ARC: Helping area or eroding local control?
by Jon Gillooly
June 17, 2012 01:38 AM | 3830 views | 21 21 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — Former county chairman Bill Byrne calls the Atlanta Regional Commission “the United Nations of the Atlanta region,” but ARC Chairman Tad Leithead sees his agency as addressing issues that local governments can’t.

With its prominent role in the $8.5 billion transportation referendum on July 31, the ARC has found itself increasingly in the spotlight.

State law requires every Georgia county to belong to one of the 12 regional commissions in Georgia. Cobb belongs to the ARC, which was created by the General Assembly in 1971. The ARC is governed by a 39-member board that steers the planning and development for the 10-county Atlanta region, including Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties.

The ARC employs a staff of 161 and has an operating budget for 2012 of $8.5 million. Its 2012 budget is $58.6 million. Seventy percent of that funding is federal, 16 percent state, 12 percent local. About half of the ARC’s budget is pass-through monies to local governments or local agencies. Primarily the federal and state monies are passed along in the areas of transportation, aging and workforce development, ARC spokeswoman Julie Ralston said.

Cobb pays $1 for every person in the county annually to be a member of the ARC.

Leithead said the ARC’s charter calls for it to develop a plan and see that plan implemented.

“We have the authority to actually build projects if we want to,” he said. “We’ve chosen not to, but we could staff up like the Department of Transportation and go out there and build projects. The ARC was intended to be a forum for regional cooperation and regional planning and implementation of those plans, and today I think we’re just trying to fulfill that role.”

J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party, said his group is opposed to regionalism at the expense of local control.

“It’s the whole self-government thing,” Van Brink said. “It’s taxation without representation. If we lose our liberty, if we lose our ability to tax ourselves, then it’s gone. Once we succumb to regionalization, once we vote on that and say ‘yeah, it’s OK,’ and we lose that, good luck ever getting it back. All it would take is a simple majority in the region to force Cobb County to do things that are not in the best interest of Cobb County.”

However, Leithead said it’s important to remember that such things as zoning are still done at the local government level, so while the ARC can make recommendations, it is the local government’s job to make the final decision.

“We’re not a super-government in that we can usurp or replace or veto the authority of local governments with regard to local issues, whether that be zoning or property taxes,” Leithead said. “We can’t do that and we don’t want to do that. ... We’re a collection of existing local governments speaking with a common voice about regional issues.”

At the same time, an evolution has occurred in the way metro counties interact. Historically, as metro Atlanta was growing, individual counties were highly competitive. A Gwinnett commissioner in the 1970s, for example, who helped get a project approved in DeKalb would likely pay the price on election day.

Leithead believes such thinking has changed.

“We’re not competing Cobb against Fulton or Gwinnett against DeKalb. We’re competing the Atlanta region against Charlotte, or the Atlanta region against Philadelphia, or the Atlanta region against Dallas. That’s had the effect of … coming together as a region so that it can compete effectively in the national and international market.”

It was former ARC chairman Sam Olens who proved that a county chairman could have both a regional perspective and still be highly popular within his own county, Leithead said.

“There was a growing awareness on the part of the residents in the county that participating in the regional conversation was good for the county,” Leithead said. “Sixty-four percent of the people who live in Cobb actually work somewhere else. They began to recognize that you couldn’t just build a gate around Cobb County and be self-sufficient.”

Former county chairman Bill Byrne, who served on the ARC for 12 years, is less enamored with Olens’ work on the ARC.

“I hate to say this, but one of their real heroes in waiting was Sam Olens because Sam bought into all of their regional concepts for planning and growth, and then Tim Lee has just followed suit, and he has been their lead person in developing this TSPLOST regional concept, so they’ve had a lot of influence in Cobb County over the last five or six years,” Byrne said.

Olens declined to comment for this article on account of his role as attorney general for the state.

Leithead believes the ARC is best known for doing planning, particularly transportation planning conducted by its two dozen transportation experts. One of the plans it develops is called the Regional Transportation Program, a 30-year transportation investment plan on a project-by-project basis that has to meet federal air quality standards and is financially feasible to accomplish.

“We just finished development of Plan 2040, which is the name of our 30-year transportation plan, and it’s the most comprehensive plan we’ve done because it also brings in issues of land use and issues of sustainability from an environmental and social standpoint,” Leithead said. “We’re getting involved in not only developing the plan but supporting its implementation. We believe it’s not only important to develop the plan but also to defend it, and … try to see that the plan that’s developed is actually implemented and winds up with projects on the ground.”

An example of this is how the ARC worked with the 21-member Atlanta Regional Roundtable — many of the ARC board and roundtable members are the same people — to design the $8.5 billion list of transportation projects voters will decide upon on July 31.

“The first phase was for us to support the 21-member roundtable and the development of a truly regional project list, and I think we did that,” Leithead said. “We staffed that and came up with a very, very good project list that’s regionally significant and balanced in a number of ways. But we didn’t stop there. On Oct. 15 when the project list was approved, then we transitioned immediately into the educational program to try to get the information out to as many potential voters as possible as to what were the facts of the referendum so that they could make an informed choice on July 31.”

If voters approve the transportation sales tax referendum on July 31, the ARC will transition into a support role of seeing the 157 projects on the list built, he said.

Byrne, who is running for re-election in the county chairman’s race, said while serving on the ARC board he quickly came to realize that the agency’s agenda was for all counties from a growth perspective to grow in the same way. Byrne says the ARC’s agenda mushroomed under former ARC director Harry West, who worked for the ARC from 1972 to 2000.

“Their agenda was driven by the desires of the city of Atlanta, and their justification about it — they made no bones about it — was that the city of Atlanta is the central focus for the economy for the whole state, primarily because of the airport,” Byrne said.

Byrne disagreed with this approach, as did several other commission chairmen while he was serving on the ARC.

“It was always a battle as to the focus, but their land-use planning concepts were driven and still are by what is referred to as the Agenda 21 program, and that is a U.N.-mandated concept of growth that pretty much says we need to pick out our corridors for high-density vertical development, both residential and commercial, in relying on public transportation for circulation, and the offset to that is the open space that remains after that is designated as common open space for all people,” Byrne said. “Well hell, I never bought into that then, I don’t buy into it now and have fought it ever since, but they have a U.N. concept of the redistribution of wealth and a very liberal approach to how they spend their monies.”

Byrne said it is unfortunate state law requires Cobb to be part of such an organization. As chairman in the mid-1990s, Byrne said he tried to move Cobb into another district, the northwest district, but in order for that to work Cobb needed that district’s permission.

“They didn’t want Cobb County because they were afraid we would dominate the policies and procedures and planning concepts there and encouraged us to stay within ARC,” he said. “One of the problems you have in ARC is you’re mandated by law to be a part of it, but also the ARC lobbies the General Assembly extensively, and they get a significant amount of money from the federal government and the state of Georgia, and their involvement in all kinds of social programs is very, very extensive, and they utilize those monies as leverage, and their focus is a very liberal focus.”

The ARC’s 39-member governing board consists of 23 local elected officials, 15 private citizens and one representative of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The elected officials are the 10 county chairmen as well as one mayor from each of the 10 counties with the exception of Fulton County, which gets to have a member from north and south Fulton as well as the Atlanta Mayor and a member of the Atlanta City Council.

Cobb Countians have led the ARC three times. The first was the late Commissioner Ernest Barrett, the ARC’s first and longest serving chairman, who served from 1971 to 1984; second by Olens and presently by Leithead, who recently moved from east Cobb to Dunwoody. Leithead, who has served on the ARC board since 2000, was elected the ARC’s first citizen chairman in December 2009.

Five citizen members represent parts of Cobb on the board. They are Leithead, Bank of North Georgia president Rob Garcia, developer Kip Berry of Douglasville, Dan Post Jr. of Post and Associates CPAs of Marietta and Cherokee Bank president Dennis Burnette.

Citizen members are selected by a caucus of the elected officials on the board, with terms ranging from two to four years. They are paid $44 per meeting as well as compensated for miles traveled. Board meetings are monthly, as are committee meetings, Ralston said.

Board meetings are open to the public and held at the ARC headquarters, located at 40 Courtland Street NE in Atlanta.
Comments
(21)
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COBBCSI
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June 19, 2012
This is straight up Agenda 21 Sam Olens is the main man he wants to be the new regional mayor you just watch if TSPLOST passes the ARC and MARTA will take over and Sam will be heading it up. Spain right now can’t run their light rail maybe we can get a deal on that light rail!!
West Cobb Farmer
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June 18, 2012
A couple of thoughts on this reporting....

