(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:
There were no back door deals. I personally spoke with each individual Commissioner the day that I received information concerning this deal
— Lee May (@LeeMay) August 4, 2015
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.