In this feature from December 2003, then editor-in-chief Rebecca Burns profiled Shirley Franklin, Atlanta's self-proclaimed "sewer mayor." Told that the story would run in the Best of Atlanta issue and that a possible headline was "Shirely Franklin is the best thing to happen to Atlanta," the mayor responded "Aack! That's pretty lame" and suggested an alternative. "What you really need to say is 'Shirley Franklin is knee-deep in crap.' I am wading in it, you better believe it!"
The self-proclaimed "sewer mayor" is fearless fighting to fix the city. No wonder she's the best thing to happen to Atlanta.
By Rebecca Burns
Imagine. You host a party and everyone is having a great time. But then, suddenly, the powder room toilet overflows—too many guests, too many cocktails, too little advance planning. Nobody knows what to do, but everybody runs to the hostess assuming that somehow, she will be able to avert total disaster. Magnify that scenario a millionfold and visualize the crisis Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin faces.
Two thousand, two hundred miles of sewer lines run under the City of Atlanta and the neighboring counties and jurisdictions the city's water system serves. The volume of fluids going through those pipes, many more than a century old, has increased exponentially thanks to the big party Atlanta's been throwing. Wild growth (all those Jacuzzi tubs and deluxe kitchen sinks) and fondness for asphalt (water that cannot seep into the ground races over the blacktop until it can find a storm drain) have pushed the pipes and drains to their limit. On the flip side, there is less clean water to drink, flush, or sprinkle lawns with—thanks to a few years of drought, a soaring population, and an aging water treatment system. On top of that, increasingly tough Federal regulations have already resulted in close to $25 million in fines in the last decade for Atlanta's failure to fix its sewer-related environmental misdeeds.
This nasty mess is compounded by the congealed sediment of decades of political infighting, stretched budgets, and benign neglect. No one before Franklin wanted to deal with the sewers; politicians do not want to talk about them and voters do not want to think about them—until they back up.