By Joe Earle
There were times, Oliver Porter admits now, when it seemed the city of Sandy Springs wouldn’t really work.
“There were some things that blindsided me,” Porter said recently as he thought back to the days in 2005, when he was trying to draw up plans for the new city. “I spent some real sleepless nights wondering how we were going to get through them.”
There were limits on how much the city could tax. There were limits on how long the city could agree to hire a private contractor to run city business. There were so many things to figure out.
That was Porter’s job. Others took on the politics, the public task of convincing legislators and voters to allow the city to exist. Porter, as a volunteer member of the Committee for Sandy Springs, took on the more prosaic and private work of figuring out how to make the new city work.
After all, someone had to figure out what would happen on the first day Sandy Springs was a city. Porter, designated Interim city manager, had to take the idea of Sandy Springs and turn it into a functioning city government.
“It’s the whole thing about the dog catching the train: ‘You’ve got it, what are you going to do with it?’” said Porter, now a white-haired and white-bearded 74-year-old who still lives in the city he helped create.
“I spent some real sleepless nights wondering how we were going to get through them.”– Oliver Porter
Actually, Sandy Springs is only one of the cities he helped start. After the start-up of Sandy Springs, Porter consulted with other cities born in the boom of city-founding that followed in Sandy Springs’ wake. He played roles in the creation of Johns Creek and Milton in north Fulton County, Chattahoochee Hills Country in south Fulton County and Dunwoody in DeKalb County.
And Porter’s promotion of the notion of hiring a private contractor to do much of the city’s work in order to save money made him an expert in public-private partnerships in government. He wrote two books about what he calls “PPPs” and advised city governments in Japan on the subject. He says he’s also advised government officials in Florida, Ohio and Indiana on what has come to be called “the Sandy Springs model” for government.
“I still get involved, get calls from cities,” he said, sitting in the wood-paneled library he built in his basement. “I help them if I can.”
One thing he didn’t do was run for office. Trained as a civil engineer and after a career as a corporate executive, Porter admits he didn’t have the personality for politics. “I am not psychologically attuned to be a politician,” he said. “It seems to me politics evolves into all this horse trading and I’m a person of principal. I think right is right.”
Instead, he saw his role as purely practical. He likens some of the work he and his committee did to the task set before the country’s Founding Fathers – a comparison he smilingly admits seems “a little grandiose.” Still, both groups had to create a government from scratch.
At one point, he said, he walked out of a meeting and starting sketching notes on the back of an envelope outlining what had to be done. “There are the steps one would have to take to implement a city,” he said. “It was pretty extensive.”
“Oliver was always pushing us in the right direction,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos, one of the founders of the city and who worked for decades to see it created. “He made sure we would be ready to have a city. He said, ‘You’ve got a tiger by the tail.’ He would bring these timelines to meetings and say, ‘You have to do this by then.’ He was the one who pushed us in the right direction.”
That direction included hiring a private contractor to deliver city services. Porter said he got the idea from visiting a city in Florida. Once he determined that was the way Sandy Springs should operate, things fell into place, he said. The private contractor, he said, “is basically just a tool” to do the work set by the elected officials. Private businesses, he said, have much greater flexibility and can save money in how they do that work.
On Dec. 1, 2005, the night Sandy Springs came into existence as a city, Porter handed newly elected Mayor Galambos a giant key to the city and told her to start it up.
Porter is pleased with the way things have gone. “The level of service in Sandy Springs, the efficiencies…,” he said. “People have said, ‘We like it.’ I think the last election shows that. The few arguments I see people have are with the elected officials over zoning. It’s not in the operations area. .. I can’t imagine why anyone would say this has not been a better way to skin a cat.”
Much of that cat-skinning was done in his basement. He laughs when he remembers that someone once called, and when he answered the caller apologized for interrupted him with a relatively trivial matter and asked to speak to a member of his staff. He moved the phone to his other ear, he said, and answered “Staff.”
He can still walk down the long hallway in his home decorated with pictures he’s painted and show a visitor the carved wooden desk he made himself that he used when was making phone calls and writing memos as he worked to set up a government for the city he lives in.
“This,” he said, “is the office where, literally, Sandy Springs was created.”