Cobb commissioners evaded open meetings law by waiting in hall while colleagues briefed on Braves stadium

Been wondering how Cobb County managed to approve its Atlanta Braves stadium deal just two weeks after it was announced, without holding any public meetings to discuss it? The answer, according to Atlanta Magazine, is by violating open meetings laws:

Commissioners’ November 26 approval of the Braves deal came just 18 days after their first top-secret briefing on November 8. Commissioners gathered again privately on November 13—two days after the public announcement of the team’s relocation—to kick around the details, even as some Cobb residents pushed for a closer look at the deal’s fine print and for more time to consider its terms.
At both the November 8 and November 13 meetings, the five commissioners used a “revolving door” format so only two of them would be in the room at once. No quorum existed that way, officials contend, so open-meetings requirements did not apply.

Having three members of the commission hide in the hallway at any given time is called a “rolling quorum,” and is an unacceptable way of evading open-meetings laws, Georgia First Amendment Foundation director Hollie Manheimer tells the magazine. It looks like the worst that could happen under the letter of the law would be for the commissioners to be convicted of misdemeanors and fined $1,000 apiece, though it’s also possible for a court to grant an injunction “or other equitable relief.” Tea Party lawyers, you listening?

The Atlanta Magazine piece also confirms that the Braves’ proposed development to surround the new stadium, which is ostensibly the whole reason why this project makes any sense at all for Cobb County, may never be built, as the memorandum of understanding “contains no deadline for the team to complete an adjacent $400 million retail/entertainment district.” Maybe that will be included in the Stadium Operating Agreement that hasn’t been worked out yet, and which, come to think of it, Cobb County has been awfully quiet about since voting to give the project preliminary approval back in November. I’m sure they’ll tell us all about it, once they’re done taking turns standing in the hall.

End-of-year lists: The lazy journalist’s way to earn a paycheck while sucking down eggnog

It’s the Christmas-to-New Year’s interregnum, which means it can be time for only one thing: end-of-year lists! (Okay, really for two things: end-of-year lists and waiting impatiently for post-Christmas technical glitches to get resolved.) And already we have the clear front-runner for most outrageous end-of-year-list lede, courtesy of our old friend, the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Rich Kirchen:

The year 2013 may be remembered as the launching pad for Milwaukee’s new downtown arena.

I say that despite the fact that metro-area leaders are nowhere near reaching a decision on whether building a new arena or upgrading the existing BMO Harris Bradley Center would be best. Weighing heavily on those decisions, of course, is how to pay for any arena project.

Right, so no one knows where or whether to build a Bucks arena, or how to pay for it, but … the local chamber of commerce organized a task force! Which “didn’t do much at the first confab, but the fact that nearly all 48 members participated shows they are serious.” That’s perfect attendance, people! What more can you ask for?

In addition, Kirchen notes that incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Bucks sponsors in September that “the league views the BMO Harris Bradley Center as unfit for the league’s current standards,” which is practically in the commissioner job description, but which Kirchen made a big deal of at the time, so I suppose it’s not surprising that he’s making a big deal of it again now. Sure, it might have been nice if he’d mentioned how Milwaukee-area counties are lining up to refuse to contribute to arena costs, but that wouldn’t do much to help create the air of inevitability that Kirchen is going for, now would it?

Meanwhile, PolitiFact Georgia marks Boxing Day by celebrating its top Atlanta Falcons and Braves fact-checks of the year, from how Georgia appraises stadium property to the economic impact of a new stadium. Sadly, PolitiFact doesn’t actually fact-check its own fact-checks, but given the project’s propensity for finding partial truths on both sides on just about every issue — its four stadium rulings were one True, two Mostly Trues, and one Mostly False, though in the last case this seems to indicate that claims of job creation used real numbers, it just lied about what they mean — I feel comfortable grading PolitiFact’s work this year as Mostly Truthy.

