Cobb Judge Must Recuse Himself

Note the following post was authored by Terry Taylor, a Common Cause Georgia board member.


On July 7, Cobb County Superior Court Judge C. LaTain Kell, Sr., is scheduled to preside over a validation hearing for bonds to secure public funding for the new Atlanta Braves stadium. The hearing is a necessary step in the project to bring the Braves to Cobb County, one that everyone knew was coming. There’s a problem, however, and a big one as things currently stand.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (“Judge in Braves hearing has personal ties to Cobb chairman,” June 26, 2014) reports that Judge Kell has personal ties to Cobb County Board of Commissioners (BOC) Chairman Tim Lee: His mother worked as chairperson for Chairman Lee’s 2012 re-election campaign. In addition, Judge Kell serves as a “special appointee” to the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors. The AJC reports that “chamber has 28 special appointees, which are voting members of the board, including Braves executive vice president Mike Plant.”

Chairman Lee was the driving official force in the stadium deal, and he continues to be the most prominent advocate for public funding. The Cobb Chamber of Commerce has been the biggest privet-sector promoter for the stadium and the issuance of bonds that put Cobb citizens on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years.

Impartiality in our judicial system is absolutely essential, and the perception of impartiality is equally important for the  public to have faith that our courts are fair. Given the facts of the situation, Judge Kell should recuse himself from the hearing and make way for someone who has no connections with the deal’s most ardent supporters.

This is not a question of Judge Kell’s integrity, nor am I claiming that something sinister happened in his selection to preside over the hearing. As the AJC noted, cases are assigned to Superior Court judges randomly by computer. It’s simply an issue of ensuring that the public has no reason to perceive that conflicts of interest are seeping into the process. I would make the same call for recusal if the judge involved was associated with anti-stadium groups.

Common Cause Georgia doesn’t oppose the stadium or the county’s involvement. Before the deal was approved by the Cobb BOC, we advocated for a referendum that would have allowed citizens to make their voices heard. We continue to focus is on transparency and full details as the stadium moves forward — and no conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived.

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Is there “nothing there” when you look at the SCLC?

Note the following post was authored by Terry Taylor, a Common Cause Georgia board member.


The decision by the Cobb Board of Commissioners (BOC) to provide public funding for the new Braves stadium has been controversial from Day One. So it was no surprise that emotions ran high at the May 27 BOC meeting when commissioners voted on a bond resolution needed to move forward.

My thoughts today have nothing to do with how the only public comment speakers that evening were those in support of the stadium project. Nor are my remarks about the way in which the particulars of the bond deal became public or the lack of time allowed for the citizens to review them. Instead, I’d like to focus on a passage that appeared in a June 1 Atlanta Journal Constitution article (“Lee says Cobb County Commission followed rules in limiting speakers”). A vocal proponent of public funding support for the stadium, John Loud was quoted as saying the following about opponents of public funding for the stadium:

“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.”

So, if a reader believes Mr. Loud. there’s “nothing there” when you look at the organizations behind the folks who oppose the stadium deal. But on May 27 at the BOC meeting, Dr. Benjamin Williams was the lead spokesperson for the group that night and was the one who asked to be heard. In fact, he was only a few feet away from Mr. Loud that night when he made the request.

Dr. Williams is the chapter president of the Cobb County SCLC, also known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC is one of our nation’s most important civil rights organization, and it has a long and proud history of advocating for fairness and equality for all citizens. When I look at the SCLC, I don’t think there’s “nothing there.”

In the AJC article, Mr. Loud is identified as a small-business owner who recently was appointed to lead the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee. Do these comments also reflect the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s views, that there is nothing there when you look at the SCLC and other stadium opponents?

Mr. Loud has a right to push for public funding for the stadium if that’s what he believes is appropriate. And Common Cause Georgia doesn’t oppose the stadium or the county’s involvement. Our focus is on transparency and full details. But I find his dismissive comments about opponents to be curious at best. Perhaps Mr. Loud meant to say something else but just articulated it in a clumsy and artless way. That happens.

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Silence Whistle-Blowers?

This Tuesday Governor Deal intimated that he may have a solution to prevent future controversy at our state ethics commission. Sounds like a great idea at first, given that taxpayers got rocked by a $1.15 million award to the commission’s former Executive Director last month, who a jury ruled was fired for aggressively investigating complaints against the Governor’s campaign. However, Deal’s solution takes a sharp turn toward hypocrisy when you hear the details.

His plan? More narrowly define who is and is not a whistle-blower, i.e. reduce the opportunities for state employees to bring a lawsuit against the state for wrongful termination when they are fired for political purposes.

