Officials and longtime residents who helped Sandy Springs found its “public-private partnership” model of government are commenting on the major change made May 14 that will bring most city employees in-house rather than working under private contracts.
Oliver Porter and Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, who both helped create the model when the city was founded, said they are optimistic and hopeful it will work. Others have concerns the meeting where the decision was made was not adequately announced and about losing some of the benefits of outsourcing.
The city launched in 2005 using the public-private partnership model, with leaders saying it allowed them to quickly begin city operations and, due to its competitive nature, would be more efficient and economical and prevent corruption.
Sandy Springs has since been a model for cities using a public-private partnership and has gotten national press attention. The city’s own webpage on the partnership calls it a “trailblazer.”
“The city of Sandy Springs is a trailblazer in government structure and function. Rather than hire hundreds of government employees, the City utilizes a Public-Private Partnership model, resulting in the state’s lowest per capita ratio of municipal employees to residents,” the webpage says.
Porter, who drew up the city’s original privatization plan, said he had not heard about the change from city officials. He said he was hopeful the city made the right choice.
“I hope for the best. I hope they made a wise decision,” Porter said.
Porter wrote two books about outsourcing government and has been a skeptic of cities that have brought more employees in-house. He has no regrets about starting Sandy Springs with the public-private model.
“I think was a great move. It helped us get started wonderfully,” he said. “It was possibly the best way for us to get off the ground.”
In a 2016 interview, Porter said outsourcing is still the most efficient way to run government, and he is skeptical of other new cities that do more in-house. “There has been some backsliding, I think, from some of them,” he said at that time. “The closer they adhere to the [Sandy Springs] model, the better off they are.”
DeJulio is known as the City Council’s unofficial sage of the city’s founding ideals and also has sounded previous warnings about no-bid contract extensions or moving toward in-house positions. The city engaged in some such renewals in recent years amid concerns about government stability during such major projects as the City Springs civic center and lack of financial and salary transparency in some earlier private contracts.
In council discussions in 2016 about no-bid contract extensions, DeJulio warned of a “slippery slope” and that the city should “not start bringing those positions in-house.” In one comment at the time, he said, “We have to keep the vision of how we want the city to run in the long term.”
But DeJulio is on board with the newly decided shift to mostly in-house government. DeJulio said that he was originally concerned about the proposal, but after analysis began to believe it is the right choice and one the late founding Mayor Eva Galambos would have made.
“When I first heard this I was a little surprised we were going to do this, but looking at the numbers… I’ve thought about this and I thought about what Eva and I would have done back in those days,” DeJulio said before the vote. “I have no doubt that we would gone ahead and gone into a situation like this because of the savings.”
And although this does bring many employees in-house, it is in keeping with the Sandy Springs model, he said.
“I know there is going to be some criticism of this, but that criticism is not really founded because this is keeping with the effectiveness and the efficiency of what was anticipated of the city of Sandy Springs,” he said.
Karen Meinzen McEnerny, a former City Council member and longtime neighborhood advocate, said there are pros and cons to both employment options.
“What they’ll be missing is encouraging competition and getting a lower price,” she said. “It’s a shift from something unique to the more typical model.”
McEnerny said she had not heard of the change before the council approved it. She said she believed the city officials had reasons to make the major policy change.
“I guess they studied it and feel it works better for us,” she said.
Tochie Blad, a former Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods board member, had concerns with how the city changed the contracts. She said it is difficult to know whether it is the right decision and complained that there was not enough public notice or review. The move came in a special called City Council meeting on a Tuesday afternoon, only hours after Mayor Rusty Paul held a “State of the City” address where the topic was not mentioned.
“The regular council meeting was just a week away. Why not follow the normal procedure and add these contract cancellations to the regular meeting agenda with public comment available and time to review items?” Blad said in an email. “The quickly called special meeting and the rather rushed haphazard decision by council should not be the normal process for making a major decision.”