The forum, held at NorthStar Church in Kennesaw and sponsored by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and Acworth Business Association, drew a crowd of about 300, said John Loud, Weatherford’s campaign manager.
As the two candidates hoping to replace retiring northwest Cobb Commissioner Helen Goreham stepped onto the stage, moderator Pete Combs pointed to the microphones.
“They’re microphones, they’re not clubs,” Combs said, prompting laughter.
Weatherford to Byrne: How can Cobb County trust you?
Weatherford was first to ask Byrne a question.
“For the last 12 years, I’ve been serving as an elected official, working hard to keep Cobb County strong,” Weatherford said. “During those last 12 years, Mr. Byrne, you’ve been running for office, desperate to return to the spotlight. You left your unfinished term as chairman to run for governor, and left Cobb County again by moving to Polk County to run for commission mayor, and even stated in the process, ‘The last thing I’m going to do was live in Cobb County.’ Then you moved back and ran for chairman, and now, here we are again. Bill, your record shows the last 12 years you’ve had your own interest at heart, not Cobb County. Honestly, how can the people of Cobb County trust you?”
Byrne answered by telling Weatherford he asked a good question. On the matter of Polk County, Byrne said he purchased an old house in Polk County on 10 acres in 1998, paying “the going price.” In his work as a landscape architect, that is where he works from. Given his marketing efforts are focused on the northwest part of Georgia, having such a rural address helps him in rural communities. Polk County, Byrne went on to say, has a population of about 40,000, the majority of whom still farm for a living or raise cattle.
“To think Cobb County’s concept of growth and growth management fits Polk would have been wrong,” Byrne said. “That would have destroyed their quality of life, just as the east Cobb growth possibilities, probabilities and proposals would destroy the quality of life and the growth in west Cobb, and that’s my primary focus is to protect west Cobb from inappropriate growth.”
An apology to Angela Barner
The first question Byrne asked Weatherford was about Weatherford’s comments concerning how primary candidate challenger Angela Barner came to endorse Byrne. Remarking on Barner’s endorsement of Byrne, Weatherford told the MDJ, “Somebody offered them something I wouldn’t. I mean, I’m not saying they did and I’m not saying they didn’t. I’m just saying I don’t do deals.”
Barner has called Weatherford’s statements false, noting her endorsement was not for sale to anyone, but that she endorsed Byrne because they share similar ideas.
“Don’t you think you owe Jim and Angela Barner an apology for those kinds of statements?” Byrne asked Weatherford.
Weatherford said during the weeks following the primary he met with a few of the challengers and set up a meeting with Barner.
“The same day that we were working on doing that she came out the next day and endorsed you,” Weatherford said. “All I was insinuating is there possibly must have been something going on that we weren’t aware of. If that was not the case, then you’re right, I publicly offer them an apology. I believe that everyone has the opportunity to listen to both sides before they come out and endorse, and that’s what we were seeking in that particular race of course, but I believe that Mrs. Barner has come out and said that was not the case, and I take her at her word, and I do publicly apologize for that.”
An FBI investigation and an ethics fine
Weatherford said Byrne has a record different from the citizens of Cobb County.
“As chairman, the Cobb County Ethics Board fined you $1,000 for failing to disclose a business relationship with a local zoning attorney who you apparently voted in favor the majority of time,” Weatherford said. “And then you were even investigated by the FBI and the IRS for questionable sweetheart deals. How could the citizens of Cobb County trust that you would change your ways and not act in such an unethical manner in the future?”
Byrne said he was exonerated.
“You are correct, both the FBI and the IRS did complete an investigation on me and wrote a letter saying it was open for public record. It was clean and honest,” Byrne said.
Byrne also said the first part of Weatherford’s statement was wrong.
“The issue before the ethics board at the state level was not for violation of impropriety because in that hearing it came out that I had voted against zoning proposals represented by an attorney by the name of John Moore 4 to 1, and the fine of $1,000 was not for an ethics violation, but for the perception that there was one, and I agreed to that, and that was the proper way in which to do that,” Byrne said.
Weatherford thanked Byrne for clearing up the matter.
“If the perception was there, and you agreed to it, then obviously it’s still an admission of guilt in some form or fashion, but I take you at your word that hopefully that is all behind us,” Weatherford said.
Objections over the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement process
The next question Byrne asked Weatherford was over Weatherford’s objection to how the Fraternal Order of Police Kermit Sanders Lodge #13 came to endorse Byrne.
“With regards to the FOP endorsement, after that became public you commented ‘there’s a select group there that all they want to do is get up there and stir things up,’” Byrne said.
Yet FOP president Bill Mull said the group endorsed Byrne over Weatherford because they had lost confidence in county Chairman Tim Lee, and that Weatherford, they believed, was too closely aligned with Lee.
“The vote for endorsing me was unanimous with 105 people present,” Byrne said. “Don’t you think you owe the FOP and president and also (FOP 1st vice president) Bob Pierce an apology for those kinds of accusations?”
Weatherford said he believed the FOP should send out ballots to all of its members rather than just have those who attend the meeting vote to endorse a candidate.
