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Passage of Gulch plan a test for Atlanta mayor’s young administration

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms promised to usher in a “new day” after she was elected last year and vowed to eliminate the dysfunction at City Hall.

But upon taking office in January, Bottoms walked into a government in crisis. New indictments in a federal corruption investigation loomed. A cyberattack  nearly crippled city operations. She also had to absorb the fallout from accusations city employees systematically violated the state’s open records laws.

Now with less than a year on the job, Bottoms is trying to achieve the most significant political win of her tenure: convincing a skeptical City Council to sign off on a $5 billion Gulch development project that will reshape the city’s downtown.

A number of unforced errors might have jeopardized her chances to close the deal, which could come up for a vote in council chambers as soon as Monday.

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Bottoms put a formerly disbarred attorney, whom she describes as a mentor, in a critical role in the negotiations with the developer. She apparently overestimated how much political capital she had stocked up with the council and underestimated the level of distrust of City Hall among the public.

The episode so far has left some city officials and business leaders wondering who is advising Bottoms.

Longtime Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who co-sponsored the legislation for the Gulch project, said the ordeal has revealed some “growing pains” in Bottoms’ young administration.

But will Atlanta’s new mayor grow out of them?

“That remains to be seen,” Bond said.

In a statement, Bottoms said the Gulch episode had taught her patience.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will hold a public meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. on the Gulch proposal. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The distrust for the project often seems rooted in its origins: the administration  of Kasim Reed. A federal corruptioninvestigation has targeted Reed’s inner circle. As the council began to learn about the contours of the proposed development, Reed’s former deputy chief of staff, Katrina Taylor Parks pleaded guilty to bribery charges and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Bottoms has had to postpone three votes  she called for to approve the Gulch deal for lack of support among council members. The council revolt forced the mayor back to the negotiating table with developer CIM Group, winning concessions despite Bottoms’ and CIM’s protests that the deal was non-negotiable.

Though the financing package appears closer to what council members have said they need to okay the $5 billion downtown mini-city, the concessions may not be enough. Council members have expressed concerns about not having enough public input in the plan.

Bottoms’s community engagement has largely consisted of radio show appearances, robo-calls and a social media campaign financed by the developer. To date, she has held only a single 90-minute town hall with carefully screened questions from the audience.

In an email, Bottoms pointed to other meetings she had held in the community and with the city council.

“Each meeting resulted in feedback that helped shape the current deal,” the mayor said. “The full resources of this Administration remain available to all who may have concerns.”

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who ran against Bottoms in the general election last year, and who is a leader of the Gulch opposition, said Bottoms had yet to build solidarity in the community.

“Leadership is about finding a broad consensus,” Fort said “She’s not concerned about a broad consensus.”

“The Gulch” that stretches from the Five Points MARTA station to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo by Phil Skinner) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Key figures from Central Atlanta Progress and the Metro Atlanta Chamber have argued that the Gulch project should move forward, not only because of its benefits to the city, but to keep Bottoms from looking weak, according to several people familiar with the negotiations but did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

However, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said the friction surrounding the Gulch says less about Bottoms than it does about the politics of the city.

“Everybody talked about me like I was a dog,” Young said about his stint as mayor. “ ‘I was weak.’ ‘I had no vision.’ It takes a while to learn how to run a city.”

Bottoms national profile continues to rise. She rebranded the term “black girl magic.” She is a frequent guest on national news shows and her ability to appear poised in moments of chaos, like the cyberattack, has increased her demand on the national speaking circuit.

When she demanded that her entire cabinet resign, she earned national attention, especially on social media. She also made headlines with an announcement that the city’s jail would no longer take federal immigration detainees because of President Donald Trump’s treatment of immigrant children.

She recently posed on the cover of Ebony magazine with U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, often mentioned as potential presidential candidates in 2020. In the latest Ciara music video, Bottoms makes a cameo appearance.

But to some, Bottoms presence on a national stage only highlights a lack of engagement at home.

“Politics isn’t about being a celebrity,” Fort said. “Politics is about serving people, particularly those people who can’t get help from anyone else.”

In her statement, Bottoms said the spotlight comes with the job.

“Having that attention in no way limits my focus on our communities,” she said. “In fact, one might argue the opposite: much of the attention that our Administration has received has been recognition for the progressive policies we have championed.”

A rendering of CIM Group’s proposed $5 billion redevelopment of downtown Atlanta’s Gulch. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Bottoms has political successes as mayor. She eliminated the cash bond requirement for some low-level offenders who otherwise would sit in jail because they can’t afford bail and she fulfilled a campaign promise by signing an ordinance that returned disputed property deeds to the Atlanta Public Schools.

She created a program that provides jobs in the city’s watershed department to prisoners so they can support their families and have a source of income upon release — an initiative inspired by Bottom’s father, Major Lance, a well-known rhythm and blues musician, who was incarcerated when Bottoms was a young girl.

Even during the controversial Gulch negotiations, Bottoms worked with the council to increase police pay by 30 percent over the next three years — a move expected to make officer wages competitive with other agencies in similarly sized cities for the first time in the department’s recent history.

“If you look at the police pay miracle, that shows how will we can work together,” said Councilman Howard Shook.

Shook added that the police union endorsed Bottoms’ opponent Mary Norwood in last years’ election.

“It speaks a lot of the mayor,” Shook said. “Keisha did not have to do what she did.”

Conflicts of interest?

However, Bottoms’ handling of pivotal decisions involving the Gulch raised questions early.

In August, the AJC reported that the city had hired the stadium authority’s de facto leader to help negotiate the multi-billion dollar deal to develop the Gulch, raising questions about whether he could fairly look out for the best interests of both.

Alvin Kendall, a lawyer with close ties to Bottoms, had billed the city at the time more than $48,000 as the city’s “special counsel” on the Gulch deal.

Kendall, through two related companies, also had billed the recreation authority nearly $300,000 in consulting fees since late 2015.

Despite being a dubbed a nominal consultant, Kendall’s actual role was to run the authority’s daily operations, giving rise to a possible conflict, local elected leaders and ethics watchdogs told the AJC.

Alvin Kendall, left, an Atlanta area attorney, is a consultant who runs the daily operations of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority. Kendall also serves as special counsel for the city of Atlanta on the Gulch redevelopment. Ethics watchdogs say the roles could present a conflict of interest. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The recreation authority owns land in the Gulch and State Farm Arena. Its interests in redevelopment or a land sale could conflict with those of the city and Gulch developer CIM Group, experts said. Kendall is also the registered agent for Bottom’s campaign.

Kendall was disciplined by a state board in 1992 and his law license was suspended in 1998. That same year, Kendall was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison for conspiring to tip off a client, who was part of a drug ring, to a pending DEA search, according to articles in the AJC. Kendall was later disbarred, but had his law license reinstated.

On the other side of the negotiating table, sits Robert Highsmith, a partner at high-powered law firm Holland & Knight hired by CIM, who has also represented the city as a lawyer and lobbyist.

In separate statements, Bottoms said no conflict existed with either attorney and described Highsmith “as one of Georgia’s leading authorities on governmental ethics, open records and transparency, campaign finance and election law.”

But members of government accountability groups told the AJC that putting Kendall in charge of the negotiations was an example of the behavior Bottoms had promised to eliminate.

The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority has since hired an executive director to run the agency.

Also in August, the AJC obtained an undated document showing that CIM was seeking authorization for $1.75 billion in public financing for a project that would cost a total of $5 billion.

Documents showed that it would be the the largest single development downtown since John Portman’s Peachtree Center started in the 1960s and includes at least nine skyscrapers. CIM appeared to have plans to compete for Amazon’s second North American headquarters.

