Judgment Day looms for that season of secrets in Cobb and Paulding counties

An opponent of commercializing the airport in Paulding County waits in line to sign up to speak at a December hearing. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

An opponent of commercializing the airport in Paulding County waits in line to sign up to speak at a December hearing. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

The fall of 2013 was an exciting time for local governments with big secrets.

In Cobb County, commission chairman Tim Lee went off the grid to drag the Braves across the Chattahoochee River and out of Atlanta. On May 24, in a GOP primary, Lee’s voters will have their first opportunity to pass judgment on his covert activities. He’s likely to be rewarded – but may have to suffer through another runoff.

Secrecy has not played so well in neighboring Paulding County. Only weeks before Lee and the Braves drew back the curtain on their surprise, county commissioners in Paulding unveiled a thunderbolt of their own that had been a year in the making – a plan to break the metro Atlanta “monopoly” on air travel held by Delta Air Lines and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, by introducing commercial flights into the local airport.

On the fourth Tuesday in May, odds are good that GOP primary voters in Paulding will complete the ouster of the local leadership team that cut the clandestine deal with a New York City venture capital firm. The current commission chairman, David Austin, has declined to run for re-election. A state House member – 14-year veteran Howard Maxwell of Dallas — could be caught up in the backlash as well.

“We thought a little commercialization wouldn’t be a problem. But obviously it’s turned into a big problem,” Maxwell said this week.

There are differences, of course. When Lee emerged from the shadows with a major league baseball club in hand, he was scratching a psychological itch in a county that has long felt treated like a bridesmaid to Atlanta. In Cobb, that trumps any pain caused by increased taxes.

Conservative purists might have been aghast, but they were quickly shushed by local Braves fans and a business community drooling over the new stadium and surrounding investments.

Paulding County is another matter. Specifically, it is a community overly reliant on home ownership for its tax base. Eighty-four percent of its workforce commutes to jobs beyond county lines. Funding for schools and infrastructure is strained. The airport deal with Propeller Investments was a “Hail Mary pass” in a county still reeling from a collapsed housing market.

Unlike in Cobb, this secret deal wasn't a fait accompli, but the opening move in a long, drawn-out process. Local residents who had been promised that the airport would only be used for general aviation were given time to organize.

As with any rebellion, funds were required.

From the moment the Paulding secret was out, Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson declared that he and his would oppose the Paulding venture – as did the city of Atlanta, a major landowner in Paulding and owner of Hartsfield-Jackson.

A non-profit group calling itself the Committee to Protect Paulding County suddenly appeared on the scene, complete with a practiced GOP consultant, helping to create the proper environment for an uprising. High-priced lawyers were suddenly attached to a flurry of lawsuits – environmental and otherwise — that are still in play.

In 2014, campaign contributions flowed in from unusual quarters. Three anti-commercial candidates were elected to Paulding’s five-member commission that year. (A fourth was added just last March in a special election.)

Delta has never copped to any financial backing of opposition to commercial air service in Paulding, but locals had their suspicions. Last year, the Legislature ended an annual $23 million tax break on aviation fuel, the lion’s share of which was usually claimed by Delta. The second signature on the initiative belonged to Maxwell, the Paulding legislator – who now has a bullseye on his back.

Maxwell declined to sponsor local legislation this year that would have altered the make-up of the county’s airport authority – as demanded by a 4-1 vote of the county commission. “When I told them that we weren’t going to move it forward this year, that just wore them out,” Maxwell said.

His Republican opponent is Kerstin Liberty, a first-time candidate. “My problem is that if we have someone in the House that is pro-airport, that translates into pro-secret government deals,” she said. “That’s not what we need representing this county.”

Maxwell has a heavy advantage in campaign contributions, but locals say it’s a tight race.

In 2016, there is no sign of outside money flowing into Paulding electoral contests. But then, there is no need. Paulding County is a bubbling cauldron of unrest.

The race for chairman of the Paulding County Commission best displays a community riven by the prospect of Boeing 737s dropping onto Silver Comet Field. Three of the four candidates — Virginia Galloway, Roger Leggett and Robbie Dobson — oppose the airline traffic.

“We need to resolve it and move beyond it. And I mean it. No company will relocate here or open their doors here while we are infighting over the infighting. It’s killing us on economic development,” said Galloway (no relation to the author).

Galloway, a longtime GOP activist with deep state Capitol contacts, would dump the federal application to start airline service, but wants to boost the Paulding airport’s general aviation traffic.

At a GOP-sponsored debate last month, Leggett said much the same thing. “We’ve been paralyzed by this airport feud. Roads are not being built. Roads are not even being repaired,” he said.

Of the candidates for chairman, only David Carmichael, a former county commissioner and pilot with a long list of engineering credentials, would pursue the commercial aviation venture. Carmichael was one of the original architects of the plan -- he resigned his district commission seat this year to run for chairman.

A mid-sized jet stationed at the Paulding airport could produce more in property tax revenue than 75 homes priced at $200,000 each, Carmichael said at that same April debate. The crowd didn’t appear to buy his math, and his remarks drifted into a lament.

“It grieves me a lot, as someone who’s had an aviation career, and seen the jobs and the benefits, and the wonderful trips you can take, to Orlando on vacations, the memories – and yet the airport in Paulding County is somehow a bad word,” a baffled Carmichael said.

Secrecy in government is always a gamble, perhaps akin to dice play. In the fall of 2013, Cobb may have come up with a seven. Paulding may have rolled a set of snake eyes.