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Secrecy and new ballparks: How much is too much?

SunTrust Park

Atlanta and Salinas, Cal., may not have much in common, but recent happenings in each community regarding a new ballpark has some locals arguing their new and potential ballparks are shrouded in too much secrecy.

In Atlanta, some citizens are appalled by a open-records request by a private investigative firm for more than 10,000 emails associated with those opposing Cobb County’s decision to move ahead with a Atlanta Braves ballpark. Not all correspondence regarding the decision is being requested by Woodall & Broome: just the correspondence from two commissioners opposing the deal, as well as two citizens who were vocal in their opposition. The Braves aren’t being associated with any part of this; Commissioner Tim Lee, who led the charge for the ballpark, is the common thread here. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The request came just a weeks after Lee’s longtime political consultant sent the chairman a list of suggestions for improving his image and that of the Braves project. One of those suggestions included the county spokesman forwarding all Braves-related questions to the consultant.

The latest developments are raising fresh concerns about government transparency surrounding Cobb’s commitment to build a new home for the Braves. Many Cobb residents have embraced the investment that will move the team 12 miles from downtown Atlanta. Others have criticized what they consider a secretive, rushed process led by Lee that has refused at some points to accommodate opposition….

Lee, through an email to the AJC, said he doesn’t know who hired the private investigator and that it is a “sign of how dysfunctional the actions of some folks are. And it is discouraging to see it occur.”

It is discouraging. Using open-records laws as a political weapon can be nasty no matter who files the requests. The entire process was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning: the new ballpark was pretty much a done deal when presented to the public by Cobb County. Doing business in this manner will inevitably lead to charges of backroom deals.

Similarly, the Salinas (Cal.) newspaper is leading charges of backroom deals when it comes to a potential new ballpark for the Bakersfield Blaze (High Class A; California League). As it turns out, negotiations began with a developer, Blaze owner D.G. Elmore and the Salinas city manager before being expanded to other city leaders, who were asked to sign nondisclosure forms during preliminary talks. We’re not talking about a period where decisions were being made or city money committed to anything. From the Californian:

My beef is that the city had no business taking part of what will ultimately be a long and detailed regulatory approval process by starting that process behind closed doors.

And not that I want to give public relations tips to the city, but in this case they could have said, “Hey, we’re thinking about maybe establishing a minor league baseball club here within the Alisal Marketplace project but the league demands that we not talk about it openly for a while.”

Had City Hall made even that simple disclosure a lot of needless worry would have been prevented.

But we’re not sensing a lot of needless worry in Salinas: there’s been no notable grassroots opposition to a new ballpark, and there’s not actually been a solid proposal yet, either. Ideas have been floated, first starting in private and then in public. It seems like the Salinas ballpark proposal became public at precisely the right time.

All development is shrouded in secrecy to a greater extent than many folks believe, and that extends to development not related to sports facilities. Talks between business groups and government bodies happen all the time, and it’s hard to argue that preliminary talks well in advance of any official decisions are infringing on the need for citizens to know exactly what is before their elected representatives at any given time.

One rule of business: when you’re making a proposal for something big, like a new ballpark, it’s important to have as many details nailed down as possible before going public with the proposal. In Cobb County, elected officials there could have done a much better job of opening up public comment regarding the Braves ballpark: it should have been important to hear a multitude of viewpoints before making a final decision. And targeting correspondence from ballpark opponents is a stupid PR move. But in Salinas, it’s hard to say anyone did anything wrong: there’s still no proposal before city officials, no request for taxpayer dollars, no preliminary ballpark plan.

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