Cobb’s embarrassing handout hits the finish line

The difference between what happened Tuesday night in a Cobb County meeting room and what happens 162 days a year in a baseball season is the Braves never had to face an opponent. Imagine if it always worked that way. They would never lose.

The Braves will get their new stadium in Cobb County. The board of commissioners gave their blessing to a near-$400 million public handout, which means there will be no need for Liberty Media, the Braves owner with $26.255 billion in assets, to hold next week’s cookie swap.

Of all the embarrassing stadium deals we’ve witnessed around the country, of all the times politicians cooked backroom deals or suddenly morphed into fan boys when a sports franchise came calling for a new home, this was the worst.

There was no official public opposition to speak of. They never made it to the podium Tuesday night. Cobb allows sign-ups shortly before the start of a meeting for up to 12 people for public commenting but the pro-stadium contingent was out in force. A county spokesman said roughly a dozen supporters already had lined up 1:45 p.m.

That was it. Lottery closed. I haven’t seen anything like it since people lined up at 5 a.m. for Springsteen tickets.

So it was that shortly after pledge of allegiance and a benediction from a pastor — and before Cobb County commission chairman Tim Lee could make his opening comments — that dissenters stood up in the commission meeting room and started shouting to the board members: “Let the people speak!” and “Half-billion-dollar boondoggle!” and well, pretty much anything except, “Go Braves!”

At least three protesters were escorted out of the building by police.

“They aren’t being up front with us,” said Ben Williams from the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It would seem to me what they’ve experienced over this time would have alerted the commissioners of what would be going on tonight. So they should at least expand the opportunity for folks to speak tonight. … They have fallen down on the job. It appears as though they have not represented our best interest.”

Rich Pellegrino, from Citizens for Government Transparency, said he arrived at the meeting 45 minutes early, long after the 12 spots had been filled. “We don’t get corporate welfare – I have to work,” he said.

This is Cobb County. This is the way things have worked from the outset, from the ramming of the public financing plan to the navigating to avoid as little public input as possible.

I knew it was over when, even before the 4-1 vote on approving the bonds, a supporter in a suit seated in front of me was playing “Candy Crush” on his phone.

Pellegrino again: “This was arrogance and elitism, and that’s the opposite of democracy.”

Cobb commissioner Helen Goreham put it another way: “What was displayed over the last six months was the Cobb way of doing business.”

Problem: She was saying that as a compliment.

Lisa Cupid, the one dissenting commissioner, acknowledged a recent survey that indicated most of public opposed the financing. When asked if she believed others around the country would be looking at Cobb sideways over this, she responded, “Yes. That’s why I was as detailed as I was in November. I couldn’t believe the pace we were moving forward.”

Cupid then said, “I could’ve supported” a public vote on the stadium financing. “But it’s not just me. It takes others to support that. But the survey does show that a lot of people have a lot of questions.”

Braves executive vice president Mike Plant, when asked if he believed the financing would’ve passed in a public referendum, said only, “I’m not going to comment on a hypothetical.”

This isn’t about the secret meetings.

This isn’t just about at the Braves leaving Atlanta and leaving a stadium, Turner Field, that they moved into just 17 years ago, although that’s bad enough.

This isn’t just about the Braves’ amusing claims of Turner Field “needing” more than $150 million in capital maintenance upgrades. (There’s a difference between need and want.)

This isn’t even about whether the Braves’ plans for a mega-entertainment center turns out to a monumental success or the pronounced flop we’ve seen in Gwinnett County.

This is about a public handout for a team that doesn’t need it and the lack of a public debate, the lack of a vote or referendum on a major public project.

The $300 million in publicly committed dollars actually will be closer to $400 million, after adding borrowing costs, interest payments, standard attorney fees and any other expected legal costs if and when this stink bomb leads to lawsuits – because that’s certainly what every taxpayer wants: to fund county legal bills for lawsuits over public money being used, without their blessing, for a large-scale project being built for private business owned by a $26 billion corporation.

Cobb also has committed to $35 million for 30 years of capital maintenance, and this is where we ask: Isn’t this a new building? How much does paint cost?

Plant says, “We’re the ones taking the ultimate risk.”

Wrong. The ultimate risk for a business is investing in a venture with no public money, the way it works in the real world. But in Atlanta, we take care of our billionaires. We give $200 million to a self-made billionaire, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, for a downtown football stadium and up to $397 million to the Braves.

We take care of our billionaires. It’s our teachers and firefighters and police and streets we don’t take care of.

Fortunately, Cobb secures the right to hold three events a year at the new stadium. So maybe they can hold a fundraiser for the school board.

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