The proposal was also unprecedented in its demand for public tax dollars. It is more than double the projected $700 million in long-term financing for Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi speaks during a council work session related to plans to redevelop downtown’s Gulch. The up to $5 billion project, which could include $2 billion in public financing, will require Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to convince the council that the skyline-altering project is worth the public investment. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

‘The level of distrust’

Bottoms’ office initially intended to bring Gulch legislation before council for a vote on Aug. 20. But some council members only learned the details of the plan after being contacted by the AJC. Over the next two months, Bottoms’ administration would try to bring the issue up for vote two more times, only to withdraw the request after it became clear the project lacked enough ‘yes’ votes.

Adding to Bottoms’ woes, a coalition of residents dubbed “Red Light the Gulch” quickly formed. Members came to council meetings dressed in red to complain about the lack of public input during the process.

“I think she probably underestimated the level of distrust among the public and the council that had developed in recent years,” said Councilmember Andre Dickens.

The threat of the deal falling apart was so great at point that Bottoms, sick with a fever, made an unexpected appearance at the Sept. 11 meeting of the Community Development and Human Services Committee to confront council members. She warned the city might lose the relocation of Norfolk Southern because land the Fortune 500 company owned in the gulch was crucial to the company’s move.

She also addressed members individually, identifying issues she had work on that were of importance to each of them.

“The fact that this conversation has taken the tone and the turn that it has taken today is quite frankly amazing to me,” Bottoms said. “From my seat as mayor, not once have I turned a deaf ear to any of your concerns or any of your projects.”

Despite the rare public plea, the committee rebuffed Bottoms’ request to move along the proposal. Members argued they hadn’t had time to properly vet more than 600 pages of documents received from the administration only days earlier.

City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong speaks during a council work session related to plans to redevelop downtown’s Gulch. The up to $5 billion project, which could include $2 billion in public financing, will require Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to convince the council that the skyline-altering project is worth the public investment.. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Supporters of the project continued to blame the council.

“I hope we don’t have a City Council that is full of spoiled brats,” Young said, “because Keisha isn’t one of them. Keisha has come up the rough side of the mountain.”

Frustrated by City Hall politics, CIM’s development team and allies purchased radio ads and launched a social media blitz under the banner “Greenlight the Gulch.”

“I think there’s been some communication issues between the administration and the council,” A.J. Robinson, the CEO of Central Atlanta Progress said at an AJC editorial board meeting. “I don’t think anybody would disagree with that.”

Richard Ressler, CIM co-founder, told the editorial board that further concessions weren’t possible.

But three weeks later, the company agreed to eliminate a 10-year extension of the Westside TAD, which was supposed to help finance bonds for the project. Those dollars instead would fund schools and other public services. Bottoms blamed the Atlanta Public Schools for not agreeing to extension.

CIM and Bottoms had maintained for weeks that the deal couldn’t get any better. Now the scent of blood had entered the water. Further delay, some suggested, would only benefit the public.

Brothers Tony Ressler (left), the lead owner of the Atlanta Hawks, and Richard Ressler (right), CIM Group co-founder, speak during an editorial board meeting at The Atlanta Journal Constitution in Dunwoody, Thursday, September 27, 2018. CIM is the lead developer of the proposed $5 billion Gulch project. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“CIM was bluffing to see how much all of us could be played,” Julian Bene, a former board member of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development agency told the council on Oct. 15. “Maybe we should drag this on for another two months.”

Bottoms argued that the public reception for the development is “is overwhelmingly supportive.”

“By and large,” she wrote in an email, “the general public does not understand the hesitancy in going forward with this project.”

Council members are bracing for another round of lobbying this weekend. Some worry that the project is distraction from other pressing needs. But now the stage appears set for a dramatic conclusion.

“We need to get out of the Gulch,” said Council President Felicia Moore at a meeting last week. “We have come to the time to fish or cut bait.”

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