Sunday, February 10, 2008

Written on 2/10/2008

Not Every Board Member Loves A Secret

The controversy over the retreat that the Oconee County Board of Commissioners held in Madison on December 7 without giving 24-hour notice and the decision of the County to close the bidding process for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant upgrade has brought out fissures on the Board that were in evidence at the January 29, 2008, meeting.

The story in the Athens Banner-Herald about the January 29 meeting gave a sense of those differences. A close examination of the comments, however, gives a clearer picture of how differently members of the Board view the controversy.

Because the Board of Commissioners does not broadcast its meetings live or put a video or audio version of the meetings on its web site, I had to rely on an audio recording of portions of that meeting made by Tim Price and Karen Kimbaris, members of the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek. They were sitting at the rear of the room. I was out of town and missed the meeting entirely.

Because the audio quality is not high, I have transcribed key sections and made the transcription available, rather than the audio, at my web site, Oconee County Observations II.

Commissioner Chuck Horton was most critical of the County. "I do think there has been a degradation of the trust level," he told Chairman Melvin Davis, and he said the decline in trust had affected him.

"I’m included in that group," he said. "I think when we went to the retreat and it wasn’t disclosed on a timely manner the way it was supposed to. People can argue whatever, but it wasn’t disclosed. That didn’t help the cause."

Commissioner Margaret Hale said she was offended by the comment County Administrator Alan Theriault made in an email message on December 21, 2007, in response to my request for access to the bids for the Rocky Branch upgrade. Theriault said "The mere fact that a member of the general public is in anyway involved may taint and compromise the entire process."

"I understand the public frustration," Hale said. "When I saw ‘public input taints the process’ I can say for me, it’s not true. I am not an expert in these things. I look to people who are experts to offer me guidance and education about these projects."

Hale said she wanted to County do be more flexible regarding the bids. "We are not required to do certain things, and I agree. The word for me is ‘required’."

Commission Don Norris was unapologetic.

"I don’t see where I have violated anyone’s trust," he said in reference to the closed bidding process. The citizens "know just as much about it as I do."

On the meeting in Madison, he said: "I’ve been here 20 years. I can’t recall ever having a secret meeting. I’m sorry too. There was no secret what occurred. It was not advertised. But that has been corrected. But one time in 20 years?"

Commissioner Jim Luke said not a word during the discussion.

Chairman Davis used the opportunity to repeat his position that a staff error had resulted in the notice for the December 7 meeting going out less than 24 hours in advance.

"We didn’t know that that lateness occurred," he said. "Was it intentional? Of course it was not intentional. Would I have canceled the meeting had I known that it had gone out late? Of course I would have. But I did not know it. Neither did any of this board members know it."

"The item happened," he said. "And I’m sorry it happened. And, again, as Don (Norris) has said, measures have been put in place to correct that."

The meeting had been scheduled at least three weeks in advance. I questioned whether a closed meeting had taken place in public comments I made to the Board on December 18. None of the Board members responded by acknowledging such a meeting.

Davis issued an apology only after a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald contacted him on January 8, 2008. The reporter asked Davis about the report on my blog on January 6, 2008, of the meeting in Madison.

At the January 29 meeting, Davis offered this more general statement about his policy on releasing information to the public:

"We are attempting to do everything we possibly can to provide that information that the public needs to be adequately knowledgeable of any issue that comes before this board."

That is a pretty clear statement that it is Davis’ view that he, not the public, should decide what information the public needs to know.

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