Standing in front of hundreds of City of Atlanta employees on Tuesday, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms delivered messages to citizens concerned about City Hall corruption and to critics who say her administration is too closely tied to former Mayor Kasim Reed.
“This week,” Bottoms said, “is about speaking softly and carrying a big stick.”
The stick came out Monday, when Bottoms requested resignation letters from 26 high-level city employees who are holdovers from the Reed administration.
The list ranges from Police Chief Erika Shields and Airport General Manager Roosevelt Council Jr., to City Attorney Jeremy Berry and Commissioner of Watershed Kishia Powell.
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In her first public comments since the news of the resignation letters became public, Bottoms declined to say Tuesday how many she would accept, or when her evaluations would be completed.
But she said the process is important for her, and the city.
“I think it is important for me to establish my team,” Bottoms said. “I think it’s important for the public to know that the team going forward is a team that I selected, not inherited. When we are done with this re-evaluation, we will all agree that this is a team that I have assembled.”
Bottoms said some of the people could be retained, or moved to other positions.
“There will be resignations that I will not accept,” Bottoms said. “I really believe it is about having the right people on the bus and then figuring out the best seat for them.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has confirmed that Anne Torres, communications director, and Jim Beard, chief financial officer, no longer work for the city. Interim CFO John Gaffney was among the group who turned in resignation letters.
‘Open Checkbook’ coming
Two members of the mayor’s cabinet appointed by Bottoms — Chief Operating Officer Richard Cox and Chief of Staff Marva Lewis — were not asked for their resignation letters. Cox stood by Bottoms Tuesday as the mayor unveiled an online portal through which citizens can track city spending.
Bottoms said the system, called Atlanta’s Open Checkbook, should be operational within two months. She added that the system will allow residents to review spending on vendors, by departments, or by individual city officials who charge expenses to taxpayers.
Cox said the system will work on mobile devices and a variety of search engine browsers. It will be simple to use, he said.
Cox is an executive for Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cox Enterprises is covering his salary and benefits while he on loan to the city for a year.
“You’ll be able to dig into any area of Atlanta government that you deem appropriate,” Cox said. “Regardless of financial acumen or devices, you’ll be able to get a very good understanding of the spending across the city of Atlanta.”
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore has been lobbying for a similar system since 2015. She said it will help restore credibility to city government.
“This is exactly the thing I’ve been advocating for — hallelujah,” Moore said. “It’s the people’s money. They should be able to see it.”
Bottoms agreed that the city’s credibility needs to be restored, after the ongoing federal bribery investigation netted the indictment last week of former city employee and political operative, the Rev. Mitzi Bickers.
Adam Smith, the city’s former procurement officer, pled guilty to accepting bribes last year, and two prominent contractors have been convicted of giving Bickers at least $2 million in bribes and receiving $17 million worth of city contracts in return.
Federal prosecutors said last week that Bickers was able to game Atlanta’s contracting system even after she left city employment in 2013.
Bottoms said the portal wouldn’t be a cure-all, but it will help.
“I think there is nothing that can be done to stop someone who is intent of committing a crime,” she said. “What I do think is possible is … for you to determine if someone is doing something inappropriate.”
Bottoms said the system will also allow the city to be more responsive to requests made under the Georgia Open Records Act.
The AJC and Channel 2 Action News have reported on former communications officer Jenna Garland attempting to delay the release of water billing records for top elected officials; and on city attorney Berry directing the creation of new documents resembling legal invoices to satisfy an AJC records request last year.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is currently conducting a criminal probe in relation to both incidents, which happened under the Reed administration.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about our open records requests and our responses,” Bottoms said. “This will allow the public and the media, in real time, to access this information and hopefully allow us to be even more transparent as we are producing documents.
“This information will be readily available online, and you will have the ability to track it without it being filtered.”
The press conference was held in the atrium at City Hall, with hundreds of employees watching from the walkways around all five floors.