Atlanta’s City Council president and Brookhaven’s mayor and much of its City Council are under self-isolation for possible exposure to the coronavirus. So are many members of the General Assembly after a state senator with COVID-19 attended the session. And the pandemic in Georgia has only just begun.

Who makes decisions in local governments if their leaders fall ill with COVID-19 and are incapacitated or worse?

All local cities have lines of succession for other officials to take over, at least to a point, and emergency powers to meet remotely. Brookhaven just named an “interim mayor pro tem” in succession to the mayorship in what City Councilmember Joe Gebbia called “part of our considering worst-case scenarios.”

“The city of Atlanta has a codified succession plan,” said Council President Felicia Moore, and it starts with her office. “If anything happens to the mayor [currently Keisha Lance Bottoms], if the mayor’s out of the country or the mayor becomes incapacitated or, forbid, dies,” then the council president takes the mayor’s office, Moore explained.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore.

The president’s office in turn is taken over by a councilmember designated ahead of time as president pro tempore — Latin for “for the time being” — who currently is Michael Julian Bond. And the new pro tem, as it is often abbreviated, would be the most senior member of the council, according to city code. (If more than one member were equally senior, then a lottery would be held.) The council seat vacated by the new president could be filled by appointment.

“And it would just keep going until none of us existed anymore,” Moore said of the line of succession.

The code is also flexible about the council quorum — the number of members needed to call a meeting and make valid votes. By code, the quorum consists of a majority of the current membership of the council. “If something catastrophic happened and, say, the 15 members now … half of them get wiped out,” Moore said, the remaining members could still make a quorum.

The smaller cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs have similiar, but shorter and less detailed, lines of succession. They have a councilmember designated as mayor pro tem. In Brookhaven, it’s Gebbia; in Dunwoody, John Heneghan; and in Sandy Springs, John Paulson.

In Brookhaven, that line already had a twist. As the pandemic broke, Gebbia was out of town, visiting his grandchildren in a town near San Francisco, California.

Brookhaven City Councilmember Joe Gebbia, who serves as mayor pro tempore.

“Because of the volatility of what’s going on right now, and especially given the speed at which situations evolve, we thought it prudent to appoint Councilman John Park as deputy mayor pro tem to provide assistance in case I was not available,” said Gebbia. “Part of our considering worst-case scenarios. Councilman Park only fills this role if I am unavailable.”

In the three smaller cities, day-to-day operations are supervised by a city manager. Those have backup positions as well. In Dunwoody, the city manager — currently Eric Linton — would be replaced by the assistant city manager, currently Jay Vinicki.

Under the pandemic emergency, all of the council are authorized to meet virtually through teleconfercing for safety reasons, as long as the public can call in, too. Moore said state law allows a councilmember to call into a regular meeting if they are out of the jurisdiction up to two times, and an unlimited amount of time if they are ill. With those various provisions in place, a councilmember, mayor or president likely could continue participating in meetings if they were ill with COVID-19 but not incapacitated.

Unlike Atlanta, the city codes of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs specify the number of members needed for a quorum, so it is not clear what happens if that cannot be met on a long-term basis.

–John Ruch and Dyana Bagby

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