Georgia Supreme Court to hear appeals of Falcons, Braves bond sales

The Georgia Supreme Court has set oral argument dates for the lawsuits against the stadium deals for the Atlanta Falcons (Monday) and Braves (next February). And … that’s about all I can tell you, because the Atlanta Journal Constitution story is behind a paywall, but if you’re an AJC subscriber, you can no doubt read more.

Okay, I can give you a little background: The two suits are actually appeals of the bond issuance for the stadiums, which means the bonds can’t be sold until they’ve been cleared.

None of this appears to have stopped construction from moving ahead — check out the Falcons’ construction photos, with all those, um, whatever they are already having been built — presumably because the teams have enough cash on hand to start things off with the bond money. But if either appeal is successful, then we’re entering uncharted waters, to say the least.

Cobb chair really did hire secret lawyer on Braves deal, says email from Cobb chair

Hey, remember when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Cobb County Commission Chair Tim Lee had secretly hired a lawyer to negotiate with the Atlanta Braves to move to his county, without even telling his fellow commissioners? Last week, Lee denied having hired attorney Dan McRae, a defense that would have worked out much better if not for the AJC then uncovering an email from Lee to McRae appointing him the county’s project and bond counsel on the stadium project. From a Cobb Chamber of Commerce email account, so it would be harder to trace. Oops.

“I am passing on to you the following provided by Chairman Tim Lee on behalf of Cobb County and its entities, ” the email says. “The county confirms the attorney-client relationship between it and Seyfarth Shaw as its project counsel/bond counsel for Project Intrepid.”…

The email from Mathis to McRae does not specify a limited role or how long the arrangement would continue. And in making the deal, Lee unilaterally waived a stated conflict of interest — Seyfarth was representing the Braves’ parent company on an unrelated legal issue in California.

(Project Intrepid, seriously? Because he could hear the screams of hundreds of minds dying, perhaps?)

Lee has now responded by saying he’s going to refuse all interview requests from the AJC, because a newspaper looking at the emails of an elected official just isn’t fair. Especially when he went out of his way, you know, to hide them.

Too soon to say whether this opens up the Braves stadium plan to any additional legal challenges, but it sure isn’t good news for Lee, who — you will be shocked to learn — is currently the subject of an ethics investigation.

Georgia lawyer says arson at her house was retaliation for her opposing Braves stadium

Seriously?

Susan McCoy said an arsonist struck her East Cobb property early Thursday morning. The flames didn’t reach her 3,900-square-foot home but did destroy part of her fence, evergreens and other parts of her yard.

McCoy, a newly minted lawyer, said she had filed a complaint with the SEC asking it to examine the county’s plan to issue $397 million in bonds for construction of the new stadium; and she has been critical of the rushed deal’s lack of transparency and cost to taxpayers.

“Its retribution for speaking out,” she said. “I obviously struck a nerve.”

Disclosure: I’ve spoken with McCoy a couple of times about the Braves stadium deal (she’s filed an SEC complaint about the way it was negotiated, among other things) and she’s never struck me as anyone whose house I would want to burn down. Glad everyone is okay at least, except the poor trees, which really didn’t do anything to deserve this.

NY Times version of Braves stadium story: County considered public vote, it didn’t happen, the end

How to soft-pedal affronts to democracy, New York Times edition:

Tim Lee, the Cobb County chairman who steered negotiations with the [Atlanta] Braves, said Tuesday a vote had been considered for the 700,000 residents of a county historically cautious about government spending. Ultimately, there was no referendum, just an agreement that the county chip in about 45 percent of the actual construction cost, with the Braves picking up the rest.

Not mentioned in this story of a county considering a referendum but “ultimately” having one quashed by the passive voice: The Cobb commissioner who said that a referendum on a $300 million stadium subsidy would be too expensive because it would “cost taxpayers 300, 400 thousand dollars.” Not to mention the part where any public agitation for a referendum was avoided by having county commissioners hide in hallways so that the deal could be announced just two weeks before the commission’s vote. The Times really should have gone with one of the alternate slogans.

Braves release more renderings of new Cobb stadium that still don’t show promised cantilevering

Hey, it’s a new rendering of the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, everybody!

