New Atlanta Beltline chief executive Brian McGowan’s contract is being questioned by some mayoral candidates because of the $600,000 severance payment he would receive if fired without cause by the new mayor.

Mayoral hopefuls slam $600,000 severance clause in Beltline contract

If the next Atlanta mayor wants to make a change in the Atlanta Beltline’s chief executive office, it’ll cost taxpayers $600,000.

Brian McGowan, who took over as the Beltline’s CEO last month, has a three-year contract that pays him $300,000 annually. The contract includes a stipulation that McGowan gets two full years of salary if he is terminated without cause.

Former state senator Vincent Fort, one of nine major candidates vying to replace Mayor Kasim Reed, called the contract “good old boy, go along to get along policy.”

“So you get fired and you get two years of pay to go off to Tahiti?” Fort said. “Wouldn’t you like that gig? This is insider dealing at its worst.”

McGowan formerly worked as chief executive at Invest Atlanta and as chief operating officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber before becoming a principal with Dentons law firm. He also has worked in economic development for the Obama administration, and for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

McGowan didn’t return a message seeking comment on Friday. But Beltline board chairman John Somerhalder issued a statement touting McGowan’s credentials and saying the hire “ensures stability and continuity for one of the largest urban redevelopment programs in the country.”

“The severance terms are an industry standard,” Somerhalder’s statement says. “We have no reason to believe that Mr. McGowan will not fulfill his initial term.”

Paul Morris, the Beltline’s previous chief executive, stepped down in August after his efforts to add affordable housing along the 22 miles of trails and greenspace fell way short of expectations. Morris had a severance provision in his contract giving him six months pay for termination without cause, which he collected.

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, another mayoral candidate, said McGowan is a good hire but the severance provision is bad policy.

“That’s a problem,” Mitchell said. “I cannot understand for the life of me why we would extend a contract with termination terms that are $600,000 if he is fired. I just don’t think that’s in keeping with good public policy and I don’t think that’s in good keeping with what the public expects.”

Councilwoman Mary Norwood, which several polls have shown as the front runner in the mayoral race, said she doesn’t agree with the timing of the hire.

“When we are three months from a new mayor taking over, it seems to me that we should not be making commitments on anything that is not absolutely pertaining to public health, safety and welfare,” Norwood said. “On a project as important to the city as the Beltline, the new mayor ought to have input.”

Mayoral candidates have also objected to Reed pushing through some big contracts that don’t expire until next year. Mitchell said this is another example of Reed “speaking for and handcuffing future leadership and taxpayers.”

A spokeswoman in Reed’s office said the mayor thinks McGowan “is the right person to lead the organization at this critical time.”

“Complaints about this qualified leader’s contract are nothing more than small politics,” the statement says.

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