Since November’s vote to bring the Braves to Cobb County, those opposed to the project have taken advantage of virtually every public forum to voice their discontent. Unsatisfied with the lawful and proper forums to exercise their voice, they have resorted to filing frivolous ethics proceedings, threatening and attacking business leaders supporting the deal and threatening and attacking elected officials in Cobb. This leads us to this past Tuesday.
Those supporting the Braves had decided it was time to be heard and for their support to be shown. That morning, media reports confirmed the county would follow standard protocol in opening the doors at 5 p.m. and allowing the first 12 speakers for public comment. Given the importance of the matter and the strength of our desire to be heard, we came early and waited patiently outside for the doors to open. Well in advance of 5 p.m., our numbers had grown to several dozen.
The vast majority of those assembled were small business owners and employees, individuals whose time and talents are valuable for the organizations where they work or those they own. They were also those who you will find at virtually every charitable event in Cobb County, behind every charitable board and giving campaign and those you will find donating thousands of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to serving the community. Many pay tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes to Cobb County and are greatly affected by changes in tax structure.
Traffic affects not just our daily lives, but the lives of our employees and affects our ability to move products and service providers around Metro Atlanta. The school system affects our ability to recruit talented employees to Cobb and retain those we have.
None of these factors render our voice any more important than any other in Cobb, but they should grant an ounce of credibility to our assertion we just want what we passionately believe to be best for Cobb.
As we gathered early, we discussed and decided that since the doors opened at 5 p.m. and the true “line” to sign up formed at that time, we would give up some of our spaces and speaking slots for any of those in opposition who wanted them and arrived prior to the doors opening. We even mentioned this to two separate members of the media who were waiting with us.
Late to Arrive
When the doors opened at 5 p.m., we filed in politely and formed the line to sign up as instructed. Although our overall number was far greater, only the 12 of us selected got in line to speak. Others quietly found a spot in the audience and waited. To the best of my memory, no one in opposition arrived until after 6 p.m.
Rather than stand in line or discuss the issue of speaking, those who did begin to arrive spent their time taking photos and videos of us while pointing and sneering. At no point did anyone ask us about increasing the number of speakers or taking one of our places. Had they done so, it would have been easy to survey not just those of us in line about giving up a spot, but also to question those 30 or more supporters who had arrived early, but were not going to be able to speak either.
Finally, a few of those in opposition began to stand in the line we had formed. Shortly before the meeting, a public safety officer announced the sign-up procedure and confirmed only the first 12 in line would speak.
Once again, there was no reaction. None of those in opposition raised any objection at this point to the procedure or the obvious fact they would not be reached. None approached us about giving them a spot from which to be heard. Had something been asked politely, there is no telling whether something could have been done.
Shouting for the Cameras
At 7 p.m., the meeting was called to order, and following a prayer, the cameras turned on. It is at that moment the plan referenced above was put in to action. Almost on cue, those in opposition began shouting at Chairman Tim Lee, begging to be heard, accusing him of silencing “the people” (as if to imply we are not people) and refusing to allow the chairman to even speak in response to their remarks.
They shouted out of order and out of turn as much to the TV cameras as to the chairman. They were only asked to leave the meeting when they would not stop shouting and behaving disrespectfully.
Just as they wished, the media took the bait. One by one, the reporters ran out after them, cameras rolling. One member of the opposition can even be seen in a photo being displayed prominently in the media with his arms behind his back as if he has been handcuffed (which he wasn’t).
As we spoke to the board, those outside carried on a press conference just as they had hoped. By that evening and since, they have made themselves the story and garnered far more attention than the five minutes we each received.
Braves’ Supporters ‘Nazis’
Many have criticized Chairman Lee and implied he should have let them speak, but it is not so simple. If the chairman had let them speak, what about the 30 to 50 supporters who arrived prior, but knowing the 12-person limit, chose not to get in line? Is their voice and their passion any less important? Shall a precedent have been set that public comment is first come-first served — unless you are loud and disruptive enough to capture the attention of the media? Should those who gave up their time and their day to wait in line be pushed aside for those who came at the last minute, just because their views are different? How often and for whom should the rules be changed?
After we spoke and the meeting had ended, we left politely. On the way out, we were greeted with sneers and more threats. Some were called “corrupt” and a few of us were called “Nazis” (an accusation particularly offensive in light of the fact many of us had just given up our Memorial Day Saturday to erect almost 1,700 American flags for display around town).
In the days since, more threats to our businesses and threats of frivolous litigation and complaints have been hurled. It has been implied most of us do not work very hard for a living.
In the end, the situation could have gone differently, but it is hardly the fault of Chairman Lee or the Atlanta Braves. Those in opposition were there to create a spectacle for the media and found a way to do so.
I regret that my desire and the desire of my friends to show our support for this project have harmed the image or impugned the integrity of those on the Board of Commissioners and that we have, in any way, brought dishonor to the most revered sports team in all of Georgia and perhaps the entire country. For that, I am deeply sorry.
Although I do not have their expressed permission, I believe my colleagues feel the same way. However, none of us will apologize or cease in our efforts to advocate for those things we believe to be good and beneficial for a county we love and in which we are deeply invested.
Justin O’Dell is a Marietta attorney.