Beltline chief executive out after probe of questionable expenses

The city's ambitious Beltline project is at a crossroads after its embattled leader was forced out on Friday amid questions about the organization's taxpayer-funded expenses.

The Beltline's board voted unanimously to end Brian Leary's contract on August 31. The decision comes days after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed Beltline staffers charged taxpayers for wedding gifts, a parking ticket, a dry cleaning bill and other items that infuriated watchdog groups and frustrated City Hall.

Already, the Beltline board was grappling with last month's defeat of a 1 percent sales tax that would have funded a $600 million streetcar line along the 22-mile route. Now the organization will be without its high-profile leader at a time when the project arguably needs it the most.

In a bid for stability, the board appointed Lisa Gordon, the Beltline's chief operating officer, as the interim director. Local planners described the former East Point city manager as a steady hand with a rich background in infrastructure.

John Somerhalder, who chairs the Beltline's board, said he's confident the leadership change will bolster public support for the Beltline, which he called "the single most important element in moving the project forward."

"We very seriously need to look at stewardship of taxpayers' dollars, and we need to make sure we have the right organization in place for the future," said Somerhalder, the chief executive of AGL Resources.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Leary said he did not want to distract from the Beltline's work, and that the board's vote was not a surprise.

"There's a bit of relief on my part," Leary said. "The timing is right for the family and for me. I just wish it was under different circumstances."

Leary said his main regret was not formalizing a policy to govern expenses three years ago when he took control of Atlanta Beltline Inc., which was formed to transformed railroad lines circling the city into a ribbon of transit, trails and parks. Leary, who came from the real estate development industry, noted that the private sector allows more leeway for certain expenses.

"That's no excuse, by any stretch," he said. "But there wasn't one moment over the last three years that we thought we were doing something outside the policy. Once you paint the sidelines for me, I try to stay within them."

Leary's departure just weeks after the tax plan's failure was a difficult double-whammy to the Beltline. Jim Stokes, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, said he was "crushed" by the news.

"It's two major blows in two weeks," Stokes said. "Brian Leary did an outstanding job as the Beltline's chief executive. I think that his departure is a huge loss for the Beltline and for metro Atlanta."

Others said they didn't expect the leadership turmoil to derail the project. Curt Soper, who directs the Georgia chapter of the Trust for Public Land, said the Beltline already has too much time and treasure invested to be thrown off track.

"The people of Atlanta want the Beltline to happen," said Soper, whose group helped acquire park land for the project. "It's too valuable. I'm not worried about it moving forward."

Leary, 38, was named president and chief executive of the Beltline in 2009 after about a dozen years at Atlantic Station, another lofty redevelopment project. An architect by training, Leary worked with a group that helped turn that derelict steel mill into one of the city's most popular mixed-use attractions.

While at the Beltline, he put together a team of 23 staffers who have toiled to make the loop a reality. The organization has completed much of the behind-the-scenes work, including many land-use plans and key environmental studies needed to move forward.

The project has received more than $337 million in funding since 2006 and attracted more than $1 billion of new development, according to the Beltline's calculations. It is scheduled to be completed in 2031, but the defeat of the transportation tax, commonly called the T-SPLOST, likely means that it will focus on developing parks and trails - not transit - for the next decade.

Staffers have secured more than nine miles of right-of-way and already finished stretches of trail and greenspace along the route, including the impressive $50 million Historic Fourth Ward Park, which has fueled several new surrounding developments. For his efforts, Leary pulled in a salary of $195,000 in 2011, plus another $28,000 in bonuses.

"Brian saw that it was so important for the Beltline to have on the ground successes," Stokes said. "That allowed so many people to fall in love with the Beltline."

But even as the Beltline grew, the organization's accountability came under scrutiny. An AJC investigation published Sunday found the agency spent thousands of dollars for elaborate staff retreats, expensive trips and pricey meals at fancy restaurants between April 2010 and May 2011.

The review found that taxpayers paid the tab for Leary's parking ticket, his dry cleaning bill and a staffer's purchase of a $106.22 wedding gift from Pottery Barn for Leary's fiancee. It also highlighted other expenses, such as a $2,100 taxpayer-funded bill for food at a Braves game.

The Beltline also said Leary charged taxpayers for a $71 bottle of champagne he bought as a wedding gift for a staffer while at a South Pacific resort, as well as about $500 in alcohol while on trips to Seattle, Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

Many of the expenses were reimbursed by Beltline staffers after the AJC requested the documents. City officials, meanwhile, said new controls have been in place for about a year to prevent these "inappropriate" expenditures, including a case-by-case review of the Beltline's credit card expenses and an accountant tasked with reviewing the agency's expenses.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used Georgia's Open Records Act to review hundreds of pages of the Beltline's spending and thousands of credit card transactions. The AJC's request prompted the organization to repay some of the questionable taxpayer-funded costs such as wedding gifts, a parking ticket and alcohol.

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