Sunday, January 06, 2008

Written 1/6/08

It's an Emergency: We Need to Get Out of Town to Talk

In a meeting Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis has tried to keep out of the public eye, the five-member board, the County attorney, five staff members and two County consultants met on December 7 in Madison, Georgia, to discuss a variety of issues, including water and sewage services and the sale of beer, wine and alcohol by the drink in the County.

Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center Executive Director Jim Dove and Executive Assistant Mott Beck also attended the meeting to serve as "facilitators."

The meeting took place at the James Madison Inn & Conference Center in Morgan County. The Inn invoiced Oconee County the day before the meeting $250 for the meeting room, $36 for coffee services, $144 for continental breakfasts, and $180 for lunches. The total bill, including taxes, was $683.20, payable on the day of the meeting.

Chairman Davis used emergency procedures to give minimal public notice of the meeting, which actually was planned at least three weeks in advance. Georgia law stipulates that the meeting had to be open to the public.

The announcement of the agenda for the December 7 meeting did not appear on the County’s web site, though meetings, even unscheduled or "called" meetings, are usually announced on the site. The minutes of the meeting also have not been posted on the site and were not approved by the full Board when it approved the minutes of the meetings of December 4 and 18 at its regular meeting on January 3, 2008.

The existence of the December 7 meeting was revealed in documents the County released to me on January 3, 2008, in response to an open records request I filed with the County on December 28, 2007.

Georgia law requires that meetings of the Board of Commissioners be scheduled and open. If a meeting is "to be held at a time or place other than at the time and place prescribed for regular meetings, the agency shall give due notice thereof. ‘Due notice’ shall be the posting of a written notice for at least 24 hours at the place of regular meetings and giving of written or oral notice at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting to the legal organ" of the County, which is The Oconee Enterprise.

The law further states that "When special circumstances occur and are so declared by an agency, that agency may hold a meeting with less than 24 hours’ notice." In that case, the agency (Board of Commissioners) must give notice "of the meeting and the subjects to be considered at the meeting as is reasonable under the circumstances." This includes informing the newspaper that is the legal organ of the County.

The law also requires the Board to have an agenda of the meeting prior to the meeting itself, a summary of the subjects acted on and a list of those present available within two business days after the meeting, and minutes of the meeting no later than immediately following the next regular meeting of the Board.

In my open records request, I asked to see "A copy of the written notice posted in advance of any meeting or meetings of the Board of Commissioners held after December 4, 2007, and before December 18, 2007, and any evidence available indicating that the notice was posted "at the place of regular meetings" of the Board of Commissioners as required by Georgia Code Section 50-14-1 (d)."

I received two sheets of paper. One was a single paragraph notice of the meeting. Attached to it was a fax cover sheet directed to Vinnie Williams, the publisher and editor of The Oconee Enterprise. A hand written note indicated that the two pages were faxed at noon on December 6, or less than 24 hours before the meeting began.

The Enterprise has not written a story about the meeting.

I also asked for written and e-mail correspondence "between the Chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners and/or his representative(s) and other members of the Board of Commissioners, appointed officials and department heads, employees of the County, and/or consultants to the County regarding a meeting or meetings of the Board of Commissioners held after December 4, 2007, and before December 18, 2007."

I received a memorandum from Gina Lindsey, County clerk, addressed to the Board of Commissioners, Dan Haygood, the County attorney, Alan Theriault, the County’s administrative officer, and Jeff Benko, the County finance director.

It was dated December 4 and indicated that "We have scheduled the BOC Retreat at the James Madision Inn in Madison, GA on Friday, December 7th from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

I also received a copy of an e-mail message from Lindsey to Chairman Davis written on November 16 indicating that "Tricia stopped by the James Madison Inn and Conference Center yesterday. She said it was beautiful...If this is satisfactory with you, we should go ahead and book it now. Please advise."

Davis wrote back three hours later–at 1:49 p.m. on November 16, or three weeks before the meeting–saying: "OK with me."

Commissioner Chuck Horton sent an e-mail to Chairman Davis at 8:16 a.m. on December 5, saying "I see that we have not been provided an agenda for the retreat on Friday. It is now Wed morning and if I am to have any thoughts on any issue it would be nice to at least know what the topics are in advance. I see no need for me to drive to Madison if I don’t know what you want us to hear. To be honest, I don’t want to go to Madison. I don’t know why we couldn’t find something closer. If an agenda is not provided by this afternoon I will not be in attendance."

Chairman Davis wrote back about a half hour later:

"I thought the attached draft agenda was in your packet last night. We will need to add the requested Water Coalition Resolution as well as pending litigation. As you know retreat sessions by Boards have normally been held in out of county locations. Madison is about as close as we can get."

In my open records requests, I also asked for the agenda, a summary of the subjects acted upon and the names of persons present, and the minutes. I received a copy of the agenda and the minutes, which indicated that all five commissioners attended, as did Haygood, Theriault, Benko, Lindsey, Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost, and Planning Director B.R. White.

In addition, Gary Dodd, former Utility Department director and now a County consultant, and Jimmy Parker, from Precision Planning Inc. and also a County consultant, attended.

