When Tim Lee isn’t running Cobb County government, he's promoting an artificial turf manufacturer. But the Cobb County commission chair doesn't see that job conflicting with his newfound role as cheerleader-in-chief for a $672 million Atlanta Braves stadium. "I am so far removed from the process of what goes in what stadium, it's not even funny," Lee told me last week.
Lee's non-political career has been in marketing, in this case overseeing web content for his business's one client, the TenCate Grass division of a Netherlands-based multinational. TenCate Grass makes synthetic fibers and carpet backing for sports fields around the world; its website boasts that 13 NFL teams play or practice on its turf.
TenCate (pronounced tin-ka-ta) serves baseball clients as well, including the Braves, whose minor-league complex in Gwinnett County used the company’s materials in the retaining walls. (Lee said he was unaware of that fact). HKS, the Texas architectural firm that designed the Gwinnett project, also used TenCate in at least three NFL stadiums--Dallas, Indianapolis and New England.
Since Braves executives say HKS is a finalist to design the Cobb project, Lee's ties to one of the team’s preferred suppliers would seem relevant to the public debate over the Braves' new Field of Dreams. But Lee’s dual roles have raised no eyebrows, in part because no one much knew about them--a product of Georgia's less-than-rigorous financial disclosure laws.
Once a year, elected officials in Georgia must disclose businesses in which they own a significant share or hold a fiduciary post. But lawyers, public relations professionals, and consultants who serve other businesses' interests need not identify clients. Even if, as with Lee, they only have one.
Good-government advocates grumble periodically about making such relationships more transparent, most recently in 2010 when Earl Ehrhart, the veteran state legislator from Cobb, collected $40,000 as a consultant advising a nonprofit on how to get its bill through the Legislature. (Ehrhart, incidentally, was the guy who set up Lee's first meeting with the Braves last July.)
Nothing has come of those suggestions.
Lee's annual disclosures list his business, Summit View Marketing Inc., but make no mention of TenCate Grass. His LinkedIn page says he's senior vice president for marketing for TenCate Grass, but Lee said that's really a half-truth intended to make potential business contacts more comfortable with supplying information to him.
"I am not an employee of TenCate," he said.
The chairman has spoken publicly about TenCate, but not in connection with sports stadiums. In 2010, he told the Marietta Daily Journal that the company makes protective clothing and materials for fire departments and other industries.
Regardless, Lee said last week, his duties for TenCate are in marketing, not sales. "My job is to bring awareness" of TenCate's products, he said.
Going forward, it's unclear whether those products will be used at the new stadium. The Braves' deal with Cobb allows it to choose all of the construction contractors and says nothing about needing to pick low bidders.
Nor, even with $300 million of public money in the mix, are there guarantees that the procurement process will be transparent.
Last week, when I asked Lee whether the selection of contractors and suppliers would be subject to public scrutiny, he suggested I talk to the Braves.
Lee also referred me to the county's Memorandum of Understanding with the Braves, which doesn't address the question. Without public disclosure, the Braves could build a taxpayer-funded stadium without having to explain how it chose suppliers or how much it paid them.
Will Cobb County insist on a transparent procurement process? I asked.
That, apparently, remains to be seen, as Cobb and the Braves negotiate the fine print of their partnership over the next six to eight months.
"The answers," he said, "will come out then."
Atlanta magazine has engaged investigative journalist Jim Walls to examine the transparency and financial implications of the Atlanta Braves' planned move to Cobb County. Read hundreds of similar investigative posts at Walls’s website, atlantaunfiltered.com.