DeKalb CEO Deliberately Left Commissioners Out Of Stadium Negotiations

(Note: this story has been amended with new information.) If Nancy Jester, Kathy Gannon or Jeff Rader are your commissioners, you are not entitled to representation in DeKalb County government any more.

Commissioner Nancy Jester revealed today that other commissioners signed a letter to open negotiations with Arthur Blank in April for a new soccer training facility, and that she wasn’t informed of it until about a week before the vote. I suspect commissioner Rader will say the same. I will amend this story when I know.

One week ago, interim CEO Lee May said this on Twitter:

Confronted with Jester’s revelation on WABE’s “A Closer Look” this afternoon, May said Jester wasn’t informed because the land on Memorial Drive isn’t in her district. Never mind, it seems, that Sharon Barnes-Sutton was apparently worthy of being informed, since the territory isn’t in her district, either. Nor that the $12 million public “investment” in a private company’s sports facility comes from taxpayers across the county.

Kathie Gannon wrote a letter of support, as did Sutton, Watson and Johnson. But Gannon appears to have been informed of the details of the eventual deal late in the game.

I have questions. Many, many questions.  

The first, of course, is whether this kind of communication violates open meetings and open records law.

I understand the exemption to open meetings law with regard to the disposition of real property … although it’s worth noting that the use of the land as a usufruct in the stadium deal may provide challenge that term. I do not recognize an exemption to open meetings law with respect to informing other members of a legislative body about official actions under consideration.

With three months to consider the deal, why then was there such a rush to vote, other than the desire to limit public discussion? How can Lee May tell the public with a straight face that there should have been a public hearing when there was plainly ample time for one?

County spokesman Burke Brennan says that “nothing happened between April and July.” Atlanta United informed DeKalb that it was on the short list in July, he said. “At that time he informed all 7 commissioners (and now add in Mereda Davis Johnson, who won the runoff on July 14) about the now-real possibility that DeKalb could be the site of the headquarters for Atlanta United FC.”

Why, if discussion began in April, was the site development plan and economic analysis presented to the public as weak as it was, given how much public money was ultimately put on the table? With three months to prepare, what staff resources were made available to the CEO and the commission to evaluate the propriety of the deal in terms of economic payoff and feasibility? Were actual analyses done and then buried? Did people ask to do cost-benefit analyses and were rejected?

A negotiation generally should start with a sense of the best alternative to a negotiated agreement — the point beyond which a deal is a net loss and should be rejected. That’s done to avoid centering biases. What terms were offered as a starting point for negotiations? Was this the only offer made?

“It is August 2015, a scant 17 months for us to demolish, move-out and prep, and for them to build and move in,” Brennan said in email. “That’s not a lot of time as it is. Ad nauseum deferrals would have been tantamount to a denial of the proposal, and Atlanta FC would have the Braves as next door neighbors as the Memorial Drive corridor would continue to languish in commercial purgatory.

“I know you and I disagree on this point, but that’s our point.”

Brennan argues that Blank presented the county with an emergency requiring action … which as a negotiating tactic isn’t awful, plainly. That doesn’t mean the county should have accepted a bad deal. What kind of time pressure was placed on the commission by Blank? Did Blank demand a deal be done without time for the public to reject it? What did he say to justify a quick, no-public-input vote? When did he say it, and to whom? Why would that threat be considered credible?

Brennan says Johnson learned of the deal only after her election. But given how gung-ho she’s been about the deal, one might infer that she’d had enough time to digest details. Was she informed about the negotiations by Blank or others before she was elected? Before she announced her candidacy? Were other candidates?

Questions. Many, many questions.

17 comments

  1. Baker says:

    I’m catching a theme from metro Atlanta county commissions.

    Was this story mentioned somewheres on the PP? http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local-govt-politics/some-cobb-commissioners-not-in-the-loop-with-count/nnJQL/?ecmp=ajc_social_twitter_2014_sfp

    Apparently Tim Lee felt it was more important to send out the proposed budget to the MDJ than to some of the other commissioners on the Cobb County Commission.

    “Commissioners Bob Ott and Lisa Cupid said Commission Chairman Tim Lee did not meet with them or provide them with information about the budget before the newspaper wrote about it, and before finance director Jim Pehrson made a first public presentation of the $783.8 million spending plan at Tuesday’s meeting.”

