For Atlanta mayor, picking staff is a process

Last Wednesday, somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, Kasim Reed came to a conclusion – pick a police chief.

After months of vetting, debating, second guessing and suspense -- as the purple mountains whisked beneath him -- Reed settled on George N. Turner as Atlanta's new police chief.

Now it was just a matter of him getting it on paper, telling his staff and announcing it -- before he changed his mind and picked Robert Crump White or Cecil Alexander.

“The whole process was traumatic,” Reed said. “I got back Wednesday, woke up Thursday and named a new chief. That was it.”

Well, not exactly.

A lawyer and former state lawmaker, Reed has gained a reputation as a methodical thinker, who takes his time. On June 3, after a town hall meeting to introduce the three finalists for police chief, Reed said he would have his whole administrative cabinet filled within "10-12 days."

While other positions have been filled, Turner wasn't named until July 9 and Reed still hasn't selected a city attorney or a new general manager for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

A city attorney could be named this week and Home Depot chief financial officer Carol Tome is chairing a nine-person search team to find a new leader for the airport.No timetable has been set to reveal the three finalists for that position, although the talent pool for the position is said to be very small.

"He is an attorney and attorneys try to be very precise," said Bob Holmes, a retired Clark Atlanta University political scientist, who served in the General Assembly with Reed. "He wants to make sure that it is better to get it right than make a quick decision and get it wrong, especially in these times. He doesn't want to get somebody in there and two months later find out that he didn't do a good job of vetting him."

Former mayor Andrew Young, one of a handful of people with the experience to understand the process, said Reed's first attempts to fill his cabinet and decide with whom to align himself have been good.

"I think a mayor can’t be too careful and he is being very thorough," Young said.

During his eight years as mayor, Young rarely ventured outside of Atlanta to find talent -- a stark difference from Reed.

"When I was mayor, I was prejudiced. I figured that Atlanta was further ahead than any city I knew anything about," Young said. "I appointed from within. I could afford to do that because [former mayor Maynard Jackson] had a good staff."

And Reed, Young said, is building a staff with a bunch young upstarts, many with Ivy League credentials.

"We have people from Duke, Penn, Harvard, Columbia, who want to come here," Reed said. "And when you come here, you run whatever it is you run. My job is to clear a path for talented people."

Reed has also been able to corner the market on talent. For the positions of commissioner of public works and chief financial officer, he was able to hire two out of three finalists for both positions. For those positions, Reed was able to hire the runners-up to be deputies.

"The reason that we are getting people in this process is because we are working to develop relationships," Reed said. "We are convincing people who were number one where they were to come to Atlanta and be a number two. That is a conversation you can only have if you really like someone and you have spent time with that person."

Reed said the police chief's position is the most important decision of his new administration and it had to be right.

Reed interviewed the three candidates -- Turner, White, the Louisville police chief; and Alexander, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport -- several times and going into the town hall meeting, had his favorite.

"I was leaning toward Alexander," Reed said. "But I sat in the town hall meeting with everyone else and when I left, there were two candidates -- White and Turner."

"I loved White's integrity, honesty and flatness. He never took a shot at anyone and he was accurate without being flowery," Reed said.

So then, it was White's job.

"I was spending most of my time thinking about hiring White," Reed said.

Until Turner started acting like it was his job.

As Atlanta's interim chief, Turner was quick to action after the Screen on the Green melee in Piedmont Park last month, beefing up police presence around the event. He made moves in changing the leadership structure of the police department, bringing back captains and hiring 150 officers.

But in the midst of the search, Reed was also trying to balance his first city budget, which was on the verge of collapsing several times.

"I knew that I was not going to make a decision because of the budget," Reed said. "That whole thing was touch and go."

Atlanta passed a $559 million budget on June 25 and Reed turned his attention to a speech at the Aspen Institute's Socrates Society Forum for Young Leaders over the July 4 weekend.

After the speech, while still in Aspen, he turned his attention back to the chief. He called deputy COO Duriya Farooqui and asked her to put together "the numbers."

"I just wanted to see straight math," Reed said. "And the numbers were very compelling."

Farooqui analyzed crime patterns for Louisville and Atlanta and found that during White's tenure in Louisville the crime rate increased, while Atlanta's crime rate decreased under Turner.

"They were both pretty close," Reed said. "But it is like boxing. When it is that close, the person who holds the title should get the nod."

When Reed got off the plane from Aspen, his director of communications Sonji Jacobs Dade, showed him two press releases. One for White. One for Turner.

Reed read them both and handed her one back.

"We are going with Turner," Reed said.