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Op-Ed: Cobb Chairman Blocks Public Comment on Lobbyist Contract

Patch welcomes letters to the editor and op-ed pieces from local residents and officials.

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee. Credit: Patch File
Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee. Credit: Patch File

Note: The following is an op-ed piece from Field Searcy, a Cobb citizen who represents RepealRegionalism.com, an education campaign by the Transportation Leadership Coalition, LLC. The opinion piece was originally published at TrafficTruth.net.


By Field Searcy

Last Tuesday night, the Cobb Board of Commissioners approved a contract for $168,000 to the local firm Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter to lobby for federal government grants and influence at the state capitol. Moments earlier the BOC had closed out public comment on any topic after hearing 12 supporters shower praise, admiration and thanks on the Cobb BOC for negotiating the funding for public financing of a private sports team. Not one dissenting comment could be heard on any other county business because the BOC had closed out any further public comment. Even after asking the county manager and two commissioners for permission to speak on the lobbyist contract, Chairman Lee wanted to know why I waited until that night and that he’d “think about it”. I told him that the agenda was not dropped until after business hours on Friday.  This shows a lack of leadership and disenfranchises citizens of their right to speak, period.

Under the Georgia Constitution, Section I, Paragraph IX, the people have a right to petition those vested with the powers of government for redress of grievances. That is, in all counties except Cobb, where the people were also blocked from opposing comment on a seemingly small outsourced contract for lobbying services.

The $168,000 contract seems insignificant in comparison to the larger Braves financing deal but the impact could be just as big. One of the main lobbying efforts for the county would be for federal assistance on a $500 billion dollar bus rapid transit (BRT) system that would run from the Arts Center in downtown Atlanta to Kennesaw State University. The BRT system will likely require additional tax revenue to subsidize the total cost and ongoing operation of the project.

That’s the problem. Taking federal grants and incentives in the first place usually obligate taxpayers to additional unfunded expenditures. It’s not appropriate to spend taxpayer money to lobby for incentives that will ultimately cost the taxpayer more money on projects they may not want. But then again, Chairman Lee is not concerned about what the citizens want, just as long as the Chamber of Commerce and Cumberland CID (both unelected organizations) get their agenda passed.

Research handed out by the Transportation Leadership Coalition (TLC), a group which fought the TSPLOST in 2012 and was successful in blocking passage in 9 out of 12 regions, shows that taxpayers are already paying elected officials a combined $10,027,596 annually for elected representation at the federal, state and local level. This figure includes salaries and office expenses for US senators, US representatives, state senators, state representatives, and Cobb county commissioners.

Based on additional research by the TLC, it’s estimated that the salaries and office budget for the chairman and commissioners is around $1,198,557 annually.  Notwithstanding the arguments against the county hiring a lobbyist firm to seek federal grants, why should Cobb taxpayers give the county commissioners more money to do their job of contacting state and federal legislators?

The county is already a member of the Association of County Commissions of Georgia which lobbies for the county’s interest at the state level. One has to ask why the county needs to hire another firm to do the job expected of county commissioners and employees.

There are still other questions to be answered. Why should Cobb taxpayers pay a lobbyist $168,000 to get federal incentives for a ½ billion dollar boondoggle BRT system that will require more taxes to subsidize in perpetuity? Was this lobby contract put on that agenda so that it could be overshadowed by the Braves bond financing approval? Isn’t the Garrett firm the same group hired to promote the failed TSPLOST? One wonders if they will do a better job the second time around. Is it possible this is being done because the local Cobb legislative delegation is not in agreement with what the county commission is doing? Is this a way for them to circumvent the Cobb delegation and strong arm the state legislature?

We elect representatives to work for the people not to work against us in creating additional tax burdens. No wonder public trust in government is at an all-time low. We’ve come to expect large document dumps after hours on holiday weekends from the federal government in Washington. Is this going to be the “Cobb way” of doing the peoples’ business? We’re seeing locally how public officials negotiate secret deals with multi-million dollar private entities outside of public review and transparency. These are touted as great models of public/private partnerships that create jobs and grow the economy. Yet, this PPP looks more like private profits, power, and politics than anything benefiting the public. Now we see the blocking of public comment that opposes the actions of local government which seems reminiscent of the all-powerful oligarchs of Soviet days. What’s next?

Download Research: TLC-Lobbyist Research

Brian June 02, 2014 at 08:03 PM
I appreciate the gesture. Hopefully you can publish the material for everyone to see, and I'll read that over. I don't have time to individually sit in on a meeting when I already am tied up with two civic groups. I'm all for transparency, but as a professional working for a business, who has had to sign many NDAs, I don't really feel they could have been any more transparent than they were. Once they made it public, at least from my experience with Bob Ott, they were pretty detailed on everything and I haven't seen too many detail change other than the bond amount going up a little (relatively, still a small amount). I personally don't like the quorum loophole, have seen it used elsewhere, and want to see that sealed up in the state legislature. Now, the challenge I see is that a city like Atlanta can have the mayor and aid negotiate these things in secrecy until it's ready for signing and how does a county compete with that? And if having to be completely public about it in its early stages would scare away most businesses, which it would. How do you make it so you can compete but also not have access to privileged information? Do the council have to hire a proxy to negotiate for the county, like they did, but instead require that people in the position of Lee know nothing about the negotiations to avoid running afoul of transparency laws? Kind of like a blind trust, where they get a thumbs up or down but not much else throughout the negotiation? I think those are structural issues you need to solve, then lobby for law changes to the legislature, and it isn't a simple thing to solve. I would take advantage of the attention you have right now and work on general changes to the laws to make these things work for everyone, including a county trying to attract business.

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