Incumbent Democrats battle for Fulton chairman’s job

To hear John Eaves and Robb Pitts talk, you wouldn’t think they live in the same county, let alone are running for the same office.

Eaves, chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, sees a county that is tackling tough problems, such as jail overcrowding, and making difficult decisions about taxes and spending. Pitts, an incumbent commissioner, sees a rudderless county that has become a non-factor in regional politics and is unwilling to live within its means.

Voters will decide next week which vision is closest to the truth when they pick the Democratic nominee for the chairman’s job. The decision could have big consequences for Georgia’s largest county.

The seven-member commission has long been a haven for incumbents, but will have at least three new faces. Republicans, who currently hold two seats, will pick up at least one more. And north Fulton residents, who have long felt shortchanged by county government, will gain influence.

The potential for change – and conflict – is high. The next chairman will set the tone: The commission could either find consensus on difficult problems or reach new levels of dysfunction.

The winner of the race between Eaves and Pitts will face Republican Earl Cooper in the November general election. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be favored to win the general election in solidly Democratic Fulton County.

Given the long list of challenges facing the county, some are amazed anyone wants the chairman’s job. Fulton’s short-staffed and overcrowded jail remains under federal supervision. Its spending has outpaced revenue in recent years, and reserves are dwindling. And commissioners have sometimes found it difficult to reach a consensus on how to address difficult problems.

As if that’s not challenge enough, the Fulton chairman doesn’t have the authority of those in other metro Atlanta counties. It’s a part-time job, and the chairman can’t even set the agenda for commission meetings.

Both Democrats say what the county needs is strong leadership. They just disagree about who can provide it.

Eaves, 52, has held the chairman’s post since 2007. A consultant for the management consulting firm TalentQuest, he cites several accomplishments during his tenure, including the 2008 conversion of Grady Memorial Hospital from a public agency to a private, nonprofit corporation. At the time, it was on the verge of financial collapse. While it continues to struggle, its finances have stabilized.

Eaves also has convened a task force that later this year will recommend ways to improve Fulton’s criminal justice system. And earlier this year he rallied commission support for a 2014 budget that cuts spending on popular services like libraries while also raising property taxes.

A formal vote on the tax hike won’t come until this summer, but commissioners approved the budget in January by a vote of 5-2.

“I have been able to make the tough decisions,” Eaves said.

Pitts, 72, an independent insurance agent and marketing consultant, said his 11 years on the commission and 20 on the Atlanta City Council have prepared him to lead the County Commission. He’s made scrutinizing budgets a point of pride in both offices.

“I stand on principle, not going along just to get along,” he said.

Pitts voted against this year’s county budget, as he has most annual budgets in recent years. He thinks the tax hike is unnecessary and illegal – the General Assembly last year passed legislation prohibiting the Fulton from raising property tax rates. He said Fulton needs to concentrate on core services like criminal justice.

“We can’t continue to spend more than we take in,” he said. “It’s going to take a leader who can go to the people and explain to them our situation.”

Pitts said Fulton County’s influence in metro Atlanta is waning, and he blames Eaves. Among other things, he cites the chairman’s poor attendance at boards like the Atlanta Regional Commission. Meeting minutes show Eaves missed six of 10 ARC meetings in 2013.

“How do you not attend meetings of the Atlanta Regional Commission?” Pitts said. “I will be present for Fulton County. You have to be present when you represent one million people.”

Eaves said he serves on 15 boards and committees, while Pitts serves on none. He said his personal and professional commitments sometimes conflict with county duties, but he’s never missed a meeting just because he doesn’t want to attend.

Eaves said Pitts talks about leadership but hasn’t demonstrated any himself. Though Pitts opposed this year’s budget, he offered no plan of his own, Eaves said.

“If you’re such a good leader, why don’t you champion an alternative?” Eaves said.

Cooper, the only Republican nominee, said neither Eaves nor Pitts has demonstrated the leadership the county needs.

“Being in a position as long as they have, it’s easy to get out of touch with what’s really going on,” he said.

A 50-year-old self-employed marketing consultant, Cooper said he would focus on restoring services cut in this year’s budget, including libraries and senior services.

“I think the county needs another direction,” he said. “I’ve heard people say they’d rather move out of the county to Gwinnett or Cobb because they seem to care more about the people than Fulton County.”