A Georgia watchdog group launched a petition drive Thursday that could force Atlanta city officials to ask voters whether public financing should be used to help fund a $1 billion downtown stadium.
Common Cause Georgia filed a petition request at Atlanta City Hall to force a public vote on the resolution allowing the city to commit $200 million in hotel-motel taxes for construction of a new home for the Atlanta Falcons.
The group will have 60 days to collect at least 35,000 signatures to place the issue on the November ballot once the city responds, Common Cause director William Perry said.
“If we successfully get this question on the ballot and the majority of citizens approve or defeat our question, that’s when it’s over for us,” Perry said. “As long as the public has the opportunity to truly weigh in on this and has a chance to say yes or no to public funding, then we are happy.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in a statement that the move was a “losing proposition” that could undermine much-needed investment in the city’s core. He also accused Perry of using the stadium deal to further his “personal ambition.”
“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,” he said.
The stadium project wound up in City Hall after months of negotiations with Gov. Nathan Deal and state officials. State legislators in 2010 extended the hotel-motel tax and earmarked part of it for funding a new stadium. But by last winter, amid polls showing statewide opposition, state leaders had cooled to enabling the use of state-issued bonds.
Reed took over as the project’s political champion. He shepherded through City Hall a plan to have the city’s economic development arm issue the bonds, and the City Council in March approved in an 11-4 vote.
Throughout the process Perry’s group accused officials of negotiating in secret and failing to engage citizens in the decision to use tax dollars.
“I’ve never seen a project done with so little real public input,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who pledged to be the first to sign the petition.
Backers of the stadium deal deny that claim and point to the city council and state planning meetings as evidence of public engagement.
“We kept getting criticism from Common Cause that this process wasn’t public, to which we said that all of our meetings are public and anyone can come,” said Jennifer LeMaster, a spokeswoman for the Georgia World Congress Center, a state agency that would own the stadium. “The criticism that this happened absent anyone’s eyes or ears is just not true.”
City law allows registered voters to petition for changes to the charter or to repeal ordinances and resolutions already adopted by the city council.
Perry’s group aims to collect at least 40,000 signatures, the largest undertaking in its history. His group plans to use volunteers for a door-knocking campaign to collect and then verify and notarize each page of signatures.
After the signatures are turned into the city, the council has 50 days to determine whether the petition meets the requirements, and then one week to call for an election. Only city residents would be eligible to vote.
Christina Moraitis, a 44-year-old consultant from Inman Park, said she would happily sign up.
“We should have a say,” she said. “It’s our tax dollars and it’s only fair for us to have a voice.”
Justin Myler, a 29-year-old Atlanta resident, doesn’t plan to sign the petition. He believes those who are against the deal are short-sighted.
“If you live in Atlanta, there isn’t a single penny coming out of your pocket if you do not buy season tickets or stay in an area hotel,” he said via email. “Getting a new stadium brings more than just notoriety to the team; it benefits the city as a whole.”
It’s unclear whether a referendum would delay construction of the stadium, which the Falcons plan to open in 2017. Beyond the public dollars, the construction is to be funded by the Falcons, the NFL and proceeds from the sales of personal seat licenses. Additional hotel-motel tax funds, under the 2010 extension, must go toward financing, maintaining and operating the stadium over the next 30 years.
Falcons executives and city officials want to build the stadium immediately south of the Georgia Dome, which would be demolished afterward. But they are still negotiating with landowners, including two churches there. If a deal isn’t struck by August, team officials will build on another site a half-mile north of the Dome.