Thursday, April 24, 2008

Oconee Commission Passes on Chance to Explain Beer and Wine Votes

Tongues of Commissioners Tied

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners began publicly discussing an ordinance to allow beer and wine sales in county restaurants back in May of 2007 and held three public hearings before voting to pass the ordinance April 8.

Commissioner Don Norris made the motion to pass the ordinance, and Commissioner Jim Luke seconded the motion. BOC Chairman Melvin Davis then asked if there was any discussion.

Norris and Luke said not a word. Nor did Commissioners Margaret Hale or Chuck Horton.

Davis called the question, and Norris and Luke voted in favor; Hale and Horton voted against.

Davis paused, pulled on his nose, and voted in favor. Then the Board adjourned.

The Board met in a secret meeting on December 7 to discuss alcohol sales in the county, so it is likely each commissioner knew what the other was going to do on April 8 long before the vote.

But the public has not been privy to the thinking of the commissioners.

Davis has been quoted in the Athens Banner-Herald as saying he "put aside" some "personal convictions" in voting for beer and wine sale because it was "in the best interest of the county." The story does not specify what those convictions were.

A video of the vote of the Commission is available at my web site and on YouTube.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Oconee Primary Could Air Governance Issues

Can the Board Make the Chairman Learn to Share?

Indications are that the power of the chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners is going to be a central issue in the July 15 Republican primary.

The issue of the dominance of current Chairman Melvin Davis was raised in a front-page article in The Oconee Enterprise on Feb. 28, under the headline, "Chairman under fire."

The Athens Banner-Herald followed on March 11 with an article under the headline "Oconee chair’s power an issue."

In both articles, current commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke complained that Chairman Davis controls information and dominates the Commission. The disagreement also flared up at recent budget sessions of the BOC, according to another article in the Banner-Herald on April 11.

Davis, in his capacity of chairman, also is the chief executive officer of the county.

Hale, Horton and Luke criticized both the behavior of Davis as chairman and the power of the chairman position. This was a rare public display of disagreement, but in numerous conversations I've had with these three commissioners in recent years, each has voiced these same criticisms.

The three say that Davis shares little information with them and that they find it difficult to get crucial information from county department heads, who report to Davis rather than to the Commission.

Even Commissioner Don Norris, who is not a critic of Davis, has said at BOC meetings on more than one occasion that the board members know no more than the citizens about what is coming before them.

How much of the "problem" is a result of the management style of Davis and how much is a reflection of the governmental structure of the county is crucial to its resolution, though it isn’t clear at this point that this distinction is going to be made in the campaign.

Candidates must file the paperwork to qualify for the elections the week of April 28. So far, Davis has announced he will seek his third, four-year term, and Sarah Bell has announced she also will run for the position of chair of the BOC.

Commissioner Norris is the only other incumbent so far who has announced plans to seek re-election. Esther Porter has announced she plans to run for the commission slot now held by Margaret Hale. Johnny Pritchett has announced he plans to run for the commission post now held by Jim Luke.

At Commission meetings, Chairman Davis presents himself as simply a member of that body. Behind the scenes, however, he wields tremendous power in his capacity as the chief executive officer of the county.

Following a public hearing on the proposed stormwater ordinance in Oct. 2005 at which no opposition was stated to the draft document, Davis instructed his staff privately to significantly reduce the scope of the ordinance because of opposition from developers. Because of public outcry, his action ultimately was overrturned. (See my posting of Sept. 4, 2006).

After irregularities were revealed in the first round of bidding for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant, county administrators who report directly to Davis decided to conduct the second round of bidding in secret, using provisions in the state law on bidding to circumvent the state's open meetings and records laws.

Davis also wields power by controlling the agenda of the BOC, but even here he tries to wield that power quietly.

Davis worked behind the scenes to get BOC support for the sale of beer and wine at county restaurants. Back in December he organized a meeting of the BOC in Madison to discuss the issue. Though he knew of the meeting at least three weeks before the Dec. 7 date, he gave public notice only on the day of the meeting. (See my posting of Jan. 6, 2008.)

Davis was under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, which wanted the beer and wine ordinance passed. In the end, he only was able to get the support of Commissioners Luke and Norris, and he had to break the tie at the BOC meeting on April 8. The chairman only votes to break ties, and Davis does that reluctantly.

