Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reed sharpens his veto pen

After more than a year on the job, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has found another tool – his veto pen.

For the first time in his tenure, Reed has struck down legislation sent to his desk from the Atlanta City Council.

On Jan. 18, the council unanimously passed three resolutions that would have authorized Reed to enter into $9.4 million worth of deals with several solid waste contractors.

The resolutions came out of the department of public works and were introduced by Councilmember Carla Smith as a personal paper.

Reed firmly rejected the resolutions, writing that the contracts “did not follow proper protocol for submission of an administration-approved contract.”

But the vetoes were less of an attack on the council as they were an enforcement of rules Reed set in place upon his election.

As part of the city’s new fiscal guidelines, Reed put in place a policy that nearly every dollar spent has to be approved by Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman. Reed said that kind of detail has helped the city build its reserves from $7.4 million to $56 million.

“We created a process last year that requires all procurement run through our office, even when they are coming from our departments,” Reed said. “They all have to be vetted by the COO and Chief of Staff Candace Byrd, so that we know what we are procuring and how much money we are spending. Someone made a judgment that they were going to do it differently.”

In the past, individual departments were able to bypass the mayor’s office by “walking” through legislation directly to city council committees, where it was basically rubber-stamped and approved by the administration.

Reed said that method was chaotic and hard to control, allowing a dozen departments to send spending plans haphazardly and leaving the city with the bill at the end of the fiscal year.

At a city utilities committee meeting on Jan. 13, department of public works legislative liaison Rita Braswell presented the members with a series of three trash removal contracts up for renewal. Smith said because the resolutions needed a council member to sponsor it, she was approached.

The former head of the city utilities committee, Smith said that at least once over the last eight years, the city allowed those solid waste contracts to expire.

“So I thought, oh, this is a timely paper. Yes, I will be more than happy to introduce the paper and to help the administration save some time,” Smith said. “But I had no idea it had not gone through the proper channels.”

It took only six minutes for the committee to listen to the resolutions, ask a few questions and approve the contracts. The full council subsequently voted 12-0 to approve each of the three contracts.

But Reed said even though the contracts were set to soon expire, neither he, Aman, Byrd, Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza nor Interim Watershed Management Commissioner Dexter White knew anything about what Braswell was doing.

“When I learned about it, I was on my way to Washington, D.C., and I vetoed it,” Reed said. “I am not going to stand behind any contract that Peter, Candace or the commissioners don’t know about.”

Along with vetoing the bill, the city also suspended a public works employee, who Reed said was fully aware of the current policy.

City officials would not confirm or deny if it was Braswell who was suspended.

“In my veto letter [dated Jan. 26], I laid out exactly what my problem was, even though I am not required by law to do so," Reed said. "I regret that any member of the city council is frustrated by this. I enjoy my relationship with council and I know that some of them were upset. But we have proven that this system works.”

Reed said he is now awaiting an opinion from the city’s law department as to how to proceed. He said that he has no evidence that the process to secure the three vendors, who were existing contractors whose contracts were up for renewal, was anything other than “fair, open and honest.”

“But the process was inconsistent with how we do things now,” Reed said.

Council President Ceasar Mitchell said he has asked Reed to provide “a specific plan of action on how to handle these three procurements and when he plans to bring them back up” before Monday's full council meeting.

He said that will help determine whether the council overturns or sustains the vetoes, which is at the top of Monday's agenda.

Smith said she didn’t take the vetoes personally and agrees with the overall policy.

“My special interests are my constituents,” Smith said. “I just want the trash picked up.”

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