The candidates answered three questions asked by AJC columnist Jim Galloway in the Board of Commissioners’ meeting room before a polite audience of about 75 people at a forum hosted by the Cobb Republican Women’s Club.
Galloway referenced the Journal’s Sunday article in which former county chairman Bill Byrne described the Atlanta Regional Commission as the United Nations of metro Atlanta. In that article, Byrne said the ARC was adhering to the U.N.’s Agenda 21 platform of economic development. Galloway asked the candidates if regional cooperation and coordination with the rest of Atlanta is good for Cobb County.
Byrne and Lee were at fairly opposite ends in their answers.
“When you take an approach of regionalism or regional government, you lose the concept of local control,” Byrne said. “Agenda 21 is a concept of planning — land use planning, if you will — to define economic development corridors and to develop them in high-rise fashion for residential and/or commercial use served by public transportation, be it bus service or light rail. The open space remaining from that is designated for public use.”
Byrne said he’s never agreed with such a concept and never will.
“We have to focus on what’s best for Cobb first and the region second, and that would be my primary focus as chairman,” he said.
By contrast, Lee said the “issue of regionalism is very important for economic development for our county.”
“We need to cooperate with the other counties in the region as we fight for jobs across this country,” Lee said.
The incumbent referenced a recent project Cobb secured without naming it directly, saying it was won in a fight with California.
Lee portrayed the matter as being responsible for his home while at the same time ensuring his neighborhood thrives.
“I take care of my responsibility in my home which I take care of here in Cobb County by taking care of it first, but I also ensure that my community, which is part of the bigger portion of Cobb, is also taken care of,” Lee said. “It’s my responsibility as a citizen to not only take care of my place first here in Cobb County, but it’s also my responsibility to make sure that the region is succeeding as well. And I take that seriously.”
Like Byrne, retired businessman Larry Savage was equally critical of regionalism. The ARC’s predecessor organization was founded to instill cooperation among the metro counties, Savage said.
“They have turned into something beyond that,” Savage said. “They are now something of a super-government or regional government. There has been people talking out loud in some circles about the need for regional governance.”
In fact, while Savage didn’t mention it, none other than Attorney General Sam Olens was quoted in a September article by The Saporta Report about the need for the ARC to have a “region-wide elected chairperson.”
“I object to every element of it,” Savage said. “We are unique in some respects here. We have unique interests, we have unique needs. We are a suburban community, and to try to merge us into a composite with an urban environment like Atlanta and with counties that have completely different issues from ours I think would be a mistake. I think our self-governance here is important. I see it as endangered, and it is important that we stand up and defend that and avoid the regional governance.”
Retired Col. Mike Boyce pointed out that Cobb is not an island.
“We depend on not just the region, but also the United States and the world for us to be successful,” Boyce said.
Cobb has to be careful to preserve its local identity without shutting out the world, he said.
“The issue of high density that Agenda 21 pushes is not compatible with Cobb,” Boyce said. “Cobb citizens have indicated they have no desire for that … and we need to protect that and respect that.”
Candidates were also asked under what circumstances would they support construction of commuter rail in Cobb.
Byrne, Boyce and Savage indicated they wouldn’t support such a proposal, while Lee said it would depend on the findings of the county’s Alternative Analysis, due later this year.
“We have a community region, it’s growing significantly, and we’ve been for years and decades (needing) to be planning for alternative transportation programs to try to deal with some our issues facing us as a county,” Lee said. “There’s no question we have congestion issues and we have to address that. … (When) that report comes back indicating any kind of rail system is worth looking at, then I think it’s something we need to at least give a look at to see if it’s affordable. If it’s not affordable, then we’ll have to go to the next step.”
Savage said the rail system being proposed down the Interstate 75 and Highway 41 corridor is not commuter rail.
“It is rail service or bus service that would provide transportation to every body along the way, and that brings out one of the major flaws to any kind of mass transit system,” Savage said. “You either stop frequently and access a lot of people, or you don’t stop very frequently and provide fast service, but you can’t do both with the same route. Commuter rail is probably the least likely to succeed because of the absence of enough population density.”
Boyce said metro Atlanta already has a rail system and it is called MARTA.
“We keep seeming to think that Cobb is responsible for holding up this idea,” Boyce said. “The reality is we have a rail system in Atlanta, and it works to some degree. It’s subsidized. The second thing is Cobb has a long constant heritage of not wanting a train. What part of this don’t people in government understand? They don’t want a train. The third thing is if we do fund this thing we’re going to be stacking a SPLOST upon a SPLOST, which means they’re going to be taking our tax rate up to 7 percent, and as we know, there’s no train in America that’s not subsidized. If you think subsidizing CCT is a big deal, wait until you subsidized this train. The answer is let’s take a step back, take a look at all the options, including the new highway by Gov. Deal, and give us some time before we rush into judgment on this.”
Byrne said that in an urban setting, commuter rail has a place.
“In a suburban community, it does not,” he said. “That is the situation Cobb County is in. We have a population a little over 700,000 people, and it’s a suburban community. The cost itself of commuter rail is out of reach of affordability, but the real question becomes if you build it, will they ride it? Study after study says that 3 percent of the commuters will utilize the rail system and a subsidy of 60 percent on the dollar is required to operate it and maintain it. Where are those going to come from once the commuter rail is in place? It’s called a tax increase. I totally reject the concept of commuter rail, let alone asking people to subsidize its cost and maintenance.”
Candidates were also asked if the Development Authority of Cobb County, which currently hires the Cobb Chamber to serve its staffing and meeting space needs, should do things the way the Marietta Development Authority does, which is to meet at Marietta City Hall and have the Marietta city staff handle any staffing needs.
All four candidates agreed that the Development Authority of Cobb County was having problems.
Savage described the authority as being “in a bit of a morass for most people right now. I don’t think the average citizen has any idea of what it is or what it does or how it does it. Unfortunately, some of the people who are involved in it don’t know those things either.”
Savage said it appeared that people were slowly but surely unraveling the knot to find out what actually is going on with that agency.
“I appreciate the need for privacy for secure information, but I also appreciate the need that if you’re going to have a board to supervise the operation these people have to be informed, they have to know what they’re doing,” Savage said. “And right now we have continuing transparency problems there, and if we can’t alleviate those transparency problems, then we probably should look for another alternative in terms of how to operate.”
Boyce asked the audience to imagine a scenario very similar to the one that is playing out with the development authority right now.
“Let’s say we have a partnership and somebody comes in one day and says, ‘yeah, I just agreed to a $50,000 loan, you don’t mind do you?’” Boyce said. “Well, that’s the Development Authority right now. I was stunned and shocked to see that people can go out and make commitments without getting the authority of the board. So the answer is very short, yes, we need to make some changes and they’re going to come about when I’m the chairman.”
Byrne said he believed the real question is openness and what is going on where the Authority meets at the Chamber offices.
“One of the changes I would really propose and push to have happen is have their meetings held on this dais in front of those cameras” — Byrne said, pointing to the TV23 cameras — “so that the public that is responsible for their activities and the results of their activities can watch what’s going on.”
Lee said he was surprised to say he agreed with Byrne. Lee said that when he took office, the relationship between the county government and development authority “was a little bit confused.” But Lee said he took steps to correct that. As for when and where the Authority wants to meet, Lee said that is up to the board to decide.
Each of the candidates had supporters in the audience. Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, a Lee supporter, was in attendance, as were officials from the county’s two Community Improvement Districts.