In light of an ongoing bribery investigation that sent two Atlanta contractors to prison this week, ethics dominated a Thursday Press Club debate that was the highest-profile stage yet for the 11 candidates competing in the city's mayoral race.
What role a mayor can take in preventing ethical lapses like those that led to city contractors paying bribes to win contracts, and ethical questions the candidates posed of each other, dictated much of the content of the discussion, one of the first in which the candidates were able to engage with their competitors.
The candidates suggested a range of improvements that could be made to enhance protections at the city. They ranged from Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms’ proposal that all elected officials and those working in sensitive procurement jobs make public their tax returns and file financial disclosures, to state Sen. Vincent Fort’s to have an inspector general looking for criminal activity at city hall.
Ceasar Mitchell, the city council president, touted his push for a moratorium on city contracts that begin in 2018 until after the election, saying it was a way to immediately increase confidence in government. City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said she would "completely change the system" by bringing someone with private sector experience at a publicly traded company into the procurement office. Former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman said he would advocate for audits on all emergency contracts, while training employees on their duty to turn in people they suspected of wrongdoing.
“The first thing I will do as mayor is to have an unrelenting focus on ethics,” Aman said.
Michael Sterling, former director of the city’s Workforce Development Agency, said there will always be “rogue actors,” but he said there is not enough transparency in government.
This is only the second debate in which the candidates were able to ask questions of each other, and ethics quickly became the topic du jour. Former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves questioned Bottoms about why she took a job with the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority while still collecting a city paycheck as a member of city council, calling it "inexcusable." Former City Council President Cathy Woolard pounced on Bottoms as well, saying her city-funded job was a gray area that was likely illegal.
Bottoms, who on Wednesday received the endorsement of Mayor Kasim Reed, received more questions from her competitors than any other candidate. Bottoms said she took appropriate measures to recuse herself from council votes as needed, and never faced an ethics investigation.
Mitchell asked Bottoms whether she would vote on contracts from a contractor whose office was raided by the FBI last month, and whose campaign donations she had returned. Bottoms said she wasn't going to speculate on votes that weren't before her.
Fort asked Bottoms to defend an unpaid water bill, asking why Atlantans should trust her.
“If your bill spikes to $800, you probably shouldn’t pay it either,” Bottoms quipped, before telling viewers, “The city has to do a better job.”
In addition to the questions for Bottoms, Aman took Norwood to task for what he said were her misunderstandings of — or disregard for — the procurement process.
“You mentioned that the city council has nothing to do with the approval of contracts,” he said of Norwood’s comments at a previous debate. “Were you trying to avoid responsibility for what has gone on, or did you not realize council was supposed to have that approval role?”
Norwood punched back, trying to tie Aman to the bribery scandal by pulling out the press release from Aman's hiring announcement at the city that said his job was to oversee procurement.
“The first year in office has been disappointing to many citizens in this country,” she said. “The policies that have come out of this administration have not been policies, for the most part, that I have agreed with at all.”
The candidates for mayor also include City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who talked about his initiative to reduce marijuana penalties, Rohit Ammanamanchi, who is in favor of better transportation, and Glenn Wrightson, who wants to reduce the budget in the mayor's office. Laban King has dropped out of the race.
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Arielle Kass covers Gwinnett County for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She started at the paper in 2010, and has covered business and local government beats around metro Atlanta. Arielle is a graduate of Emory University.