Atlanta’s mayor: reversing a crisis

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Since winning office two years ago, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has shown what it takes to turn crisis into opportunity.

The problem: Atlanta has a century old sewer system, and it needs a $3 billion overhaul: a situation that four decades of mayors have ignored and deferred. Unlike the mayors before her, Franklin has virtually no chance of looking to Washington for money. Instead, she’s had to face imposing astronomical rate increases on residents, who might have to pay $100 a month, and on businesses, that each might have to fork over $100,000 a month.

The crisis: The courts threatened to shut down all development until the city started addressing its sewer problem. Next, the governor offered Atlanta a $100 million loan, a small fraction of the money it needed.

Finally, the president of the Georgia senate, Eric Johnson, published a letter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, vowing “I will fight any effort to shift the costs of Atlanta’s sewer repairs onto the taxpayers.”

The opportunity: The letter might have provoked Franklin’s fury. Instead, it served as a catalyst. She’d already formed coalitions with unexpected partners, including the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

She’d hired a state lobbyist who is a friend and ally of Johnson’s. When Johnson’s letter appeared, the lobbyist urged Johnson to sit down with the mayor, who convinced him that her city would shoulder its share of the burden for fixing the sewers.

The result: Right after Franklin’s private meeting with Johnson, the governor anted up a $500 million loan package. Then, the GOP-controlled state senate considered a sales tax increase sponsored by none other than Johnson himself. Franklin also worked with local business leaders to persuade the city council to pass stiff rate increases.

“Before her,” says Johnson, “Atlanta hadn’t been taking leadership, they were viewed as corrupt; no one trusted them.”

— Adapted from “How to Win Friends and Repair a City,” Rob Gurwitt, Governing.

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