While Davis has apologized for not giving proper notice for the Dec. 7 meeting, he has never apologized for holding the meeting out of the county or for knowing about the meeting for at least three weeks in advance and not publicizing it.

The minutes of that Dec. 7 meeting appeared on the web site for several weeks after the apology was issued on Jan. 8, 2008, but then they were removed. They still do not appear with the other publicly posted minutes.

The county does not have search capabililty on its web pages, so citizens would have to do a search with an external engine to know that they still reside on the county site.

Davis controls the web site.

Oconee County has a very strong chairman system of government, so, unless the system is changed, most people in that position are going to exercise a lot of power.

In Georgia, the type of county government is not spelled out in the Constitution, but rather in what is called local enabling legislation. Essentially, each county asks the legislature to pass laws setting up the type of county government it wants.

The county commission system that Oconee County has was established in 1917, and it included a strong chairman.

The chairman "shall be the chief manager of the affairs of said county that are within the jurisdiction of said board of commissioners acting as it executive officer."

The legislation put the chairman in charge of making contracts and purchasing for the board and "shall discharge all the duties of the board of commissioners during interim between the dates of the board's meetings."

The legislation specified that the chairman was to be a full-time position.

The enabling legislation for Oconee County has been changed many times over the years, mostly to adjust the salaries of the chairman and the commissioners.

In 1919, the number of members of the board was increased from three to five. In 1975, the legislation created the current four "posts" plus the chairmanship, with candidates having to indicate which post they were seeking at the election.

In 1988, however, the chairman's position was set as "part time," and the duties of the chairman were greatly restricted. They were: (1) serving as presiding officer at meeting of the Board, (2) stating questions coming before the board and announcing decisions, (3) voting in the case of a tie, (4) signing ordinances, (5) executing statements of indebtedness, (6) acting as ceremonial head of the county, (7) and exercising "other administrative duties that my be delegated to the chairman by the board of commissioners."

Wendell Dawson, who had been county attorney when the enabling legislation was changed, became chairman in 1989. In 1998, the enabling legislation was changed again, restoring the power of the chairman.

The 1998 enabling legislation repeated the seven responsibilities of the chairman listed in 1988 and added an eighth: "To act as the chief executive officer of the county."

The legislation, which remains in place today, did not specify if the chairman was a full-time position. Oconee County had experimented with a weak chairman, however, and had opted to return to the strong chairman system that has been in place for most of the last 90 years.
That hardly means the BOC itself is weak.

The BOC, according to the 1917 enabling legislation that is still in effect, has responsibility "over all matters concerning county property, county taxes..., in establishing and changing ... election precincts, in examining and auditing and setting accounts of all offices having the care, management, correction, keeping and distribution of moneys belonging to the county or appropriated to its use and benefit, ... in establishing, altering and abolishing roads, bridges and ferries..."

If three members of the BOC are unhappy with the chairman, they can easily change the chairman’s behavior by refusing to spend money, approve budgets and otherwise do county business.

The county needs an act of the state legislature to change the enabling legislation.

The Republican primary, in which all registered voters can opt to participate, could provide the forum for a discussion of the proper role of the chairman, of the willingness of the other BOC members to assert their power and of the optimal structure of governance for the county.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Oconee Draws Beer, Wine Maps

Make That A Draft and Two Scoops of Fodder

The majority of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners–perhaps fearing that the recent decline in rezone requests is freeing up too much time on their meeting agendas–seems poised to pass a beer and wine ordinance on Tuesday night that likely will keep them busy in the future.

The ordinance includes a map of the areas of the County where restaurants can sell beer and wine that almost guarantees that redrawing the map will become a major activity of the Commission.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood said as much at the BOC meeting on April 1, when the Board gave first reading to the ordinance. Yes, it was April 1, but the ordinance is real.

Haygood said every time someone wants to get a license to sell beer and wine at a restaurant outside the mapped area, the applicant will have to come back before the BOC and ask that a new map be drawn.

The map included with the current ordinance allows the sale of beer and wine at restaurants on narrow strips of land on both sides of U.S. 78 and Business U.S. 78 as it runs from Walton County to Clarke County.

