Atlanta mayor unclear about airport, watershed dismissals

The mayor wouldn’t say specifically why airport and Watershed bosses were let go

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Monday refused to say why he dismissed two key cabinet members who run agencies that impact millions of people every day and will execute billions of dollars worth of contracts in the coming years.

Reed said he needs a “steady hand” to lead the city’s troubled Department of Watershed Management, where Jo Ann Macrina was removed from her $185,000-a-year job; the mayor also said he wants a “back to the basics” approach from his new leader at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where Miguel Southwell was removed as general manager. Southwell made $220,000 a year.

Both senior cabinet officials were ousted Friday evening. Sources inside and outside of city government have been speculating on the reasons ever since, although no clear understanding has emerged.

And Reed provided none during an hour-long press conference Monday.

Councilman Howard Shook, who attended the press conference, said council members were supposed to get a closed-door briefing Monday, but that fell through. When asked what he learned, Shook replied: “I learned you could invite people to a press conference and then say you weren’t going to answer any questions about the reason they showed up.”

The reaction from outsiders was shock over Southwell’s removal; less so with Macrina’s removal from a department which has been a source of derision and frustration for members of the public and city council for many years.

Southwell and Macrina did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Reed did say at the news conference there were “layers” of issues involved with each.

“Today really is not about the circumstances regarding their terminations, or their exits,” Reed said. “This conversation is about the future.”

When it comes to the airport and the millions of passengers that pass through each week, Reed said the long security lines were “concerning” to him. Multiple vendors noted that there were also many behind-the-scenes conflicts over contracts and agreements.

Southwell had just successfully completed a lease negotiation with Delta Air Lines, which will keep the carrier’s headquarters in Atlanta for the next 20 years, and unveiled a massive master plan to expand the airport over the next 15 years.

But the airport had been struggling to complete billions of dollars worth of deals, including contracts for a renovation of the airport terminal, deals to design and build new parking garages, a lease agreement for a new hotel to be built at the airport, a plan to legalize and regulate Uber pickups at the airport and others.

On the Uber regulations, for example, Reed raised issues about how the airport made its proposal for regulations, which drew criticism by Uber after it was released.

“I believe that anytime you have a major rollout with a major entity that there should be much more background work done before you roll it out,” Reed said. “So there should have been, in my opinion, multiple meetings to try to get to an agreement that when you announced it, either people were in the boat or they were out of the boat.”

Some deals were previously expected to be completed by the end of 2015 or earlier. The Delta lease was signed at the end of April – which the mayor sternly noted during the press conference Monday he had hoped would be completed in December. Delta declined to comment on Southwell’s departure.

Reed spent much of the press conference discussing his frustration with long security lines, and said the city will work with TSA “in a coordinated fashion with our airport partners because they’re being harmed as much as we are.”

Reed said he wants to take a closer look at privatizing security screening at the Atlanta airport to address the issue of long lines — an idea that Southwell suspended pending TSA upgrades.

The airport’s chief financial officer Roosevelt Council has been appointed interim general manager.

William Johnson, who joined the city as deputy chief operating officer this month, will take over Watershed as interim commissioner. He previously served as Baltimore’s director of transportation. He will be assisted by Faye DiMassimo, who was hired earlier this year as general manager of the city’s $250 million Renew Atlanta bond program. DiMassimo, who previously worked as DOT director in Cobb County, will mange the department’s capital projects.

Those capital projects include a $300 million plan to build a raw drinking water reserve in Bellwood Quarry and investing $60 million in the Upper Proctor Creek watershed to improve the quality of inner-city streams.

Watershed has suffered many problems, including billing issues; a settlement with the state for more than 200 violations of Clean Water Act that took place over a period of years but that the city council knew nothing about; and sewage spewing into Memorial Park and the yards of nearby homes; and a highly critical audit that found security in the department so lax that it was impossible to know how much equipment was stolen or missing.

“In Watershed, we have more projects going on than we have at any time in 30 years,” Reed said. “I want a steady hand in that effort. We will have a laser-like focus on improving the customer service experience. We will not have rate increases. We will improve the public’s perception as it relates to Watershed.”

Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean said the department is unique in that it touches everyone who lives, works or travels through the city.

“We need a leader who can take us in a number of directions at once, building capacity in the system and protecting the environment,” Adrean said.

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