Braves seeking $60m in state tax breaks on top of $300m in county stadium subsidies

Remember when I wondered if all the unfunded transportation improvement mandates in the Atlanta Braves stadium plan were going to end up leading to the team asking for state money on top of the $300 million it’s trying to get from Cobb County? Turns out that it could be worse than that: According to Atlanta Magazine, the Braves owners have considered asking for state tax breaks to defray their own share of the stadium costs:

If you thought the Braves’ move to Cobb County would leave just Cobb taxpayers on the hook, think again. The team’s execs may seek millions more in tax credits from the state — largesse that would be underwritten by all Georgians…

A document obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act shows that negotiators for Cobb County and the Braves considered funding packages that included up to $60 million in state tax credits on top of the $300 million in county funding.

The current financing plan, in fact, is built on the assumption that state tax incentives and/or reduced construction costs for parking could trim the Braves’ obligation by up to $50 million.

These state tax breaks apparently could include rebates on sales and/or income taxes offered by the state to businesses expanding or relocating within Georgia. Granting these tax breaks to the Braves — for, as the magazine notes, “relocating the same team to a new stadium a mere fourteen miles away” — would definitely require the approval of Gov. Nathan Deal; it’s not immediately clear whether the Georgia state legislature would get to weigh in as well.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Journal Constitution’s PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter (yes, that’s its name) has delved into the claim by flyers sent out by the Revitalize Cobb business group promising “9,241 New Jobs + $295,000,000 in Wages + $0 Tax Increase for Homeowners + $3,000,000 Annually for Cobb Schools = 1 Great Deal for Cobb Residents.” Only one problem, reports PolitiFact: Those 9,241 jobs wouldn’t all go to Cobb County residents — according to the Cobb Chamber of Commerce study that the Revitalize Cobb flyer is based on, only 784 full-time equivalent jobs would go to Cobb residents. And looking at it as a 9,241-job boost to regional employment isn’t right, either, because “for the most part, jobs that already exist in downtown Atlanta are simply moving to Cobb.” (PolitiFact thus rated the Revitalize Cobb claims to be “Mostly False.”)

Downplaying the fact that most economic impact would be cannibalized from elsewhere in your metro area even though it’s actually included elsewhere in your report? Where have I heard that before?

 

Cobb Tea Party promises suit against property-tax extension for Braves stadium

It was only a matter of time before the Cobb County stadium plan for the Atlanta Braves got its very own lawsuit, and now a legal challenge looks imminent, thanks to Atlanta Tea Party Patriots:

Channel 2′s Lori Geary spoke to Atlanta Tea Party Patriots founder Debbie Dooley, who said it’s about public money going into a private enterprise.

“We believe this is an unconstitutional use of the money, the taxpayer money,” Dooley told Geary.

The “unconstitutional” bit is apparently the $9 million a year from existing property tax surcharges that would be extended past their current sunset dates in 2017 and 2018; Cobb County officials say this is existing tax revenue and so not subject to a public vote, while Dooley’s group begs to differ. I’m anything but an expert in Georgia constitutional law, so let’s turn to WSB’s quote from someone who is:

Attorney and part-time Fulton County State Court Judge Louis Levenson told Geary the taxpayers could have legal standing.

“Being around the court system for a long time, I’m astonished the decisions people make without having thought it through. I’m not saying this wasn’t well thought out, but the nuances of this could very well result in litigation for a long time,” Levenson said.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping Cobb County from moving ahead with the deal while the lawsuit proceeds. Unless the Tea Party can get an injunction, that is. That hastily scrawled-upon napkin better be made of Bounty.

In related news, meanwhile, it turns out that Cobb County Commission chair Tim Lee has a day job running the website for an artificial turf manufacturerthat could end up bidding for contracts at a Braves stadium — something he wasn’t required to reveal before the stadium vote, because Georgia’s disclosure laws are, as Atlanta Magazine puts it, “less-than-rigorous.”

With Braves promised stadium cash, Weather Channel next to demand Cobb tax subsidies

It’s probably total coincidence, right, that Cobb County just voted to give $300 million to the Atlanta Braves to locate in a new stadium there, and then this happens:

An executive at The Weather Channel says a significant investment is needed for the network to remain at its current headquarters in suburban Atlanta.

Shirley Powell, executive vice president of corporate communications, said in a statement to The Associated Press the company needs significant levels of investment due to projected growth. She said The Weather Channel is in discussions with Cobb County and the local chamber of commerce about ways they can support the company’s growth and investments.

The Marietta Daily Journal reports that these could include “significant” tax breaks for the Weather Channel agreeing to stay in town.

That sounds bad, and it is, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Kyle Wingfield notes that at least the Weather Channel is talking about adding about 250 jobs at an average salary of $75,000. The Braves, meanwhile, are promising 4,014 jobs (some at projects surrounding the stadium) for a total payroll of $61 million, which is an average salary of … $15,000? Clearly those aren’t full-time jobs, which makes sense, since most baseball jobs aren’t.

Which means if you pro-rate it to maybe 1,500 full-time equivalent jobs, then Cobb is looking at shelling out at least $200,000 per job, which is just dismal. But then, “dismal” is increasingly looking like Cobb’s middle name.

Cobb County Republicans don’t all agree on Braves stadium, and this is news to some people

Look out! It’s Republican-on-Republican violence in Cobb County!

A deal for hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to draw the Atlanta Braves north of their downtown home is pitting conservative tea party activists against the elected and civic leaders in the staunch Republican county, with opponents saying the use of public money to help a private business is not what American capitalism should be about…

It’s all “appalling hypocrisy” and “arrogance,” [Atlanta Tea Party leader Debbie] Dooley explained, particularly from the four Republican commissioners who pitch their conservative credentials and champion the idea of a free market. Dooley and other tea partiers typically associate active, expensive government with Democrats, but it was the commission’s lone Democrat who cast the only dissenting vote.

Cheap irony aside, this isn’t actually surprising at all: As Kevin Delaney and Rick Eckstein found in Public Dollars, Private Stadiums, party affiliation has pretty much no correlation with whether local politicians will support a sports subsidy project. When push comes to shove, elected officials of all stripes can turn to “economic development” or “job creation” as justification for these deals, and usually do, for reasons I’ve gone into before. And the Cobb Tea Party (which is a branch of Dooley’s Atlanta Tea Party, apparently) has already previously teamed up with the local Sierra Club chapter to oppose the stadium project, so you’d think the “strange bedfellows” angle would be played out by now.

If it’s marginally less cheap irony you want, you may prefer the fact that John Malone, the CEO of Braves corporate owner Liberty Media, sits on the board of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank that has savaged stadium deals as a waste of public money. (Though, to be fair, Cato also thinks this about early childhood education.) I haven’t yet seen any reporter question Malone about how he reconciles his opposition to government subsidies for business with his request for $300 million in government subsidies for his business, but I’m sure the nation’s journalists will get around to that, as soon as they’re finished watching Cobb County Republican Smackdown.

Cobb County approves preliminary Braves agreement, now just has to figure out how the money actually works

The Cobb County Commission met last night to vote on giving $300 million in tax subsidies to the Atlanta Braves for their $672 million stadium plan, and — the suspense is killing you, isn’t it? — it passed, of course. If there’s a surprise, given the way the entire deal was worked out in complete secrecy in the weeks before its surprise announcement 16 days ago, it’s that the vote wasn’t unanimous: Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who’d said before the vote that “I’m gonna have to pray about it,” ultimately voted no, saying she was uneasy about the rushed decision, but the other four commissioners gave the deal the thumbs-up.

According to the Peach Pundit news blog, the final memorandum of understanding included two amendments, neither of which have had their text revealed; the Pundit says that “one seemed to eliminate some sort of arterial train,” which could be a reference to the transit link to downtown Atlanta that was mentioned as a possibility in the original MOU and which Cobb’s Republican Party chair had disparaged as a deal-breaker because he didn’t want anyone “moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.” (You know: those people.)

Transportation improvements, though, are just one of the things that have still yet to be worked out by the commission and the Braves. (A stadium operating agreement is another, which is important because it would determine how much the county would have to put up for future capital improvements to the stadium, as well as whether the Braves will have any out clauses that would allow them to break their lease early.) I wondered last week whether all the needed transportation improvements could be paid for with the $14 million that Cobb has committed to the project, and the Peach Pundit is wondering too, only with actual numbers:

Other transportation options are being explored to facilitate efficient traffic flow, including the utilization of the Cobb Community Transit bus system and the development of a trolley line connecting Cumberland-area businesses. Cobb County officials also plan sidewalk improvements around the site and have potential plans for a bus transit and pedestrian-only bridge connecting I-285 to the Galleria area.