The map includes some strips of land stretching along the north section of S.R. 316 between the U.S. 78 interchange and the Oconee Connector and not other parts. All the land between S.R. 316 and Mars Hill Road between U.S. 78 and the Oconee Connector is included, except for one residential neighborhood.

The map picks up land zoned for residential use–and currently used for residences--along Daniells Bridge Road between the Oconee Connector and Chestnut Hill Road.

Around Butler Crossing, the allowed area for sale of beer and wine zigs and zags, picking up parts of the U.S.D.A farms along Hog Mountain Road. The cows should be happy.

The district runs on both sides of U.S. 441 from the Clarke County line until just beyond the Watkinsville bypass, when it stops at the Thomas Orchard fruit stand, where, in theory, one could order a beer to go with the home made ice cream.

The date of the final vote on the ordinance has changed several times. In a legal notice in the March 27 issue of The Oconee Enterprise, it was listed as April 1. The BOC postponed the decision and called the special meeting for Tuesday to vote on the issue.

All indications are that it will pass, with Commissioners Don Norris and Jim Luke voting in favor and Commissioners Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton voting against.

Chairman Melvin Davis, who has been pushing the ordinance behind the scenes at the request of the Chamber of Commerce, will be forced to break the tie–something he has not wanted to do.

Davis recently has indicated he will vote in favor.

The issue has really put Davis in a bind. At the request of the Chamber, he brought the issue up last summer. The BOC held two public hearings, but it was clear from the start that it was supposed to pass an ordinance.

In fact, at the first public hearing, the County began discussing what should be included in the ordinance.

When Davis wasn’t able to count three votes in favor of beer and wine sales unless he voted, he put the issue on hold.

Then in November, the Chamber sent another letter to Davis telling him to schedule a vote by the BOC on beer and wine sales. Davis called a special December 7 meeting of the BOC to be held out of town to talk about the issue. He neglected to tell the public about the meeting, however, as is required by law.

Only in January did Davis admit that the meeting took place and that beer and wine sales were on the agenda.

At that point, Davis announced that he was running for re-election and started pushing beer and wine sales again. It is better to keep one’s friends at the chamber than one friends at church, it seems.

One of the key proponents of beer and wine sales has been hotelier Larry Benson, who was chairman of Davis’ re-election campaign in 2004. Benson has plans for a two-hotel complex between S.R. 316 and Daniells Bridge Road at the Oconee Connector.

Benson’s lieutenant, Lewis Shropshire, told the BOC at one of the hearings in the summer that the first hotel could get by with beer and wine sales, but the second will need liquor by the drink. It seems likely pressure for that, which takes a vote of the electorate, not the BOC, will grow once beer and wine sales at restaurants become legal.

Davis and Luke have both said they will only support a "tough" ordinance. Apparently, the strangely drawn map is part of what it means to be "tough." At least initially, beer and wine sales will take place only in the funny areas shown on the map.

The Chamber of Commerce has promoted beer and wine sales at restaurants as a way to reduce the "tax burden" on homeowners.

The sale of beer and wine at restaurants also will have costs for administration and enforcement, Oconee resident John Bergstrom pointed out at the March 18 hearing on the ordinance. He asked for a cost-benefit analysis.

That request fell on deaf ears.

The rumor–repeated to me by County Attorney Daniel Haygood–is that some "big" development is in the works, pending authorization of beer and wine sales at restaurants. As the story goes, a big regional shopping Center will come to the County once the developer knows that outlots can be sold to chain restaurants, who want beer and wine.

Until the BOC redraws the maps, such a shopping center is going to have to fit into fairly narrow pieces of land, making it pretty much a strip center, even if by another name.

Another questionable feature of the ordinance is the requirement that those who buy beer and wine at a restaurant must also purchase "a reasonable order of a meal or appetizer."

Attorney Haygood told the Board on March 18 that any single sale of beer or wine that didn’t include a "reasonable" amount of food would be a violation of the ordinance.

On April 1, I told Haygood I thought that was unenforceable unless the County put surveillance cameras at the cash register of every restaurant. That presumes it is possible to define what a "reasonable order" of food is.

Haygood just smiled and said that the difficult part of any such ordinance is enforcement.