Albany Mayor Willie Adams checks his notes before speaking at the ribbon-cutting of the city’s first completed gateway sign near the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport last month. Adams hands the gavel over to Mayor-elect Dorothy Hubbard Jan. 9 after serving eight years as mayor.
ALBANY Sitting in the fifth-floor mayor's office he's occupied for the last eight years, Dr. Willie Adams has started packing up nearly a decade's worth of photos, proclamations and municipal knickknacks.
Adams, and the city he's presided over, have come a long way since he was sworn in Feb. 10, 2004.
There have been ups — like Wal-Mart's decision to build a second Albany-area store in East Albany last year and the fact the city hasn't raised its property tax rate in better than five years — and downs — the closure of Cooper Tire and Merck, not to mention a handful of scandals. Adams, however, says he believes that the City Commission has weathered the controversies and come out on the other side smarter and better equipped to handle future challenges.
"I defy anyone to run an organization of this size for eight years and walk away and say they haven't lost anything," Adams said. "It's almost impossible. You just learn from your mistakes to plug up those holes and try not to make those mistakes again."
Adams acknowledges that he and the commission made some decisions that ultimately cost the taxpayers — the biggest and most recent example being better than $350,000 repaid to HUD for a failed housing development that was initially approved by the commission in 2005 — but points to the fact that the commission has balanced an annual budget averaging more than $100 million every year he's been in office.
"There's no question about it," Adams said. "When you're dealing with the number of people and the amount of money we deal with — a rough guess over that last eight years would be almost $1 billion — if you count up we may have lost a half-million dollars. We're not proud to lose one penny of taxpayers' money, but if you're dealing with almost a billion dollars and you have mishaps of only a half-million, that's a pretty good record."
Adams said he's most proud of the fact that the city has managed to keep a stable fiscal ship while navigating turbulent economic waters.
"We have an excellent team and we've managed to keep the city financially solvent during some pretty tough times without having to furlough anyone or having any layoffs," Adams said. "The bond rating for the city was increased by Moody's, which has helped us save thousands of dollars by refinancing bonds."
When Adams took office, he joined a commission table that was — and had been — filled with colorful personalities from each of the city's six wards.
So colorful, in fact, the city had become the focus of ridicule from other governments across the state who pointed to the city's televised meetings as being more akin to a circus than a functional city government.
And while the board still has its flashbacks to the absurd, Adams said he's proud of the board's ability to work together.
"I'm very proud of the working relationship my fellow commissioners have. It's no longer newsworthy that there is interracial fighting between them and on issues. That makes me proud," Adams said.
The outgoing mayor also pointed to the commission's response to the scandal that centered around former downtown manager Don Buie — implementing new, tighter controls on how the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority spends its money and how the CEO for the organization is hired — as an attempt to win back the public's trust.
"We're very disappointed that Mr. Buie had the type of problems that cost us some problems ... it was not a big money loss, but it was more of a violation of the public trust type thing," Adams said. "It's amazing how well received and how well loved Mr. Buie was by a lot of people, so he not only fooled us, he fooled a lot of people.
"Anytime you're in the public eye, whether it's me or you, you have to be very, very careful about when you wake up, what you do after you wake up, where you go to eat, where you go to sleep, because people will be watching you and some people are hoping that you will fail," he said. "All-in-all, we'll take the Buie case, we'll take the Cutliff Grove case, we'll take that as our failures, but all we ask is that you look at the positives as well."
'PERCEPTION BECOMES REALITY'
Adams did take aim at those he said he felt were content to lob criticisms from the relative safety of homes and offices far removed from the Government Center downtown.
"It's not perfect. It can be improved. And those people who criticize it; if they think they can improve the situation, come get aboard," Adams said. "Don't stand far away and throw rocks. Jump in. The water is fine."
During his tenure Adams has taken positions on some issues that sometimes put him at odds with people who perceive him to be of like mind.
An obstetrician, Adams has been increasingly vocal over the course of his terms in pushing for welfare reform in an effort to curb teenage pregnancy.
"I still believe that we have to strip away the incentives for having babies," Adams said. "We can say, 'Hey look, you had one baby and we're giving you assistance, but if you have two, we're cutting off the spigot and, by the way, we're going to drug test you as well.' Then I think you'll start to see things change. It won't fix the problem, but it'll cut the incentives out."
Drug testing for government beneficiaries has been a concern of Adams' since he was sworn in. He pushed, along with a group of other commissioners, to mandate that the commissioners themselves consent to random drug testing before they can be paid.
Adams said he also believes the state should review statutory rape laws to strengthen the penalties and that the judiciary should more stringently enforce them.
While the mayor has no bearing on the administration of public education, Adams, a former school board member, hesitantly gave his thoughts on how best to improve the quality of education in Dougherty County, which he said is inextricably linked with prosperity.
"Perception becomes reality in people's minds at some point and it becomes critical at a certain point, in my opinion, that if the tide is against you and the perception is very negative that somewhere along the line someone is going to have to make an important decision," Adams said. "I trust that the people on the school board side will make the right decisions."
RACE STILL A CHALLENGE
Looking ahead, Adams, the city's first African-American mayor, said he believes that race relations continue to be the city's biggest challenge, but that as the older generations pass on, African-Americans should revive the vigor shown in the push for equal rights in the 1960s — but this time, behind a rallying cry for improved public education.
"There's always the word race and racial divide that come up, and maybe I'm an optimist but ... it is what it is," Adams said. "This community, demographically, is almost 70 percent African-American. That doesn't mean we should just look out for African Americans, we should look out for the entire community. It's our job to make sure everyone feels comfortable living in the city.
"I think sometimes the more we emphasize the racial divide the more it becomes a reality. I think we just need to realize that we're all God's people and that we need to work together."
Adams was a little leery when asked about any advice he may have for Mayor-elect Dorothy Hubbard, nodding to her six years as a city commissioner as evidence that she knows how the process works and saying that she will likely have her own agenda to put before the commission.
But Adams did caution her and other commissioners against attempting to micromanage the various city departments.
"It's a big challenge keeping the individual commissioners from going out to individual department heads suggesting things and trying to get certain things done," Adams said. "It's not their responsibility. It's the responsibility of the city manager."
While 2012 officially began Sunday, Adams will still preside over at least two more meetings. The first is today's work session. The last is the Jan. 9 work session, which he will convene only to hand the gavel over to Hubbard after she is officially sworn in as mayor.
Despite now being in his 70s, Adams says he intends to continue his medical practice for at least a few more years, but will bow out of public life once Hubbard takes office.