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By Sean Keenan
Atlanta Housing (AH) commissioner Robert Highsmith has missed nearly as many agency board meetings as he’s attended, an investigation into AH roll-call records shows.
Between Highsmith’s November 2017 appointment by former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and October 2020, he’s been absent from 20 of 40 AH board of commissioners meetings, agency documents indicate. He attended just five meetings in person during that period, but he said he’s been present at every meeting since then.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Highsmith called into 10 board meetings. As the public health crisis ramped up last spring, forcing AH officials to conduct their meetings via teleconference, his attendance increased: He attended five of the six meetings held remotely between March and October 2020.
AH board chair Christopher Edwards chalks up Highsmith’s pattern of absenteeism to a rigorous legal schedule. Highsmith, after all, is a partner with Holland & Knight, the respected local firm where ex-Mayor Reed also used to serve as partner.
Nevertheless, Edwards, in a statement sent to Atlanta Civic Circle via an AH spokesman, said Highsmith has been an asset to the public housing agency due in part to his legal prowess.
“Commissioner Highsmith has been a strong, active and important member of the AH board of commissioners,” Edwards said. “His expertise has been invaluable on legal issues, and he has been called upon by me several times to help resolve matters of critical importance to the authority.”
AH officials did not expand on what legal matters Highsmith has assisted with, although the agency’s most high-profile legal battle — a drawn-out saga involving developer Integral Group and its business partners, former AH CEO Renee Glover and then-Mayor Reed — kicked off just before Highsmith’s appointment.
Highsmith’s legal résumé also includes representation of powerful politicians and government agencies, including Reed, former Gov. Sonny Perdue and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy once wrote that Highsmith “has long been the guy Republicans call when they’re in a pickle.”
Edwards added that Highsmith routinely checks in with him “for detailed briefings” when he’s missed a board meeting, “and he is always present when I have asked that he set aside his extremely busy schedule to participate and vote on matters critical to the agency.”
In a statement Highsmith sent to Atlanta Civic Circle through an AH spokesman — Highsmith did not oblige a request for an interview — he, like Edwards, claimed his legal schedule is to blame for his absence at board meetings.
“As a full-time practicing lawyer, I frequently have court appearances or other client obligations that conflict with board meetings,” he said, echoing Edwards’ claim that he touches base with the chairman to find out what he’s missed. “In every case, I alert Chairman Edwards to ensure the conflict will not affect board business.”
Highsmith also said he’s been “particularly active outside of formal board meetings, advising [Edwards] on getting AH out of divisive litigation he inherited and enhancing AH’s leadership with the hiring of CEO Eugene Jones.”
Asked how well he knows Highsmith, Jones said in an interview, “not at all … I know he’s one of our commissioners.” He added that it’s not the CEO’s role to ensure board members attend meetings or carry out their duties. “That has nothing to do with me; that has to do with the board chair,” he said.
This story was updated on Jan. 29, 2021 at 10:55 a.m. to indicate that Highsmith missed 20 meetings, not 21, as a previous version of this story said.