Paging Sancho Panza. Mr. Panza, white courtesy phone please. Common Cause Georgia is on a mission worthy of Don Quixote, and will require the assistance of a faithful servant.
William Perry wants what he calls “public input” on the new Falcons stadium and claims he’s found a “loophole” in the Atlanta City charter that will force a public vote on whether or not the City should be allowed to use some of the proceeds from the hotel/motel tax to repay bonds that will fund 20% of the deal. The executive director of the watchdog agency claims that a mere 35,000 signatures on a petition will force the Atlanta City Council to put a yes-or-no question on the stadium’s financing to the voters. Only then, says Perry, will this be over. That’s cute. But seriously, it’s over. In fact, to quote a famous documentary, it’s “Game Over.”The gesture, however nobly intended, is so futile and stupid that it detracts from better work Common Cause could be doing.
First, there are no loopholes, there are only laws, written in precise ways for specific reasons. And where you think you might find a “loophole,” there will be legions of attorneys guarding it. The Atlanta city charter says “The council shall by ordinance prescribe procedures to govern the initiation, adoption, and repeal of ordinances by the electorate, and the council shall authorize an initiative or referendum election on petition of at least 15 percent of the registered voters qualified to vote in the preceding general municipal election.”
That sounds simple -35,000 signatures and voila! the Council shall authorize a referendum. Except that those 35,000 signatures must be of only registered voters; conform –exactly– to the name on the voter registration rolls; have been gathered by circulators who swear under oath that the signatures are valid, and be on a form with no more than 15 signatures per legal-sized page, among many other details.
Any deviation in a gathered signature, such as a forgotten middle initial, will invalidate that signature, and in some cases, the entire page of signatures. There are at least a dozen ways any single signature can be invalidated. And Common Cause needs 35,000 valid ones. They’ll need double that number to have even half a chance. And who’s validating the signatures on those petitions? The Fulton County elections office, an agency with a severe competence allergy. They haven’t even finished counting ballots from the last election -how could anyone expect them to be able verify 35,000 voter signatures in time for the next?
But continue this impossible dream for a moment, and suppose Mr. Perry found 200 or so Sancho Panzas to assist him and a Rocinante to ride. Suppose that Fulton County validated 35,000 signatures on a petition, and suppose the Atlanta City Council agreed to ask if their 11-4 vote to approve the stadium deal was OK with the voters. November’s election would have Mayor Reed seeking re-election and the yes-or-no question about the stadium. On the “No” side would be Mr. Perry and a ledger, with lots of talk of good government, transparency, accountability and public participation. On the “Yes” side would be an extremely popular Mayor Reed -and the Atlanta Falcons, with game highlights, gridiron heroes and cheerleaders. Hot, professional cheerleaders. If you’re going to run a campaign, you will go farther by promising a chicken in every pot than you will by asking who’s going to pay for it.
Partial public financing of a private stadium may offend purists, but government (and politics) will always offend purists. The new stadium deal may not be ideal -but derailing it will cost Georgia (not just Atlanta) more than going forward with it. All government needs oversight, especially Georgia’s. But there are other parts of “government” where oversight and public input are desperately needed -judges, district attorneys and school boards, for instance. Georgians would be better off if our “lobbyist for ethical honest and accountable government” focused on those areas, rather than tilting at windmills.