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Grass-roots campaign launched against public money for Falcons stadium
A government watchdog group is launching a petition drive to force the city of Atlanta to hold a voter referendum on the public financing portion of the new Falcons stadium.
by Dave Williams
Staff Writer- Atlanta Business Chronicle
A government watchdog group launched a petition drive Thursday to force the city of Atlanta to hold a voter referendum on the public financing portion of the new Falcons stadium.
But in a statement issued late Thursday, the city’s lawyer said the city has no legal authority to schedule a referendum without authorization from the General Assembly.
Officials with Common Cause Georgia conceded it would be an uphill fight to gain the 35,000 signatures the city’s 1998 initiative and referendum ordinance would require to schedule a public vote.
“It’s a monumental task,” William Perry, the organization’s executive director, said during a news conference Thursday morning on the steps of Atlanta City Hall. “But the public has not been given the chance to weigh in on this. … When you’re talking about so much public money, the public ought to have a seat at the table.”
The board of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, last month approved issuing more than $200 million in bonds to finance the public contribution toward the retractable-roof stadium. The bonds will be repaid from the revenue generated by the city’s hotel/motel tax.
The Invest Atlanta vote followed approvals from the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, the state agency that owns the downtown Atlanta stadium site, and the Atlanta City Council.
The Atlanta Falcons and the National Football League are financing the rest of the $1 billion project.
Despite those three votes, public financing of the stadium is not a done deal, Perry said.
“The bonds haven’t happened. Ground is not broken,” he said. “This is not over.”
Common Cause Georgia helped lead opposition to taxpayer financing of the stadium project last winter when the issue was before the General Assembly.
After enough lawmakers expressed concerns about the proposal to put the outcome of a legislative vote in doubt, the state turned the public financing piece of the project over to the city.
“We think that represented an orchestrated attempt to evade the clearly expressed interest of the people,” said Wyc Orr, a member of Common Cause Georgia’s board.
“We don’t think this process has been open and transparent.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the Common Cause campaign is an attempt to derail a stadium project that is critical to the city’s future.
Although the stadium isn’t due to open until 2017, he said it already has led to Atlanta being named a host city for the new college football playoff series that will rotate national semifinal games between Atlanta and the other hosts every three years.
Reed said the stadium also will allow Atlanta to compete for the Super Bowl as early as 2019.
“The state-of-the-art facility is going to help strengthen the city’s $10 billion tourism and convention industry and the 220,000 jobs it supports, spur economic development in the surrounding neighborhoods and keep the Atlanta Falcons in the heart of downtown for the next 30 years,” the mayor said in a prepared statement.
“Common Cause Georgia should focus on moving our city forward, not taking us backwards.”
Several hours after Reed issued his remarks, City Attorney Cathy Hampton threw more water on the idea of a public vote on the stadium project.
“The city Law Department reviewed the applicable statutes and Georgia Supreme Court case law and opined that the city cannot proffer a referendum as demanded by Common Cause without state legislation authorizing such a referendum,” Hampton said.
Perry said the group delivered its petition request to the city clerk’s office Thursday.
Under the 1998 ordinance, the organization would have two months from the date the clerk provides an official copy of the petition to obtain the necessary 35,000 signatures representing 15 percent of the registered voters who voted in the last city election in 2009.
The referendum asking voters whether they wish to repeal the bond resolution would appear on the November ballot.