Cobb’s Tim Lee no stranger to controversy

Commission chairman Leeshepherds Braves deal

Tim Lee was trying to explain to a charged audience why investing more than $300 million of public money to move the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County was a good deal when it all came to a head.

The question to Lee, posed at the beginning of the first town hall meeting on Cobb County’s controversial venture: Why not delay the county commission’s vote so there could be a full and substantive debate?

“The downside to that is there is a billion dollars worth of investment that needs to be done in three years, which is a very difficult …”

He was cut off by a chorus of voices that sang a single word: “So?”

And that’s when Lee had enough.

“Look, it’s this simple. I’m going to extend you the courtesy to ask your question, and I’m going to provide an answer. … We may agree to disagree. But if we’re going to be discourteous to one another … nothing will shut this down faster.”

The town hall meeting wasn’t shut down, and neither was the commission’s approval of a preliminary contract with the Braves to fund just under half of the team’s new $672 million stadium. That agreement also calls for the county to pay $1.2 million a year for 30 years of maintenance.

If Lee handled the heckling and cat calls like he had been there before, it’s because he has. The Republican chairman of the state’s third largest county has stood in the path of fierce headwinds before.

Lee’s 2012 county budget hiked property tax rates in fiscally conservative Cobb by 16 percent, a move he said was necessary to offset a $30 million deficit. And the next year, he campaigned for the wildly unpopular referendum to raise the state-wide sales tax for regional transportation projects, which included a proposed rail line into Cumberland area, the site of the new ballpark.

The so-called T-SPLOST initiative lost badly, with Cobb County voters rejecting it at a 69-percent clip.

Those stances nearly cost Lee his job as the county’s top elected official, and his $130,000 salary — which is more than double those of his peers in DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Lee eked out a 1,300-vote win in a runoff election against Bill Byrne, former Cobb chairman and hounding tax critic, in August 2012.

But Lee says that he was, and remains, unconcerned about his political fortunes. He contends that he is free of political ambition, which enables him to pursue the policies he believes are best for the county, even if a majority of his constituents don’t go along for the ride.

He brought that same sensibility to bear in his approach to negotiating the Braves deal, which was kept secret for months before the team made an announcement Nov. 11. Lee then steadfastly refused to hold a public hearing on the matter, much less a referendum.

That left Cobb’s four district commissioners — two of whom are up for re-election next year — scurrying to hold last-minute town hall meetings, so the public could be heard during the 12 days between Lee revealing the cost of the project and the commission’s approval of it.

Many of the county’s residents are on board with the plan to bring the Braves to Cobb. But there’s a real divide between supporters and those who worry that the ultimate cost will be too great, the traffic congestion too heavy, and the promised economic return too questionable.

Two days before Thanksgiving, the commission’s 4-1 vote sealed the deal.

The Cobb way

Lisa Cupid, the only Democrat on the commission and its lone no vote, has clashed with Lee during her first year in office. She said she felt “compelled” to hold her town hall meeting because of Lee’s refusal to hold a public hearing. The feedback she got from that meeting, she said, made her feel “confident” in opposing the deal.

Cupid, who made it clear before her vote that she supports the deal but not the way it was handled, said Lee’s leadership style can often be stifling.

“What I’ve found is he’s never liked me to question him,” Cupid said. “I believe there’s a thought often referred to as the Cobb way — everybody gets in line behind the chairman. He certainly pushes that and expects everyone to follow along.”

But Helen Goreham, one of Lee’s s biggest supporters on the commission, called his s leadership style “effective.” Goreham said she has always found Lee approachable and said “you can be straight-forward with him.”

“What he accomplished was pretty unheard of — taking positions on two big, controversial issues and still pulling out the win,” she said.

Lee was unapologetic for the way the Braves deal was handled during an extensive interview last week in his third-floor commission office, overlooking Marietta Square. He said he does not regret any aspect of it, and said he plans to “keep laser-focused on delivering what I promised to deliver.”

“I did not go into the Braves deal looking to see how I could enhance my political career,” Lee said. “… I’m not going to worry about my re-election. I have no plans on doing this job until they put embalming fluid in me. My goal is just to do the best job I possibly can.

“Whether it’s my Achilles heel or my shining moment will be written by other people.”

It’s a chapter of Lee’s political career that could go either way. He will be up for re-election just a few months before the new ballpark is scheduled to open in 2017.

“There are agreements to be made, contracts to be signed, negotiations over traffic and zoning and all sorts of potential for controversy, and Tim Lee is standing at the center of it all,” said Kerwin Swint, interim chair of Kennesaw State University’s Political Science Department.

“He owns it.”