Parker and PPI are working with the County on the Rocky Branch sewage plant upgrade, which will result in the discharge of 1 million gallons per day of treated sewage water into Barber Creek. The County has received bids on the project, but it has refused to open the bids for public inspection. (See my posting of 12/28/2007 below.)

I also asked in my open records requests for correspondence with the operator of any possible venue for the meeting, for requests for reimbursement of expenses submitted by the owner of the venue, by County employees, and by County consultants, and for records of actual disbursements.

All I received was the invoice from the conference center.

The County also provided copies of at least some of the documents distributed at the December 7 meeting.

The December 7 meeting covered some topics that were then repeated at the December 18 public meeting. Water and sewage were discussed at both, supplemented by a largely similar PowerPoint presentation by Parker in both cases.

The December 7 meeting included a discussion of a "potential SPLOST referendum" by Theriault. The current SPLOST, or Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, ends in July of 2009, and, according to the minutes of the meeting, "Commissioners do not want lag in collections." Among the "ideas for future projects funded by SPLOST, according to the minutes, were courthouse space, "water, sewer, roads," community center facilities, new fire stations, and library expansion.

"Educate public as soon as feasible as to need for another SPLOST," the minutes say. "Attendees suggested a minimum of six months is needed to prepare for a successful referendum."

According to the minutes, Parker told the BOC that the Calls Creek and Rocky Branch sewage plants both can be upgraded to 2 million gallons per day. He also suggested that the Board should consider an upgrade of the Land Application System, which is now used at Rocky Branch, "as compared to cooperation with neighboring county regarding plan on Middle Oconee River." The minutes contain the following note: "LAS may ‘fill gap,’ (8-10 years) but begin planning toward cooperative effort."

The minutes contain the following report on the discussion of beer, wine and alcohol by the drink:

"SPLOST referendum should not be ‘tainted’ with this issue.
"Letter from Chamber of Commerce requesting a vote on the sale of beer and wine by the glass be placed on BOC agenda was discussed.
"Members offered comment and considerable discussion on this matter.
"Economic issue.
"Chamber might gather enough signatures to request referendum.
"Public needs to be engaged.
"A strong, restrictive ordinance would have to be in place.
"Legal Counsel was asked to continue work on ordinance."

I did not receive a copy of the letter from the Chamber of Commerce.

Chairman Davis has been struggling with the beer and wine issue since the summer, when the Chamber of Commerce began putting pressure on the Board to approve the sale of beer and wine in County restaurants. The Board held two public meetings on the issue, one in May and the other in June.

For the issue to pass, two commissioners would have to support it, allowing Chairman Davis to break the tie. If Chairman Davis does not want to vote, he would need three votes in support of the beer and wine ordinance.

The Athens Banner-Herald contained a story on December 28–after the meeting in Madison--in which Chairman Davis is quoted as saying he has no immediate plans to ask Commissioners to vote on the issue.

The Banner-Herald story reports that Chamber of Commerce President Charles Grimes sent a letter to the Commission in late November asking it to take action and contains a link to that letter. The letter is dated November 19, 2007, and asks Davis to "schedule a vote on the sale of beer and wine by the glass" on the December 4, 2007, meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

The Banner-Herald story contains the following statement, that is not attributed to anyone: "Since those June hearings, though, commissioners haven’t discussed the ordinance." The minutes of the December show otherwise.

The likelihood that a meeting had taken place between the December 4 and 18 regular meetings was suggested in a letter Chairman Davis wrote to me and the three others members of the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek on December 13.

In that letter, Mr. Davis said that the members of the Board of Commissioners "respectively believe it is not in the best interest of Oconee County to consider" a resolution we had asked the Board to adopt.

That resolution, drafted by the Georgia Water Coalition, asks the Georgia General Assembly to fund regional and statewide water planning and monitoring and to prevent the transfer of water from one basin to another.

The Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek had presented the draft resolution to the Board of Commissioners on November 27 and again on December 4. No action was taken at either meeting.

At the meeting on December 18, I made the following public statement:

"I am well aware that Georgia law requires only minimal notification by posting of a notice in this courthouse of an emergency meeting. Your letter suggests that such a meeting took place, though there is no record of minutes of that meeting posted on the County web site."

Following my prepared comments, Mr. Davis responded:

"I believe in my letter to you it did appear that we had made a vote. That is incorrect. I had conversation with various members of the commission and that is my perception of how the commission felt at that particular time."

The Georgia Water Coalition resolution was the 9th item on the 10-item agenda for the December 7 meeting. The minutes indicate the issue was discussed.

The Board of Commissioners did consider the Georgia Water Coalition resolution at its January 3 meeting, but it did not vote on it.

Chairman Davis’ tactics made it unlikely that any citizens could attend the December 7 meeting in Madison, and, in fact, the record shows none did.

By law, even an "emergency" retreat leaves behind a record. It is good fortune that Chairman Davis dropped his guard in his letter to the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek.
Without that, the meeting might never have come to light.

Georgia law says that governments must conduct their business in public, since it is the public’s business. This case shows, however, how easy it is to keep the public in the dark if that is what the County leaders want.

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