A legislative attempt for the state to take over Atlanta’s airport drew criticism from some elected officials at a Buckhead meeting March 19, but also some sympathy for how ongoing City Hall scandals are helping the debate to take flight.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration has confirmed it selected Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as one of only two to four facilities nationwide to undergo a “financial compliance review” this year. In a written statement, the FAA did not specifically address the latest controversy: a former top City Hall employee who was temporarily given an airport job title and paycheck despite not working there. But the agency did say: “Our objective is to gain reasonable assurance airport revenue is being and has been utilized solely for the capital and operating costs of the airport.”

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore speaks to the North Buckhead Civic Association March 19. (John Ruch)

“I think a lot of the practices that we’ve had have certainly given ammunition to anyone who wants to shoot us down about the airport,” said City Council President Felicia Moore, speaking at the annual meeting of the North Buckhead Civic Association at St. James United Methodist Church on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road. “And it’s really troubling and depressing for me because I’ve served with the city for 20 years being a representative and I don’t like to see the news headlines… But I believe the culture in city government needs to change.”

The office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did not immediately respond to questions about the airport takeover proposal, the related controversies and the FAA probe.

The NBCA, an influential civic association with a nearly 50-year history, traditionally hosts elected officials and other community figures at its annual meeting for policy updates. While the airport is on the other side of town, recent media attention made it a talking point for audience members and some of this year’s guests, including Moore, state Rep. Betsy Holland (D-Buckhead) and Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris. Another guest was Bottoms’ former mayoral election opponent, Mary Norwood, who now chairs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. Norwood spoke briefly about her group, but did not mention the airport and left before it was discussed.

A controversial attempt by some Republican state legislators to wrest ownership of the airport from the city – or at least make it a joint city-state operation – remains alive in the Gold Dome as the current session speeds toward an end on April 2. Adding heat to the debate is a still-unfolding contract bribery scandal involving officials in the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed, as well as hiring practices during the transition to the Bottoms administration.

The airport ties into the debate directly due to recent revelations by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Last year, the AJC revealed that the Reed administration used airport funds to help pay for law firms that were responding to grand jury subpoenas in the City Hall corruption investigation. And this month, the AJC revealed that Bottoms’ now-departed chief of staff, Marva Lewis, was temporarily given an airport job title and salary as part of an attempt to secure city jobs for key campaign staffers before Bottoms took office. Both of those moves could violate federal regulations that require airport revenue to be spent on the facility’s expenses.

State Rep. Betsy Holland (D-Buckhead) answers questions from the crowd. (John Ruch)

Holland expressed concern about the attempt to put the airport under state control.

“I’m not sure I believe the state is better equipped to run the airport than the city currently is, and I’m very concerned about the precedent that anytime the state wants to take over a smaller entity, it can,” she said. “That could be school systems. That could be municipalities. I don’t really think it’s necessary. I don’t think it really solves a problem. It feels a little bit like a power grab.”

Morris said he understood why takeover talk was back amid another corruption scandal. He recalled his service as a City Council member in the 1990s, when two other council members went to prison for airport-related bribery. Bill Campbell, the mayor at the time, later was convicted of tax evasion amid further corruption investigations.

“It feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra used to say,” Morris said. “…It’s no wonder folks are talking about the airport. I think as long as we have a mayor’s race they raise millions of dollars for, and people feel like they’ve got to pay to play, we’re always going to have a problem with culture at City Hall.”

On March 18, the City Council authorized an independent report on the temporary hiring of Bottoms’ campaign staffers, via a resolution written by Buckhead-area Councilmember Howard Shook. Moore said she looks forward to that report, but already knows the city needs to codify the way new administration employees are hired during a mayoral transition. The current process is improvised, she said, and she is unsure whether Bottoms campaign officials knew they had such alternatives as requesting a one-time salary appropriation from the City Council.

“Unfortunately, it’s a bad practice the city has where they just up and hire somebody, they slip them in a position, and then they will finally get around to doing whatever is legislatively correct…,” said Moore.

Moore presented that as mostly a technical issue, while adding that truly “troubling” was the use of airport funds to hire Lewis. Moore called outside spending of airport money “illegal.”

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris speaks to the North Buckhead Civic Association. (John Ruch)

In the wake of the AJC story about legal fees being paid from airport funds, the FAA previously said it would investigate that situation, and Moore said she expects a similar investigation into the Lewis salary. Holding up a hand with her fingers crossed, Moore added, “Pray that there are not any more instances of that because it will be not good for the FAA not to be happy with us [for] diverting revenue from the airport.”

The FAA did not respond directly to questions about that use of airport funds. But it did say that it has selected Hartsfield-Jackson as one of the very few airports to undergo the financial compliance review in 2019.

“The review will focus on ATL’s financial controls utilized to safeguard airport revenues,” the FAA said in a written statement, referring to the airport by its three-letter code name. “The review will test financial transactions between ATL, the city and other governmental entities from which services are purchased. Our objective is to gain reasonable assurance airport revenue is being and has been utilized solely for the capital and operating costs of the airport.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.