Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is widely recognized as one of America’s great mayors, taking office at a time when her city was demoralized, government was seen as part of the problem and city government was racked with corruption.
When she leaves office in a few weeks, she will have restored trust in government by taking no prisoners when it came to ethical government, to forging partnerships and to using city services as leverage to produce regional cooperation. Most impressively, she will leave as Atlanta distinguishes itself as one of the few cities attracting people back into its city limits.
As a long-time city administrator in Atlanta, there was no learning curve for her when it came time to get back to the basics with city services. She put policy first and said politics and sound policy should be kept separate. She said: “I’m an unintentional politician. I’ve always been interested in the policy and not in the political strategy.”
She decided to run for mayor because she was discouraged by the “lack of public trust that seemed to be pervasive. It was in the black community, the white community, the newcomers, young people, older folks. There was a sense that government couldn’t do it right.”
She had little name recognition when she kicked off her campaign for mayor, but eventually she raised $3.2 million and ran on a reform platform, releasing copies of her income tax returns and posting campaign contributions on her website. “You make me mayor, and I’ll make you proud” was her campaign theme.
Once elected, she gave equal attention to developing a clear message, to focusing on ideas and building coalitions with other elected officials. After election, she created more than two dozen public-private task forces to evaluate city functions, but what she ultimately did was what was unusual: she followed the recommendations.
Advice For New Mayors
She spent two years hammering the need for a modern sewerage system, and voters overwhelmingly approved the $3 billion upgrading of the system. More importantly, she used her success as the platform for reform on issues such as homelessness, school improvements and fiscal integrity for the city.
As for the issues of race, when she took office, the first question in Atlanta was what will the black community think and what will the white community think. Because of her emphasis on right over race, the question changed to what was the right thing to do. Evidence of her impact is that the majority African-American city is poised to elect a Caucasian mayor.
As a result, Mayor Franklin successfully implemented a multi-million dollar affordable housing program, expanded the nation’s busiest airport, and established regional plans for economic development, homelessness and open space.
So what is Mayor Franklin’s advice to city mayors? According to her comments to Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, success is about strategic focus, private sector partnerships, and high standards.
Once elected, Mayor Franklin didn’t take on everything at once. She focused on three goals: balance the budget, fix the sewers, and pass ethics reform legislation.
The first two were legal requirements. The third was a central campaign promise. For her first few years, the mayor said she talked about almost nothing else.
“You can do a hundred things, and that’s fine, but when you go from neighborhood to neighborhood and every time you’re out there you’re talking about something else, people don’t really understand,” she said. “And it’s harder to judge you. If I don’t get water and sewer done, you know that’s a problem.”
Private Sector Partnerships
Mayor Franklin credits the private sector with a major role in her successes. “The city has a history of public-private partnerships going back a hundred years,” she said. “There is hardly anything that we’ve done in Atlanta successfully that has not been a joint effort with the private sector since day one.”
The process Mayor Franklin relies on is a simple one: involve the private sector early. Typically, she’ll create working groups and ask them to consider possible fixes to a given problem.
Then, when it’s time to raise money and implement a solution, she’ll have strong support in place. “I’ve used this private sector model with outside committees 24 or 25 times,” she said. “Every time it’s successful. Because there’s broader buy-in for what we implement if we start with the private sector.”
Franklin’s advice: don’t lower them.
“If you need $100 million, tell people that’s how much you need,” she said. “I may only get to $25 or $50 million, but at least we’re not patting ourselves on the back too soon. We don’t say, we got $25 million and we’re done.
“We say we need a billion, and we got the first $100 million, and by golly somebody out in the audience should help us get the other $900 million. That’s the approach we take.
“I’m not one of those people who ran on ‘no new taxes. I ran on efficiency and effectiveness. I did not run on, ‘You will never have to pay your way.’ Because I think that’s a huge mistake.
“There’s nothing like being mayor of a city that’s broke. So I would say to set your target based on what you really need to get it done, and then rally those people that have a big enough view of the world to come to your aid so you can add to it incrementally.”