Cobb County officials also are planning to build a bridge that will span I-285, connecting the Cobb Galleria office park to the stadium. Tim Lee gushed over this “Cheesecake Factory” bridge in a recent story. He stated it would have a shuttle that ran across it all the way to the Cumberland Mall/Galleria area. The bridge at 17th street in Atlanta cost approximately 40 million. That bridge was much easier to build than this one, as the interstate runs significantly below grade at the crossing point. The highway in this instance is well above grade, and the bridge will have to be much longer and built much higher. The grade cannot be very great or the shuttle, in whatever form it takes, will not be able to climb the bridge. This points to a bridge cost of conservatively 3 times the 17th street bridge, probably closer to 4. It is safe to say that this bridge, though specifically stated as being part of the the overall costs in the MOU, has not been budgeted.

The first paragraph discusses things that GDOT is already doing or planning to do, so there’s no cost there to Cobb taxpayers outside of what they already pay in state taxes.  The second and third paragraphs refer to “options,” “plans,” and “potential plans.” Is $14M enough to cover building pedestrian bridges and trolleys, in addition to the more likely items like sidewalks and CCT buses?  My guess is no.

Three to four times the cost of the 17th Street bridge would mean $120-160 million, which is a hell of an unfunded mandate — and that’s just one item on the Braves’ wish list. The Pundit says it’s “likely the state DOT will have to catch some of the total left over when the irrational exuberance fades”; if that’s going to require a state vote, then things could get interesting, given the murmurings of opposition to the deal in the legislature. Cobb County clearly intended last night’s vote to plant a stake in the ground that can’t easily be removed, but as we’ve seen in other cities, committing to a deal before knowing all the specifics is a great way to end up spending a whole lot more than you bargained for.

Cobb County vote on Braves stadium set for tonight

For those wondering when the Cobb County Commission is set to vote on the proposed Atlanta Braves stadium deal, it’s not until this evening, though I can’t find a precise time (I think 7 pm based on this calendar for 2014, but don’t quote me on that), let alone a webcast link.

One of two town hall meetings last night to discuss the plan drew an overflow crowd, with the Atlanta NPR station reporting that “from the look of people’s t-shirts and posters, the crowd was split evenly between supporters and detractors of the plan.” Meanwhile, a robocall campaign by the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots that offers to directly connect people with their county commissioner has all but shut down the commission’s phone lines.

Of the two (of five) commissioners who held town hall meetings last night, Bob Ott indicated that he was “a big fan” of mixed-use developments, while Lisa Cupid said she was unsure and “I’m gonna have to pray about it.”

Cobb stadium critics push for delay of tomorrow’s Braves stadium vote

The newly formed Cobb Citizens for Governmental Transparency — which includes such odd bedfellows as the county branches of the Tea Party and the Sierra Club — has two press conferences scheduled for today to call on the Cobb County Commission to delay tomorrow’s scheduled Atlanta Braves stadium vote, so that there’s time for “citizens [to] be appropriately informed and engaged when significant tax dollars are obligated or expended by our elected officials.” And at least one state legislator, Democratic state senator Jason Carter, says he’d like to see more time for discussion as well:

“As a fiscal conservative, it makes sense to me to be careful when talking about $300 million in taxes and debt assumption. I love the Braves. I have to believe that the deal is good for them and for Cobb County. But if that’s true, then there is no reason not to let people digest the plan before the vote. Frankly, this is not even a controversial position and I’d be surprised if the governor or any other candidates disagreed.”

If you think you recognize that smile and that surname, yes, he’s Jimmy Carter’s grandson. (Jack’s son, not Amy’s. Amy has apparently managed to keep such a low profile since reaching adulthood that her Wikipedia image is of her as a child holding a cat.) He’s also running for governor, so prone to making public statements like this, and from Decatur on the other side of Atlanta, so not really likely to be listened to by the Cobb commission. Still, given the likelihood that this whole project is going to need state approval at some point — if only for highway upgrades — it’ll be interesting to see whether more opposition emerges in the state legislature, especially from Atlanta representatives.

State representative Earl Ehrhart, meanwhile, — who helped engineer the Braves-Cobb deal, and who is a partner in a “mega sports park” under construction near the Cobb stadium site — says that any delay would risk Atlanta stealing the Braves back:

“Give them four weeks to let them spend that big Atlanta money?” he scoffed.

