Sunday, November 05, 2006

Written on 11/05/06

Candidate Forum a Success

The Candidate Forum on November 1 at the Oconee County Library was quite successful. More than 60 people showed up. The questions asked were excellent.

District 46 Georgia Senate candidates Bill Cowsert and Jane Kidd and District 113 Georgia House candidate Becky Vaughn spent more than two hours taking questions on topics such as education funding, preservation of the county’s natural resources, immigration, transportation and incentives given to businesses wishing to locate in the county.

After promising to either attend the Forum or send a representative, incumbent District 113 representative Bob Smith did neither. His son read an apology from Mr. Smith and then departed. The statement said Mr. Smith had a commitment to attend a meeting in Savannah.

I had spoken personally with Mr. Smith on October 12 when he failed to respond to my email message of October 9 inviting him and the other three candidates to the forum. Mr. Smith said he had received my email, but he had concerns about the open format. Yet he promised to attend the Forum or send a representative, and he said he hoped to attend in person. His campaign manager, Gabriel Sterling, raised additional questions about the format in a series of email messages in the next two weeks. The day before the Forum, Mr. Sterling relayed a message to me through a colleague that two hours was more than Mr. Smith was willing to commit, but he would attend.

In the apology for not attending read by his son, Mr. Smith said the Savannah meeting was of a legislative committee dealing with technical colleges in the state.

The Forum was organized by citizen groups Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Citizens for South Oconee County, Friends of Barber Creek, Friends of the Apalachee and Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth. Representatives of these five groups posed the first questions.

I’ve listed the question posed by Karen Kimbaris for Friends of Barber Creek below as well as the full responses of the candidates. Karen’s question dealt with the state Environment Protection Division, which is very important for our work.

I’ve also listed a question by Charlie Baugh of Citizens for Oconee’s Future. Charlie’s question dealt with House Bill 218, which the 2005 General Assembly voted on but did not pass. The Bill, roundly attacked by news media and citizen groups around the state, would have allowed governments, including ours in Oconee County, to make secret developmental deals. This is a particularly important issue for us because of County efforts to lure businesses to Oconee. The Orkin tract at SR316 and US78 has been marketed extensively by the state and the County, including this spring when a pharmaceutical company was courted. Only after the fact did we hear what kinds of promises were made. Included in them was a promise of sewage services. The discharge was targeted for Barber Creek!

I wish I could provide a transcript of all of the questions and responses. That would take much more time than I have. I hope these two questions and answers are helpful.

Please vote on Tuesday. As these two questions indicate, it really will make a difference who is elected to represent us at the General Assembly in Atlanta.

Question by Karen Kimbaris from Friends of Barber Creek: Our group has found it very important to work with the state Environmental Protection Division in our efforts to get the stormwater ordinance passed and also to get hearings on a permit to discharge to wastewater into Barber Creek. What can you do as a representative of our county to assist us in working with the Envirommental Protection Division.

Jane Kidd

Well, we can make sure they are responsive. And if that is a problem then that is something you would call a state Senator or a state Rep about and try to make sure that that is taken care of. I think of lot of it is an education process for the community and for all involved. The rivers are so important that to use any river for that kind of intensive wastewater treatment is a very sensitive issue and I think you need to be assured of the technical assistance to make it work well or you need to look at other options and other locations for the wastewater treatment. It is very expensive and costly enterprise but it usually is handled with bonds and that is an option you have to look at and make sure it is done the way you need it to be. And complain. A lot of people don’t complain enough. I know you all have done it at lot and rightly so. I applaud your group for being as active as you have been and showing up at the meetings. Every T needs to be crossed and ever I dotted before you sign on to a plan that is potentially going to leave a river very dirty and maybe irreparable.

Bill Cowsert

I don’t really think from the state legislature level you can micro manage the EPD. There may be certain rules or regulations or laws that we have to pass that they have to live by. I think part of it is your priorities. That is really reflected as much in funding as anything. I don’t believe the EPD has been adequately funded. If you are sitting there voting on the budget and allocation of the resources, we need to fund the EPD so they can do their job and let those experts do their job. We have some very qualified people there that would like to enforce better than they are able to but they just don’t have the resources to do it. You learn when you sit at these forums. This is the sixth or seventh we have sat at. We have heard a lot of these questions before. But you learn a lot from other people’s answers and from the questions. One thing I picked up on last week is that there are certain impact fees paid by the developers that is dedicated to environment protection but doesn’t necessarily get there in the budget. That is something I would like to see and plan to do in the Senate. Let’s make sure that these funds, like trust funds we set aside, go to the EPD, in the case of your question.

Becky Vaughn

I very much agree with Bill on several things. It bothers me in the state legislature and I’ve seen it happen a lot that we pass these laws about what you can and can’t do and it sounds great. Especially when you go back home and you say I supported this and I supported that. But then they don’t fund the enforcement. So it looks good on the books but if there is nobody there to follow up then it might as well not have been passed. I learned a lot about the problems that the EPD in my work in as head of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. As many of you know, methamphetamine has gotten to be a huge issue in this state and obviously impacted a lot of the work I do. But it has become a serious environmental problem. They are being called constantly about cleanup and this kind of stuff. They don’t have the workforce they need to do what you are talking about much less jump into a new area. And we have kind of a history of doing that. In education we said what the schools can do and what the schools can’t do and yet we don’t fund the mechanism to make that happen. There are some dynamite, dedicated people at EPD. I mean just very dedicated to what they do but they cannot get to everything they know is out there and it is very frustrating to them too. I cannot micro manage EPD but I do think one of the roles of your representative and your senator is if you are having trouble getting a response as Jane said you do call them and say this is supposed to happen and I cannot get people to response. It is a time sensitive issue. You cannot file a complaint and they get around to it 18 months later. That goes along with the urgency. If we are going say that this is part of the state and say that these are the rules then you’ve got to fund the enforcement or quit and go home.

Question by Charlie Baugh, Citizens for Oconee’s Future: Last year there was a bill introduced in the House, House Bill 218, that would have allowed secret negotiations for development opportunities at the local level. It would have allowed totally secret negotiations to occur to the point of a deal being made before citizens would have had input. I would like to know how you would vote if that comes up again in the future.

Jane Kidd

I voted against 218...I always side on the need for the public to know especially when it is public money and private citizen’s money being spent. 218 went too far and shielded the information way too long and the deal was actually going to be done before the information was disclosed to the public and that was too far and too closed so I would not vote for it again...

Bill Cowsert

I think we need to reach a consensus as a community, as a state, as to what type of incentives we are willing to give to induce businesses to locate here. That is really what 218 was about when the state is offering incentive packages to industries to try to induce them to locate in the state of Georgia...As a general philosophy I believe in open government...In this particular area there has to be some level of privacy or you are tying your hands behind your back to be able to negotiate at all...We will never win in these competition unless we have some level of secrecy...

Becky Vaughn

I would have voted against that bill. It went absolutely too far in terms of keeping from public disclosure things likes records, agreements, impact assessments, those types of things...There is a fine line there, but when you look at other states, the ones that are willing to take it far down the line and keep things secret are ones that don’t have a lot to attract business and so they are trying to play the game this way in terms of making those types of offers...My standard answer is: masks are for Halloween, they are not for government.

Bob Smith voted for HB 218.

No comments: