The Braves pitched a shutout Tuesday night — or, rather, the team’s supporters in Cobb County did.
At a packed public meeting, county commissioners approved a series of seven legal agreements with the team, and several community agencies that will be involved in building, operating and paying for a new $622 million ballpark in the Cumberland Mall area. The meeting was over within two hours, and the commissioners approved the deals without questions or debate.
The votes mark a critical step in the Braves relocation from downtown Atlanta to Cobb County, with play to begin in the new stadium in 2017. Braves executives sitting in the front row exchanged hearty handshakes after the last of the votes were taken.
“Today was an historic day,” Braves executive vice president of sales and marketing Derek Schiller said during a press conference after the meeting. “We celebrate a great moment in our relationship with Cobb. We’re ready to build this ballpark.”
The meeting was dominated by supporters of the stadium who executed a strategy to shutout the voice of critics. They were lined up for the 12 speaking slots by 1:45 p.m., for the meeting that started at 7. They effectively snatched up all the speaking slots for the public comment portion of the meeting. A handful of critics were escorted from the room when it became clear early on they would not be allowed to speak and they approached the front of the room to ask the commission to create more speaking slots.
Commissioners denied the request and all 12 speaker slots were filled by stadium supporters.
Attorney Justin O’Dell, who has an office on Marietta square, was unapologetic that stadium deal critics were shut down. He said supporters knew the meeting rules, arrived early, and deserved every speaking slot.
“I quit my day at 2:45 today, meaning I didn’t get paid after 2:45,” O’Dell said. “It was important enough that we read the rules. It was important (for us to) say thank you” to the Braves for choosing to invest in Cobb.
Frustration by stadium critics, who have complained the public hasn’t had enough time to thoroughly review key documents before votes, burst into view at the opening of the meeting.
Several critics of the deal made their way toward the front of the commission meeting room and asked to be given an opportunity to speak. For a minute, the scene turned tense when they would not relent the floor. They were critical of the process of limiting the floor to a dozen public speakers for such an important vote.
One of those critics, Ben Williams, with the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, afterward accused the commission of “ignoring the voice of the people.”
Another critic, Rich Pellegrino, said the process was stacked against people who couldn’t leave work early and spend hours in line waiting to speak. Pellegrino, with the group Citizens for Governmental Transparency, said he arrived at about an hour before the meeting but it was too late to get on the list to speak.
“We’re working people,” Pellegrino said. “We’re not on corporate welfare. It’s a slap in the face.”
Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee said its rules were followed “in the best interest” of everyone in attendance.
All of the agreements were approved unanimously, except for bond documents which allow the county to borrow up to $397 million for the project. Those documents were not made available to the public until Friday evening, after 6 p.m. Commissioner Lisa Cupid voted against the bonds resolution, she said, because of the timing of that release.
There was never any question that stadium supporters would carry the night. Afterward, Lee said he was excited “to bring a world-class organization to the community.”
“We had a good night tonight,” Lee said. “I’m proud to be able to call the Atlanta Braves home to Cobb County moving forward. We are in a great, great place.”
Tuesday’s succession of historic votes cements the county’s deal with the Braves, that started with the stunning announcement in November that the Braves would leave their downtown home and move to the suburbs.
The Braves deal has been contentious from the start, with opponents complaining that the county negotiations lacked transparency and failed to seek public input. Critics say that trend has continued through last week, when the county made public the bond documents at the start of a three-day holiday weekend — drawing the ire of government watchdogs.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent weeks reviewing various iterations of the draft documents, and found that the county had pushed the Braves for a minimum investment in their mixed use development and a completion date, but got neither. The stadium development agreement also opens the possibility the county to spend above its $300 million “cap” for project.
Lee vowed that the county will not spend above the cap, and said that provision was written into the contract so the county could use funds from grants or other outside sources.