So to get it straight, a jury rules a state employee wrongfully had her salary drastically cut, leading to her resignation, as a result of investigating legitimate complaints against the Governor and these complaints, which were lodged by citizens, would not be allowed to go to court under the Governor’s proposed change?

Here’s our counter offer: true reforms at the commission so its employees are beyond being fire for political purposes.

Making it harder or completely preventing employees to blow the whistle when there is wrongdoing in state government sends the wrong message to a public who is already highly skeptical of how much power can be held accountable in Georgia. Whether or not you agree with the verdict, 12 voters in Fulton County agreed unanimously that Kalberman was fired for investigating the Deal campaign too aggressively.

We need to encourage the establishment of a more independent commission that is beyond even the perception of political influence, one that can effectively investigate complaints. Or, at the very least, allow those with wrongful termination or whistle-blower cases to have their day in court. How else could those courageous enough to stand up when they see wrongdoing, or get fired for blowing the whistle, have protection when they do what is right?

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The Biggest Waste and Inefficiency of All?

Note the following post was authored by Wyc Orr, a Common Cause Georgia board member.

How revealing, last week’s outcry from the Co-Chair of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s own new Commission on Waste & Efficiency in Government, about the devastating infrastructure costs facing the City – costs which cannot be avoided or put off any longer. Even more, what a key that cry provided to the City’s finally coming to terms with the true costs to the City of the new Falcons’ stadium. On these two critical issues, if the Atlanta City Council is ever going to step up to meet its responsibilities as stewards of the taxpayers’ money – and as a body which is supposed to exercise its own independent judgment as a check on undue mayoral power — the time is NOW.

It is remarkable that the little-noticed dire disorder in the City of Atlanta’s financial house — including the looming infrastructure backlog “trauma [which] will follow for many years” (as described by City Council member Howard Shook, that Co-Chair of the mayor’s newly-appointed Commission) resulting from the City’s failure to have budgeted or provided for some One Billion Dollars in overdue infrastructure improvements — has not been related by anyone to the City’s profligate authorization to help finance the Falcons’ stadium.

Worst still, the Mayor now wants that Commission to support a bond referendum to the tune of as much as $250M, as a partial step toward dealing with this “trauma.” How ironic that Mayor Reed wants this referendum, only because the law requires it for such bonds to be issued, while he so steadfastly resisted a public referendum for approval of the stadium spending. Why does the Mayor want this bond issue? Because he doesn’t want to impose a tax hike now on City residents. In other words, he isn’t willing to face up to the fact that taxes may indeed eventually have to be raised because hotel/motel taxes were diverted to the stadium instead of critical infrastructure needs. The City’s excuse that state law doesn’t allow those hotel/motel taxes to be used for infrastructure just doesn’t hold up — not only is a serviceable and safe infrastructure clearly related to the promotion of tourism and convention trade to which those taxes are dedicated — who would want to come to a city where there are crumbling streets and bridges, unsafe conditions from that, and poor water and sewerage?  — but if a change in State law is required (and there are already more exceptions under State law to use of the hotel/motel taxes than potholes in Atlanta’s streets), that should be easy enough to obtain where a local legislative delegation comes together in support. (Besides, presumably state legislators don’t want to collapse through dilapidated streets or bridges when they are in town.)

So why’s Common Cause Georgia on this issue once again? Simple. As oft repeated, we are not against the stadium, or even public financing of it. But we ARE for open, accountable, responsible and responsive government at all levels. And assisting “the people” in having meaningful input and a real voice in critical planning and implementation of major pocketbook decisions is at the heart of what we do at CCGA. And those hallmarks — open and accountable government — have simply been ignored by the City in this entire “stadium versus infrastructure” debacle.

It is obvious that the Mayor is so in lock-step with the Falcons and National Football League that he is impervious to any reconsideration of any aspect of the City’s financing of the stadium. But what of the City Council? What of its responsibilities as City stewards? — especially given the new Commission Co-Chair’s description of the infrastructure backlog as “the world caved in on us.”  Doesn’t this “trauma” mandate a thorough Council reconsideration of the full amount of the hotel/motel taxes which will be diverted to the stadium over its anticipated life? If City Council members are ever going to act, this is the time — NOW — not indefinitely and timidly over the next few weeks or months if at all. They should band together, call their own press conference, decry this traumatic crisis in the City’s finances, link it to the true stadium numbers, push for an emergency council session if necessary, and call for a reassessment of the hotel/motel tax moneys that will flow into the stadium. IF the ordinance which authorized the $200M for the stadium is truly murky and doesn’t in fact authorize hundreds of millions of dollars (maybe up to $1B or more) above and beyond the $200M – that is, if the Falcons and others have not gained vested contractual rights to sums far above the $200M — then an ordinance which clarifies or otherwise documents that the council only authorized $200M and not infinite sums above that would be in order. Such a move by the City Council could further address any needed amendments to the hotel/motel state law if necessary, so that those moneys could be directed toward the infrastructure crisis. On the other hand, if the City is now legally locked into a commitment to vast sums beyond the advertised $200M, including having committed the hotel/motel tax so that it is no longer available for the huge infrastructure liabilities, then that fact should clearly be made known, and included among the true costs of the stadium to the City.

