City of Atlanta officials are bracing for a renewed effort by state lawmakers to put Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport under the state’s control.
And some prominent political figures say that establishing a strong and independent Inspector General position to combat City Hall corruption is essential to the city's ability to thwart any attempt to place a state authority in charge of airport operations.
The Council in November solidified opposition to a state takeover of the airport as the city’s top goal when the Georgia General Assembly gavels into session Jan. 13.
“This includes the creation of any entity that would provide oversight responsibilities for governance and/operations,” says the city’s legislative package, which is a list of requests to state lawmakers that was unanimously approved by the city council in November.
A few days later, the city council unanimously sponsored legislation to establish the Inspector General position, albeit with few details about the powers that will be bestowed on the office or how the IG will operate. Those important details are still being worked out between the council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration.
An Inspector General with subpoena power and supervisory authority over the city's new transparency officer could preempt state legislation aimed at wresting away control of the airport, said former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.
“I think that would send a real strong message about wanting better governance,” Olens said last month at a legislative briefing to the media.
Olens is a member at the Dentons law firm who represented the city during mediation with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News in a dispute about open records violations. Olens said his comments about the city’s IG were his personal opinion and that he was not speaking on behalf of the city.
City Council President Felicia Moore has also suggested that the Inspector General could be an important part of staving off the state.
A spokesman for Bottoms did not respond directly to a question about whether the mayor believes the two issues are linked. He did note that the recommendation to establish an Inspector General came from the Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust, which Bottoms established.
“The Administration is working diligently with Council to establish the position of Inspector General,” spokesman Micheal Smith said.
State Sen. Jones still wants takeover
For the past three years, multiple scandals have beset City Hall — many uncovered by the ongoing federal corruption investigation that has resulted in six guilty pleas and two indictments.
When state lawmakers tried to create an state authority to manage the airport last year, allegations of corruption at the airport became a call to arms for those championing the proposal.
And the central figure behind a state takeover has said he is not giving up.
“Progress was made last session, but the work to end corruption and bribery has not stopped,” State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, wrote on his campaign website in August.
The city’s transparency officer is also a relatively new creation.
Bottoms established the position about a year ago, to ensure the city's compliance with the state's Open Records Act. The position, along with a new open records policy, was the product of months of mediation after the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with the State Attorney General's Office alleging a "culture of political interference" in the production of public records.
The complaint outlined 10 examples of alleged violations of state law under former Mayor Kasim Reed.
Olens told the AJC this week that putting the transparency officer under the Inspector General would free the position from potential political influence.
Jones sounded less sure that the moves would solve the issue.
Jones said he didn’t see how one person could effectively deal with the corruption issues at City Hall. Jones noted ongoing investigations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration, in addition to the corruption probe being headed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“None of that has gone away,” Jones said.
During last year’s legislative session, the state senate approved legislation sponsored by Jones that would put the airport under the control of a state authority. The legislation, along with a multitude of other proposed bills, is being held in the House of Representatives.
Jones said he intends to lobby leaders in the House for passage this year.
The legislation creating the Inspector General requires an amendment to the city’s charter and three readings by the council. The earliest the council could approve a final version is January 21 — eight days after the session starts.