ATLANTA: A CITY ON A HILL
Thank you for allowing me the privilege of standing before you today as the 59th Mayor of the great City of Atlanta. This is truly the single most important moment of my life, and the gratitude I feel toward all of you who made it possible, is beyond measure. I will forever remember, and have my efforts informed and inspired by the knowledge, that I would not be where I am today, were it not for . . . the citizens of Atlanta. No man or woman is an island . . . and no one rises to leadership without being lifted to such heights by those around him. Such is the moral of my story. Along the path to this podium, I have seen the faces, heard the hopes, felt the disappointments, and found myself deeply moved by the dreams of the people in our communities. I carry those personal encounters close to my heart and will use the office you have given me to make a positive difference in the lives of all I can . . . for today, I am the recipient of a sacred gift . . . a gift of the public trust, and of its collective hopes for a brighter future. I assure you, I take neither that gift, nor its attendant responsibilities lightly. Stewardship of one of America’s greatest cities is now the mandate that has been bestowed upon me. I am deeply humbled by the call. And more than anything, I know that I cannot do it without you. I ask for both your prayers and your earnest efforts in making Atlanta that shining City on a Hill . . . it was always meant to be.
I also know, as so many of the great leaders of Atlanta have known before me, that service is the tangible way we demonstrate our own acceptance of responsibility. Because when we put others in front of ourselves, when we sacrifice self-interest in the name of collective responsibility, when we stand with others rather than going it alone, we do so because we recognize that the responsibilities we have are greater than any one of us.
So while I stand before you as a Mayor who has sworn to undertake those responsibilities as a servant of this City, I am looking out at so many of you who have also understood and undertaken those responsibilities in your service and your support of this City. Your service inspires me and will continue to inspire me as we face a set of responsibilities that call each and every one of us to the service of Atlanta.
With that in mind, I would like to share with you my vision of the shared responsibilities that we face. That vision is of four responsibilities: our responsibility to our past, to our present, to our future and to one another.
It is often said that to know where we are going, we must know where we have come from. And with that in mind, I believe we must understand and acknowledge that the Atlanta that we cherish today - - the Atlanta where a movement for freedom that changed the history of the world was launched, would have never come to be were it not for the combination of people and initiatives that have come before us. Great Mayors like Mayor William Hartsfield, who had the vision of an airport that has become an essential engine of our City and our gateway to the world. Mayors like Ivan Allen and Sam Massell who helped transform Atlanta into the capital of the New South, building infrastructure for business and bridges between people. Mayors like Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, who helped create new public projects like MARTA and a modern airport, and who introduced Atlanta to the world stage by bringing unprecedented private investment into our City, while also making sure that men and women of every race, creed and color could succeed in pursuing their own business pursuits.
And Mayors like my friend Shirley Franklin, who continued to make sure the state, the nation and the world knew that Atlanta was open for business, even as it made sure to care for those most in need. Those leaders helped build a city where business opportunity and growth became hallmarks of Atlanta, where barriers are not overwhelming, but are instead obstacles to overcome; a city where public works and good works go hand in hand with private investment and professional success.
Those great leaders, and countless others who toiled quietly outside of the limelight with no expectation of glory or fame, have made Atlanta what it was always meant to be, a shining city on a hill.
Today, the torch has been passed to each and every one of us. Each of us has a responsibility to continue that legacy of past leadership by continuing to cultivate a culture of business opportunity, while also addressing challenges that limit our capacity to invest in our City, and to invest in one another.
First, we need to recognize that our City must not only say it is open for business, but it must also act like it is open for business, helping create jobs and economic opportunities for all citizens of our City.
I have said before, and I believe it now, in order for Atlanta to truly be great, it must be a city for all of us. While job creation with fair wages and opportunities for people of all backgrounds must be a responsibility of the private sector, we have a responsibility to create a culture in the halls of our government where the City enables businesses to rapidly respond to opportunity, not impede that response with red tape and red ink. We must recognize that creating a culture that is conducive for responsible economic development is a paramount function of city government. Starting right now, we will make sure that the women and men who have visions of opportunity have partners in City Hall, not obstacles. I will be known as the Mayor of the small businessperson; it is these people of vision that will employ our citizens, open new markets and take Atlanta to new heights in this new decade.
We will create new opportunities in several ways. We will have the best and the brightest among us join the dedicated public servants in City Hall to work with business to develop the next engines that will fuel our City and region for decades to come. While the challenges that we face are unprecedented, so are the opportunities. We will make sure functions like the permitting process in this City are not a source of frustration, but rather a source of growth. That is why in my first year in office we will completely reform the City’s permitting process once and for all. It will be more efficient and easy to use. By embracing business and giving business the opportunity to embrace us back, we will take responsibility to continue the legacy of our past.
As we strive to create a new healthy environment where entrepreneurs can flourish we must also take responsibility for and solve the unfulfilled challenges of our past, one of which is the City’s pension situation. Friends, the service that has been provided by every worker in this City has been with merit and is deserving of our appreciation. They have worked in our offices, repaired our streets and enabled our City to flourish. But the stark reality is that one out of every 5 tax dollars is currently going to fund a pension system that is strangling our City. We need to face this challenge head on, being mindful of the responsibility to taxpayers who fund that pension system, without breaking the faith with the public servants who have dedicated their lives to Atlanta. We must face this issue, with unyielding resolve, and we will do just that. Likewise, we will not be detoured from solving the City’s water issues, and making Atlanta a beacon to the world as a metropolitan city that not only respects, but nurtures its environment. For us to take on this responsibility for our past means we must also take responsibility to address those past decisions that might limit our future – and as your Mayor I will do so.