First, ARC has been around since 1971. That's forty-one (41) years! During these 41 years the Atlanta region has experience unprecedented growth, sprawl and traffic. Why is ARC just now promoting this TSPLOST effort? Where was ARC 30 years ago? Where was ARC 20 years ago? Where was ARC 10 years ago?

Second, yes, traffic is a problem but it's always been a problem even back in the Go Go Sixties when ATL was just reaching the 1 million population milestone. But water hasn't always been a problem. Now water is a big problem. Just a couple of years ago we were close to running out of water. So, why isn't ARC pushing a WSPLOST?

Third, jobs have become a major problem for the region and the state. Real unemployment is still double digit even though the "official" stats put unemployment in the 8% range. So, with so many people unemployed or under-employed why isn't ARC promoting a JSPLOST?

I think the answer to some of my thoughts can be found in the membership of the ARC. Take a look at who's running this thing. It's either developers, former developers, realtors, bankers and other folks whose star is hooked to development. Development in ATL is dead. At least compared to the past forty years. These development folks on the ARC are out of business unless they can come up with another development venture. I would argue that TSPLOST is their new business venture.

Last GA Democrat
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June 19, 2012
Development is not necessarily dead, but OVERDEVELOPMENT is dead. The developers, former developers, realtors, bankers and land speculators that you speak of at the ARC just refuse to accept that harsh reality.
KellyWoods
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June 18, 2012
All areas in the Metro Atlanta area need to benefit from the Atlanta Transportation Referendum including Cobb County. A win for Atlanta with the Regional Transportation Referendum is a win for everyone!
TIC
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June 18, 2012
@KellyWoods

"A win for Atlanta with the Regional Transportation Referendum is a win for everyone."

Very naive Kelly.
YIKES
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June 18, 2012
Byrne's statements paint him as a backwards isolationist. Someone should take the microphone away from him before he hurts himself and Cobb County.
JB11
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June 18, 2012
Byrne's stateemnts are idiotic. If ARC is so agenda-driven and so nefarious in its ways, then why is metro ATL (including Cobb) one of the most unpleasant, fragmented, riddled-with-fearful-fiefdoms areas in the US? Obviously development has gone on for decades basically unchecked, ARC hasn't stopped it. And I don't understand what Byrne's alternative vison of growth is - every last acre is for sale? And no need for in-tact ecoysystems or open space to live/breathe? Surely he also needs clean air and water to survive, but I doubt he'd be the first to sign up Cobb to help pay for the massive infrastructure that would be needed to have clean drinking water if no forests/wetlands/etc. were left. Cobb really should be located in the middle of GA - they have no idea that they would not be as populated and prosperous as they are if it weren't for City of ATL (and yes, it's AIRPORT).
TCW(TheCobbWay)
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June 18, 2012
@ JB11

Or might it be said that if it weren't for the outlying suburban counties, particularly Cobb, North Fulton and Gwinnett that the City of Atlanta would be a vast wasteland.

The fact is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the central city and the suburbs.

Atlanta's vitality originally gave rise to the prosperous suburbs and now those same suburbs are keeping Atlanta from becoming another Detroit.

The key is to strike a balance that is a win win for everyone in the region.

Supposedly that is ARC's job, but unfortunately they have been doing a terrible job for decades and now they want even more control.

Why would we let the inept bureaucracy (ARC) that got us into this mess in the first place have even more say so in our future?

Not a good idea!!!
Paper Tiger
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June 18, 2012
ARC is a paper tiger with no power. This is why they are fighting so hard for the referendum. They have an opportunity to actually do something rather than just sit back and talk about it. This is also why I will be voting NO on the referendum. The last thing we as a region need is a bunch of unelected liberal bureaucrats with an agenda deciding how to spend massive amounts of transportation dollars dedicated to deciding where you and I should live rather then improving traffic.
Well, Well, Well
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June 18, 2012
It was only a matter of time before he showed up. Tigers don't change their stripes, old dogs cannot learn new tricks and you can't lead that horse to water. Same Old Bill.
I16
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June 18, 2012
Once a Marine always a Marine.
Tim Langley
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June 18, 2012
What's good for the region is NOT necessarily good for local communities. What's good for ANY community is almost ALWAYS good for the region. A billion dollars paid in by Cobb Countians could be spent much better on both economic development AND traffic congestion than it could by sending most of it to some unelected board.

