Sports stadiums are rammed through with the speed of Amazon orders. Internal investigations are conducted and then kept internal. Agencies ask for thousands of dollars — or even $16 million in one case — to simply retrieve public records. And police departments routinely fight giving up something as basic as an incident report.
Across metro Atlanta, government officials guard public records like we’re asking for intimate pages of their teen-aged daughters’ diaries.
The list goes on and on of public officials hiding, thwarting or even obfuscating when it comes to shining light on what they do.mo
It’s a dance we do almost every day with those who spend your money: They do something. We ask them about it. They say, “File an Open Records request.” We do. They sometimes release some or all of the records. Sometimes within the accorded three days required. Often not. Or they make up excuses to delay. There’s lots of excuses.
Often they hope we’ll just get frustrated and go away. Or rather, that you will. You, the pain-in-the-butt public. You, the pesky newspaper scribe.
Officials have always been touchy when it comes to releasing records that explain what they did and how they did it. They usually go into office with good intentions of public service and think transparency is a good thing. (I know, there’s ego and some narcissism involved in seeking election.) But those grandiose goals of openness are often worn down by questions and second-guessing. Then, the walls go up and the moat gets flooded.
The reason officials sometimes get touchy about public documents is because there’s a difference between what they say and what actually happened. Take Tim Lee. Please.
Lee is Cobb County’s commission chairman, the man who engineered the blockbuster deal to turn the Inner City Braves into the Galleria Braves. The world heard of the deal early one Monday morning last November. It was a shocker. Straight out of the blue.
Turns out the deal had been forged through months of negotiating by Dan McRae, one of the region’s premiere bond/finance lawyers. McRae was brought on by Lee, who it seems didn’t have the authority to do that. After McRae’s secret negotiations with the Braves, the deal was sprung on the other commissioners, who were given just days to get on board with the complicated, multi-layered private/public arrangement.
Gotta be a team player, Lee told them, one-by one to avoid a quorum and get around the bothersome Open Meetings Act. Most quickly jumped aboard.
But the county, and by that, I mean Lee, often got touchy when asked hard questions about the MOU (memorandum of understanding), the legal glue that holds both sides to an agreement.
On August 8, in an interview with our annoying (I mean that in the best possible way) Cobb reporter, Dan Klepal, Lee insisted that McRae, who worked for four months forging the deal, was not negotiating on behalf of the county. He was simply advising Cobb.
The newspaper finally got the MOU and all the revisions through the months. Turns out there were like 30 versions of the document, and the lawyer Lee brought in was, in fact, the county’s negotiator and had repeatedly met with the Braves’ attorney.
Finally, after the deal was drawn up, the lawyers sent the documents to a Chamber of Commerce guy, who then showed them to county officials. Only they didn’t retain copies of the papers, so, officially, no public officials had in their possession those public papers concerning $400 million. So Open Records didn’t apply.
Sneaky? Effective? I vote both, but you be the judge.
After that came to light, Lee had to fess up. County attorney Deborah Dance, who was also kept in the dark, told the paper that the guy Lee brought in, McRae, was indeed the county’s negotiator.
After a talking-to, Lee (grudgingly, I would guess) released a statement. “It is now my understanding that McRae was acting on the county’s behalf.”
Huh? Here is the guy running the covert operation all along now coming to an, ahem, understanding of what he was doing all along. I'm glad the newspaper was able to assist him.
Incidentally, McRae was unpaid in the negotiations, but documents show his firm would have gotten the bond contract, worth $4 million. That won’t happen because Cobb already had a bond attorney, who came on through a bid process.
Lee said McRae took it upon himself to do that. McRae’s firm didn’t address that one. My guess is a top-notch finance attorney doesn’t commit himself to lunch if he’s not sure who’s paying. So again, you be the judge.
But Cobb has no monopoly on the knee-jerk reaction “Get Lost!” when asked for records.
Perhaps the most brazen example of a pol sticking his thumb in the public’s eye is Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, who is the state’s highest paid elected official with a salary-plus-perks that is north of $350,000.
A couple years back, the AJC waged a protracted battle to obtain the county’s database of tax records and liens. Ferdinand told the paper his staff would have to redact lots of private information about property owners, and doing that would be costly — $16 million, which is a lot of money. That’s 46 years worth of Ferdinand’s inflated salary.
The AJC got the information it sought after Attorney General Sam Olens (who used to have Lee’s job) threatened to sue Ferdinand.
The database, which came at no cost, showed a system where favored companies got an inside track to purchase tax liens. The reporters writing the story (Mike Pell and Johnny Edwards) estimated that Ferdinand’s sweet deals with companies cost the county up to $20 million, money they noted “might have gone to libraries, health services and funding the courts in Fulton County.”
Ferdinand, who has been office since 1997, was re-elected overwhelmingly in 2012.
Around the corner from the tax commissioner’s office is Atlanta City Hall. But that’s another tale for another day.