At the forum, sponsored by the Cobb County NAACP, the Republican candidates for Cobb’s District 1 commission seat took turns answering questions submitted by the audience, but were not permitted to address each other.
Byrne, the former commission chairman, repeatedly stated his opposition to the BRT and implied the project is still on the list of projects for a proposed sales tax.
“We will address the SPLOST situation — that’s the special purpose local option sales tax. A part of that program will be what’s called the BRT — bus rapid transit — proposal of a half a billion dollars taxed on Cobb County’s residents over a six year period of time,” he said. “I am vehemently opposed to that for two fundamental reasons. First and foremost, as a planner, I can assure you that the proposal
on the table as we talk this evening provides a bus rapid transit system from midtown Atlanta to Kennesaw. It just flat doesn’t work. Getting past that issue, the costs are absorbed by the taxpayer. Not the cost of development, but the cost of operations.”
Byrne expressed his support of public transit, but suggested a better solution would be to adjust and redesign the current Cobb County Transit system and focus on coordinating services between CCT, MARTA and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.
In response, Weatherford, a former alderman for the city of Acworth, said the BRT matter has already been resolved.
“I know that it has been proposed,” he said. “I know that the BRT has now been taken off tier one and tier two of the SPLOST, so I’m pretty sure that’s a dead issue.”
Weatherford went on to describe his solution to the transit issue as a “puzzle.”
“Every part of that puzzle requires different components,” he said. “You take buses. You take public transit. You take road improvement, signalization, roundabouts, diamond interchanges, multi-lanes — any number of things. They all come together, but it takes all parts of the puzzle in order to solve the transit problem and the traffic problem.”
Commission’s relationship with the Cobb Chamber
When asked by moderator Earl “Doc” Holliday about the relationship between the Cobb Board of Commissioners and the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce, Weatherford defended his connections with the organization.
“I think that they provide an important economic and professional development resource for all the citizens of Cobb County,” he said. “I believe that the chamber, being one of the top three in the country, is certainly something that we in Cobb County should be proud of. It’s something that I’m not ashamed of — to have been a member of. I’m not ashamed to have been a part of their Leadership Cobb program and many other development programs for small businesses.”
Byrne acknowledged the chamber must play a role in bringing new business and new job opportunities to the county, but criticized the chamber’s leadership.
“They’ve crossed the line. They should focus on what they do best, and let elected officials focus on what they’re elected to do and do best.”
While the chamber does not endorse candidates, Weatherford has received campaign donations from the president and CEO of the Cobb chamber, David Connell, and the Chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, Ben Mathis.
Byrne has a rocky relationship with the chamber and has stated previously he believes the chamber’s leaders have lined up against him because he opposed the 2012 T-SPLOST, an $8.5 billion sales tax for transportation projects.
Mathis has previously told the MDJ Byrne had no problem accepting contributions from chamber members in the past, but “his positions have changed, and times have changed.”
When Weatherford was asked about his campaign manager, John Loud, and whether his work with the county was a result of cronyism, Weatherford balked at the suggestion.
“I think that’s a ridiculous question,” he said. “My campaign manager is a large business owner in this county. He does a lot of business and employs a lot of people. One has nothing to do with the other.”
Weatherford went on to say if there was any Commission business involving something he had a personal or business in, he would recuse himself.
Weatherford supports, Byrne criticizes Braves deal
Holliday asked the candidates whether they believed the Braves stadium bond should be “secured by the full faith and credit of the citizens of Cobb County.”
Weatherford said he supports the Braves’ move, saying the deal has already been voted on and secured by the financial plan the county and the Braves agreed on.
“I fully support the Braves coming to Cobb County,” he said. “I believe it’s an economic boon that will occur that will assist us in growing our tax base, bringing new businesses … to Cobb County and having people that want to work, live and play. Our job as the next commissioner (will not be) to vet what has already been done. That’s already happened. Our job is to make sure that the taxes and the responsibilities from a financial standpoint that have been committed already by Cobb County are all that we do.”
Byrne also supported the Braves deal, but disagreed with the way the commissioners handled it. Specifically, he said the commission should have allowed the taxpayers to decide whether or not to spend public funds on the deal.
“The Cobb County taxpayer is the biggest investor in the Atlanta Braves stadium in the entire country — more so than the Atlanta Braves are. There’s something wrong with that picture,” he added.
Byrne also took the commission to task for the way it handled recent public hearings about the bond deal. During the public comment portion of the commission’s meeting May 27, supporters of the deal arrived early in order to fill the 12 slots available for citizens to address the commission.
“As the evening wore on, … the commissioners — this is not a criticism of the chairman because any one of the five could have changed (this) — did not allow a single opponent to speak on that issue, only the proponents. What could have and should have happened that evening is any one of the five commissioners make a motion to allow 12 additional speaking spots for the opponents of the proposed contract. And if they had to sit here until one o’clock in the morning to listen to them, then bring on the coffee. Those peoples’ rights were eliminated, and Cobb County’s posture and Cobb County’s reputation, credibility and integrity were dramatically damaged.”
Byrne also disagreed with the commission’s recent hire of Marietta-based Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 to lobby for the county at the state and federal level.
“I was vehemently opposed when the board of commissioners hired a high-priced special purpose lobbyist … to take the place of elected officials. That was fundamentally wrong … (and) a waste of taxpayers’ monies.”
Also speaking at the forum Thursday night were Ann Harris and Juanita Stedman, candidates for retiring Judge Jim Bodiford’s seat on the Cobb Superior Court. Harris and Stedman addressed the audience and answered questions for about 45 minutes.
Between the remarks from the judicial and commission candidates, Democratic candidate for state school Superintendent Valarie Wilson addressed those in attendance. Michael J. Brewer read a statement from Wilson’s opponent in the Democratic runoff, Alisha Thomas Morgan, who told the MDJ she could not attend because of a scheduling conflict.