Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Cobb Commission chairman Tim Lee said he had heard enough debate on the county's plan to build the Atlanta Braves a new stadium --- so much that he didn't feel obligated to prolong the decision any longer when it came time to cement nearly $400 million in public financing Tuesday night.
Lee told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he made the right call in deciding to have police physically remove vocal critics of the deal, denying them a chance to speak before the commission's votes.
A couple of his fellow commissioners disagree, although they did not act on their opinions during the meeting.
The spectacle Tuesday night has brought unwanted national attention and rained criticism down on the commission. It was the culmination of a seven-month stadium approval process, during which the commission has been repeatedly criticized for a lack of transparency and failure to include the public at key points along the way.
"We have rules," Lee said after the meeting. "We follow those rules. Consistency is very important in the way we manage our meetings. Not only tonight, but night to night."
But Lee had already veered from commission rules that night by allowing all 12 pro-stadium speakers to address the commission at the beginning of the meeting. The rules call for up to six speakers at the beginning, and up to six at the end of meetings.
And last November, as the commission was about to approve a preliminary agreement with the Braves, the chairman allowed 20 speakers --- or eight more than the rules allow. Lee said that was different, because the public discussion on the Braves investment has just begun.
"We had seven months of public comment, which helped me make a well-informed decision," he said in an email exchange last week.
At least three of four Cobb district commissioners see things differently. Each said they discussed with Lee the possibility of allowing more speakers. Commissioner Lisa Cupid said one of them should have forced a vote on the issue.
"I asked the chairman prior to the meeting --- right before the meeting. We had people approaching where commissioners sit," asking to speak, Cupid said. "He was adamant that he was not going to do that."
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said that during the meeting she suggested a vote on allowing more speakers, but the idea went nowhere.
"Ms. Cupid agreed with me to bring it to a vote," Birrell said. "But it's the chairman's call. He runs the meetings."
Birrell said her one concern was that adding speakers might set a precedent that the commission would then have to follow on all other issues. Reminded that the commission made a similar exception in November, Birrell said: "OK, well, then that's what should have been done."
For his part, Commissioner Bob Ott said he would have supported the idea "if approached in an orderly fashion." But he, too, put the decision on Lee: "The chairman runs the meeting. That's one of his jobs."
Commissioner Helen Goreham did not respond to questions for this story.
Home of the Braves
Last fall, with the Braves stadium proposal still unknown to the public, the Cobb Chamber of Commerce played a central role in luring the team away from downtown Atlanta.
Chamber executives helped the team scout potential sites and hosted closed-door meetings at chamber headquarters where county commissioners heard, in groups of two, the public financing plan for the Braves new home.
On Tuesday, as commissioners were about to lock in the stadium deal, rank-and-file chamber members came to the meeting hall with a plan to drown out critics by arriving five hours early and taking all 12 speaking slots, the group has acknowledged.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the speakers found that 11 either own or work for businesses that are members of the chamber. The other speaker was a recent high school graduate who said she also supports the public investment.
The plan to keep critics away from the podium was organized by a group founded by John Loud, a small-business owner who recently was appointed to lead the chamber's executive committee. His group, Home of the Braves, launched a website and Facebook page in support of the public investment in the stadium shortly after the Nov. 11 announcement.
Brooks Mathis, the chamber's senior vice president of economic development, said the chamber had no part in organizing the speakers.
"We obviously are in support of the local businesses who rally behind the Braves," Mathis said. "But we don't support their website (financially), or anything like that."
A week before the commission meeting, Lord and about 80 supporters held a press conference near the stadium site which they called a rally in advance of the commission meeting. They also announced that the group purchased six billboards, which declare the Braves move a "Home Run for Cobb County."
Loud said the billboards were funded by individuals. And, he said, there was nothing wrong with his group taking all the speaking slots.
"There's five or eight people who get to be the vocal minority, and when you look at the organizations behind them, there's nothing there," Loud said. "So my feeling was ... let's protect Cobb County. Let's protect the branding. The opposition was spreading a lot of emails around, so let's pack the room.
"To me it became --- in baseball there's rules. We understood the rules. We followed the guidelines of the rules."
'Listen to each other'
There was tension in the commission chambers Tuesday even before the meeting started, as people formed a line to sign up for speaking slots and it became clear that stadium supporters would get them all.
Father Panayiotis Papageorgiou, on hand to give the invocation, made a comment before beginning his prayer.
"Tonight, I would say ... listen to each other and I know we can make good decisions in a democratic, American way," he said to a smattering of applause.
Less than five minutes later, as Lee began the business portion of the meeting, people started calling out for a chance to speak.
"Mr. Chairman, please. Mr. Chairman, please. All we want is a ..."
Lee, who has relied heavily on contributions from chamber members throughout his political career, kept repeating into his microphone that they were "out of order," until finally nodding to police officers and saying, "Gentlemen."
One person said he had been standing in line an hour to speak about the decision to spend $168,000 on a lobbyist.
"We have rules that govern these meetings," Lee said. "We are following those rules."
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, called Tuesday's meeting a failure of leadership.
"The entire thing was mishandled," Perry said. "It's giving a horrible perception that this is a rubber-stamp deal (and that) the commissioners are going to push through whatever comes before them, and they don't care what the public says.
"It's the kind of thing that contributes to an erosion of public trust."
Staff writer Tim Tucker contributed to this report.
Here's a look at the Cobb County Commission. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked commissioners if they should have provided more speaking opportunities before Tuesday's vote to approve financing for building a stadium for the Atlanta Braves. Included below are their answers and how to contact each commissioner to share your views.
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Would you have supported adding more speakers? "No. Leading up to Tuesday's meeting, we had several months of inclusive and robust public dialogue in our public meetings."
Comment: Lee said he was aware that several commissioners suggested that the speaker's list be expanded: "I would not have opposed a motion had one of them brought it forward."
Base Salary: $42,582
Contact Information: email@example.com
Would you have supported adding more speakers? Did not respond.
Comment: Did not respond.
Base Salary: $42,582
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Would you have supported adding more speakers? "I would have supported it if approached in an orderly fashion."
Comment: "It comes down to, one of the roles of the chairman is he runs the meeting. With public comments, it's stated very clearly that all comments are directed through the chairman. That's one of his jobs."
Base Salary: $42,582
Contact Information: email@example.com
Would you have supported adding more speakers? "I did not have a problem with that time-wise. The problem with that is where do you draw the line and ... would we be setting a precedent?"
Comment: "It was the chairman's call."
Base Salary: $42,582
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Would you have supported adding more speakers? Yes.
Comment: "I asked the chairman (to allow more speakers) prior to the meeting, right before the meeting ... and he adamantly stated that he was not going to do that. One of us should have made a motion."
Following every detail
Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been digging into all aspects of the Atlanta Braves stadium proposal in Cobb County since the deal was announced last fall. The AJC was the first to report last week Cobb's plan to allow borrowing up to $397 million for the stadium, a figure $29 million more than previously disclosed.
To read the AJC's complete coverage of the Atlanta Braves' move to Cobb County, visit MyAJC.com/bravesmove for video from the meeting, maps, analysis and commentary.