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 opposition. And 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.