Sam Olens leaves Cobb County and a big political legacy

Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens' departure from office leaves his county to ponder both his legacy and his replacement.  The legacy is large, and the challenges facing Olens' successor equally so.

Olens has been lauded as a bridge-builder who reached across the river to strengthen ties between Atlanta and the suburbs during his eight years as chairman.

He has also taken care of business at home. The county has maintained its tax rate and triple AAA bond rating over the years, and Cobb has new fire stations, a new courthouse, libraries and parkland under Olens' watch.

"We have a great record under Sam," fellow Cobb commissioner Bob Ott said. "Those are some pretty big shoes to fill."

Olens, 52, is running for state attorney general and resigned his commission post March 30. He will face Republican opponent Max Wood, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, in the July primary.

Fellow Cobb commissioner Tim Lee is running to fill Olens' seat in a July special election. Lee, 52, runs his own marketing and consulting firm and lives in northeast Cobb. He has worked in advertising for 35 years, the last 22 in Atlanta and before that in New York.

Lee will face a surprise challenge from political newcomer Larry Savage, 66, of east Cobb, who qualified to run this week. Savage,  an Atlanta native who has  lived in Cobb County for 34 years, is a mechanical engineer who worked previously for Henkel, a German company that makes adhesives, cosmetics and home care products. He has an MBA from Georgia State University.

"Cobb has had small, conservative government and has not tried to do everything for everybody," Savage said. That's the way it should remain, he said.

Savage has not raised any money. "I know that's an issue," he said. "I know it's a very steep climb."

Lee has raised $108,000 and spent more than half on a campaign Web site, yard signs and a consultant, he said. He has about $45,000 left.

Lee has served on the commission for nearly eight years. He was first elected in 2002 to fill the seat that Olens vacated to run for chairman. Now he'll attempt to follow in Olens' footsteps again.  If elected, Lee would serve the balance of Olens' term, until December 2012, when he would have to run again.

"He looks like the anointed candidate," Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said.

Olens' successor, whether Lee or Savage, will have to manage with less.

Lee said if elected, he would tackle the county's budgetat a time when the county anticipates a 10 percent drop in its tax digest this year, meaning lower revenue.

To prepare for a lean year, Cobb has offered early retirement to employees and about 235 have decided to leave.

Lee said he would have to make decisions to make the county run more efficiently with fewer workers.

As for whether Cobb can maintain its current level of services without a tax increase, Lee said he doesn't know.

"It would be a last resort," Lee said. "I wouldn't even consider it now. Not at all."  He stressed that he's a "Republican with a capital ‘R.'"

Already, under Olens, Cobb has cut back on maintaining its infrastructure like roofs, elevators, parks and ball fields in the past two or three years to stay within its budget, County Manager David Hankerson said.

Cobb's 1-cent sales tax for transportation will run out at the end of 2011. The new chairman will have to sell voters on the idea of continuing the tax or face a big decline in funds for road-building and improvements.

Despite the economic challenges ahead, Cobb is in good shape compared to many nearby jurisdictions.

It has also progressed in other ways since Olens first joined the county commission in 1999.

At that time, Cobb was still under a cloud from a resolution condemning the "gay lifestyle" in 1993. Olens, who was head of the East Cobb Civic Association, unseated the author of the resolution, county commissioner Gordon Wysong, in 1998.

The anti-gay resolution prompted activists to protest the location of a 1996 Olympic event in Cobb and to threaten nationwide demonstrations along the route of the Olympic torch. As a result, Olympic organizers pulled volleyball from Cobb, and the torch bypassed the county.

Olens' style has been inclusive, measured, detail-oriented and "humble," according to Hankerson.

While progress has been made, some say Cobb still needs to be more inclusive.

"I liked Sam as a person, but I've been very disappointed in his actions and inactions on immigration and minorities in Cobb," said Rich Pellegrino, a pro-immigrants' rights activist.

The Cobb commission passed restrictions on the number of adults allowed to live in a house and debated an ordinance to restrict day labor a few years ago, actions that Pellegrino characterized as anti-immigrant.

Olens said issues relating to the housing ordinance have come before the board about 10 times; in all but one of the cases, the concerns involved college students.

“It has predominantly been used by folks near Kennesaw State University who didn’t want their neighborhood to become a fraternity row,” Olens said.

He also said he continues to support another initiative that has angered Hispanic advocates: the federal provision that enables county jails to identify illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities.

“I’m not anti-immigrant,” Olens said. “I’m anti-illegal immigrant. There’s a huge difference."

Marietta City Councilman Anthony Coleman questioned Cobb's diversity in high-ranking positions.

"How many people are in supervisor or management positions?" Coleman asked of the county.  "They should do more."

While some hope for more progress, Cobb County is a far different place than it was 11 years ago, when former Cobb chairman Bill Byrne was in power.

"There was open hostility between the suburbs and the city of Atlanta," Olens said. "We removed that hostility."

Olens and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin worked on the Atlanta Regional Commission five years to promote a plan for regional mass transit, including long-haul and local buses, streetcars and regional rail lines.

"The region hadn't had a discussion of transit since the formation of MARTA in the mid-1960s," Olens said.

The plan includes a vision for above-ground light rail running from Perimeter Mall along I-285 to the Cobb Galleria and then north to Kennesaw State University, Olens said.

As for building relationships in Cobb, Olens said communication with the cities was "terrible" when he became chairman in 2002. He made sure the county sat down with city officials and hammered out an agreement to provide services for 10 years as opposed to renegotiating agreements every month or two.

Coleman, on the Marietta City Council, said those lines of communication still need improvement. He suggests something as simple as  a sit-down dinner with members of the Marietta City Council and the Cobb County Commission so the politicians could get to know one another.

"Let's meet somewhere and break bread," Coleman said. "You get to know me a little better and I get to know you."

Many of those who do know Olens well were heaping praise on the outgoing chairman earlier this month when a largely Republican group gathered at a farewell party at the Cobb Energy Centre.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, sat quietly in the crowd, his attendance speaking volumes about the changed atmosphere between Cobb and Atlanta.

Reed said he came to pay his respects and acknowledge Olens' good work, although he still plans to back a Democrat for attorney general in the fall.

Well-wishers joked that Olens is constantly fiddling with his BlackBerry, sending e-mail. A huge cardboard replica of a BlackBerry hung behind the lectern at Olens' party.

David Hong, a member of the influential East Cobb Civic Association, attended the party and called Olens' leaving "poignant."

"He's managed to establish an even keel for the county and keep it moving forward," Hong said.

Hong called Lee "a good man."

"I think he could make a good chairman. Who else has the chops to do it? Who has the experience to do it? An outsider would have to learn the budget," Hong said. "It's a well-run machine. It's working for us."