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By Janel Davis April 1, 2013

Watchdog says Reed didn't talk to public about stadium

The Falcons are thisclose to having a clear path for a new stadium built in downtown Atlanta.

The team and city officials reached agreement on a deal for the almost $1 billion stadium a few weeks ago. Already, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (which will own the stadium) and the Atlanta City Council have OK’d the deal, which includes using $200 million in city hotel-motel taxes toward construction costs and potentially several times that amount toward financing, maintaining and operating the stadium through 2050.

All that’s left is approval from Invest Atlanta, the city’s development authority.

In the meantime, ethics watchdog William Perry criticized Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for rushing the deal, and not allowing enough time for public input.

"Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying Atlanta would have a ‘big public conversation.’" We would get an information blitz, he said. But the mayor held not one conversation with the public," said Perry, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.

Not one? PolitiFact Georgia has examined several other claims about the stadium deal, including some that were made during meetings about the project. We decided to walk backward through time and examine the weeks leading up to the stadium deal announcement.

Perry’s statement appeared last month in an opinion piece for Creative Loafing Atlanta two days after the Atlanta City Council approved the stadium funding plan.

A Feb. 8 AJC article  quoted Reed as promising "a big public conversation" about the new stadium. "We’re going to give the public every piece of data that we can possibly give them. Everything is going to be known," the mayor went on to say. "Questions are going to be answered in public and on television."

The City Council vote came late on a Monday evening after hours of debate between council members. The meeting was public and televised. Reed attended that council session and spoke to the body about the project.

But his attendance there -- nor at any other council meeting -- doesn’t qualify as the mayor holding a public conversation on the issue, Perry told PolitiFact Georgia. The Atlanta City Council held several public meetings or work sessions convened by either the chairwoman of the finance executive committee or the council president, Perry said. But none of them were initiated by Reed or his office.

We checked with the City Council, and Felicia Moore, who heads the committee that handled the stadium deal, sent us a list of all seven council meetings involving the project. According to Moore’s list, the first meeting was held Feb. 13, and it ended with a committee work session on March 21, three days after the full council approved the deal. The mayor or a representative from his office attended each of the meetings, according to Moore’s notes. The meetings were open to the public, but visitors were only allowed to speak at some of the meetings. "The mayor’s office did not schedule any of those meetings," Moore told PolitiFact Georgia. She was one of four council members who opposed the final funding plan. Moore told her council colleagues that they needed to take time to further vet the deal that will impact the city for at least the next 50 years.

Once a proposal was crafted, and before the council and other groups voted, Perry thought there would be public meetings held so people could read through the document and give testimony, he said. "The bottom line is if you’re trying to ramrod something through, the way to do that is to have less public conversation about it. I don’t feel like he lived up to the promise of an information blitz."

We took Perry’s claim to Reed’s office, and his spokeswoman, Sonji Jacobs, blitzed us with information contradicting the watchdog leader. She called Perry’s claim "blatantly false and misleading."

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Jacobs’ three-page report to PolitiFact Georgia detailed the same council meetings that were on Moore’s list, along with meetings held by the GWCCA and Invest Atlanta, of which Reed is the chairman. The meetings were open to the public, and some were broadcast on the city’s cable television station and city website. (Perry says he sent a letter to Reed in February requesting a public forum. He did not receive a response, and was initially reassured by the mayor’s promise of an information blitz.)

The meetings were not initiated by Reed’s office. Jacobs said that’s not the way things work with Atlanta’s city governance.

"The mayor’s office doesn’t organize meetings. We conduct our meetings in concert with council, which enables us to engage the council and the public in a more efficient manner," Jacobs said. Holding a duplicate set of meetings hosted by the mayor would be wasteful and inefficient, Jacobs said.

That process holds true with not only the City Council, but also community groups, and city entities like the GWCCA. The mayor or one of his senior staff attends those meetings, presents information and answers questions of the public or other officials, as has happened during annual budget deliberations, for example. One of the few occasions that Reed has initiated a public meeting was a town hall meeting in 2010 introducing the three police chief candidates to the public.

With the new stadium project, no one, or no group, asked Reed’s office to hold a town hall meeting, Jacobs said.

Reed and Perry have gotten into verbal fisticuffs before. PolitiFact Georgia examined a claim last January by Perry that Atlanta had established a convoluted process for awarding airport concession contracts. Earlier that same month, we checked a claim by Reed that some Common Cause Georgia members had accepted maximum campaign contributions even though the group criticized the contributions given to Reed by airport vendors.

We checked with political science professors, and the issue falls into a gray area.

Typically mayors don’t hold public hearings, they are usually done in conjunction with the legislative body (city council) or other department or agency, said Michael Rich, assistant professor of political science at Emory University. But there are other methods of communicating with the public other than town hall meetings and forums, such as establishing a website for comments and soliciting written comments. And in instances involving highly controversial issues, Rich said, mayors have sometimes initiated the public meetings.

So, does Perry score a touchdown -- or at least a field goal -- with his claim that Mayor Reed did not hold one conversation with the public leading up to the new Falcons stadium deal?

Hard to say.

There were meetings held, most of the meetings were open to the public and many were televised and streamed on the city’s website. Reed used the collective "we" in describing the information blitz that would be provided on the stadium plan.

It is typically the legislative branch of government that initiates public meetings -- in this case the Atlanta City Council -- and not the executive branch, or mayor’s office. The mayor or at least one of his senior staff did attend stadium meetings held by the City Council and other city entities.

But the mayor did not initiate any of those meetings. And Reed did not host any town hall meetings in the communities that will be impacted most by the stadium.

Perry has a point -- Reed could have done a lot more to engage the public in person. But Perry’s  statement needs a lot of context to be fully understood.

We rated Perry’s statement Half True.

Our Sources

Creative Loafing, Opinion: "Process to approve stadium deal was rushed, not transparent," William Perry, March 20, 2013

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Mayor Reed: Information blitz coming on stadium plan," Jeremiah McWilliams, Feb. 8, 2013

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Atlanta council clears stadium plan," Ernie Suggs and Tim Tucker, March 18, 2013

Phone interview, William Perry, executive director, Common Cause Georgia, March 25, 2013

Phone interview, Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, March 22, 2013

List of Atlanta City Council meetings involving the new stadium, received from Felicia Moore,  March 26, 2013

Phone interview and statement, Sonji Jacobs, spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed, March 27, 2013

PolitiFact Georgia, "Ga group uses claim to back up pay-to-play proposal," Eric Stirgus, Jan. 23, 2012

PolitiFact Georgia, "Mayor Reed fires back at at watchdog group," Eric Stirgus, Jan. 12, 2012

Phone interview, Michael Rich, assistant professor of political science, Emory University, March 28, 2013

Georgia Stand-up, "Atlanta’s Mayor Reed hosting town hall meeting to meet police chief candidates," June 2010

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Watchdog says Reed didn't talk to public about stadium

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