Vote NO on July 31st!
anonymous
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June 18, 2012
--re: Former county chairman Bill Byrne calls the Atlanta Regional Commission “the United Nations of the Atlanta region,”--

I am not a Byrne supporter, but he is exactly right on this. We are controlled by boards that have absolutely NO accountability to the people who are affected by their decisions. The ARC and these danged CIDs are examples.

Agenda 21 is here, folks.
Third Floor
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June 18, 2012
It is interesting that you started this article by quoting Bill Bryne. What is more interesting is the part that is missing from this article: Bill Byrne put Tad Leithead on the ARC board when Tad was working full time as a developer. Now it's wrong that Tad is on this Board, even though is currently isn't working as a developer? If the AJC put Bill through their Flip Flop meter, it would still be spinning.
TIC
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June 18, 2012
The difference is that when Byrne appointed Leithead he expected him to do what was in the best interest of Cobb County and held his feet to the fire to make sure that happened.

Was Byrne always right? No, but his intentions were to do what was best for Cobb and he expected our Cobb ARC representatives to have the same mindset.

That has changed a full 180 degrees.

Now the situation is totally reversed and it is Leithead dictating to Tim Lee what he and ARC thinks is best for Cobb County.

Unfortunately for Cobb citizens Lee falls into line without any argument or thought of what is best for Cobb County.

That's the difference.

Tim Lee. Leadership Seriously?
Mike O. Bedenbaugh
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June 17, 2012
I disagree with Ted Leithead that Sam Olens was the first to show a county chairman; he was a good one; have a regional perspective and still be highly popular by his own county. Earnest Barrett was, as he was elected Cobb County Chairman from 1964 until he retired because of his health; lung cancer; in the middle 1980s. He was Cobb's first member on the ARC and a great mover and shaker not only in Cobb County, but the ARC region. He brought Cobb out of a rural county into what is today by his forsight and a lot of Metro Atlanta.
Last GA Democrat
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June 17, 2012
"Byrne said it is unfortunate state law requires Cobb to be part of such an organization. As chairman in the mid-1990s, Byrne said he tried to move Cobb into another district, the northwest district, but in order for that to work Cobb needed that district’s permission."

It is unfortunate that Cobb County, along with Cherokee County, was not able to escape from the clutches of the Atlanta Regional Commission and gain sole control over its long-term transportation and land-use planning.

In the early-to-mid 1990's would have been a very good time for Cobb County to separate itself from Metro Atlanta in a political and regional sense as Cobb County has grown so much more since then as part of the ARC that the county is now considered to be a very key solid and indispensible part of the five-county urban core of the greater 28-30 county Atlanta Region, a five-county urban core that in addition to Cobb County also includes Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Gwinnett counties.

Needless to say, it is more than likely entirely too late for Cobb to successfully attempt to pull the kind of beneficial political and social move that Byrne attempted to pull off back in the 1990's by attempting to move Cobb (and Cherokee) out of the Atlanta Regional Commission and into the Northwest Regional Commission where Cobb and Cherokee counties would better be able to stand on their own without being politically and socially-dominated by the politically and socially liberal City of Atlanta whose agenda is to spread and impose its politics and social structure on surrounding suburban communities like Cobb and Gwinnett counties.
JB11
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June 18, 2012
If you would like sole control of your transportation planning, then plan to do it without federal dollars, because federal law dating back to the 1960s mandates that federal transportation funding be distributed through Metropolitan Planning Organizations like the ARC.
JR in Mableton
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June 17, 2012
Where does local (county/municipal) control originate?..........the state of Georgia?
SG68
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June 17, 2012
Any organization that uses the U.N. as their template is not a good thing.

Regionalism is appropriate for two things: air quality and water quality and supply.

Everything else is best controlled at the local level.

That is not to say that transportation should not be coordinated between the various local governing authorities, but to turn it over to regional agencies like ARC and GRTA is asking for trouble.

TSPLOST is a giant step in that dubious direction.
ARC Runs Cobb?
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June 17, 2012
The ARC "plans" projects that contribute 2/3 of Cobb's TSPLOST money to Train/Bus/Boondoggle. Their "planning" results in a referendum with no transit facts - a true Pig in a Poke. After you vote for it they will tell you where the money goes.

Meanwhile ARC does not provide a "plan" for our biggest transportation bottleneck. Nothing to improve the I-75/I-285 interchange or the part of I-285 between Cumberland and Perimeter.

We would be better off without their transit and high density housing "plans".
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