    I mean come on. Am I making too big a deal out of it?

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    “Atlanta United informed DeKalb that it was on the short list in July.”

    Given DeKalb County’s analysis, DeKalb was on the short bus.

  3. cmr says:

    Of note, Stan Watson was found guilty of ethics violation last evening by the BOE. Yes, voting to give $1.5 million of funds to your employer (APD /Vaughn Irons) is a conflict of interest. Ya think?
    The result was an official reprimand. However, had the BOE voted for Watson’s suspension prior to the vote on the stadium complex, the BOC vote would have been deadlocked and not passed. Curious timing?

  4. cmr says:

    How can Lee May tell the public with a straight face that there should have been a public hearing when there was plainly ample time for one?

    In both the press conference held by Lee May on Wednesday and his WABE interview on Thursday, he apologizes for not allowing for public input. However, in both cases, he blames the commissioners (Rader, Gannon, and Jester), for bringing the motion for public input at “the last minute”, the morning of the vote. In the WABE interview, he specifically refers to this as a “political ambush”. Yet virtually in the same breath he also states that had he spoken up at that point, it likely would have resulted on more time for public input. Let me point out that an apology with conditions is not an apology.
    His response to public input, “hindsight is 20/20”
    His response to Jester and Rader being excluded from early talks “hindsight is 20/20”.
    Let me suggest that it was not hindsight but his foresight that this deal would be received negatively by the public and the aforementioned commissioners.

  5. Progressive Dem says:

    Lee May is in so far over his head that he doesn’t know which direction is up.

    Arthur Blank took him to the cleaners. Lee May gave him an open check book – free land, free site preparation (former landfill), free taxes, free permits and $7 million in cash! Arthur Blank must feel slightly engorged after that negotiation. could not have received a better deal.

    Mike Bowers took him the cleaners, too. Lee May invites him to investigate with no direction and no financial controls. Again, an open check book. Who runs a County, a business or even a household like this? An amateur.

  6. Burke Brennan says:

    “If Nancy Jester, Kathy Gannon or Jeff Rader are your commissioners, you are not entitled to representation in DeKalb County government any more.”

    Come on, George. We can disagree on whether professional soccer is good for DeKalb or not, and one of us will be proven right in due time. But when you start with that it is very hard to consider this a meaningful discussion.

    I sent you this map last night: http://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/pdf/CampRoadCommDistMap.pdf

    Again, please look at it. This area is in a unique location in terms of representation. It straddles super districts 6 and 7 (the pink dotted line) It also straddles districts 4 and 5 (blue and pink shaded areas). All of these commissioners either directly represent or are immediately adjacent to the property that was offered for consideration. District 3 is literally one block away. District 4 nearly surrounds these parcels. Districts 1 and 2 are nowhere near.

    Had the site been located practically anywhere else, chances are there would be only two letters of support, from the district and super district that represented the area. If this were located in Tucker, for instance, that would be Districts 1 and 7, assuming of course, the commissioners representing those districts were receptive to the basic concept of commercial development. We can’t force commissioners to support things they don’t want to.

    So, yes – in April, the commissioners in the immediate area (defined as being within a block of the site) were aware and supported the idea of working something out with Blank’s professional soccer team.

    In the case of Commissioner Gannon, she sent a letter of support for this project in April, but changed her mind in July when it came to the terms. I think we can agree that it was entirely her prerogative, as it is with any item coming to the board for a vote.

    The point is, she knew the same details the other area commissioners knew in April, which was nothing more than a possible location of the team headquarters. A shot in the dark. It got real in July, and then all seven all commissioners got the same details – at the same time – as it pertains to the nuts and bolts of the negotiation.

    • George Chidi says:

      I fundamentally reject the idea that information about an economic development issue drawing on the general pool of county tax dollars can be withheld from a county commissioner for any reason.

      I hear the rationale being presented for cutting Jester — and possibly Rader — out of notices. And I dismiss it.

      And the “nothing” period between April and July? Nothing that passed through a county server, I suspect, though we’ll see what the FBI and GBI come up with. I simply don’t believe that commissioners could agree to this idiocy cold as it hit their desk in July. Those discussions will emerge, and the protestations to the contrary today are likely to prove damaging.

      The CEO’s office has a credibility problem, Burke. Nothing said in public about this deal passes the laugh test. I like you. But you’re carrying the message of the office right now. And I don’t believe it.

