Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and City Council members have implemented a number of new policies aimed at increasing transparency and reducing corruption. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Watchdogs have questions about Atlanta transparency task force

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms won unanimous City Council support on Monday for a task force to probe the city’s open government and ethics practices as the cloud of the federal corruption investigation that started under her predecessor shows no signs of abating.

But some government watchdogs fear the examination could stall proposed legislation that would create an independent agency to put teeth into enforcement of the city’s code and mete out disciplinary action for employees and elected officials for violations.

So far, two senior officials from former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration have been sentenced to prison for accepting bribes. Last week, a former Reed aide became the first person ever criminally cited in Georgia for alleged violations of the state’s open records law.

Separately, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak recently suggested the city isn’t fully cooperating with prosecutors’ demands for records.

Bottoms said the 12-member task force would make recommendations for reforms within four months after the board is officially selected.

Bottoms and council would each appoint five members, which would include former prosecutors, academics specializing in government and corporate transparency, former government attorneys, Atlanta residents and former judges. Council President Felicia Moore would have two additional picks.

“Strengthening public trust requires a shared responsibility from not only the executive and legislative arms of government, but the people of Atlanta as well,” Bottoms said in the release.

February 9, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - A reporter reviews a portion of the more than 1.4 millions documents released in February 2017 in the Atlanta City Hall corruption investigation. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But Sara Henderson, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said the council already has legislation backed by Moore that would help address what Henderson described as a crisis of confidence in the ethics of City Hall.

In recent weeks, Councilwoman Jennifer Ide introduced Moore’s proposal for an independent compliance office, governed by its own board and with the power to investigate and render penalties for violations. Bottoms has remained cool to the idea.

“Something has to be done and it needs to be immediate,” Henderson said.

Moore said she supports a task force, but not if the group’s work delays action on her proposed compliance office. Moore said she wants to see council approve the legislation soon to give the mayor time to include the office in the next budget, which will be introduced in May.

“If you wait on the task force you will be past the budget,” said Moore, who as council president did not have a vote on the task force. “We’ve given the mayor plenty of time while the mayor is planning her budget to prepare for it. To wait on the task force could mean we’re talking almost next year.”

It’s unclear how much the task force will cost and if there’s a date certain for the group to submit its report. A message seeking answers from the mayor’s office was not immediately returned.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond said he’d like to see the task force complete its work before legislation is adopted.

“But I don’t want to see the task force drag on for more than 90 days,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll take much to compare Atlanta to other cities.”

Then-Mayor Kasim Reed, and press secretary Jenna Garland in 2015. In February, Garland became the first person ever criminally cited in Georgia under the state’s Open Records Act for allegedly attempting to frustrate fulfillment of a request for public documents to the Reed administration. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Last week, state Attorney General Chris Carr announced two misdemeanor citations against Jenna Garland, Reed’s former press secretary, alleging she instructed a subordinate to delay production of water billing records to Channel 2 Action News.

In April, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 sought mediation with Carr’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” in the production of records at City Hall under Reed.

The city settled the mediation last fall and Bottoms agreed to create a transparency officer position to oversee open records production and investigate any alleged wrongdoing. The appointment is pending.

Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communication professor and expert on open government in Georgia, said the task force appears too unwieldy and time consuming.

It also doesn’t specify the need for persons with intimate knowledge of the state’s open records and meetings laws or to include people who have fought City Hall for access to public information.

Lisby said he doesn’t want to criticize Bottoms “given what she was handed, but I’m afraid she’s using an elephant gun to go after small game.”

Our reporting

The AJC and Channel 2 Action News revealed actions by former Reed administration officials to thwart access to public records and filed a complaint seeking mediation with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with the production of public documents. The city settled that case last fall and agreed to create a transparency officer post to oversee production of public records. Last week, an aide to former Mayor Kasim Reed was the first person in Georgia ever criminally cited for alleged violations of the state open records law.

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