Fulton County leaders working better together, dysfunction behind them

Fulton County commissioners are working together better than they have in years. ARIELLE KASS/AKASS@AJC.COM

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Fulton County commissioners are working together better than they have in years. ARIELLE KASS/AKASS@AJC.COM

North-south. Republican-Democrat. White-black.

It seemed for years that when people talked about Fulton County government, they talked about divisions.

Recently, though, the tide has turned.

“We were often described as dysfunctional. You don’t hear that anymore,” Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said. “All the rancor and challenges in the past, are really in the past. We’re a different county, in a lot of ways.”

The divisions are still there. But over the past two years, the county has worked better internally — and that has led to better relationships with its 14 cities (with a 15th to be formed) as well as the state, leaders across all sectors have said.

The change in attitude, and increased cooperation, has resulted in a more responsive government for the people who live in Fulton. Government has started to treat residents more like customers, said Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. As a result, it’s trying to serve solutions that people need.

“Leadership matters and it shows what leadership can do,” Beach said. “I used to bash Fulton County. …It’s refreshing to see Fulton County doing much better.”

In Union City, the county is developing a senior center where lunch will be delivered five days a week. Mayor Vince Williams said that kind of partnership will improve the quality of life for his residents. It’s a relationship that wouldn’t have happened in years past.

“We’re at a place right now where we can start singing Kumbaya,” Williams said. “I have them all on speed dial. I remember a time, with the leadership staff, you couldn’t reach them. You had to go through the chain of command.”

The change in tenor came from, perhaps, an unlikely place.

For years, North Fulton residents had complained that government wasn't responsive to their needs. In 2013, the state legislature redrew the county commission districts, giving one more of the board's seven seats to the north, and ensuring a third Republican was likely to be elected. Three new commissioners came on the board in 2014. A new county manager followed the next year.

The new board makeup led to symbolic choices that held deep meaning — like appointing a Republican, Liz Hausmann, as the board’s vice chair. It was the first time in more than 20 years a member of the minority party had been elected by the board to a leadership role, and marked a change in attitude to the division of power. In 2015, the commission passed its budget unanimously for the first time since 1991.

Dick Anderson, the county manager closing in on his second year in Fulton, said when he came on board, he was the sixth county manager in two years. Not only was there a dearth of leadership at the top, but most of the county's departments had interim managers, or no managers at all. In his first year, Anderson said, he focused on filling those positions to help create the missing sense of stability.

With stability, he said, there was an opportunity to begin to think bigger.

“There was an internal struggle for a long time,” said Eaves, who gave his first state of the county address in 2015, because he finally felt he had the board’s support on major issues. “The rancor of north-south, the allocation of resources. We were just mired in that too much.”

Eaves described the functioning of government in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs — when Fulton County's government wasn't working, it was all leaders could do to pass the budget and offer the most basic services. Now, county government has a chance to transcend the basics. The most visible indicator of the change can be seen in the transportation tax that voters approved last month.

To even get the five-year, three-quarter penny tax — which is expected to raise up to $655 million — to a vote, the county government had to get leaders from each of its cities on board. Over more than a year, they convinced and cajoled through a series of meetings.

“The commission and the municipalities were about as frosty as you could get, for decades,” said Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs. “The distrust which has dominated Fulton County politics is melting away.”

Paul and others credited some of the change to the new cities that have formed since Sandy Springs began the cityhood movement a decade ago. With more cities, the role of the county commission has had to change, he said. Eaves has embraced that new role.

“After 30 years of wandering in the wilderness, there are finally people solving problems,” Paul said. “They’ve put aside race, partisanship and geography. It’s been north vs. south, black vs. white, Republican vs. Democrat for 30 years. This group said, ‘These are extraneous issues,’ when it comes to infrastructure and other problems.”

Now, the county government is running "faster, better, stronger," said Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta and the head of the Fulton County legislative delegation.

While Martin said some North Fulton Republicans may still advocate for splitting part of Fulton off into Milton County, as they have in years past, "some of the things that creating Milton County would do have been accomplished" through more efficient government.

Beach cited the transportation tax agreement as a prime example.

"It shows they can check their egos at the door and get things done," he said. "That lessens the talk of Milton County."

It used to be easy to beat up on Fulton County, Martin said. No longer.

“It’s very, very good for the citizens of Fulton County,” he said.

At the Georgia Municipal Association, communications director Amy Henderson said she has noticed a “new spirit of cooperation” between the county and the cities. Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said he suspected the smoother operations stem from leaders who don’t see the advantages of exploiting divisions.

The relationships with the cities changed when county leaders realized they couldn’t accomplish what they wanted to on their own, said Anna Roach, Fulton’s chief strategy officer. To be effective, the county had to work together with leaders on all levels.

Hausmann, Fulton’s vice chairman, said initiatives to communicate with the Fulton and Atlanta school boards are new, as are weekly emails to residents about what government has been doing.

While it’s easy to point out problems when they are apparent — and Fulton over the years has had many problems — Hausmann said it’s easier for residents to see that the county is addressing its issues. This year, for the first time, the county polled residents to see what they thought of county government. More than half of respondents said they were “somewhat” or “very” trusting of the way the county was being run.

“I see it as a challenge to continue doing all we can to provide services to all citizens of Fulton County,” Hausmann said. “It’s a definite work in progress, but I’m very encouraged. …Sometimes I have to pinch myself because things are going so well.”