How will Atlanta’s mayoral candidates prevent another bribery scandal from unfolding at City Hall?

We asked the leading political hopefuls about tightening up the city’s procurement process—and how they felt about the document dump to end all document dumps
Eight of the nine leading candidates for Atlanta mayor prepare for a forum at law firm Dentons downtown office.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

Any doubts over whether ethics and corruption would be an issue in the 2017 mayoral campaign were put to rest after federal law enforcement started sniffing around City Hall to investigate a bribery scandal. Two city contractors— one of whom, according to reports, charged the city millions for emergency work during 2014’s so-called “snowpocalypse”—have plead guilty to making under-the-table payments to secure business deals. Political observers and City Hall officials are waiting and wondering what news will come next.

So what will mayoral candidates do to prevent City Hall corruption from unfolding on their watch? And what’s their opinion of how Reed responded to media requests by dumping nearly 1.5 million pages of emails, contracts, and spreadsheets—later released electronically—related to the investigation? We asked the leading candidates for their opinions.

Editor’s note: Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms did not respond to our questions. Comments have been condensed and edited.

What steps would you take as mayor to prevent such corruption by city employees in the future?

Councilwoman Mary Norwood: As a priority in my campaign, I have committed to a forensic audit of all city funds and to overhaul the bidding process for city contracts. Additionally, I have already introduced legislation to mandate that all city finances, including checks, are posted online. That legislation is pending before the city council.

Former Council President Cathy Woolard: I will reinstate the ethics reforms implemented by Mayor [Shirley] Franklin and strengthen and enforce our ethics code. I would do a full and complete audit of all our procurement processes to ensure that best practices are in place. I would also empower the Ethics Officer to act independently of my office and put in place a zero tolerance policy for illegal and unethical behavior.

Former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman: As mayor, I’ll make sure that all city spending data is readily available electronically in a way that is organized and easily searchable. I’ll enact aggressive reforms to ensure that you can trust your government. And I will work to instill a culture at City Hall that prioritizes trust, fairness, and transparency. Separating right from wrong should always come first.

Former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency Director Michael Sterling: When I am Mayor, I will require anyone who lobbies the Mayor’s Office, city council, and/or city agencies to register as a city lobbyist and regularly file lobbying activity reports with the City of Atlanta Board of Ethics. I will work proactively with the U.S. Attorney to implement anti-corruption procedures and put all of the Executive Office checkbook spending online and in an easily searchable format. I’ll also train employees in anti-corruption procedures and incentivize whistleblowers to report corruption. Finally, I’ll use technology to increase accessibility and transparency.

State Sen. Vincent Fort: I’d set a tone in City Hall that tells employees that their job is about serving the public, not themselves. Right now, there’s a culture of corruption in City Hall. We need more citizen oversight. I’d look into creating the position of inspector general to help add more checks and balances.

Fulton Chairman John Eaves: I believe that our taxpayers deserve leaders who are going to be active advocates for citizens and their hard-earned dollars. As chair, we looked into some of the bad practices at Wolf Creek Amphitheater and HIV/AIDS funding that was not spent. Whenever I discover an impropriety, I jump on it, direct an audit, and discover where you take necessary actions. Fulton County has an auditor. That person is empowered to [start a probe] whenever they believe something improper has taken place. For me, as future mayor of Atlanta, I would bring in someone that has the status of an auditor to pursue and investigative potential improprieties.

Council President Ceasar Mitchell: Leadership starts at the top, and as mayor I will act with the utmost ethical standards and will hold my staff to the same high standards. All of our city codes need to be reviewed, and I will take action to close loopholes and strengthen current regulations. The people’s trust is in our hands, we have no other choice but to take bold steps to retain their trust. My goal is to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse by continuing to strengthen our ordinances and the procurement code, as well as by creating a more collaborative and independent approach to the process.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall: We will pursue a top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top audit of procurement and finance departments to assess where we must add necessary controls in advance of emergency contracting situations. We will also be looking at the overall structure of the procurement process in general to determine where there are holes and how they should be filled. There are workflow [improvements], business process enhancements, and maybe some code improvements that might help. We can also make an online and transparent experience for all who have an interest in seeing the who, what, when, where, and how tax dollars are being spent. We are going to focus on true customer and operational efficiency in service delivery to neighborhoods, which will ultimately strengthen the public’s trust of city government.

What’s your opinion of Mayor Kasim Reed’s decision to release 1.5 million documents at once, before the city had fulfilled individual open records requests, and how would you have handled it differently?

Norwood: I would have honored all individual requests prior to releasing millions of pages. Open records requests are from individuals with specific inquiries pertaining to issues.  Those individual requests would most likely be pertinent to understanding the allegations and involvements of the investigation.

Woolard: This would never have happened on my watch, but I would have first fulfilled the individual open records requests, then released the documents electronically. I think we should always err on the side of transparency and responsiveness. We can always do more. The public needs to know that their city government is working in their best interests and implementing reforms to ensure integrity in City Hall operations.

Sterling: It is difficult for us to comprehend the number of open record requests from media organizations, citizens, and the government groups on an issue that has gotten this much press, locally and nationally. I will take the mayor at his word that he was responding comprehensively in the spirit of transparency. However, as an attorney and former prosecutor, I would have advised that the open record requests were appropriate and deserved to be fulfilled from the outset. I would have asked the city attorney to respond to the individual requests to the extent it was practicable. I would have made the documents available in an electronic format unless hard copies were requested. Finally, I would have held my press conference to answer inquiries after the record requests had already been fulfilled.

Fort: It was clear that the city was required to release these documents, but a document dump was not the way to do it. If the information was delivered electronically to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, then it should’ve been done that way for the press.

Mitchell: I won’t opine about his decision to initially release the documents in print. As mayor, I will continue my tradition of being open, transparent, and responsive by doing as the administration has now done by making [documents available] digitally. I will keep the lines of communication open and utilize technology to make the process simpler. I recently announced I will take the lead by being the first to post my council office expenses online. We will make it easier, not harder for our citizens to access information within the bounds of the law.

Eaves: One thing I’m proud about as Fulton County chairman is that I respect the press. Even if there are things said about me that are not flattering, I respect that role and try to be compliant as possible in terms of responding to media requests. As mayor, my goal is to be as transparent and accessible as possible. Whatever the request is, we will will comply, and we will have a response time protocol in place within city government.

Additional reporting by Thomas Wheatley