PolitiFact: Watchdog says Reed didn’t talk to public about stadium

This article was edited for length. For the full version and a list of sources, go to www.politifact.com/georgia.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed held not one conversation with the public about the new Falcons stadium project.

— Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry, March 20, 2013, Creative Loafing Atlanta newspaper opinion column

The Falcons are this close to having a clear path for a new stadium built in downtown Atlanta.

The team and city officials reached agreement on a deal for the almost $1 billion stadium a few weeks ago. Already, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (which will own the stadium) and the Atlanta City Council have OK’d the deal.

All that’s left is approval from Invest Atlanta, the city’s development authority.

In the meantime, ethics watchdog William Perry criticized Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for rushing the deal, and not allowing enough time for public input.

“Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying Atlanta would have a ‘big public conversation.’” We would get an information blitz, he said. But the mayor held not one conversation with the public,” said Perry, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.

Not one? We decided to walk backward through time and examine the weeks leading up to the stadium deal announcement.

Perry’s statement appeared last month in an opinion piece for Creative Loafing Atlanta two days after the Atlanta City Council approved the stadium funding plan.

A Feb. 8 AJC article quoted Reed as promising “a big public conversation” about the new stadium. “We’re going to give the public every piece of data that we can possibly give them. Everything is going to be known,” the mayor went on to say. “Questions are going to be answered in public and on television.”

The City Council vote came late on a Monday evening after hours of debate between council members. The meeting was public and televised. Reed attended that council session and spoke to the body about the project.

But his attendance there — nor at any other council meeting — doesn’t qualify as the mayor holding a public conversation on the issue, Perry told PolitiFact Georgia. The Atlanta City Council held several public meetings or work sessions convened by either the chairwoman of the finance executive committee or the council president, Perry said. But none of them were initiated by Reed or his office.

We checked with the City Council, and Felicia Moore, who heads the committee that handled the stadium deal, sent us a list of all seven council meetings involving the project. According to Moore’s list, the first meeting was held Feb. 13, and it ended with a committee work session on March 21, three days after the full council approved the deal. The mayor or a representative from his office attended each of the meetings, according to Moore’s notes. The meetings were open to the public, but visitors were only allowed to speak at some of the meetings.

Once a proposal was crafted, and before the council and other groups voted, Perry thought there would be public meetings held so people could read through the document and give testimony, he said.

We took Perry’s claim to Reed’s office, and his spokeswoman, Sonji Jacobs, blitzed us with information contradicting the watchdog leader. She called Perry’s claim “blatantly false and misleading.”

Jacobs’ three-page report to PolitiFact Georgia detailed some of the same council meetings that were on Moore’s list, along with meetings held by the GWCCA and Invest Atlanta, of which Reed is the chairman. The meetings were open to the public, and some were broadcast on the city’s cable television station and city website.

The meetings were not initiated by Reed’s office. Jacobs said that’s not the way things work with Atlanta’s city governance.

“The mayor’s office doesn’t organize meetings,” Jacobs said. Holding a duplicate set of meetings hosted by the mayor would be wasteful and inefficient, Jacobs said.

One of the few occasions that Reed has initiated a public meeting was a town hall meeting in 2010 introducing the three police chief candidates to the public.

With the new stadium project, no one, or no group, asked Reed’s office to hold a town hall meeting.

We checked with political science professors, and the issue falls into a gray area.

Typically mayors don’t hold public hearings, they are usually done in conjunction with the legislative body (city council) or other department or agency, said Michael Rich, assistant professor of political science at Emory University. But there are other methods of communicating with the public, such as establishing a website for comments and soliciting written comments. And in instances involving highly controversial issues, Rich said, mayors have sometimes initiated the public meetings.

So, does Perry score a touchdown — or at least a field goal — with his claim that Mayor Reed did not hold one conversation with the public leading up to the new Falcons stadium deal?

Hard to say.

There were meetings held, most of the meetings were open to the public and many were televised and streamed on the city’s website. Reed used the collective “we” in describing the information blitz that would be provided on the stadium plan.

It is typically the legislative branch of government that initiates public meetings — in this case the Atlanta City Council — and not the executive branch, or mayor’s office. The mayor or at least one of his senior staff did attend stadium meetings held by the City Council and other city entities.

But the mayor did not initiate any of those meetings. And Reed did not host any town hall meetings in the communities that will be impacted most by the stadium.

Perry has a point — Reed could have done a lot more to engage the public in person. But Perry’s statement needs a lot of context to be fully understood.

We rated Perry’s statement Half True.