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Who wants this job?

City confronts an unstable past as it tries to assemble its future

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Only three months, and you can hear the whispers.

During an economic downturn and a financial crisis, Mayor Shirley Franklin's administration faces an unprecendented number of vacancies at top cabinet positions.

At the same time Franklin wants to attract top candidates to fill an unusually long list of openings and "acting" posts, she's dealing with a city whose reputation as a workplace Bill Campbell's administration pile-drived into ground.

Just take a look at the chief financial officer's position. Fifty-five Trinity St. was home to six CFOs in just eight years. Not exactly the model for stability or job security, and word has gotten around the country.

The sound of nervous voices wondering whether Atlanta can attract the best people to captain the city is growing as Franklin nears her own deadline for their hiring. Her task is more difficult than the one Campbell faced because he helped change the rules so that every top administrator now serves at the pleasure of the mayor.

So when the city tries to attract hotshot bodies for police chief, chief operating officer, public works commissioner, city attorney and CFO, it must largely rely on the goodwill created by Franklin and the new City Council. Signals are mixed as to whether that will be enough to counteract eight years of leadership by intimidation.

Franklin's aides want to put an end to rumors that people are turning down Atlanta because of its recent past. There are no hiring problems at all, says Acting Communications Director Sandra Walker: "We're getting more applications than you can ever begin to imagine. The response has been overwhelming." It's just taking time for search teams to sort through all of the resumes, she says.

"It has not been an issue in the police chief search," says Sam Pettway of the city's national reputation for mismanagement. Pettway's company, Spencer Stuart Executive Research, is looking for Atlanta's new top cop. Like the other search firms, Spencer Stuart isn't charging the city for its work.

What Pettway says is an issue is the city's current state. The people who want cabinet positions in Atlanta government are people who like to fix problems, Pettway says. People more interested in simply maintaining a department aren't interested in Atlanta.

"That says much more about the individual person than it does the city," Pettway says.

According to Kathy Maloney, a partner with Ray & Berndtson, which is conducting the CFO search, candidates have spurned Atlanta but not because of its reputation.

"We've had more candidates than we needed," she says. "A lot of that has to do with the mayor herself. People like what she's saying."

Of course, it isn't too likely that a candidate would turn down the search committee by saying they've heard Atlanta is a rotten place to work. But people familiar with the hiring process, including one City Council member, have heard stories about folks spurning the city's advances because of its past instability.

One thing the city doesn't have as a tool to lure candidates to Atlanta is contracts. They were eliminated during Campbell's first term. All the city's top administrators serve at the pleasure of the mayor, a change brought about by a review of the city's charter.

At the time, the stated goal was simple: provide more accountability. Kevin Ross, who headed the Charter Review Commission, says the philosophy of a number of the people on the commission was to change the charter so that government was run more like a business. The problem is that the elimination of four-year contracts "proved to be an impediment" to attracting candidates for city vacancies. And it still works against Atlanta, he says.

"Theoretically, it may have been a good idea," says former Councilman Lee Morris about deep-sixing contracts. "In practice, I'm not so sure it is as sound as we once thought."

To be fair, making the city's top positions accountable to the mayor wasn't a strange idea. Cobb County's department heads serve at the pleasure of the commissioners, as do some Fulton managers. In each case, though, the administrators answer to a group of officials, so the power isn't concentrated in the hands of one person.

In Atlanta, the new rules might have been fine had they been enacted during a different administration. But the code depends on the good faith of the mayor. Bill Campbell might not have been deserving of so much faith.

Campbell was famously mercurial, calling out and shouting down department heads during cabinet meetings. More than a few former department heads -- former Public Works Chief Douglas Hooker, for example -- as well as a council member or two, such as Clair Muller, were on the receiving end of vein-bulging Campbell rants when the mayor didn't get his way or thought an administrator was obstructing his wishes. What's more, top administrators, such as former CFO Kathy White, often found themselves caught in a crossfire between Campbell and antagonistic council presidents.

The work environment for many long-time administrators was poisoned, and the atmosphere helped spark what Morris calls a "brain drain" from City Hall.

The list of people browbeaten, forced out or fired by Campbell is long -- including Hooker, CFO Mike Bell, Airport Chief Angela Gittens, Planning Commissioner Leon Eplan -- and all of them were considered bright and capable. Some turnover is expected when a new mayor, or governor or president takes over. But what happened at City Hall was not normal.

"Our quirkiness, and that's a polite word, got around the nation," says a former department head who asked that he not be named. "I would go to professional conferences and have people come up to me and ask, 'What in the world is going on down there?'"

Former City Council President Robb Pitts says he has no desire to second-guess anything Franklin is doing, but admits that "professionals around the country are aware of the turmoil and issues that have surfaced in city government. It could have a dampening effect on people wanting to come here."

Just look at Internal Auditor Leslie Ward, Pitts says. "People read about how she was treated, and they don't want to go through that."

Ironically, Ward is now a notable exception, along with Airport Chief Ben DeCosta, of the contract rule. She has a five-year term of office and answers to an independent committee.

"It gives me independence to do what I was brought here to do," Ward says. "It gives me some insulation from the political environment. If there had been no term of office, the risks would have outweighed" the upside.

But Ward certainly wasn't insulated when she was first picked to do the job, and the brouhaha surrounding her hiring is another case that illustrates why someone might not want to be a public servant in Atlanta. She was selected in May 2000 for her position -- a position that was created during the charter review process -- but the city couldn't finalize her contract, and most people laid the blame on the Campbell administration, which wasn't excited about having someone come in and look over the books. (Now we see why.) The selection committee eventually came back to Ward during the summer of 2001, and she accepted the job in the 11th hour of the Campbell regime.

Walker, the acting communications director, says the Franklin administration doesn't have any plans to turn back the clock on contracts, and Council President Cathy Woolard echoes those sentiments. But, Woolard says, "I do believe that certain positions, such as CFO and city attorney might benefit from allowing the council to have greater involvement in the case of their dismissal, since those positions have dual reporting requirements to the mayor and council."

Of course, it would probably take a change in the charter to get that done, and that isn't likely anytime soon. So the city is left with a question: Does Franklin have the charisma and skill to change the city's reputation enough to attract great talent?

It's another indication of just how much is riding on her shoulders.

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com

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