By Wyc Orr, Common Cause Georgia board member
As most of us have heard, a “deal” is apparently in the works to build a new home for our Atlanta Falcons. Negotiations are reportedly already in advanced stages, with the AJC reporting that this deal will likely be all wrapped-up by the end of the year. Construction costs, seat licensing, annual rent payments, repurposing the old Georgia Dome site and a host of other topics are said to have already been proposed, negotiated, and nearing final approval between the Georgia World Congress Center and the Atlanta Falcons.
According to this article from the Saporta Report, just last night during remarks of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Falcons Owner Arthur Blank, and Falcons President Rich McKay to Falcons faithful at the Fans Forum before the Falcons-Dallas Cowboys game, there was no update or further information provided concerning the status or content of the “ongoing” negotiations between the Falcons and the GWCC Authority – despite those parties apparently being committed to reaching a formal agreement before the end of this year – which is less than two months away now. In other words, this train has not only “left the station,” it is seemingly about to reach its destination with little if any meaningful public input.
If all of this is true, then the negotiations, back-and-forth positions, trade-offs, terms and potential agreements have been conducted with only the barest pretense of opportunity for significant input from the public — the public, that is, the citizens, taxpayers, voters, and fans who are the eventual payers of not only the tax monies which will support the stadium, but also payers of the “seat licenses” and ticket prices which are being decided in these largely private negotiations. On the one hand, the Falcons are a private business and generally have the right to deal in private with their business affairs – but only to a certain point. That point is exceeded when those business dealings are conducted with public entities. And the GWCC is a public authority. Roughly one third of the stadium’s new cost will most likely fall onto tax payers via the hotel/motel tax extended by the Georgia General Assembly in April of 2010.
So the question raised here is a simple one. How does a public authority get so far along in the process of cutting deals with a private entity involving the bartering, encumbering, obligating and expending of public money, property and resources without at least some significant semblance of public awareness and input – something more than just a brief nod to the public interest and purse, meant to allay criticism rather than invite serious and sustained public involvement and comment?
This goes beyond an argument of whether or not these negotiations are subject to our state’s open meetings laws. This is no ordinary or routine negotiation by a public entity of real estate transactions or courting industrial prospects in competition with other states. In those instances, secrecy is protected for a beneficent public purpose. If it can be argued that these negotiations are within the sphere of any exemption from open meetings requirements, then the law is being “stood on its head” to protect something clearly beyond the salutary reasoning behind such exemptions. In this instance, such secrecy risks incurring and increasing the high levels of distrust citizens already have with their government, as seen in the recent defeats of so many regional referenda on T-SPLOST taxation, including the defeats in and around Atlanta – not to mention the growing controversy surrounding the Charter School Amendment. Despite those risks and rebukes, are the stadium negotiating parties intentionally avoiding public scrutiny until the process is so far along as to be impervious to public input and veto?
When at least $1.2 billion dollars of development are at stake, the people should be involved. It is indefensible that those responsible for such a large amount of the cost of this project have been left so completely out of the process. Substantial public involvement not only boosts popular support for the Falcons, but also avoids the myopia from which secret “solutions” so often suffer. This not only involves public perception of the process, but substance as well – who knows what vital idea or concept may come from some unexpected source if negotiations and planning are thrown open to the public? The so-called “best minds” sometime overlook the obvious.
But it’s not too late. Reportedly, further legislative authorization will likely be required in the upcoming 2013 session of the General Assembly before the existing World Congress Center’s bonded indebtedness ceiling of two hundred million dollars is raised by another hundred million dollars, which may be a sine qua non of this deal being done and stadium being built. Voters and taxpayers should be “all over this issue” with their legislators.
What’s more, whatever happens in the legislature, both the GWCC and the Falcons can and should take steps to receive meaningful public input as an integral part of this process. Falcons owner Arthur Blank was quoted back in May, with regards to ticket pricing, stating that the “important thing … is that we want to make sure that inside the stadium reflects the same distribution of population that we have on the outside of the stadium. We want to make sure we represent all of Atlanta, not just a certain level of Atlanta. That’s going to take a tricky design, a thoughtful design, but we are committed to doing that.” Isn’t it time that this aspiration be made real? Isn’t it time that all parties involved honor that commitment and open the doors of these negotiations to the public?
Whether or not the Falcons play on a new field in the future, we should all strive to make these decisions together – to assure that the financing, design, location and construction of any new stadium reflect the concerns, interests and pocketbooks of those inside and outside of that facility.
About Wyc Orr – he joined the CCGA State Governing Board earlier this year, and is a former member of the Georgia State Legislature and currently is Senior Partner at the law firm of Orr Brown Johnson LLP, located in Atlanta, Gainesville, Athens and Jefferson.
Note: Common Cause Georgia does not stand in opposition to or in support of the proposed new stadium. However, as an organization we are deeply concerned about the lack of public input so far in this process.