And finally – note to the new Commission on Waste and Efficiency: you can expedite your work, and avoid becoming the oft-used “fig leaf” or mere “window dressing,” by looking squarely at – and forcing the mayor who appointed you to face up to – the inescapable connection between the City’s hotel/motel tax and the City’s as yet still unquantified total sum to be lavished upon a stadium. That stadium may be shown to be the biggest waste and inefficiency which you have been appointed to identify and root out. Resolve that, and your work may be largely done.

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The New Stadium Math: $300 Million = $600 Million

Note the following post was authored by Terry Taylor, a Common Cause Georgia board member.


When Cobb County announced the stadium agreement with the Atlanta Braves, it couldn’t have been clearer: The total investment of $672 million was composed of $372 million from the Braves and $300 million from public Cobb County sources. Very simple, very straightforward.

Except the $300 million local contribution is really $600 million.

The 30-year revenue bonds issued by Cobb County will pay interest – imagine that – and the $300 million figure doesn’t reflect this. As any homeowner with a mortgage can attest, interest adds up over three decades. The debt will be serviced by $17.9 million in tax receipts arising from hotel/motel taxes, property taxes, a new rental car tax and new special services district taxes, and that gets us to $537 million. Add $14 million for a local transportation commitment, $10 million from the Cumberland CID and a commitment to pay up to $35 million for stadium maintenance and the number swells to $596 million. Throw in costs like additional public safety that have yet to be defined but the need for which has been recognized and public outlays are $600 million or more.

Cobb County Stadium Costs

To be fair, Cobb County officials early on acknowledged the annual payments of $17.9 million and the other expenditures. But they didn’t use the 30-year figure in their communications, focusing instead on $300 million.

Cobb County officials are not alone in this kind of minimalist messaging. Ask the average Atlanta citizen what the total public cost of the Falcons stadium is and the response will likely be $200 million. That’s the figure Atlanta officials promoted, even though Atlantans for a Fair Deal compute the total public cost as $1.2 billion.

There’s a common thread running between the two stadium deals:

Stadium deals are announced with little time for public input, and any information that is available is sketchy and incomplete.

The total public costs exceed the advertised costs used to sell the public on the idea.

Once the information on full cost surfaces, the deal has been done and agreements have been struck. Too late.

Common Cause Georgia is neither for nor against public financing of stadiums. Our interest is in ensuring that the public has full and complete information BEFORE deals are final. We prefer referenda as a means of public input; failing that, we believe public hearings at which true long-term cost information is shared and debated is a must. Those discussions, which would include reviewing alternative uses of funds, did not take place.

The good news is that a stadium-project communications plan has now been assembled by Cobb County. Made public in February, the plan calls for information on a wide range of critical subjects that will – if done thoroughly and well – go a long way toward keeping the public informed on progress. My experience over the last couple of months has been that members of county government appear desirous of delivering the right information. The pity is that this kind of transparency didn’t occur before the deal was made.

When it comes to the vast gaps between total costs and publicized costs, I guess misstatements are a fact of life in sports. In the movie Major League, when the rookie pitcher uncorks a wild pitch that hits the backstop, hometown announcer Bob Uecker calls it as “Just a bit outside.”

I think about that scene a lot in Metro Atlanta nowadays.

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Unlimited Lobbyist Spending Now Only Takes Two to Tango

A move earlier this week by the Senate Ethics Committee really puts an exclamation point on the statement we have made before: Georgia’s lobbyist gift cap is fraught with loopholes! And the House Ethics Committee has already pledged to match what the Senate decides, so legislators can now better prepare to dance to the tune of unlimited lobbyist spending once again.

It will be much easier to get around the $75 gift cap than we even originally feared. Lobbyists can buy lavish dinners exceeding the gift cap for one single legislator in many cases, just like the good old days way back in 2013. The reason, “caucuses” can now include as few as two legislators.  So it only takes two to tango, but what’s worse, only two have to be invited to tango – if only one can show up, then it can still be a solo dance to unlimited lobbyist spending.  With this, an already weak law turns into a further mockery.

For background, last year the General Assembly passed “historic” ethics reform, capping lobbyists gifts to legislators at $75. Even at the time the bill passed, many people, including Common Cause Georgia, were extremely skeptical of the potential loopholes in the new law. The loophole problem was further proven last week in a joint hearing of both chamber’s Ethics Committees in which legislators asked questions about what the new law means.  Unfortunately, everyone was left with a lot more questions than answers  - almost a full year after the law passed.  Surely legislators realize it would be much more productive to have such a meeting prior to passing a law, but I digress.  The most talked about issue at the joint meeting was which caucuses would get approved.

One of the more egregious loopholes in the law allows lobbyist gift spending to the exceed the gift cap for functions in which lobbyists invite the whole general assembly, an entire committee or a caucus. The law has the provision that caucuses would have to be approved each chamber’s Ethics Committee before accepting gifts over $75.

The devil is always in the details, and we have been cautiously waiting to see what caucuses would be approved. The Senate Ethics Committee included in their caucus approval any county delegation with at least two legislators, and remember, the House Ethics Committee will follow their lead.  So the bar is now set so low for the number of “caucus” members needed, there is effectively just a small additional speed bump pass before unlimited lobbyist spending on a single legislator can occur for a large number of members of the General Assembly.

For example: Senator John Q is invited by a lobbyist to go grab a last minute dinner at Bones.  But oh wait, there’s that darn gift cap, and surely drinks, appetizers and a fancy steak dinner will exceed $75. Fortunately for them, the “historic” reform that is now law only requires that other members of caucuses have to be invited, they don’t have to attend.  So a quick call to the only other member of the “caucus”, Senator Jane Doe, who declines because she already has dinner plans, means the $75 cap is now lifted because the entire caucus was invited!

This is the kind of thing that will keep Georgia’s national ethics grade so poor. If the General Assembly wants to get serious about ethics reform, our elected officials need close these loopholes and subject every member, regardless of caucus, committee, or delegation, to the $75 gift cap.  It should not take only two invites to tango, with just one showing up to dance to lift the gift cap.

Posted in Georgia Legislation, Government Ethics, Lobbying | 1 Comment

Citizens Fighting Back Against New Stadium

It’s been six months since we took to the streets in an attempt to force the City of Altanta to let its citizens vote on whether or not we wanted to publicly fund a massive portion of the new $1.2 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium. Although we came up short on the number of required signatures to put the issue on the ballot, folks haven’t stopped paying attention or wanting to do something about it.

Four residents of neighborhoods near the proposed site have filed a motion to intervene in the Fulton County Superior Court. The residents claim that the 2010 extension of the hotel-motel tax for the new stadium was in-and-of-itself unconstitutional, making it ultimately illegal to allocate the public dollars to the project. They contend that the process has been flawed all along. It also alleges that an agreement to transfer almost three acres of property from the City of Atlanta to the Georgia World Congress Center was legally inappropriate.

A piece in the AJC by Katie Leslie and Tim Tucker quotes one of the residents who filed the motion as saying:

“We just want things to be done correctly,” said Lewis, adding he hopes the lawsuit will reopen talks with city and Falcons officials. “We’ve tried everything and did everything we can do … We’re just hoping that the community will get what it deserves.”

CCGA Executive Director William Perry said:

Seventy-five percent of Georgians opposed public financing of this stadium, we did all we could to give them a voice and came up short, however, we applaud this group of citizens who are standing up to hold power accountable. 

The bottom line is the General Assembly may have committed a procedural mistake when authorizing the hotel-motel tax revenue to be available to fund this project in 2010.  If that’s the case, the legislature should have to go back and fix the mistake that was made before public funding can move forward.  If this legal challenge causes that to happen, then its a whole new ball game – there has been a lot of change in the makeup of the legislature since 2010, the newer crowd of lawmakers may be more in touch with the will of the people.  Either way, the public will have something we didn’t have in 2010 when the funding was quietly passed – advanced notice and the opportunity to weigh in with our legislators on the issue of providing almost a billion dollars of pubic funds to this stadium project. 

We plan to attend the bond validation hearing Monday morning and continue to watchdog this issue.

Posted in New Stadium, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Price of Secrecy

Note the following post was authored by Wyc Orr, Vice-Chairman of the board of Common Cause Georgia.

