“Mr. Lee declined to participate today, so he is represented by an empty chair,” said 90.1 FM WABE reporter Charles Edwards, who moderated the program held in the 1904-era Rhodes Hall off Peachtree Street in Atlanta.
Three other organizations have attempted to host debates between Lee and Byrne, but Lee has turned them all down, prompting their cancellation.
But the Atlanta Press Club went forward regardless, as executive director Lauri Strauss explained in an email to Byrne.
“We don’t think it is fair to penalize the candidate that is open to debating if one candidate declines,” she said.
The taped program will air at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday on PBA 30.
Devin Feely with 11Alive asked Byrne about statements he used a few years ago when attempting to qualify for a race in Polk County, comments Lee is using against him. Byrne is quoted as saying “The last thing I wanted to do is live in Cobb County, let alone serve in Cobb County. I want to make damn sure Cobb County doesn’t move to Polk County.”
Why would Cobb voters want to support someone so critical of their county, the reporter asked.
Byrne said the comments were taken out of context.
“The question to me as a potential candidate for office in Polk County is ‘would I bring the philosophies and policies from Cobb County to Polk County?’” Byrne said. “Polk County is a dramatically different county than Cobb is. At that time, there were only 38,000 people. It’s a very rural county. They still farm for a living there and don’t even have a sewer system countywide. My concept to them was you cannot bring Cobb to Polk. You have to build on what it is you are, not what it is you want to be, and I made that analogy.”
Jim Burress with 90.1 FM WABE asked that if Byrne intends to get the county’s budget under control by reducing property taxes, how does he plan to do this when property taxes are the county’s main source of funding.
Byrne said the county and nation are still in the middle of a recession.
“Our present chairman, Tim Lee, raised taxes six different times in a 15-month period of time,” Byrne said. “You don’t raise taxes on people in businesses in the middle of a recession.”
The total unemployment rate in Cobb is 16 percent, foreclosures are at record levels and property values have been reduced in value by one-third to the level of 2003, he said.
“Property tax revenues are a reflection of value,” Byrne said. “So the revenues are going to decrease. The impact on government has to be proportional to the monies available to run it, not increasing the taxes on people who are losing their homes, losing their hope and losing their opportunities.”
The moderator gave Byrne a chance to ask Lee — represented by the chair — a question.
Byrne said one of the biggest issues the county and region face is the proposed transportation tax, which was roundly defeated on July 31, but which state law requires to be brought before voters again in two years.
“After all the work and effort that you put into designing the TSPLOST project list for Cobb County and campaigning for it, promoting it, why are you now denying that you even supported the proposal?” Byrne asked the absent Lee.
Burress asked Byrne if transportation was a top concern for Cobb County, to which he said it was the No. 1 concern.
“Not only to move people but defining economic development as to where it is you want it to be in the future, and by contrast from where you don’t,” Byrne said.
But that doesn’t mean the TSPLOST was the answer, Byrne said, noting he opposed the TSPLOST for three reasons.
“I felt and still do that House Bill 277 is clearly unconstitutional,” Byrne said. Byrne said he has urged the Cobb Legislative Delegation to draft legislation in January to repeal the bill and start over with a workable regional proposal that will provide regional solutions that residents will support.
Feely asked about Byrne’s suggestion for east Cobb to consider forming its own city. Byrne said his motive for making that suggestion is not like the justification for the last few cities in metro Atlanta that have been formed.
“This is not a service delivery issue,” Byrne said. “Cobb County delivers services in a most professional way throughout the county. This is a local control issue.”
Byrne said that as chairman he often heard from various homeowner, business and civic groups in opposition to zoning issues whether the development was too dense, hurt schools or parks, or created traffic problems.
“The concept is local control,” he said. “If the city of East Cobb were created with a mayor (and) five city council people, the residents of that city can get to them a lot easier than they can get to the five of us.”
Burress asked Byrne about his reaction to an unscientific MDJ online poll showing that only 19 percent of voters were in support of a City of East Cobb.
“Marietta Daily Journal created a poll and asked people a question they heard nothing about,” Byrne said. “I would have said ‘no’ to it as well. When you explain the justification for it, and that this is not a mandate but to begin a discussion of ideas, then the interest changes dramatically.”
Byrne said he has a five-point plan involving the details of the proposal for residents to consider.
“It is not something that can or would be imposed,” Byrne said. “It would ultimately as previous cities have been created by a vote of the people that would be impacted by it. So it’s a ‘discussionary’ period. The east Cobb portion of Cobb County would become the first portion of our current county as history clearly defines that it’s going to begin the growth process the second time. Before that happens, passing on how they want their community to look like in the future should be their decision.”
Feely said Byrne has been a polarizing figure at various points in his political career. Feely said Lee has accused Byrne that such stances, like the anti-gay resolution of 1993, cost Cobb County the ability to host a venue in the 1996 Olympics.
“His point of view is we should not go a second term with someone that can be so divisive and polarizing,” the reporter said.
Byrne said it’s important to note that Lee isn’t talking about his own track record, but about Byrne’s.
“The resolution that you are referring to was exactly that: that’s an opinion of the majority Board of Commissioners,” Byrne said. “It was not intended to be nor was it ever a policy statement from Cobb County.”
A district commissioner named Gordon Wysong introduced the resolution and it was approved.
“It was a comparative analysis of belief: Do you believe in the concept of the traditional family value or do you support the comments and concepts of the growing gay rights agenda,” Byrne said. “I voted for that resolution. The response in 1996 from Billy Payne and the Olympic Committee was to remove volleyball from Cobb County because of that position. It didn’t remove all the assets and benefits that came from it.”
In his closing statement, Byrne pointed out Lee’s absence.
“It is very discouraging and disappointing that Tim Lee is not here to participate in this debate,” Byrne said. “This is not the first nor will it be the last. He has refused to debate me four times in the closing weeks of this campaign. That’s his choice. My choice is to be here. His choice is not. On Aug. 21 I ask for your help, your support, and your vote, and I assure you that on the 21st I’ll be there for you as well.”
Walking back to his car, Byrne said he thought the event went well. The downside, besides Lee not participating, was that they only gave him 60 seconds to respond to complicated questions, he said.
Byrne said he wanted to talk more about the TSPLOST.
“We’ve still got a major issue on our hands because by law we have to come back with a second round of project lists to be voted on in two years,” he said. “If we keep sending the same people back to the roundtable, we’re going to keep getting a square peg trying to fit into that roundtable.”
It will take an act of the Legislature to repeal the law, he said.
“I was very discouraged to hear the governor say last week when responding to a question from a media source about the 30 percent penalty issue,” Byrne said. “And he said, ‘well, it’s a part of the law, and as the governor I’m going to enforce the law,’ and I thought that was the bad message to send. That sounded to me like a very arrogant man that just got his butt kicked, and if that’s the leadership of the future, then we’ve still got a problem.”
The Journal asked Gov. Nathan Deal’s office about that statement. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor made no such comment.
“He is either purposefully misrepresenting the governor’s position or is just sorely lacking in reading comprehension skills,” Robinson said. “The governor has said we’re going to listen to Georgians, prioritize our state dollars and try to find solutions to our transportation problems. Just imagine what we could get done if we had more of that spirit of cooperation and less ignorant bluster.”