Byrne, a former county chairman, and Bob Weatherford, a former Acworth City alderman, were the two who survived a five-candidate Republican primary race for the District 1 seat currently held by retiring Commissioner Helen Goreham.
The winner faces Democrat Derrick Crump in the general election, although given the Republican nature of the district, pundits believe the race will be decided July 22.
Byrne said he’s raised about $40,000 and believes it will take another $10,000 to win.
Byrne said he believes his endorsement by Acworth’s Angela Barner, who ran in the primary, is a big deal since she and Weatherford draw supporters from the same area.
“The beauty of a runoff is you know who’s going to vote,” Byrne said. “We had only 14,000 or so voters in the primary. And we’re anticipating 5 or 6,000 of those people coming back, 5 or 6 percent turnout. So that’s 7,500 homes. Well, mailing to 7,500 homes isn’t all that expensive.”
Byrne compared it to electing a class president.
“You’re down 7,500 homes,” he said. “And if we go to the precincts where I did well and the precincts where Angela Barner did well and walk those subdivisions — and we are — that’s how you’re going to win a runoff. It’s that simple.”
Byrne said one difference he has with Weatherford is their take on the county’s bus rapid transit proposal.
“On the BRT, he’s a supporter of it; I’m opposed to it,” Byrne said. “On the T-SPLOST, he was a proponent of it, campaigned for it; I opposed it. On the issue of public safety, it’s my primary focus and interest. I have provided programs. He’s opposed to it.”
The county’s agreement with the Atlanta Braves to build a new baseball stadium in Cumberland is another difference, Byrne said.
“I was a critic of the process; he isn’t. He believes that secrecy was an important part of the process and that coming to a decision within a two-week period of time was a good business decision. I don’t.”
Reforming the development authority
The Development Authority of Cobb County clashed with the Cobb Board of Education when it attempted to waive millions in future taxes for a Cumberland project backed by real estate developer John Williams. The school board objected in court, arguing the development authority, which is chaired by Vinings Bank executive Clark Hungerford, was diverting much-needed school revenue to the developer. A county staff analysis determined the development didn’t warrant the tax breaks the development authority offered because it didn’t meet the required job threshold.
Byrne honed in on a letter Lee sent to the development authority about the project.
“What was bad about his letter is he opened up the door in giving the assumption to the development authority by saying, ‘OK, this doesn’t conform to our standards. However, I would like you to look into this,’” Byrne said. “Well, I’m sorry. I understand what he’s saying there. That was the first mistake. He never should have done that. But the development authority also has an obligation. They look at it just like staff does, and if it does not come to standards, then you say so. In this case, they did not and it was a huge mistake.”
The John Williams project should never have advanced as far as it did, Byrne said.
“It began with Tim and moved on with the development authority and my proposal has been to curb that,” he said.
Byrne believes the problem with the development authority is it doesn’t answer to anyone.
“I think they should be responsible to somebody,” he said. “It should not be the Board of Commissioners, and it shouldn’t be the Board of Education. It should be the local delegation because they’re the ones that created it.”
Another needed reform, Byrne said, is to move development authority meetings from the Chamber of Commerce headquarters to the commission room, where they can be televised on Cobb’s public access channel, TV23. That way, “folks who are interested in good government can watch what they’re doing, saying, thinking and hear testimony on both sides of an issue. It’s called transparency,” Byrne said. “That doesn’t cost anybody a dime to do that.”
BoC’s handling of Braves’ move poor, Byrne says
When Braves executives made the decision to leave Turner Field and the city of Atlanta, Byrne said the next question they had to decide was where to go.
“If you analyze what their options were, nowhere near south worked,” he said. “East and west was out. The only place they could go was north.”
Byrne believes the Braves were coming to Cobb County whether the county agreed to pay $300 million or not to help build the stadium.
“They had no choice,” he said. “Why wasn’t that a part of our negotiating structure in which to say, ‘Hey, look, we, Cobb County, dealing from a position of strength here, you’re coming anyway. Why should I give you anything? What are you going to give me to come here?’ Well, why don’t we think like that? I mean, I don’t get it.”
What commissioners should have done, Byrne said, is negotiate better, just as he did when Home Depot moved from Atlanta to Cumberland.
Byrne said he does support the Braves building the new stadium and mixed-used development here.
“The Braves is a good deal, don’t misunderstand me, and it can be a better deal, it’s just we could have handled it in a far more politically professional way than we did because that’s always going to stay with a significant number of people.”
When the development is finished, Byrne said a new triangle will be created between the Cumberland Community Improvement District, Town Center CID and Perimeter CID.
“That’s the center of a new economic and political district that’s going to determine the future of this entire region, and our region defines the future of the state of Georgia. And Cobb County is the fulcrum for all of that,” Byrne said. “I want that for Cobb County. We just have to be smart enough to manage it properly when it happens. Lot of bad guys follow the money. You better prepare. We aren’t. Now if the voters see it otherwise, then the chamber will be in control. If not, you’re not going to find a district commissioner sitting on the end of the dais that sits there quietly.”