At what price secrecy? Are the costs to taxpayers from bad decisions resulting from secret deal-making by public officials too high for that secrecy to be ignored? And is such concealment becoming a trend in metro Atlanta? Those questions loom following the unstoppable juggernaut of City of Atlanta-Falcons negotiations which culminated with agreement for a planned new Falcons stadium, much of which deal-making was cloaked in impenetrability — soon enough followed by the surprise revelation of the Braves’ move to Cobb County, so hidden that seemingly even most of the City of Atlanta hierarchy was caught off guard by its announcement after an agreement in principle had already been reached between the Cobb Commission Chair and the Braves.

Is such secrecy, on balance, a net good or bad? Perhaps some perspective is given by a long-ago address by President Kennedy to the perennial public watchdog, the free press — the American Newspaper Publishers Association. Speaking to that group in April, 1961, the new president recognized that even when it came to national security, secrecy had its limits, as well as its harmful effect. Kennedy told that group that:

“[t]he very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. . . . that is our obligation to inform and alert the American people—to make certain that they possess all the facts that they need, and understand them as well—the perils, the prospects, the purposes of our program and the choices that we face. . . . No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or oppositionAnd both are necessary. . . . Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can survive.” (italics added)

The conclusion from such recognition of the importance of as much public disclosure as possible seems evident — that if something as crucial as national security doesn’t justify near-total secrecy, what at the level of local governments could do so? Our state law clearly does not recognize any such compelling need when it comes to stadium deal-making that will impose huge costs upon taxpayers. While the state open records law protects from disclosure real estate acquisition negotiations and related materials, and documents such as sealed bids, it grants no such exemption to stadium negotiations per se or anything resembling such deal-making, at least not explicitly. Likewise, the state open meetings law permits executive sessions to consider real estate acquisition, personnel matters, and the like, but again there is no mention of protection of stadium deal-making. On the other hand, perhaps amendments to these laws to specifically bar discussions of stadium deal-making and other public-private partnerships without specific notice to the press and public, and an opportunity for press and public to access and comment on the ongoing negotiations should be considered. (And it’s particularly notable how these secret negotiations fly in the face of the lofty pronouncement of the State of Georgia in its open records act, where it proclaims that “open government is essential to a free, open and democratic society.”)

So what costs have in fact been imposed on taxpayers by these largely-concealed negotiations? The City of Atlanta has pledged two hundred million dollars of the City’s hotel/motel tax revenues toward construction of the Falcons’ stadium — a figure that doesn’t include the additional City money that will flow from future years’ “waterfall” of hotel/motel tax revenues which will also be committed to stadium maintenance over the life of the stadium. That figure could approach several hundred million dollars in additional City funds. And the Cobb County-Braves deal commits at least three hundred million Cobb dollars to that stadium, not to mention untold and perhaps presently unquantifiable costs to Cobb and other taxpayers from related infrastructure and developmental costs.

Where could those Atlanta and Cobb tax dollars have been spent if not expended on these two stadiums? For starters, Atlanta faces as much as one billion dollars in infrastructure improvements, maintenance and construction. And both Atlanta and Cobb face unfunded pension liabilities — a recent study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found both of these local governments to have funded little more than half of their expected pension obligations — with Atlanta having a “hole” in its pension plan that may be as much as$1.4B (that’s billion, with a “b”), and Cobb having a more than $400M in its plan’s “hole.”

But use of Atlanta’s and Cobb’s tax dollars for funding those infrastructure and pensions obligations instead of stadiums is a conversation never held, alternatives never considered — at least not before those stadium commitments were all but written in stone. The public, press and think tanks never had the opportunity to argue for use of those dollars more wisely to pay down other commitments of those governments or to lessen tax bills. For example, with the Cobb-Braves deal, the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Georgia Department of Transportation, were reportedly not even informed, much less consulted, before that pact was announced. Accordingly, the expertise, input and advice which those and other entities exist to provide were entirely lost in the negotiations which led to this deal.

The Atlanta Regional Commission exists as “the regional planning and intergovernmental coordination agency,” as described by its website, for a ten-county metro area, which includes Fulton and Cobb. The ARC says that it and its predecessor “for over 65 years . . . have helped to focus the region’s leadership, attention and resources on key issues of regional consequence . . . through professional planning initiatives, the provision of objective information and the involvement of the community in collaborate partnerships” — yet that agency was reportedly left out of the Cobb-Braves discussions, and its stated history of objectivity and involving the community collaboratively never had a chance to be brought to bear on those negotiations. The DOT on the other hand describes itself as planning, constructing and maintaining “Georgia’s state and federal highways,” with involvement in “bridge, . . . public transit, rail, . . . [and in helping] local governments maintain their roads.” In other words, both the ARC and GDOT are funded by taxpayers for specific purposes directly related to the allocation of priorities and placement or relocating of transportation arteries inevitably involved in the Braves’ stadium location and construction — and the massive investment of taxpayers in these agencies, and in their expertise and experience accumulated over the years have to date been omitted from the stadium location (something already decided), and related questions of transportation, effect on traffic congestion, and many related questions.