“I certainly feel like the process was flawed, that most of the membership should have been able to at least have a say in that rather than a select few that attended the meeting. That is the primary purpose of what I stated,” Weatherford said.
Byrne said as a dues-paying FOP member, Weatherford should know the rules.
“It doesn’t go out to the full membership of about 400 people,” Byrne said. “There were 105 people there. It was unanimous. You had the same opportunity to convince them you were the better candidate. They endorsed me.”
Weatherford and bus rapid transit
Byrne also tried to nail Weatherford down on whether he supports Lee’s bus rapid transit proposal connecting Kennesaw State University with Midtown Atlanta. He pointed out that Weatherford supported the failed T-SPLOST of 2012.
“We need to get a final answer on this,” Byrne said. “The BRT has been an issue from the very beginning from qualifying through the primary, and it is today. When questioned on that issue your response has always been, ‘It’s up to the voters to decide.’ I get it. That’s the way the process works. You are a voter. If the BRT is a separate line item, are you going to vote for it or against it?”
To begin with, the bus rapid transit proposal should be placed on a separate referendum and not included in the SPLOST list, Weatherford said.
And if it’s placed separately on the ballot, it needs a financial plan, a plan he hasn’t yet seen. Weatherford said the county is completing an environmental analysis of the transit plan that won’t be complete until August.
“Once it’s approved, then you take a look at the financial plan: can it support itself?” Weatherford said.
The growth Cobb County is anticipating will “require some type of transportation in order to move those people from one end of the county down 41 to the other,” Weatherford said. “I don’t know what the answer is. Unlike you, I don’t say ‘no.’ I say, ‘Let’s research it, let’s find out, let’s make an intelligent decision and then decide,’ instead of just coming out and saying ‘no.’ I’ve repeatedly said I need to understand it more before I need to make an informed decision. That’s the way I’ve been for 12 years. That’s the way I’m going to be for the next four as your county commissioner.”
Byrne said the county has spent millions studying the plan already.
“Cobb County spent $4.1 million studying this proposal long before the Board of Commissioners are going to put it on the ballot,” Byrne said. “The factual information that you say you don’t have, you haven’t seen, and you haven’t read, has been available for several months.”
The Atlanta Braves
Combs asked both candidates what they thought about the Braves moving to Cobb County and how they would advance their positions if elected.
Weatherford believes the new Braves development will end up being an economic boost the county hasn’t seen in years.
Whoever is elected will be responsible for ensuring taxpayer interests are protected and that the county spends exactly what it said it would spend, Weatherford said.
Also, “that we do what we need to do to make sure that they’re a success, that they bring the economic development that we need in Cobb County so that our taxes can be lowered, our revenues can come up,” Weatherford said.
There are many issues associated with the project, from public safety to transportation.
“And many of those are being addressed as we speak. Some of those will be done before we have an opportunity to have any input on that, but the primary focus, I think, of the commission from this point forward, next year and on, is to protect the taxpayers’ interest to make sure we have spent all we’re going to spend and that the Braves is a success,” Weatherford said. “I firmly believe that it’s the best thing to happen to Cobb County since the Olympics. Oh, we didn’t get those, did we?”
Byrne said he too supports the Braves moving to Cobb County, but believes commissioners should have done a far better job in their negotiations.
“If they were serious about public safety, they would have negotiated with the Braves this concept: Cobb County needs 10 acres, you’re going to donate it to us,” Byrne said. “Cobb County needs a new police precinct for $5 million, you’re going to build it for us. Cobb County needs a new fire station on those 10 acres, you’re going to build it for us. You do that, we’ll do this. It’s a win-win for the Atlanta Braves to say we have a public safety presence at our front door, sends a clear message to all of the players and all of the people who come to watch the games and the message the Board of Commissioners would have sent was public safety is my No. 1 priority. They didn’t. We have to.”
Who to pick?
Weatherford said the question before voters is who best can represent them in west Cobb and the cities of Acworth, Kennesaw and Marietta.
“I feel I’ve done that for 12 years. I feel like I have a collaborative effort and a servant leadership that I have exhibited and my record speaks that way,” he said.
Byrne also ended on a positive note.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be here this evening and share the stage with Bob. He’s a good man, a good fellow, I’ve known him for a long time, he’s a fellow Marine. We just don’t agree on a damn thing,” Byrne said. “And you’re going to have to sort that out. You’re going to have to pick the leadership that you want to rely on.”
Among those in attendance was former Cobb GOP chairman Anthony-Scott Hobbs, who said after the debate he is now supporting Byrne.
“I found that Weatherford’s responses or questions towards Byrne focused too much on the past versus where Cobb is going for the future, and he’s losing me there on that,” Hobbs said. “I think when you look at where Cobb is going, and you look at what’s best for Commission District 1 you need a candidate like Byrne that knows the issues and can grapple with them.”
Hobbs said he found Byrne’s example of the way commissioners should have negotiated with the Braves “very clever.”
“Ultimately, there were other levers that could have been pulled in that negotiating process,” Hobbs said.