Larry Savage, a retired businessman and former candidate for the Cobb County Commission chair, is fighting an uphill battle to get more public involvement into the financing of the new $672 million Atlanta Braves stadium deal, including the county borrowing up to $397 million without seeking voter approval. I had a cup of coffee recently with Savage to hear him out.
Savage has filed two complaints with the Cobb County Ethics Commission, charging that county commissioners have acted unethically in approving funding for new Braves stadium without the public’s input. Both complaints were summarily dismissed.
“The first complaint was dismissed with minimal discussion,” he says. “The second one seems to have been dismissed with no discussion at all. I was not allowed to speak and the members didn’t ask questions, which I thought was an unusual way to conduct an investigation.”
I found it strange Savage was denied the opportunity to speak when a couple of months later, Cobb attorney Gary Pelphrey was allowed by the ethics commission to make his case on nine separate allegations of ethical misconduct by Chairman Tim Lee. Then members spent time discussing each of the nine complaints before voting unanimously against them all.
I called the ethics board’s attorney, J. Lynn Rainey, for some clarification. Rainey had recused himself from both hearings because he is the attorney for the Cumberland Community Improvement District, which has committed $10 million to the stadium project.
The Code of Ethics is a two-step process,” Rainey says. “The first is an investigative review to look at the substance of the complaint and see if the members form a reasonable belief there may be a violation. If so, they then set a time, date and place for a hearing.”
He concedes the board could have handled the two complaints more consistently. Rainey said that while Mr. Pelphrey was “more assertive” in asking to speak to his complaints and provided more input than that to which he was entitled, he believes the board considered both matters properly.
Rainey tells me that while the ethics commission is required to meet twice a year, this was only the third time the group has heard any formal complaints. Obviously, they are a bit new at this and it showed in the contrast between the Savage and Pelphrey hearings. The Cobb County Ethics Commission clearly needs to get its act together.
Undaunted, Savage continues on. He says the Georgia Constitution is clear the county cannot incur debt without the consent of the voters.
“They will claim the county is not incurring debt,” Savage says. “Their cover will be to have the debt issued by the Galleria Authority. However, the Authority doesn’t have any money to pay the debt because they have written into the agreement that their existing properties are not touchable. The only way they get the money is for the county to give it to them.”
Savage says there is also a provision in the state Constitution that the power of taxation cannot be used in servicing the debt of revenue bonds and that such projects are supposed to be self-funding. Revenue bond principal and interest can only be paid with revenue from the project.
“This project will yield about $6 million a year from the Braves in rent,” Savage claims, “and the debt will be about $25 million a year. The difference is going to have to come from the county.”
While the process is complicated, Savage says the issue is simple, “Cobb County either can or cannot take on $400 million in debt without the public’s approval. That is the essential issue. If office holders want to do these things and nobody wants to bear the burden of opposing them, we are setting a dangerous precedent.”
On July 7, Cobb Superior Court Judge Tain Kell will hold a hearing on validation of the bonds to finance the new Braves stadium. Will there be a legal challenge? Savage says, “I hear a lot of people talking about it. I couldn’t begin to afford it. County officials have put out word they have an ample war chest.” But don’t be surprised to see him pursue the issue through until the end, which is likely to be in the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Larry Savage knows the odds are steep but that doesn’t stop him from trying. As we were leaving, I asked him if he felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. “No,” he says, “I feel like David fighting Goliath and Goliath has all the rocks.”
I like this guy.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb