set off shockwaves through the usually complicit council.

The contracts were with Republic Services of Georgia, LLP ($5.5 million), Waste Management of Atlanta, Inc. ($3.4 million), and Advanced Disposal Services of Atlanta, LLC ($674,000).

In approving the contracts, explained Smith, who represents Grant Park, the council had followed its usual procedure. The city’s procurement officer and representatives with management in the departments of purview—the Department of Watershed Management and the Department of Public Works—had presented the contracts to the council for approval. The contracts had been reviewed by the law department. They had met the City’s bid requirements, she said, they came in at a lower cost than had been anticipated, and even the mayor admitted the contracts were a good deal for the City. Furthermore, the contracts would expire on Feb. 28 and Smith, having seen the City previously allow contracts to languish and then having to hurry-up-and-catch-up in renewing them so services didn’t cease, didn’t want to see that happen again.

“Today is the…?” Smith asked as she glanced upward, apparently counting days. Her fellow council members offered “the seventh” and she said “The seventh, so that’s coming up.”

“Yes, next Monday is Valentine’s Day,” the mayor said.

Smith reminded him that allowing the contracts to lapse without putting new ones in place would mean garbage piling up and sludge at the city’s sewage treatment plants not being hauled off which, she said, “stinks.”

Reed responded that he understood the urgency, but he could not allow contracts to be approved without his office first reviewing them. Regardless of the procurement process being followed, regardless of the bids being lowest, he requires, he informed the council, that Byrd and Aman see contracts first.

This was a new one on the council.

Council President Ceasar Mitchell asked if this were a written policy that the council had not followed or if it were something Reed had devised with his office staff.
“It is related to a process that we created in my office,” Reed replied.

The council members wanted to know how they were supposed to have known about it. In response, Reed told them they should not assume that a department head or procurement officer or anyone else spoke for him or his office.

“Candace Byrd and Peter Aman are an extension of me,” Reed said, acknowledging that there might be times when someone else would need to speak for him.

Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, a poker-faced former judge who represents part of the southwestern corner of the city, asked Reed “Could you provide us with a diagram or a chart or something with the names and photographs of people who are authorized to speak for you? Just so we will know and be able to avoid this.”

He said he could have that done.

East Atlanta’s Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong told Reed that if this were a new policy of which the council could not possibly have been aware, then she did not understand how a veto was the best way to handle the situation, especially when the contracts met all the city’s requirements and the mayor himself had said they were a good deal.

He again acknowledged they were a good deal but added that it was the first time he has used the veto since assuming office a year ago and he did so because he wanted transparency in the city’s contract process.

Archibong and Councilwoman Felicia Moore said they, too, wanted transparency in the city’s contracting, but if that were the goal then why were these particular contracts, all three of which were in compliance, the subject of such mayoral umbrage?

Moore pointed out that if the contracts were so important to Reed and his staff they should have been keeping track of them as they moved through the committee process, which they had done, and which they had cleared.

“All your staff would have had to have done was say ‘hold it,’” Moore said.

In the end, only Moore and Archibong refused to sustain the mayor’s veto. The 10 other council members present, despite some protests regarding the mayor vetoing three compliant contracts because the council had not followed a process it didn’t know about, eventually agreed with the veto. As a precaution against garbage and sludge piling up, they also extended the existing contracts of the three companies for 90 days. C.T. Martin, widely described as Reed’s “floor leader,” had made the motion to sustain the mayor’s veto and H. Lamar Willis hastened not only to second it, but to remind the mayor that he had done so.

“I want you to know that I seconded Councilman Martin’s motion to sustain the veto,” Willis said, and asked the mayor to explain the process he wanted the council to follow. The mayor said he would be happy to do so.

Two days later, COO Aman wrote to the council: “The recommendation of the Law and Procurement Departments is that the most effective and efficient option is to submit legislation, in the form of an ordinance, that authorizes the award to the three companies who had been recommended for award pursuant to the original procurement.”

At the regular City Council meeting on Feb. 21, the council did just that.

Without looking up from her papers, Councilwoman Moore acknowledged the end of the drama, saying “I hope whatever message was being sent, that it has been sent.” SR

5 thoughts on “MAYOR REED AND THE CURIOUS CASE OF ATLANTA’S GARBAGE CONTRACTS

  1. I hope the message is that the dozens of other contracts that are not such a good deal for the city are going under some higher level of scrutiny.

  2. Numerous contracts were approved during Mayor Reed’s first year in office without this sniff test from his top political aides. What made these contracts different, and why the sudden introduction of the sniff test now? In the words of Deep Throat, follow the money.

  3. Am pretty sure that one of these contracts had a tie to a family member of former Mayor Franklin, which freaked out the administration. Also, one of the reasons for the Mayor’s decision was to send a message to a (now former) member of his senior staff that moving papers forward without review by his Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer would not be tolerated. Curiously, that senior staff member was not fired outright, but was moved to a senior position in another City department.

    1. InkyStinky, what you describe is straight out of a 1969 pop-psychology book “The Peter Principle.” Here’s a web link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle.
      Moving the offending senior staff to a similar position in another department is called a “lateral displacement.”
      The major premise of the book is that, in a bureaucracy, everyone is eventually promoted to one step beyond his level of competence.

  4. Don’t you just love Information Technology? I do! If Mayor Reed doesn’t have his cell phone or other IT device’s power shut off, (as he did when President Obama called to congratulate him on his win) he could be reached anywhere around the world. There are even formats for sending contracts and documents. There’s even skype and teleconferencing. So why does Reed need anyone or any two anyones to be an extention of himself in this “day and age”? Can you hear me now?

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