  7. Progressive Dem says:

    Issues and votes in DeKalb are increasingly along racial lines. No business person wants to see this kind of polarization. Instead of a point of pride, this soccer deal is a point of division. DeKalb used to try for the appearance of a united front that embraced everyone, but since Vernon that seems to have gone by the boards. Lee May should have made some attempt to bring on one of the white commissioners to support the soccer deal. His failure to even try shows a great lack of leadership and maturity.

  8. Tom Taylor says:

    Burke,

    3 points.

    1. This money came out of General Fund so it effects EVERY taxpayr in DeKalb, zero for you excuse of the “unique districts”. This should have included ALL commissioners, period.

    2. Seeing as how DeKalb Parks Department is going to manage and utilize this space, this should of come out of the DeKalb Parks budget, not the General Fund. I see a class action suit on this before long from the cities who have seperate Parks budgets on their own, but will end up pying for this out of General fund.

    3. Would the funds utilized to pay for a deal that derives no benefit to anyone but Mr. Blank be better utilized in the Police or 911 Center operations?

    Amatuer Hour by CEO and the Cmmissioners who voted for this, enjoy the scarves and the photo op, that is all you will get out of this boondoggle.

  9. Progressive Dem says:

    While it may pain Rep Taylor as much as me to agree, he is correct about illegally funding this mess. I don’t believe the cities receive or pay for economic development services or park services from county government. Which city is going to step up to challenge this spending?

  10. waitaminit says:

    We can argue the philosophic problems with closed government and conflicts of interest, but until “ethics” becomes inarguable (can’t happen by definition), then the only thing that matters is whether there are economic failures (maybe even has to be disasters) or a political price to pay for certain behaviors. Hell–even if something is taken to the Supreme Court and laws are changed, an office holder doesn’t pay a price.

    This is the reason that so many violations that should be “tried” as ethical violations are now being criminalized–total frustration with government behavior. Then that simply comes down to which officials are “out of favor” with the elite–thereby you see most investigations and trials with black pols that aren’t serving white powers’ interests (one exception to that is in Gwinnett, where its white-on-white, Rep faction on Repub faction).

  11. waitaminit says:

    regarding secrecy and land deals. Not only are you correct that this is inapplicable to disclosure to county commissioners–BUT it stretches the intent of the rules.

    The rules pertain to not disclosing to the public because it would increase competition for the land and affect sales prices. This is obviously not applicable in this case. The land was being GIVEN to Blank and the only way competing parties could ever become involved is if the deal fell through and a bunch of different parties then became interested in it.

    If this was a big enough issue and/or we had a funded public interest group in DeKalb, any secrecy defense along the “land deal” exception to public disclosure would be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court and that would result in a badly needed constitutional limitation on use of the exception.

  12. reasonable40 says:

    “Rotten to the core”…Vernon Jones began the slow slide of this once great county. Manuel Maloof would be horrified at how his hard work has been wasted.

    The vote was 4 black 3 white. The black members of the commission knew they had/have the vote and did not give the white members even the basic professional courtesy and respect to bring them into the discussion.

    Heck, the 1st thing Hank Johnson’s wife did when she became a commissioner was to write a letter to try to end Mike Bower’ investigation stating that “the county needs to heal”. NO, the county needs a cleansing of corrupt and incompetent people.

    The black members of the commission will continue to disrespect the white commissioners and ALL of the people represented by those commissioners.

    The black commissioners have two choices:
    1. Make decisions/votes that are best for the people
    2. Make decisions/votes that keep black people in power with disregard for the white commissioners and the people represented by those white commissioners

    I predict that the black members of the commission will continue to vote to keep black folks in power in DeKalb and justify their racist acts by buying the lie that black people are second class citizens that cannot achieve on their own without their help.

    I have an answer for you Commissioners that care more about black power than you do the county you are supposed to represent…
    1. Dunwoody
    2. Brookhaven
    3. LaVista Hills
    4. Tucker
    5. Stonecrest

    We are TIRED of being treated like 2nd class citizens by this county. Racism is ugly no matter who it is directed toward. You have chosen to represent only black interests and you will hear our response in November. You will lose even more tax dollars.

    DeKalb, you had your chance…you blew it! We could have ALL been successful, but you chose to excluded us. I guess we have no choice but to judge you by the “lack of content of your character”.

Comments are closed.