Bill Torpy at Large: Will secret deal mean strike three for Tim Lee?

There’s a theory being floated that Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee did poorly in his re-election bid last week because the Braves stink.

Republican political consultant Heath Garrett was among those promoting that idea, telling the AJC that “the Braves’ situation and what they’re doing on the field absolutely has an impact on this race.”

Last month, I joked that Lee was praying for a Braves winning streak. But the argument that Lee was wounded by a lousy team simply insults Cobb County voters.

Cobb is one of the most educated counties, not only in Georgia, but in the nation. So, to think those voters would be fickle enough to toss their government’s leader because a team can’t hit, catch or pitch is, well, a stretch.

That’s not to say that Cobb residents are eggheads who eschew sports. No, the county is known for highly competitive youth baseball and bleachers filled with their Type-A, achievement-driven parents. Cobb is crazy about sports. There’s even plenty of lawyers, insurance salesmen and actuaries who risk twisting their aging ligaments in adult sports leagues.

Tom Cheeks, a citizen who has investigated government and has become a thorn in Lee’s side, laughed at Garrett’s postgame synopsis.

“He’s underestimating the intelligence level of the average Cobb County voter,” he said. “We’re smarter than that.”

Lee now faces a runoff on July 26, having come in second to Mike Boyce, an opponent he hammered four years ago. The poor showing is not so much to do with Lee bringing the Braves to Cobb. It's how he brought the Braves to Cobb.

As you remember, Lee cut a deal in secret to give nearly $400 million in tax money to multibillion-dollar conglomerate Liberty Media (AKA the Braves) to get the team to load its gear into moving vans and head north on I-75 to the Smyrna area. Lee even had a code name for the clandestine negotiations with the team — Operation Intrepid — which kind of gives it that Invasion of Normandy feel.

Perhaps it was the headlong dash to push the deal through the County Commission that cheesed voters. There was no time for a referendum because these real estate deals need to get done quick. And they need to be secret. And if nobody knows, nobody will ask questions, until it’s too late.

Referendums take time to set up, and time is money when you’re trying to ply a multibillion-dollar conglomerate with your citizens’ money. Besides, the Braves learned years ago in Rome when hitting up taxpayers that referendum equals risk. In 2001, that effort to build a minor league ballpark won by just 142 votes.

A vote in Cobb would have been loud and messy. It might even have won. A University of Florida poll in 2014 found that 55 percent of Cobb voters would have supported the deal in a referendum. But 80 percent said they should have been given the chance to vote. And there lies the rub.

Lee insists the plan is “a home run for Cobb County” and says there was no way to have a referendum.

“My opponent has been spreading mistruths about the project and false choices among the electorate that there was an option for a referendum,” he said in an email.

He added that the Braves’ record is not the culprit in his anemic showing. “The misinformation spread by my opponent and his lack of understanding of the issues likely did more damage to the opinion of the project than their record this season.”

But Lee might have outsmarted himself. He and the Braves came across as sneaky. They seemed like the coaches of a Little League team twisting the rules to win a game by forfeit, rather than win it outright on the field.

Lee appeared to be impervious to those with questions. To make matters worse, he’s is not an effusive fellow. The big guy comes across as someone who’d enjoy this governing business more if wasn’t for all those bothersome humans.

What summarized the process was a May 2014 meeting where commissioners approved a series of legal agreements with the Braves without serious debate. The bond documents weren’t even made available until one business day before the meeting.

As an exclamation point — or slap in the face — the 12 slots for public comment at the meeting were gobbled up hours earlier by sneaky pro-deal forces. Complainers were sent packing. The image of citizens getting shut down and marched out of a public meeting by cops doesn’t say Open Government.

Boyce, a retired marine colonel, which plays well in the conservative county, simply outworked Lee. His team knocked on nearly 24,000 doors.

On March 31, Lee had $171,000 on hand, has raised more than $40,000 since and had mayors and many of Cobb’s Chamber of Commerce members behind him. Boyce had $11,000 on hand and has raised less than that since.

In 2012’s election, Boyce came in third and missed the runoff. This time he got more than 49 percent and came within a few hundred votes of winning outright.

The difference? “This time we had a prominent issue,” Boyce said.

“Cobb voters aren’t against taxes,” he added, ticking off several special purpose sales taxes that have been approved in recent years. “They just want responsible taxes. It was the secret negotiations that were just dropped on them. They just didn’t like the way it was done.”

Boyce called this election the referendum that never happened.

And Lee, I’m sure, is rooting for a Braves winning streak by July.