Weatherford and Byrne, who are challenging each other in Tuesday’s runoff for a chance to replace retiring Commissioner Helen Goreham, tackled the infamous resolution at a debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club and aired by Georgia Public Broadcasting on Sunday.
The two Republicans sounded off on the county’s bus rapid transit proposal, the Atlanta Braves and a possible new homestead option sales tax. But it was their comments on Cobb County’s 1993 “anti-gay” resolution that offered fresh insights into the candidates.
County Chairman Tim Lee gave his recollection of the resolution and how it came to pass in a 2012 Marietta Daily Journal article.
“It was basically in response to a play (‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’) that was on at Theatre in the Square where there was an open display of a relationship between two gentlemen,” Lee said in 2012. “And (the commissioners) were offended by it, so they passed a resolution condemning that lifestyle. Call it, if you would, ‘family values.’ The Olympics pulled volleyball out of Cobb County — and all that economic impact and all the positive things that could have been happening to tourism — pulled that out of Cobb and made Cobb the laughingstock of the world.”
Byrne was the chairman of the Cobb Board of Commissioners when the resolution passed, and he expressed remorse for being a part of it.
“Well, I regret that that happened, yes,” Byrne said. “That was brought forward … by a district commissioner by the name of Gordon Wysong. He brought it forward with the majority of the Board of Commissioners supporting that. I could not — as much as I tried — (keep) it off of the agenda. When that came forward, it passed the Board of Commissioners. It was a resolution, not a policy statement.”
Still, Byrne voted for the resolution. He told the MDJ two years ago, the alternative was expressing support for the gay rights agenda.
“When given that as the question, then the answer to me is pretty clear. On that basis, I voted for the resolution,” he said in 2012.
The Olympic committee did remove the volleyball venue from Cobb, but Byrne said during his debate with Weatherford that the economic impact of the Olympics was still positive in the county.
“It did not remove all of the folks who came and spent nights and participated in Cobb County facilities, left their money there and enjoyed the Olympics from Cobb County,” he said.
When asked whether he would vote for the resolution today, Byrne said he would not, saying it was a “nasty point in time” for those involved and citing the resulting strained relationship with his openly gay daughter.
“It was something that was hurtful personally. It hurt my family, and it has followed me for years; to the point that two of you are asking me questions about it for something that happened 22 years ago,” he told a panel of journalists who asked the candidates questions during the debate. “No, I would not support something of that nature today.”
Weatherford had a similar response when he was asked the same question.
“I would never support something like that. I believe that everyone has equal opportunities,” Weatherford said. “I know there are certain rights that everyone’s granted.”
Weatherford also made sure to point out the resolution passed under Byrne’s watch.
“It was under chairman Byrne’s leadership that this occurred,” Weatherford said. “An effective leader, I think, would have somehow or another found a way not to have that harm Cobb County, which in fact it did.”
Braves deal, HOST tax and Cobb’s new lobbyist
Among other issues discussed during the debate was the commission’s handling of the deal to bring the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County.
Weatherford said the Board of Commissioners handled the situation well, but should have been more open about the process.
“And the only thing that I would have done different was try to offer some different transparency, if possible, to make sure everyone that was informed in the appropriate manner,” Weatherford said.
The former Acworth alderman went on to say if elected, he would ensure the county funds in the deal would be used as directed.
“My job as county commissioner (would be) to make sure that taxpayers’ interests are protected and that we spend what we say we’re going to spend,” he said.
Byrne was more critical of the Board of Commissioners, saying the chairman should have involved the district commissioners more and negotiated with the Braves to help fund public safety facilities in exchange.
“He should have negotiated with the Atlanta Braves and said to them, ‘I want ten acres for public safety use if you want to come to Cobb. I want the $5.5 million necessary to build a precinct if you want to come to Cobb. I want the $3.5 million necessary to build a fire station in Cobb.’ That’s a win-win,” Byrne said.
When the subject of a HOST tax was brought up, Weatherford and Byrne took opposing viewpoints.
Weatherford is in favor of the tax, saying it would decrease the burden on homeowners.
“It’s a way to increase revenue from all that participate in Cobb, that come through Cobb, that stay in Cobb to reduce the burden on the homeowners of Cobb County,” he said. “On the surface — I have not seen all the financial plans — on the surface it appears to be a good, possible alternative to lower property taxes while increasing the revenue of the general fund, thus allowing us to do certain things, such as public safety.”
“I’m very much opposed to it. People say that this is a tax on business. It’s not true; it’s a tax on consumers. It taxes everything you buy and need,” Byrne said. “The biggest folks who pay the most on this are those who have the least. It’s just another approach to get back into your wallet, and that’s the mentality of this Board of Commissioners.”
The Republican candidates also had diverging positions on the Board of Commissioners’ recent decision to award a $168,000 annual contract to Marietta-based Garrett McNatt Hennessey & Carpenter 360 to lobby for the county at the state and federal level.
Weatherford said he would have approved the contract if he were on the board, but only because the firm lobbies at the federal level.
“Cobb County is a member of the ACCG, which is the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. And they provide lobbying efforts at the state level. If this particular lobbying agreement had only included the state level, I would have been opposed to it. … And I would have approved it for that reason, as long as there’s a return on investment that exceeds what we pay in,” he said.
Byrne rejected this line of reasoning, saying Georgia’s elected officials at the local, state and federal levels should be the ones lobbying on behalf of the county.
“What in the world do we need a lobbyist at six figures?” Byrne said. “The commission chairman, the county manager and whatever department heads are necessary can coordinate all of our needs through local delegations for local needs. We have state representation with our Senate and with our representatives for state needs. At the national level, to argue this is the justification for it, last time I looked, that’s why we elected congressmen.”