Twenty years ago, Byrne was chairman of the Cobb commission and I was a managing director for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, trying to negotiate some kind of settlement with him over the so-called Family Values Resolution that had thrust the county into the world’s spotlight. I failed.
If you are a newcomer to the area, the resolution was a thinly-veiled anti-gay statement. Its author, Commissioner Gordon Wysong, somehow persuaded his fellow commissioners to support the resolution after a showing of an otherwise unmemorable play at the since-closed Theatre in the Square in Marietta that had gotten the commissioner’s bloomers in a wad.
All the commission got for its efforts was the removal of the county’s only Olympic Games venue — a preliminary volleyball competition — a lost opportunity to have the Olympic Torch run through Cobb County and the kind of publicity that would make any company think twice about moving its business to a place where it seemed everybody married their first cousins.
Byrne told me that in hindsight he should never have allowed the resolution to be brought to a vote. In typical Bill Byrne fashion, he was quoted in the MDJ as saying that were he given the chance to do it again, “I would have personally gotten my revolver and shot Gordon Wysong between the eyes.” The man has a way with words.
After a 10-year stint on the commission, Byrne resigned to run in Republican primary for governor in 2002. He came in third. In 2006, he announced that he would challenge then-Commission Chairman Sam Olens in the 2008 Republican primary but later dropped out, citing a lack of finances.
He later considered a run for the Polk County Commission, where he owned a horse farm. The Polk County Elections Board ruled he did not meet the legal residence requirement and he was disqualified. Last year, he challenged Tim Lee for Cobb chairman. He lost in a runoff. Now, here he is back in the fray, running for a seat on the Cobb commission.
Byrne states his No. 1 issue is public safety. He says during his tenure as chairman, the Cobb County’s police and fire personnel were the “highest-paid, best-trained and best equipped.” He is very critical of the way both Lee and County Manager David Hankerson responded — or didn’t respond — to a host of memos from former Public Safety Director Jack Forsythe over the past year, telling them of the dire need for more officers, new vehicles and better scheduling. Forsythe later resigned.
A couple of weeks ago, the commission voted unanimously to hire 40 additional police trainees for the present 609-person department. Another 40 additional officers would be hired in 2015 or 2016, according to Chairman Lee.
Byrne says the Board of Commissioners was “intimidated” by media reports into doing the right thing. He adds, “However, not providing them with police cars and other support equipment is mind-boggling. Cobb County is a long way off from regaining the status of having the finest public safety program in the state of Georgia.”
He says Cobb County needs 174 more police officers and the price tag for hiring, equipping and maintaining them will be more than $17 million, including adding a sixth precinct near the new Braves Stadium. Byrne calls the public safety issue a crisis and says resolving it should be the primary responsibility of the commission.
Speaking of the Braves, Byrne makes clear that while he supports the move of the team to Cobb County, he has serious questions about the details of the deal. He projects the annual debt service of the $368 million bond sales will be more than $24 million and he is dubious of how that money will be raised. About the proposed Special Services District property tax in the Cumberland area he says, “Nobody can explain what this is, how it works or where the legal authority for doing it can be found,” he says.
He also claims it will take from $75 million to $100 million to deal with the congestion problems around the stadium. “If the county got started today,” he says, “I don’t think they could be ready by 2017.” That is when the Braves are scheduled to begin play in Cobb.
Will Bill Byrne win the GOP nomination for the District 1 seat on the County Commission this coming May? That depends on the voters.
All I can guarantee is he will make things interesting. I learned that up-close-and-personal 20 years ago.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.