As one Twitter commenter already noted, there is still no sign of the promised cantilevering that was supposed to “push seats closer to the field.” The middle deck might overhang the lower deck by a smidge, and the upper over the middle by a couple of rows, but that’s hardly anything to write home about when compared to the cantilevering of yore.

The rest of the Twitter thread is fun to read as well, including these highlights so far:

The consensus opinion, though, appears to be “meh,” which is a fair take. The Braves are in a tough situation, really, replacing a run-of-the-mill modern stadium with another stadium that doesn’t have any interesting features around it to make it less run-of-the-mill. (Maybe Cobb County could build a suspension bridge across one of its highways?) Actual cantilevering would certainly make a new park stand out, and get fans excited about closer views, but OH NO THE WELL HEELED MIGHT BE CAST INTO SHADOW INSTEAD OF BATHING IN THE GLORY OF THE SUN’S RAYS AS IS THEIR BIRTHRIGHT, so forget that.

Braves promise cantilevered decks to get seats close to field, rendering shows nothing of the sort

The Atlanta Braves have announced they’ll be holding a groundbreaking for their new stadium in Cobb County on September 16, which is pretty meaningless, since they’ve already started work on the site, but hey, everybody loves a press conference with shovels, right? But what I found more interesting was this tidbit from the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s coverage of the team press release:

The stadium will seat 41,500, with the upper and middle of three decks cantilevered to push seats closer to the field, the Braves have said.

Cantilevering, for those who haven’t thought much about stadium architecture, is when you counterbalance the front of a deck of seats with a counterweight at the back of the section — it’s known to normal human beings as an overhang. I am somewhat of an evangelist for cantilevering, since it allows seats in the upper decks to be placed far closer to the field, with the only cost being that fans in the back of the expensive seats down below are in shadow — which apparently is considered completely unacceptable, since cantilevering has been more or less eliminated in all modern stadiums. The Braves actually told the AJC’s Tim Tucker about their cantilever promise back in June, but this is the first time I noticed it.

Anyway, here’s a rendering of the Braves’ new stadium:

There’s, um, no overhang. Also, there are five decks, not three.

All this could just be the result of a crappy initial rendering, or it could be that the Braves are bullshitting in their press statements — who can tell? I mean, the AJC could tell, but they apparently didn’t ask. Since June. I’ve given the paper lots of props for some excellent reporting on the Braves stadium mess, but come on, guys, at least do a little digging when the press release is visibly contradicted by the accompanying picture.

AJC reveals: Cobb chair hired secret stadium lawyer, Braves demanded cut of bus fares, and more!

The indefatigable Dan Klepal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has unearthed some fresh public documents on the Braves stadium deal with Cobb County, and man, oh man, are they juicy. Klepal’s two articles so far are now behind the AJC paywall, but here are some highlights:

The Braves’ initial proposal, according to documents obtained by the AJC via open records requests, included:

  • The county providing $442 million in cash to the stadium deal, pretty much exactly as the AJC initially reported, though the final number turned out to be somewhat less than that.
  • The Braves demanding tax dollars to “move roads and build bridges,” something that is still being worked out, even as construction on the stadium begins.
  • Team execs wanting the county to use its eminent domain powers to obtain stadium land, something that county negotiator Dan McRae underlined in the draft MOU, writing “no” next to it.
  • The team initially proposing getting “all revenues from … train, circulator, bus or transit stops and vehicles” at the stadium.
  • A county negotiator noting in October, shortly before the deal was finalized, that they expected they’d “get about $50 million from governor,” which so far hasn’t happened.

All this is an indication that all that negotiating in secret — a secret that carried on after the negotiations were concluded, since it took Cobb officials eight months to respond to the AJC’s open records request — at least accomplished something, in that county leaders did whittle down some of the Braves’ most lavish demands. Which is a silver lining, considering that Klepal also reported this weekend that Cobb Commission chair Tim Lee last year hired McRae as an outside stadium negotiator off the books, not even telling his fellow commission members what he was up to. This led to one of the greatest quotes in recent memory, from Emory University ethics professor Edward Queen:

“It’s either an issue of incompetence or unethical behavior,” Queen said. “Neither one reflects particularly well on the individual.”