Yeah, because you know Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is just champing at the bit to try to outbid Cobb’s offer — wait, what?

Do the Braves really just think their fans are afraid of black people?

Enough of all the fumfering around with complaints about “inadequate parking” or fans mostly living in the northern suburbs (even if they mostly work downtown). Somebody has finally cut to the chase about why the Atlanta Braves really want out of Turner Field:

If you aren’t from Atlanta, you don’t understand the type of neighborhood Turner Field was built in and the type of environment fans coming to the games had to contend with for years…

[Joe’s Laundry & Cleaners proprietor Paul Kwan] added, “We have to face reality; they’re moving because of crime.”

Kwan nodded from behind the heavy metal screen at his counter that makes him look like a jailbird.

A heavy metal screen at the counter of a laundry/cleaning business, to protect the owner and his employees from both his customers and the residents of the community surrounding Turner Field? That is the environment Atlanta Braves’ fans must endure before and most notably AFTER an evening of cheering on their hometown heroes.

The author of this piece — titled “Who wants to fight crime on way to ballpark?” — is none other than former Braves reliever John Rocker, who knows a little something about being terrified of city neighborhoods. But it’s hardly a unique opinion — you don’t have to scratch the surface of Braves fan commentary too hard to find the sentiment that driving downtown to Turner Field isn’t distasteful because of lack of parking or traffic tieups or fear of being haunted by the ghost of Chief Noc-a-Homa, but rather because of the immediate environs:

So, is the area surrounding Turner Field really a teeming mass of criminal activity? It’s not actually so much a neighborhood per se — a large chunk of the historically black neighborhood of Summerhill was bulldozed to make way for Turner Field — as a stadium-in-a-sea-of-parking with some residential areas adjacent to it. And if you look at a heatmap of crime stats, Turner Field and environs isn’t especially high-crime: There’s a moderate amount of crime in a small area to the southeast, and a fair bit of crime on the other side of the highway, but your chances of being a crime victim in and around the ballpark isn’t any greater than, for example, some areas right near the new stadium site in Cobb County.

Still, “Turner Field = downtown = crime” is certainly the perception among many Braves fans. And given that the missing piece of that equation appears to be “= ghetto,” it has a lot of people wondering if what suburban Braves fans are afraid of is something else entirely. “The real reason for the move? Separating the team’s largely white fanbase from Atlanta’s black residents,” wrote the International Business Times’ Eric Brown last week:

Atlanta itself is a majority-black city, with 54 percent of the population identifying as black. The Summerhill neighborhood surrounding Turner Field has an even larger black population: 89 percent. For many white, suburban Braves fans, the neighborhood surrounding Turner Field has never been particularly appealing, despite the fact that Summerhill boasts a lower crime rate than most of urban Atlanta.

It’s a line of reasoning that warrants even more consideration now that the Braves have proposed outfitting their new suburban stadium with a mock-urban walking district far from central Atlanta and the people who live there. And while the team’s MOU includes a mention of possibly extending public transit to the site from downtown Atlanta, Cobb County Republican chair Joe Dendy has already made clear that he wants any transit improvements to be solely for suburbanites: “It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.” A sentiment that immediately found favor from several Braves fans tweeters:

This is way, way more complicated, obviously, than “Braves fans are racist.” Suburban attitudes toward urban neighborhoods are a complex stew of race, class, and rumor — I recall in the 1980s a friend of mine from Manhattan’s even-then-gentrified Upper West Side being asked by a college classmate if he felt safe walking around in his neighborhood unarmed — and it’s perfectly possible for someone to feel uneasy about going to Turner Field because they saw (or heard about) a crime there, or because they saw black people on the drive in and assumed that meant crime, or because they saw panhandlers and panhandlers mean the ghetto and the ghetto means run away. Or all, or none of the above.

Still, given that we’re talking here about the first baseball team in 40 years to move away from downtown to the suburbs — and that it’s baseball’s only team that resides in the Deep South, though Atlanta likes to pretend otherwise — it’s hard to see all this talk about fear of crime as a reason for the move without getting at least a little bit queasy about the racial dynamics at work. Even before it got John Rocker as its poster child.