The next area of responsibility we must embrace is our responsibility to the present. We know that the times in which we live and the economic hardships that we face have created, for many of our citizens, a sense of hopelessness; and when people are without resources to make ends meet, when the flames of their frustration are fanned by strong winds of hopelessness, these individuals may turn desperate and some may even turn to crime. Please know that we will not simply be tough on crime, we will be smart on crime.
While I will be vigilant to stop crime and protect our citizens at every turn, I would not be satisfying my responsibility as your Mayor without also addressing the root cause of crime – without creating hope and opportunity for all of our citizens. This, I promise you, I will do.
When women cannot walk to their cars at night without feeling safe, when students don’t feel safe walking to class, when convention attendees don’t want to stay downtown, we have failed to take responsibility for the most sacred obligation of our present – the safety of our citizens. We must undertake this effort with seriousness and severity. We must prevent crime, we must eliminate violence fueled by gang activity and we must reduce the types of activities like aggressive panhandling that frighten our citizens. We must treat our officers better by paying them a wage that allows them to support their families and to afford to live in the City they have sworn to protect. We must have more police officers walking and working amongst us, and in the next year I will honor this commitment. It should be so, and it will be so. The foundation of my campaign was built on my promise to attack crime in this City. The foundation of my administration shall be built on my fulfillment of that promise.
We must take responsibility for giving hope to those who feel hopeless, to give opportunity to those who feel they have none. This is why as Mayor I have pledged, and I will keep my pledge, to open every single recreation center in this City and to find, raise and retain the funds necessary to keep them open. But more than opening them, we will turn them into what they must be – Centers of Hope, and from this day forward that is how we will refer to them and that is what they must be for the sake of our children.
This value brings me to my third area of responsibility – the responsibility to our future. We are a City with one of the youngest populations in the nation, where our opportunity is limited only by our imagination.
But we must take responsibility for that future by creating opportunities for each of our children to achieve whatever goal they set for themselves. A journey should be measured by the distance traveled and not by the heights reached. While my story is a simple one, my journey from Southwest Atlanta to these halls is one that should not be viewed as too far by the children of the Ralph Bunche Middle School, but rather a walk that each of them believes they can pursue and attain.
My journey is one that is humbling and should serve as a reminder that ability cannot succeed without opportunity. My story must be one of thousands of stories told by the children of our City who embrace the opportunity to be all that their dreams and hard work can achieve. We must make helping create those stories our responsibility to our future. We will do this by continuing to support the schools of our City, and the opportunities they create each and every day.
Our responsibility is to help every child take that next step into their future, and that is a responsibility which we cannot afford to get a failing grade.
The final pillar of responsibility we must recognize is our commitment to one another.
First for me personally, I recognize that I am part of a team of elected officials, especially my friends and colleagues on the City Council. We have a responsibility to work together, with honesty and transparency, to help make this great City thrive. To the Council President Ceasar Mitchell and members of this distinguished City Council, I say this, I am proud to be on your team, and I embrace the partnership that we have. To other elected state and local officials, I am proud to be on your team, – to work with you as we face the challenges of our region and our state. Let us partner together as if the future of our City and state depended on it, because, in fact, it does.
Second, I want to acknowledge that the city government has a responsibility to its citizens to perform the business of government, in an open, ethical and professional manner. We must also create a culture of customer service that competes with the service quality of those stellar companies that call Atlanta home. It is not enough to say we must do better, we must actually do better. Whether it is taking care of that pothole in your street or answering your questions when you call, every encounter with an employee or official of the City of Atlanta must be one that inspires confidence and gets results.
In my administration we will continue to develop a culture of excellence where performance is an expectation, not an aspiration. Yes, we will need to do this in an environment where resources are limited, but we are not limited in our ability and imagination of what a world class constituent-focused city government can be. This is a responsibility of a government to its citizens that cannot be forsaken.
And third, we must recognize that we have a responsibility to one another; to transcend that which divides us and to respect that which makes each of us unique. The diversity of our gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, cultural background and personal heritage is what must bring us together, because the tapestry of Atlanta is a beautiful one and must be a source of strength, never of weakness. We should also be kind to one another. It is not a sign of weakness to be nice to each other and to treat each other well. We cannot face our futures together if we are facing-off with one another. In my Office and in this City I will strive to have every voice heard and every opinion respected. And I hope that you will join me in the discussions we need to have and the actions we need to take to come together as a city to take responsibility for one another. Because we need to be more than the city that is too busy to hate, we need to make sure that we are a city that isn’t too busy to love one another as well.
Those are our responsibilities, to our past, to our present, to our future and to one another.
I am reminded today of the biblical story of Joshua and the spies who Moses dispatched to the promised-land. After surveying the land that was promised, after seeking out the giant grapes and the land flowing with milk and honey, the spies returned to Moses to report their finding. And while ten of those spies were fearful of the land and the perceived giants they would face, two of them came back believing there was a promised land worth sacrificing for. One of those spies was Joshua, who went on to lead his people into the land of their future.
Atlanta – we are all on the lookout for a brighter future, we are all emissaries of our own collective destiny. We can see that future and be fearful, or we can see that future and act boldly. I choose the latter and I ask you to join me. Because what I know without doubt is that the Atlanta that I know is worth sacrificing for, it is worth fighting for.
Yes, we stand now in the midst of storm clouds of an economic recession that has challenged our ability to see the sunlight of our future - - and just as much, we stand in the valley between mountains of local and regional issues that stand so high that we are challenged to imagine what the view looks like from the mountain tops.
We cannot ignore those storm clouds, and we cannot avoid those valleys. But friends, as your Mayor I share with you this:
We will see the sunlight of our future and we will stand on the top of those mountains. We will be a city on a hill.
We will embrace the shared responsibilities we have, and we must undertake.
And together, in spirit and in service, we will succeed, we will win. Come with me. Our journey has just begun.
Thank you. God bless you all.