The result? He played right into the hands of his critics and unnecessarily reignited controversy surrounding what had been seen by most as a done deal. In sports lingo, he put the other team “back in the game.”
And by so doing has he also put passage of the upcoming county road SPLOST at risk?
THE COMMISSION voted to approve financing of up to $397 million for the Braves’ new stadium, hired a construction manager and OK’d a contract that guarantees the team will be the stadium’s main tenant for the next 30 years.
Supporters of the move out-gamed opponents on Tuesday, showing up early in the afternoon to lay claim to all 12 of the speaking slots scheduled in the public comment portion of the meeting.
Opponents then lobbied Lee during the meeting to let them speak anyway. Trying to change the rules after you’ve lost the game is a spoiled-sport trick that rarely works, and it didn’t work this time, either. Lee refused loud pleas from three opponents (Rich Pellegrino, Ben Williams and Gary Pelphrey) to be allowed to speak; and after they persisted, had them removed. None of the other commissioners objected to their removal, not even Lisa Cupid, who voted against the financing package on Tuesday.
Lee won on the merits of the case.
But he lost in the court of public opinion.
Newspaper and TV accounts of the meeting made his refusal to let his critics have their say the centerpiece of those stories. And Lee and the commission came away looking thin-skinned and imperious. And those are just some of the nicer adjectives we’ve heard used in the past few days.
The main theme of those stories ran along the lines of “the commission refused to let people be heard.” Never mind that the commission held a number of public hearings last fall before taking the initial vote on the move. And never mind that opponents have mostly been recycling the same arguments since then.
The enduring image is one of Lee throwing his weight behind supporters of the move and clamping down on dissent.
If he’s curious about what that kind of thing can do to an elected leader’s reputation, he might drop a dime and give former Cobb School Board Chairman Dr. John Abraham a call. Abraham’s stature was forever diminished in 2009 when, after flip-flopping on a campaign promise about the school calendar, he angrily ordered police to remove sharp-tongued critic Vivian Jackson from a school board meeting during the public comment period because she tried to ignore his decree that no speaker could talk for more than 90 seconds.
Memo to public officials: In this country, it’s nearly always better to sit there and “take it,” or at least take it and then rebut it, than it is to prevent the public from criticizing you.
THE CRITICISM OF LEE that has been heard most often — even from some supporters of the deal — is that it suffers from a lack of transparency: that Lee and the Braves hammered out the deal in secret last summer and fall. That complaint was given legs by the speed with which Lee deftly maneuvered the measure to approval by the commission just weeks after it finally was revealed.
Complaints about the alleged lack of transparency were a staple at this spring’s candidate debates in the races for the two open seats on the county commission. Compounding Lee’s perception problems, the county, probably unwittingly, ordered the release of the documents pertaining to Tuesday’s vote late last Friday afternoon on the eve of a holiday weekend — which you learn in PR 101 is the best time for releasing information that might not be in your favor.
And on Tuesday night, by declining to bend the rules, and “sit there and take it” from a scant handful (and that’s all it was in a room otherwise packed with Braves supporters) of critics, Lee played right into the hands of those trying to stop the move. As one well-known politico used to quip, “Sometimes it’s better to just let people chew on you for a few minutes, then move on.”
SO WILL this week’s episode have longer repercussions?
First of all, will opponents of the move file suit during the bond-validation process in hopes of slowing the sale of the bonds for the project? Stay tuned.
And second, will controversy over the Braves spill into the county road-SPLOST extension vote many expect Lee to call for November? That is the last date on which a referendum can be held in conjunction with a general election in time for the 1 percent local sales tax to be extended for six years after its scheduled expiration date Dec. 31, 2015.
Lee has already been wrestling with whether to include $100 million for construction of a $492 million Bus Rapid Transit line in such a SPLOST referendum. Many courthouse watchers feel that would mean the defeat of the SPLOST. Opponents would paint a BRT-driven SPLOST as the second coming of the TSPLOST, which voters overwhelmingly shot down two years ago despite strong support for it from Lee and the Cobb Chamber. Commissioners are expected to decide in the next few weeks on whether to include the BRT in the SPLOST — and on the heels of Tuesday’s events, it might be wise to go ahead and deep-six the idea.
WILL OPPONENTS of the Braves move be able to capitalize on public distaste for how Lee refused to listen to any criticism on Tuesday and thereby transform the vote on the SPLOST into a de facto referendum on the Braves’ move? Passage of the SPLOST renewal will be tough regardless of whether it includes the BRT. The current SPLOST passed by only 90 votes of 43,041 cast, you’ll recall. Add to the mix enough voters upset about a perceived lack of transparency on the county’s behalf regarding the Braves’ move and Lee might find that drumming up enthusiasm for a SPLOST renewal is like trying to start a car with a dead battery.
So don’t be surprised to see Braves’ opponents try to parlay Tuesday’s fireworks into an attempt to undermine Lee and the SPLOST. But even if they try to do so, Lee has plenty of time to overcome Tuesday’s misplay.
And Lee also has what you might describe as the “ultimate trump card” — the enduring popularity of the Atlanta Braves, and the almost palpable excitement that many Cobb residents feel about the move.
POLITICS: Angela Barner, who just missed getting in the upcoming July 22 runoff for the District 1 seat representing northwest Cobb on the county commission, told Around Town on Friday afternoon that she is endorsing former Chairman Bill Byrne, who was the top vote-getter that day with 28 percent of the primary vote.
“I’ve put management style aside and I am basing my endorsement on the candidate that I feel will best protect homeowners and taxpayers alike. For me, that candidate is Bill Byrne,” she said.
Byrne opposes the BRT, is against higher property taxes and wants to preserve green space, she continued, adding the Cobb police department was one of the best in the region during his tenure as chair.
On the other hand, she says Byrne’s runoff opponent, former Acworth Councilman Bob Weatherford, is undecided on the SPLOST. And she hinted at the strong support he is getting from Cobb Chamber insiders.
“Weatherford is out of touch with District 1 voters, but seems to be very much in sync with the special interest groups that support BRT and his campaign,” she said.
MAKE of it what you wish: Byrne’s wife/campaign manager Babe Atkins-Byrne mailed AT that contrary to what we wrote last Saturday, Byrne has “NO INTENTION” of running against Lee in two years.
SICK BAY: David Downing, husband of recently retired Cobb Tax Commissioner Gail Downing, has spent most of the week in ICU in Omaha after coming down with viral pneumonia while visiting relatives. … Former commission chair candidate/outspoken Braves-deal critic Larry Savage went for what was supposed to be a routine run along the Hooch on Thursday but ended up looking like he’d tried to go a round with Mike Tyson after he tripped and did a face plant on the gravel trail. An ambulance ride to Northside Hospital’s ER came next, plus eight stitches and a black eye swollen completely shut.
MARIETTA lawyer Justin O’Dell just missed colliding with a large black bear as it ran across Delk Road near Life University on Thursday evening. And O’Dell, a native of rural Idaho, knows a thing or two about bears.