A day after assuming the title of Cobb County Commission Chairman-elect, retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce spoke of the need to build consensus and repair damaged relationships on the Commission.
Sitting in his high ceiling-ed East Cobb home, furnished with artifacts from his postings around the world, Boyce repeatedly referenced his experience in the military, casting himself as a delegator who will uphold the values of democracy and transparency. Boyce previously held senior positions in the Middle East, including Iraq and Oman, and on a large base on Hawaii before retiring to Cobb County.
“I think I’m going to bring some decorum and respect to the board members,” he said. “I’m hoping that over time they’ll come to realize that if I feel very strongly about one thing I’ll let them know, but the bottom line is I still need to get three votes and I’ll work for those three votes. I would like to have more than three votes because consensus sends a stronger message.”
Boyce, who ran an aggressive grassroots campaign, knocking on thousands of doors, called himself a “populist candidate” in the style of President-elect Donald Trump, for whom he voted despite his initial reservations over some of Trump’s inflammatory comments.
“I’m a consensus builder,” Boyce said. “My administration will be marked by what I heard at the door: People feel disconnected from their government.”
Like Trump, Boyce’s ascension was largely propelled by dissatisfaction with the previous administration. His victory over Lee in the Republican runoff earlier this year was seen as a rejection of Lee’s my-way-or-the-highway leadership style, exemplified by the deal struck to bring to the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County that included a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to build SunTrust Park. Cobb residents were not allowed to vote on the bond issuance, with the county negotiating the deal in secret and rushing it through in a matter of weeks.
But running against an unpopular incumbent and running a government are two different things.
Perhaps the most pressing question will be the effects of the opening of the new Braves stadium and surrounding developments. Boyce acknowledged that much of the success or failure of the Braves depends on its effect on traffic, a regional burden that would be difficult for Cobb to address on its own.
“Let’s just be real upfront here: traffic is going to be an issue,” he said. “Once you acknowledge the problem, that’s half the solution.”
Boyce said he will create a “joint task force (“I’m a military guy, it’s the only word I know”) bringing together all the relevant agencies working on traffic and infrastructure in the area. Still, he said, the clock was ticking and the Braves have not yet released their full traffic plan.
“It’s getting late in the program—the park opens in six months. We need to have an appropriate period of time to inform everybody that’s going to be impacted by that mixing bowl of (Interstate)-75-(Interstate)-285,” Boyce said, but added: “I can’t make promises about something that I can’t solve.”
What Boyce can do, he said, is place the county in a better position to handle similar deals in the future.
“[The Braves] are very professional, they know exactly what they want,” Boyce said. “One of the challenges that we have as a county is that we don’t really have an economic development agency that has the capability to negotiate on par with someone like the Braves.”
The debate over the Braves stadium plays into a large conversation about the direction of development in Cobb.
Many long-term residents who moved to the county for its rural appeal are dismayed by new construction and the pressure it puts on local schools, roads and stormwater networks. Striking a balance between residents’ concerns and the property rights of developers and some landowners will continue to challenge the board under new leadership.
“What I’m trying to do is reassure the business community that we’re going to bring stability to the process,” Boyce said. “We’re going to have to have continued development or economic growth because we cannot maintain this lifestyle without it, but we’re going to do it a little bit different way. I will insist on more openness and transparency from both sides as to what their opinions are so that when we finally go and make a decision, it is an informed decision.”
Boyce also said he is committed to honoring a 2008 park bonds referendum by finding $40 million to buy greenspace, even if it means increasing the millage rate.
“If you can articulate a position to the voters as to why you want to increase taxes, they will go for it,” he said.
He is not willing, however, to raise taxes to fund employee raises, although he has committed to that as well. He said he believes the county could give employees raises without raising taxes if economic growth continues, but it could come down to a difficult decision.
“Quality’s not cheap,” Boyce said. “We have to find ways of providing public service with the funds that are given to us via taxation, but I also want to remind people that you get what you pay for.”