Nobody from either the Braves or Cobb County is commenting much on these revelations, though the team did release a statement denying that it really meant to demand collecting bus fares from people riding public transit to games. Which is as expected, since the deal is more or less done, so traditional PR strategy is just to wait for the whole thing to blow over and everyone to ooh and aah over the new shiny thing. If only they could have held out on that open records request for a couple more years…

Cobb commissioners got free Braves gear after stadium vote, say “Don’t worry, this happens all the time”

If you’ve been following the Cobb County Atlanta Braves stadium saga, this should not surprise you at all, but feel free to shake your head sadly anyway:

Following the first of a series of controversial votes to approve public funding of a new Atlanta Braves stadium, Cobb County commissioners got goody bags from the Braves. The bags contained Braves apparel, according to disclosure forms filed with the state ethics commission– valued by Commissioner Lisa Cupid at $300. Commissioner Bob Ott valued his at $245.

“It had like a baseball cap, a shirt, a jacket and then like a Braves jersey with my name on the back,” said Ott. “It’s not uncommon. We receive a lot of things and in general, what I do is, I give ‘em away.”

The best part of the article, on the WXIA-TV website, is how Ott says he gave away everything except the personalized jersey, because “I don’t want anyone to have the perception that I’m taking gifts.”

This may well be common practice — in fact we know it is, as witness the free Oakland A’s hats the Oakland Coliseum Authority got yesterday for approving that team’s lease extension — but if so that’s only all the more disturbing: Needless to say, critics of the Braves stadium didn’t have personalized Governmental Transparency jerseys to hand out if the commissioners had voted their way. And while elected officials almost certainly don’t tailor their votes just in order to get swag, the swag has a corrupting effect nonetheless: Teams that can offer personalized jerseys, or luxury boxes for governmental use, or selfies with famous people are more likely to be taken seriously as important people who matter, which is exactly why there are disclosure rules about such things. Though when the recipients don’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about it, you have to wonder if disclosure is penalty enough.

Court to rule by end of month whether Braves stadium bonds are public use

A group of Cobb County residents challenged the county’s $397 million bond issuance for a new Atlanta Braves stadium yesterday. After six hours of testimony, Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard — who was appointed to the case after the first judge assigned recused himself for being a member of the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce — promised to make a ruling by the end of the month.

Even the group bringing the challenge admits that the case is a longshot: The charge is  that the bond sale is illegal because it provides public money for a stadium that will be used for private benefit (if technically owned by the county), but courts have been overwhelmingly lenient in interpretations of what “public benefit” means. If the stadium project clears this hurdle, the county can sell bonds and start construction on the project, even though I feel like there’s something else that hasn’t been resolved yet … oh, right, whether or not the county will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on highway improvements to actually get people to the games. But there’s always time to worry about that later, when the only options are to pay the cost or to leave folks stranded in their cars miles from the stadium. Because that’s what leadership is all about.

Braves stadium wins another approval, but fans may have to park in Tennessee

The Atlanta Braves got another approval of their new $672 million stadium in Cobb County yesterday, as the county planning commission okayed zoning changes for the project. And there’s another new rendering of the stadium and its planned surrounding development, though it doesn’t actually look much different than the previous rendering. And, oh yes, it looks like Braves fans will have nowhere to park:

The Cobb plan counts on renting a large number of spaces from neighboring commercial developments. But many of them are saying no due to impacts on their own tenants, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported last week. Connie Engel of Childress Klein Properties, which manages one coveted parking location, said they welcomed the team but didn’t want to concern tenants. The Braves are now looking at lots up to 3 miles away, the paper says.

That’s not so hot, and makes you wonder if this is one reason why the long-delayed transportation agreement is so long delayed: It’s tough to know what new highway ramps and overpasses will be needed to bring people to the games if you don’t know whether they’ll be arriving by car or long-distance shuttle bus. (But not express buses. Because That Would Be Wrong.)

The group Citizens for Governmental Transparency is also considering filing objections against next Monday’s planned approval of the stadium bonds, though they admit it’s a longshot.  CGT’s Rich Pellegrino, noting that the Braves deal included public money to fund defenses against legal challenges from the public, calls the whole thing a “‘Saturday Night Live’-type” situation — by which I hope he means that it’s something we’ve seen way too many times already, and it stopped being funny a long time ago.

Cue the renderings: