Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Written 9/13/06

Getting Information on County Plans Difficult

Getting information on the County’s efforts to get a permit to discharge treated wastewater from its Rocky Branch sewage treatment into Barber Creek has proven to be quite a challenge.

Back in March, the County ran two public notices in The Oconee Enterprise about a public hearing on the issue to be held March 14. Both of these notices said three documents related to the request were available for review by the public in the Utility Department office.

The second of these notices ran in the paper on the 23rd, and I went to the Utility Department office the next afternoon and asked to see the documents. The receptionist said she had never heard of these documents, was unaware of the public notices, and had no idea where the documents might be.

A few days later I got a call from Utility Department Director Gary Dodd telling me I could see the documents, but only in his and Chris Thomas’ presence. Mr. Thomas is Mr. Dodd’s assistant.

I went back to the Utility Department office on March 3 to review the documents, which, as they said, I was able to review only in their presence. I did make arrangements to copy those I needed. Some of them, it turned out, I had obtained earlier through an open records request.

On August 11, in anticipation of Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) action on the Oconee County permit request, I filed an open records request in the County asking Mr. Dodd for "all files, records and other documents in your possession that refer, reflect or relate to" the county’s permit application.

I went to the courthouse on August 22 to review the documents and make copies of what was available.

Two key documents were not made available: The County’s application for the permit, which was submitted to the EPD on June 29, and the draft of the permit, which the County received from the EPD on August 14.

I e-mailed Mr. Thomas on August 28 after I had reviewed again all the materials I had received and asked him for the application. He wrote me back the next day saying he did not have a copy. He said it was sent in by the engineers (Precision Planning, Inc., of Lawrenceville), and no copy existed in the Utility Department Office. A day later he said he had an electronic copy and would make it available to me.

On September 5, I visited Mr. Thomas’ office to get the application and asked for a copy of the draft permit as well. He made a copy for me, charging me $.25 per page to make the copies, which is the County’s standard charge. (The County also charges for time employees spend in searching records at $16.02 per hour. I was billed for 6 hours and 45 minutes on August 22.)

Ironically, on September 7 the County ran another legal notice in The Enterprise announcing that the EPD is considering issuance of a permit to begin discharging treated wastewater from Rocky Branch into Barber Creek. The notice said that the permit application, draft permit and other information were available for review either in Atlanta at the EPD or at the Office of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

The Georgia EPD has not been very helpful either. On August 28 I wrote to Jeffrey Larson, head of the Permitting, Compliance and Enforcement Program, which is handling the Oconee County permit request, asking for a copy of the draft permit. I still have not received it.

On August 30, I called Mr. Larson’s office and left a message on his voice mail asking for a copy of the Oconee County Permit Application, for data on EPD monitoring of Calls Creek, where Oconee County has its second waste treatment plant, and for the draft permit for the Rocky Branch plant.

Stephanie Heath, Georgia Open Records Act Secretary II at the EPD, called me back later that day and left a message on my voice mail. She said she was calling on behalf of Mr. Larson. When I called her back the next morning, however, she said she would not help me obtain any of the documents I requested unless I came to the EPD offices in Atlanta. She told me she had no idea what a Permit Application even looked like.

I called Mr. Larson back shortly after talking to Ms. Heath and left another message asking him once again to call me. I informed him that Ms. Heath has been less than helpful.

Ms. Heath called me back on September 5 and informed me she would send me a copy of the Oconee County Permit Application but would not provide any additional information unless I came to Atlanta. I received the copy of the application from her a few days later.

On September 7, I filed an open records request with Mr. Larson asking for data on Calls Creek. I have heard nothing from him. By law, he is required to respond within three days of receipt of the request.

I guess my view of these documents is different from the view held by most of the officials. I know I paid for them. I think they are mine. I’m willing to be patient in reviewing them, but I feel I should be aided in doing so.

Mr. Thomas generally has gone out of his way to provide information and to answer questions. But I shouldn’t have had to ask for the Application for the Permit, which was produced in the period covered by my open records request, or for the draft permit, which arrived in the County office before my request was fulfilled.

The County should be putting these key documents on its web site so citizens can access them more easily. If the subcontractors are not providing documents in electronic format, the County should find others who will do so. The same goes for the EPD.

If the County and state officials are not willing to be second-guessed by the citizens who pay their salaries, they should find different jobs. Being second guessed goes with public service.

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