Atlanta and Cobb officials are inclined to downplay what their committed moneys could have gone toward. Atlanta, for example, likes to argue that state law forbids use of the City’s hotel/motel tax revenues for anything other than tourism-related expenditures. But that contention ignores not only the fact that maintaining acceptable infrastructure within the city is vital to attracting conventions and tourists, but any necessary change in state law governing those tax revenues could be sought for a fraction of the time and expense as that already committed to the Falcons negotiations and now to the stadium itself. Moreover, had the City’s hotel/motel tax revenues been committed to tourism enhancement instead of the Falcons stadium, those dollars could have freed up City general fund dollars that will presumably be spent at least in part on that same tourism development.  And nothing prevented Cobb from committing the now-obligated stadium dollars to its pension obligations. But compartmentalized focus — where all other considerations are crowded out by a mesmerized mania of cutting a stadium deal at all costs — is just that: costly.

Some light was shed on these issues, however inadvertently, by remarks last month from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a group of private sector executives who advise the mayor on various issues and programs. The Mayor, according to press reports, told that committee that he is considering a bond referendum at some point in the future to seek City voter approval of 150-250 million dollars in bonds to partially fund those infrastructure improvements, which the City has no choice but to face, sooner or later. Before any such referendum, however, the Mayor is reported to have told that group that “I’ll spend the next 12 months moving the city from surviving to financial health,” as he tries to find “efficiencies” to produce moneys to pay off those bonds with the “least amount of pain.” That may be as revealing a statement about the true state of Atlanta’s financial condition as any heard in recent times – especially during the Mayor’s negotiations with the Falcons. And two things bear immediate notice — that the amount to be sought from those bonds approximates the initial amount of $200M pledged by the City to the Falcons stadium (bonds which would have been unnecessary if that $200M hadn’t been handed over to the stadium construction), and that nothing was heard from the Mayor during the stadium negotiations about the City needing to “survive” its lack of “financial health.” What would such candor about the City’s precarious financial condition have done to what little pre-deal public discussion of the stadium deal occurred? Would the polls reflecting 70% or more public opposition to public financing for the Falcons’ stadium have risen to near unanimous opposition? (Not that the City heeded that public opposition.) (Further observation: sometimes rather obscure news items contain the most revealing information, even inadvertent admissions, from public officials. It is as if speaking in friendly, low-key, low-risk environments like the “Committee for Progress,” where there is no cross-examining press or other such questioner, can induce officeholders or other government spokespeople to lower their guards and caution — and consequently to speak more candor and truth than otherwise occurs.)

Concealment of City-Falcons discussions as they progressed included the “which shell is the pea under” practiced between the City and State of Georgia. Originally, the public financing portion of the approximately one billion (again, with a “b”) dollar Falcons stadium was to come from the State of Georgia. Private meetings were conducted between the State and the Falcons, including a visit from the National Football League’s Commissioner Roger Goodell, who met with the Governor and with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. A perfunctory appearance was staged outside the Governor’s office upon the conclusion of that meeting, with little of substance being provided to the press and public.(For the State’s part, such concealment mirrored other “suddenly-sprung” initiatives on an  unsuspecting public, such as the college and university mergers involving eight institutions of the University System Board of Regents around the state, which mergers were announced after those decisions had been made.) Until that juncture, the public was left with the impression that public funding would be provided by bonds to be issued by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority. However, state law would require that those bonds be approved by a vote of the Joint Fiscal Affairs Committee of the State Senate and House of Representatives. Polls showed widespread opposition to public funding of the stadium, with opposition reaching as high as 75%. Clearly the political fallout from ignoring such opposition “got to” the State, especially in light of the then-recent failure of the T-SPLOST transportation infrastructure referenda in nine of the twelve regional votes held around the state in July of 2012 — including the referendum’s failure in metro-Atlanta, where state and local leaders, who had supported T-SPLOST, were evidently “spooked” by the “rising up” of an independent electorate.

Against that backdrop, the state — including its legislative and executive branches — soon showed that they did not relish their imprimatur being on public dollars for the stadium. So the State of Georgia quickly lateraled the public financing to the City of Atlanta, which under the direct involvement of Mayor Reed, the City was only too ready to take up. Soon enough it was evident that not only would the public be ignored and excluded from the negotiations between the City and the Falcons, but that the rage of the Mayor would be vented upon any who dared to question the deal. Common Cause Georgia was excoriated by the Mayor as a “once venerable and well respected organization,” for its audacity in pushing for a public referendum on public financing of the stadium, like the T-SPLOST which had recently failed in the metro area.The fact that the City had provisions in its Charter and Code of Ordinances specifically providing for such referenda didn’t stop the City from disparaging Common Cause Georgia’s efforts to allow the City’s voters to have their say through such a referendum.

So the question returns: at what price is secrecy? The answer? — clearly at a great price. Concealment not only makes a mockery of pretenses of open and accountable government, but by its nature results in decisions being made before all the facts are in and diverse opinions heard. What’s more, there are hidden costs of the compartmentalization that accompanies secrecy — the negotiators operate in a vacuum, failing to consider the public moneys which are about to be committed against the whole picture of their governments’ total debt, liabilities and obligations.Their secrecy begets more secrecy. And even the secret-holders get surprised, and burned, by others’ secrecies. (At some point, such clandestine deal-making causes the negotiators to even delude themselves, and to euphemistically engage in semantical silliness to justify their doings — one Braves’ executive said their negotiations with Cobb were not “secret,” but rather “confidential.”)

Mayor Reed was obviously so mesmerized by, and fixated on, the prospect of entering a deal with the Falcons and NFL that he and the City – despite now-revealed ongoing discussions between the City and Braves over the Braves’ interest in gaining more control over development of the area surrounding Turner Field — completely lost sight of the crucial importance of the Braves. Recently-released e-mails show that the Braves were indeed piqued by the vastly disproportionate interest, indeed preoccupation, of the City with the Falcons as compared to the Braves. Indeed, one can well understand how the Braves felt jilted by the City’s plea that it couldn’t afford to “ante-up” money and take other steps to improve “The Ted” and its environs while it was widely-disseminated what the City was committing to the Falcons deal. But what enabled, and even fed, the City’s complete misreading of the Braves’ status was secrecy — the ability of both Atlanta and Cobb to largely deal in concealed circumstances. And in the end, secrecy which the Mayor and City thought was its friend, became its worst enemy — because if the Braves/Cobb negotiations had been public, the City could have know that it was about to be pennywise while pound-foolish — that an 81- home date downtown pro sports team was about to be allowed to “fly the coop” while the City was fixated on a 10-home date (including two exhibition games) pro football team. Bad arithmetic by anyone’s counting.

What if instead openness had been practiced in both stadium negotiations? What if Mayor Reed had known about the Cobb-Braves negotiations while he was rushing pell-mell forward with a blind determination to seal a Falcons deal, regardless of costs? Could Reed have shifted his sights to the Braves, and realized that their 81 home dates (i.e., close to one-fourth of the days in the year) meant even more to the City, and to merchants and businesses who profit from the influx of money-spending fans at home games, than the Falcons 8 home dates and 2 exhibition games? What different — and better — outcome may have been achieved if citizens, think-tanks, other governmental agencies (the ARC, GDOT, and others), and the like had been heard before stadium decisions were made, thus allowing consideration of such broader perspectives while government officials could consider those views, rather than having to defend decisions already made before those views could be voiced? For all the practiced disregard and disdain of government officials for public opinion (to wit, governments ignoring those disapproving polls), as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed long ago, those who condescendingly disparage the opinions of the “great mass” of people are in error, because the citizens know plenty: “Don’t you deceive yourself, say I, the great mass understand what’s what, as well as the little mass.” There’s a lot of accumulated wisdom out in the citizenry, which is completely lost when that group is relegated to irrelevance. So-called “public hearings” are but mere window-dressing, the illusion of democratic input, when held after decisions have been made. If “two heads are better than one,” what about several million heads?

It’s time that we recognize what’s going on in our own Georgia governments — at all levels, local and State. Secrecy — keeping vital discussions and decisions from voters and taxpayers until the “deal is done” and it’s too late for citizens, relevant governmental agencies, and the press to have any meaningful input. Secrecy is costly — and as long as government officials continue to practice that secrecy in deal-making – especially something as expensive as stadium deal-making — Georgia taxpayers will continue to bear the brunt of that secrecy.

Posted in Georgia Legislation, Government Ethics, New Stadium, Transparency | 1 Comment

Cobb County and the Braves: Striking Out on Transparency

Note the following post was authored by Terry Taylor, a Common Cause Georgia board member.


The Metro Atlanta area has been a hotbed of stadium-related news over the last 18 months. While the Falcons dominated the conversation for most of 2013, the Braves came on strong with its announcement that the team would be moving to Cobb County. The total budget for the stadium is $672 million, of which $300 million will be contributed by Cobb County and the Cumberland Community Improvement District.

Common Cause Georgia does not oppose the Braves moving to Cobb County, or even Cobb County using public funds to build a stadium. What we do oppose is using such a substantial amount of public money without significant public engagement. When a request for a public referendum was rebuffed, Common Cause Georgia called on the Cobb Board of Commissioners (BOC) to publish a communications plan for reporting to citizens on the county’s involvement in the stadium.

To the BOC’s credit, Commission Chairman Tim Lee announced that a communications plan will be unveiled in mid-January 2014. In addition, the Cobb County web site is now populated with FAQs, the Transportation Plan and an economic analysis. At first blush, that seems pretty responsive.

But as sports commentator Lee Corso says, “Not so fast, my friend.” What the county has published so far raises more questions than answers. And for transparency warriors like Common Cause Georgia, that’s not good.

Take the economic study posted on the Cobb County web site, for example. Titled “Summary of the Economic and Fiscal Benefits of a MLB (Major League Baseball) Team and New Ballpark to Cobb County,” this study appears to be the only financial analysis considered by the BOC. That seems to be a reasonable assumption: Cobb County makes no reference to any other quantitative work done or used, and it’s the sole analysis posted on the site.

After reading the study and Cobb’s web site postings, here are just a couple of areas where citizens need some good answers:

The Economic Analysis and Due Diligence. The analysis was prepared by Brailsford & Dunlavey and commissioned by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, the latter of which openly promoted the stadium project. As an aside, the AJC’s Truth-O-Meter referred to the work as “a flawed study commissioned by stadium boosters.”  The analysis does not offer details or explanations behind assumptions used in coming up with the numbers. Not providing the needed rationale for the assumptions is what you would do if you want to avoid difficult questions, and that’s not the best impression to leave.

Did the Cobb BOC have an independent expert not paid for by a booster examine the analysis and opine on the results? Citizens have a right to know if this common-sense due diligence step was taken or not

Fiscal Benefits – Are All Costs Included? The study highlights the ongoing fiscal benefits to Cobb County from the stadium and associated development. But the study itself makes no reference to new capital expenditures or increased spending by the county – only the benefits, not the county’s costs, are included. In the web site FAQS, Cobb states that on an annual basis a “$10 million return from ballpark operations and taxes on an investment of $8.67 million produces a positive projected return on investment of 15%.” But Cobb acknowledges in the FAQs that there will be extra costs beyond the $8.67 million in redirected property taxes – more police, for example — but they haven’t figured out how much yet. Are there more outlays ahead that haven’t been baked into the calculation?

The Proposed Cobb Stadium – Cobb Transportation Plan on the Cobb web site addresses existing public transit and road projects already in process or planned. The Five-Year Cobb Transportation Plan is due to be completed in Spring 2014 and the long-range plan is scheduled for later in the year. Will Cobb County identify incremental expenditures associated with the new stadium and include those in the ROI calculation? That would only be fair: The county would not have made those outlays if the Braves weren’t coming to Cobb.

One of the FAQs says that the return on investment (ROI) using a “conservative calculation” produces “a positive return for the county.” Sure, many projects will look good if you don’t include all the costs. And it’s not helpful to say that there’s a positive return: Cobb didn’t indicate whether the BOC looked at alternative ways to spend the money that could have created more bang for the buck. If all options were considered and the stadium was the best one, that’s fine. Was that what was done?

There are other questions. How will the BOC track and validate hiring numbers and revenues that have been trumpeted in Cobb’s official messages? Being able to measure results is  essential for knowing if we’ve succeeded or failed. And why hasn’t a timeline of major milestones and deliverables been published? Hopefully that will be in the Cobb’s communications plan produced in January.

Common Cause Georgia board members who live in Cobb County will continue to talk with the BOC about comprehensive communications with citizens. Again, we don’t oppose the stadium or the use of public funds. Cobb residents need real information and genuine transparency, something they haven’t had so far.

If I were grading the Cobb BOC on transparency, I would be generous (I’m an easy grader) and give it an “Incomplete” at this stage. But in the margin of the report card I’d write, “You clearly did not understand the assignment. Try again from the start.” Or we could stick with a baseball analogy and say they’ve struck out in their first at bat, but it’s still early in the game.

Posted in New Stadium, Uncategorized | 1 Comment