Lee’s legacy: Chair lost touch in ascent to power capped by Braves deal

File Photo: Tim Lee, photographed at the Braves office across from SunTrust Park, sold himself as the smart-growth, smart business leader. It didn’t convince voters to let him stay at the helm of Cobb County’s government. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

File Photo: Tim Lee, photographed at the Braves office across from SunTrust Park, sold himself as the smart-growth, smart business leader. It didn’t convince voters to let him stay at the helm of Cobb County’s government. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

For better or for worse, outgoing Commission Chairman Tim Lee will go down in history as the man who brought the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County.

The decision to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars on a new stadium and supporting infrastructure without a referendum angered many voters, even those who welcomed the team. It also contributed to Lee's defeat in the polls this past summer.

Regardless of whether SunTrust Park proves to be a home run for Cobb County, many say the Braves deal marked the culmination of Lee’s evolution from humble homeowner advocate to self-styled CEO — of Cobb County Inc.

For some, this meant Lee made bold decisions to secure Cobb’s future success. For others, it meant Lee lost touch with the popular will, and behaved less like a public servant than a business executive beholden to corporate interests. That tone deafness, along with his failure to build consensus for pet projects, undermined some of his initiatives, they say.

“Perception is reality at the end of the day,” said Kennesaw State University President Sam Olens, who preceded Lee as East Cobb district commissioner and chairman. “I always felt Tim’s heart was in the right place, even if at times the communication apparatus was not helpful to him.”

Lee declined to be interviewed for this article. But his chief deputy, Kellie Brownlow, said his legacy is “crystal clear.”

“Forty thousand jobs, an unprecedented $16 million investment in public safety including 100 additional sworn officers, and the lowest general fund tax rate in more than a decade. His leadership has resulted in more economic prosperity for Cobb than any other metro county during that same time.”

Lee’s first step toward politics came in the late ’90s when he got involved with homeowner associations and community groups. Lee, who worked in marketing, was president of the Woodstream HOA, a director on the East Cobb Civic Association board and vice president of the Northeast Cobb Homeowners Association.

When Olens decided to abandon his commission seat to run for chair in 2002, Lee was elected to represent East Cobb on the county commission. In addition to his experience negotiating with developers and homeowners, he was an outspoken advocate of the arts and senior housing and services.

Among Lee’s initiatives was the Canton Road Steering Committee, which was dedicated to improving the run-down East Cobb artery. More than 10 years later, Carol Brown, an original member of the committee, said the look and feel of the corridor has changed for the better.

“Commissioner Lee does get the credit for starting the process, and he never really backed off,” said Brown. “He’s always tried to be very fair to business owners and not place too much of a burden on them.”

In 2010, Olens was elected attorney general and Lee won the special election to replace him.

As Lee assumed office, the reality of the recession was setting in. Like leaders in other places, the new chairman ended up raising taxes, cutting services and instituting furloughs that extended to public safety.

“No one would have been in a good position to make decisions without taking flak,” Olens recalled. “I grimaced when I knew the furloughs were going to affect police and fire.”

Cuts to public safety came back to haunt Lee when Cobb Public Safety Director Jack Forsythe quit in the wake of the Braves announcement. In a scathing letter to the county, Forsythe complained about a lack of resources leading to poor retention.

The county hired a new public safety director and released a plan to hire additional officers and to improve benefits and pay.

In addition to Lee's perceived lack of support during the financial crisis, officers also reportedly took umbrage at his handling of two racially fraught and highly publicized incidents involving the same officer.

Lee spearheaded a proposal for an independent study of the Cobb Police Department.

But rather than working on the initiative with Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who was involved in one of the incidents, Lee attacked her, accusing her of denigrating law enforcement. That alienated much of the community that had rallied behind Cupid, the only black commissioner. The NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference denounced the chairman, and the drama all but overshadowed the proposal itself.

In the most recent election, the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police backed Lee’s opponent. Meanwhile, tension between Cupid and Lee was not limited to issues of policing.

Though Cupid said she and Lee agreed on some policies, “from very early on, there seemed to be a palpable level of disregard that limited possibilities of working on district and broader Cobb matters,” she wrote in an email.

As chairman, Lee set the tone for the rest of the board, Cupid said. In addition to being singled out for her stance on police reform, she often found herself overruled on zoning and redevelopment decisions in her own district.

Lee was among those who backed a transportation sales tax in 2012. The county had overwhelmingly rejected mass transit in the past.

After the T-SPLOST failed, Lee threw his weight behind a bus rapid transit system, but was unable to convince fellow commissioners or the public. Some complained that the project would benefit businesses more than taxpayers. Despite spending millions on studies, the county commission announced earlier this year they would not pursue the project.

Larry Savage, a retired businessman who ran unsuccessfully against Lee twice, called the T-SPLOST and the county’s planning process generally “opaque.”

“Tim’s gotten a lot of credit for leadership, but I don’t know that he was such a great leader as much as he was the implementer for other people,” Savage said.

David Connell, president and CEO of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, disagreed.

“Tim began a discussion about transit in Cobb County,” Connell said. “He was lambasted by a lot of people and all he was trying to do was get the discussion started because this county, at some point, is going to have to adopt some form of … mass transit.”

Connell also addressed the notion that Lee was more responsive to business interests than he was ordinary residents.

“Separating people who live in this community from people who work in the businesses is somewhat ludicrous,” Connell said. “I enjoy what Tim does with business because it lowers my property taxes. It’s hard for people to see that connection and I understand it, but that’s what leaders have to do. They have to be able to see the big picture.”

But Millie Rogers, Lee’s former administrative assistant who had been with the county for more than 20 years when he eliminated her position last year, said she watched the chairman surround himself with people who encouraged him to “sit back in some gorgeous office” with his “feet propped up.”

Lee possibly “saw himself maybe bigger than what he was,” said Rogers, who supported Lee’s opponent and will be working for the incoming chairman. “I think there was a feeling that … [Lee] wasn’t grounded.”

Lee’s reputation for corporate coziness was cemented in the fall of 2014, when he negotiated the Braves deal behind closed doors and pushed it through just 15 days after it was announced. Lee, who maintained that secrecy was necessary to land the team, clashed with members of the public who challenged that assertion during several heated town hall meetings.

Brownlow pointed out that Lee did not act unilaterally; Cupid was the only commissioner to vote against the plan to build the ballpark for the team.

Lee’s supporters say the stadium deal — which included The Battery, a $550 million mixed-use development owned by the Braves’ parent company, Liberty Media — has already jump started investment in Cumberland and will continue to attract business and generate tax revenue for decades to come.

Still, voters rejected Lee’s bid for reelection, choosing instead Marine Col. Mike Boyce. Boyce attacked Lee for not being responsive to voters, while Lee touted the Braves deal and tax cuts.

Lee has yet to go public with his future plans. Brownlow wrote Chairman Lee will “spend the coming weeks with God and his family to explore what is next for them.”

Speaking to the Marietta Kiwanis Club in early December, Lee recalled beginning his tenure as chairman under “the worst economic times of many of our lives.” He called raising taxes that year “one of the toughest decisions” he ever made.

“We didn’t know it then, but doing the right thing to preserve our prestigious credit rating and Cobb’s strong financial health put the county in the position of making the boldest decision in our modern history,” Lee said. “While most define my leadership in Cobb County by this single bold decision, I am humbled to have served over an administration that accomplished so much more than just the relocation of the Atlanta Braves.”