Sancho Panza, call your office.

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.”game-over-man-game-overThe 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.




  1. Baker says:

    What to say? I guess the point that I would stress most and why I strongly disagree with Mr. Hassinger here is that for months, years even, His Highness Mayor Reed and the Falcons lied through their teeth about how much money they would be getting out of the deal. Over and over again they repeated the line of $200 MILL….then the day after it passes, Rich McKay is asked about the money and how it might be more than $200 MILL and then he says “we’ve always said we would be getting a percentage of the HMT” blah blah (something like that)

    The chances of this working? Not good. Chances of publicity for Common Cause? Pretty good. What else you want them to do during the summer after a legislative session?

    • Sigh. The estimates of what the HMT would generate were conservatively pegged at $300 million -but the State didn’t want to vote on raising the number from $200 mill to $300 mill -so Arthur Blank and the City came up with a deal to make it work using no more than the same amount the HMT has already generated. The return to the regional economy is in the billions, and the cost of getting out of the arrangement would put GEORGIA taxpayers (not Atlanta hotel guests) on the hook.
      And what do I want them to be doing? I don’t know, have any school boards, district attorneys or Judges been in the news recently? Any local governments or agencies need some oversight and public participation? I could name a dozen that I think need watchdogging more than this deal.

      • Al Gray says:

        You cannot be serious. That project is proceeding on a conceptual estimate with no real numbers. Into that mix is some amount of nebulous public infrastructure, so that which is Falcon’s scope and that which is public scope largely depends on project management. There is no fixed price and the documents talk about establishment of a guaranteed maximum price, but not whose responsibility exceptions to the GMP become.

        I noted in the legalese that GWCCA/Atlanta gave wide latitude to the Falcons on what becomes open-records accessible. Is your reticence for cost control or anyone extend to slamming the doors on ability of the public to see what is happening with their money?

        The cost overruns will probably be of epic size. The legacy of Bill Campbell will be eclipsed while the Atlanta “media” snooze right through it.

        Kasim Reed lied in a press release that the costs were capped at $200 million, when the documents submitted almost concurrently said that the bond financing BEGINS at $200 million. There is a huge difference.

  2. Al Gray says:

    What I found amusing is the $184 million or so of HM tax that the deal puts up to pay the Falcons to host legacy events that the Georgia Dome has been hosting all these years profitably. The Falcon’s new pricing structure that it intends to charge Atlanta and GWCCA is that high! This deal has the potential to go viral statewide and incinerate some politicos. The times, they are a changing.

  3. Joshua Morris says:

    Wyc Orr and the democrats may just be looking for an issue to tout in next year’s elections.

  4. George Chidi says:

    On some level, if we’re going to be looking at this in terms of pure electoral politics, I think this is saving Reed from himself. And, yeah, I know just how that sounds coming from the cheap seats.

    I like Kasim Reed, more now than ever, and this despite the heavy-handed tactics he used during the Occupy movement. I think he’s managed the city’s affairs well, generally.I think Atlanta needs a figure like Reed to solve some big, intractable structural problems. And I think he’s got a shot of recapturing the governors’ chair for Democrats in 2018.

    But I think he’s made a terrible calculation here, and no one close to him has been able to get him to see it. The calculation is obvious: He’s taking a gamble that things will turn out well overall — that the stadium will be well received when it lands. He gets to cite his willingness to take a risk in service of a “job creating” public-private partnership. And he gets to make some unusual, powerful friends in the process, which clears the deck for him politically when he looks for higher office.

    Given that upside, I think he allowed himself to downplay the risk of a financial blowup. I’m a little concerned that his circle of advisors may be insulated from the downside risk and have allowed a groupthink echo chamber to form. If the stadium goes well, they’ll benefit. Even if it doesn’t go well, some stand to gain financially from their commercial connection to the construction — he just put $333 million+ in the hands of minority contractors, for example. If it turns into a financial boondoggle, Reed will eat it politically with the public … but they won’t. Reed may not have been hearing dissent from anyone in him circle that he considers credible.

    Reed may challenge Isakson in 2016, assuming the seat is open, counting on the wave of sweet, sweet contractor campaign donations, good will from the Atlanta community, demographic change and Democratic turnout goosed in a Presidential election year to give him a shot. The stadium deal means, essentially, that no one will be about to raise more money than he will in a primary. He may be able to outraise Isakson, who could face a challenge to his right in a primary if immigration metastasizes enough Tea Party dissent.

    But three years from now, as they’re breaking ground on the stadium construction, the cost overruns are going to be obvious. I think they’re deadly to his chances, even if he can outraise a Republican. Reed obviously doesn’t. I would like to hear a surrogate of his explain why big miss in cost wouldn’t be politically deadly.

    Until then, I have to assume that stopping this train preserves his election chances. He’ll still be a powerful financial force, regardless … just not as much. Only a group operating outside of his circle of friends can thwart the deal in a way that keeps his relationships undamaged.

    • Al Gray says:

      Then, George, Reed’s only hope is to block open records access as seems contemplated in the agreements with the Falcons. If details get analyzed, Reed and Deal will be looking dead at a worse scandal and debacle than the Augusta Tee Center. Open records disclosures sought by a group of citizens blew that one wide open.

      The way this transaction has been conducted in secret says that is what the Deal-Reed-Blank crowd intend to do.

  5. Mr. Hassinger writes one of the most ill-informed posts/articles I’ve read yet. Sure, we may be throwing up a hail-mary, but I like our chances more and more with each day that the City and Mayor Reed resist the attempt to let the people of Atlanta make this decision at the ballot box. It makes most ask “what does he fear?”

    Mr. Hassinger and others can learn more about the true costs of the public investment, which is anywhere between $583 million (if you believe the City of Atlanta CFO’s projections) or $971 million (if you trust the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s projections by Citi) –

    • Ken says:

      As for Mayor Reed, perhaps he “fears” delays and additional costs.

      As for Mr. Hassinger’s post, he made factual observations relevant to the logistics of accomplishing what Common Cause proposes. I’m not sure how that’s “ill-informed”. Perhaps it’s simply information that made Mr. Perry ill to read, meeting the literal definition.

      One could argue that Mike performed a valuable service by providing some publicity for the petition and emphasizing the necessity of ensuring that all signatures are accurate. That point is no fun and so against Sophocles’s advice Mr. Perry attempts to kill the messenger.

      I’m not a fan of public/private projects and I’m sure that costs are understated and benefits are overstated – which always happens with these things. I do not understand; however, the desire to obfuscate legitimate points, i.e. distract from the difficulty in obtaining proper signatures.

    • ryanhawk says:

      Mr. Perry — Do you agree with Hassinger’s claim that: ” 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.”

      I would also like to see a citation (OCGA, Case Law, etc…) that substantiates this claim. Matching signature to voter registration is important (i.e. don’t sign Bill Smith if voter registration says William John Smith) but I don’t think the invalidation process would be quite as cut and dried as Hassinger claims. I have a hard time seeing a court upholding an invalidation because William forgot to dot the i in his signature…

      If the person gathering signatures signs an affidavit that says the signature “Bill Smith” was made by the voter known as “William John Smith” I believe that would be regarded as a valid signature if it were ever litigated.

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