Tangling with the Cobb Chamber
One of the subjects that comes up time after time in Byrne’s campaign is his belief that the Cobb Chamber of Commerce is a problem. The chamber has not endorsed either candidate, but members of its leadership team have shelled out money for Weatherford. For example, chamber Chairman Ben Mathis gave Weatherford $2,500 while chamber president and CEO David Connell gave Weatherford $1,000. Byrne believes the chamber has expanded outside its mission of bringing jobs to Cobb County into trying to control the political process.
“I’ve never seen it as bad as it is today,” he said.
Byrne believes certain chamber leaders have lined up against him because he opposed the 2012 T-SPLOST, an $8.5 billion sales tax for transportation.
“They provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in promoting the T-SPLOST. Lost their a--,” Byrne said. “And anytime a big businessman loses something, it’s never his fault. They’ll look for somebody to blame. They blamed me. Well, hell, I didn’t lose that by myself. I wish I had that kind of power.”
Byrne said the latest evolution of Cobb’s signature T-SPLOST project is Lee’s proposed bus rapid transit system.
“And I’m the one in opposition to it,” Byrne said. “Their fear is, ‘What the hell are we going to do if he wins? What change is he going to bring the Board of Commissioners that is going to hurt our business opportunities? And who can we support that will do what we ask them to do?’ They found somebody. And he’s doing exactly what he asked them to do. This isn’t by mistake.”
The MDJ asked Mathis about Byrne’s comments Friday. Mathis reiterated the chamber does not endorse candidates.
“But just because business people are members of a chamber doesn’t mean they forfeit their right to participate in politics like any citizen,” Mathis said.
Mathis said he personally supports Weatherford because he believes Weatherford is the better candidate.
“But Bill Byrne sure didn’t turn down any contributions in the past when they came from people who are members of the chamber, and he got a lot of support at various times. But his positions have changed, and times have changed.”
Opposition to county lobbyist
In May, the Board of Commissioners voted 4-1, with Bob Ott, opposed to hire Marietta-based Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 to serve as the county’s lobbying firm at both the state and federal level for an annual contract of $168,000. Heath Garrett is former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Byrne said he opposes the decision, believing it to be “a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.”
“Virgil Moon and I were the lobbyist, if you will, with our local delegation and at the state level for every year I was chairman, and it worked like a charm,” Byrne said. “If you can’t work with your local delegation, you’re not going to be able to hire somebody to hide that. It just doesn’t work like that. And what are you going to the federal government for? What do you need from them that you can’t do by yourself? And who’s going to get that for you? Heath Garrett? How’s he going to do that?”
Byrne accuses Garrett of covertly working to help Weatherford get elected by attacking Byrne through mailers, a charge Garrett said is false. Weatherford also said Garrett is not working for his campaign.
The bus rapid transit system
Byrne applauds commissioners for holding a SPLOST referendum during the general election in November, compared to the way it’s previously been done during a special election. But if Tim Lee insists on including a line item to help pay for the bus rapid transit system in the SPLOST, Byrne said he will vote against it.
“This is the supporters’ attempt to come through the backdoor what they couldn’t get through the front door two years ago,” Byrne said. “It’s the identical route from the arts center to KSU. It’s just a different form and format. And whether it’s a $1.1 billion bus rapid transit proposal or a cut-down version, then it’s not a BRT system.”
The cost of the system was cut in half when Lee said the tunnels and bridges intended to allow the buses to head down Cobb Parkway without stopping at intersections were removed. Byrne criticized this revision.
“If you don’t have intersection improvements, then you’re not addressing the issue of traffic congestion or movability,” he said. “So either one from a purely transportation perspective doesn’t work. My recommendation to two district commissioners was please, please, please don’t make it part of the SPLOST. Make it a separate line item so the voters can vote for the SPLOST yes or no and vote for the BRT yes or no, that one does not take down another.”
Public safety concerns
Byrne plans to make public safety his No. 1 commitment. The county lost 70 police officers about a year ago for a variety of reasons, he said. Commissioners recently agreed to add 40 police positions to the department.
“Well, hello, that doesn’t replace what you lost last year. You’re 30 short,” Byrne said. “How many are we losing this year? There was a point in time not long ago in this county when we were the highest-paid, best-trained, most professionally equipped safety department in the state of Georgia. We are losing good people. They come to Cobb for the training and get the experience and then when opportunity presents itself they move on. Not all. But many.”
The solution is to make nine phone calls to determine what the starting salary is in the nine other metro Atlanta counties, Byrne said.
“And you make sure as the 10th county that you’re starting salary is $1 dollar higher than your closest competitor. That attracts young people,” he said.
Retaining police officers is done by providing them with the proper equipment and ensuring the leadership is in place they respect.
Byrne said for officers who have been with the county a dozen years whose children are entering college, the county should provide them with the kind of benefits that make spending the rest of their career with Cobb worthwhile.
“So you have to do three things: attract the young, keep the young and provide for your senior leadership a retirement package that’s worth staying for,” Byrne said. “We aren’t doing that. We aren’t doing any of those. And if you look at what our former public safety director outlined, he was dead on.”