Son of a preacher

Timothy Douglas Lee, 56, grew up in Northern Illinois near the Indiana state line, the son of a part-time minister and full-time electrician at a Ford stamping plant. He graduated in 1975 from Creet-Monee High School, so named because it stood between the two namesake towns in the gritty industrial region of plants and train yards.

Lee eschewed college for the mail room at a boutique advertising agency in New York City.

“I was literally the mailroom guy,” he said with a chuckle. “Then I went from the mailroom guy to the mailroom supervisor guy.”

Lee said the firm paid for a bit of night school over the years as he worked his way up, eventually becoming an account manager in the 1980s. He said his job was to create communication plans that spelled out the targeted demographic and message. Those plans were handed off to art directors, who made the ads for print, television, billboards and radio.

Lee said his accounts included Castrol Motor Oil, Maxell high fidelity tape, Singer sewing machines and Sharp electronics.

In 1982, while still working for the agency, Lee began studying economics at Fordham University through an adult education program. His LinkedIn page says he took classes at Fordham until 1986.

Then the Courtyard Marriott hotel chain changed his life.

“I was summoned into the chairman’s conference room: There’s an account we need you to take,” Lee said. “So I was brought down to Atlanta and spent a week at Lake Lanier. And I said, this is wonderful.”

Lee now owns his own advertising agency, called Summit View Marketing. It has no website and one client, TenCate, a protective materials firm that sells materials for artificial turf in sports fields. In 2010, the year Lee became chairman of the commission, TenCate supplied the materials for artificial turf fields installed in the county’s 16 high schools.

“There was not direct contact between myself and the people in the Cobb County Schools,” Lee said. “TenCate was a component of a bigger contract.”

When asked for his resume, Lee produced a one-page document that was last updated in 2002. The document says he has “over 25 years” in the advertising field, but lists none of his prior employers, or the iconic brands he worked on. It also lists Fordham University and his study of economics, but does not note his lack of a degree.

“Tim is a high school graduate, and what he has done professionally, he has only done on paper,” said Byrne, Lee’s political opponent last year. “Tim doesn’t have a job and he hasn’t for 10 years.”

Even if that’s true, Lee has been a successful and effective leader of Cobb County, said Tad Leithead, chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement district. Leithead said the Braves deal is a perfect example, and “probably wouldn’t have happened without him.”

“He was the right person at the right place in the right time,” Leithead said. “There were a lot of people who disagreed with the way he approached it. In the end, he stood firm and he was a leader. He executed what I believe is a phenomenal deal for the county and the region.”

A friend of business

Lee is a bit of a political contradiction.

He is the highest-ranking elected leader in one of the most well-educated counties of Metro Atlanta, yet has no college degree.

He ascended into politics through home owners associations, arguing for more green space and restrained development, yet is a strong voice — critics say a puppet — for the business community.

He has consistently supported tax increases, dating back to his pre-commission days as chairman of Citizens for a Greener Cobb, yet has won four elections in a staunchly conservative county and Tea-party hotbed.

Lee makes no bones about his belief that government should be a full-on partner with the business community. Last year, he threw the full weight of his political support behind a sweeping economic development program run through the chamber called Competitive Edge, which early discussions had being funded by the county, cities and school district.

Those plans were scrapped when Lee’s fellow commissioners became weary after public outcry over whether tax dollars should be funneled into the initiative.

Lee said he still believes public money should be used for the program, and mocked the controversy.

“That’s when the press, `Oh My God, the government is going to be funding this program,’” Lee said, his voice raising and his hands waving toward the sky. “Well, it was on a list of potential funding sources and it never got off that list, never got the chance to get past that list, because of the public pressure.”

Lee has dealt with his own personal financial issues before taking office. He was slapped with an federal tax lien in the early 1990s, which he said caused him to file for bankruptcy. The tax bill was for $8,000, but grew to $62,500 after interest and penalties were tacked on.

Lee said he made a payment plan with the IRS, missed a couple of payments, and “all bets were off.”

“The tax debt occurred during a period of time when I was separated then divorced from my first wife, and there was a miscommunication between her and I in terms of filing and managing our taxes,” Lee said. “We owed very little, but the penalties and interest racked up. It was an outrageous amount of money. We just couldn’t get out from underneath it.”

The lien was paid off, records show. It was just a few years later that the District 3 commission seat opened and Lee says he was encouraged to run for office.

Lee defends his support of increased taxes and says the proof that they have all been reasonable can be found in the county’s still relatively low tax and water rates. He also touted the county’s gold-standard bond rating.

“We have a track record of being efficient and effective,” he said.

As for complaints about the secrecy surrounding the Braves deal, Lee said things will be different from here on out.

“We couldn’t have gotten to where we are if I had left the front door open. It just wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “But as we move forward, we will take a path of letting people know where we’re heading and what we’re doing.”

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