Saturday, May 31, 2008

Oconee County to Start Webcasting

Surprise Response to Request

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night (May 27) agreed to purchase camera equipment to be used to videocast BOC and Planning Commission meetings.

Alan Theriault, county administrative officer, told me on Friday afternoon that he is purchasing two cameras, one for the BOC chamber and the other for the county courtroom, and is exploring web hosting services that will allow the county to post the videocasts and make them available for downloading.

Theriault said he expects the system to be operating by July 1.

The BOC usually holds its twice-monthly meetings in the BOC chamber, but it holds special meetings in the courtroom. The Planning Commission usually uses the courtroom.

The BOC action at the May 27 meeting was in response to a request by Charlie Baugh, Tony Glenn, Russ Page and me at the May 6 BOC meeting. We asked the BOC to explore ways to begin videocasting its meetings.

We asked that the BOC explore cablecasting as well as webcasting and said we would start our own webcasting immediately and continue to do so until the county began providing the service. (The May 27 meeting can be viewed here.)

The request produced not a single response at the May 6 meeting from Commission Chairman Melvin Davis or any of the other four commissioners.

Only Commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke responded to email messages Baugh and I sent to the commissioners after the meeting. Horton said he was not opposed to videocasting; Luke said he was open to discussion of the issue at some point in the future.

Davis, who controls the BOC agenda, included discussion of webcasting of BOC and Planning Commission meetings when the BOC agenda was released to the public on May 23.

Clarke County telecasts its commission meetings on cable and began webcasting about a year ago. Walton County also has telecast its BOC meetings and is exploring webcasting, as is Barrow County.

Oconee County has cable franchise agreements with the three cable companies that serve the unincorporated parts of the county: Charter Communications, Comcast Cable and KLIP LLC, and it collects a franchise fee of 5 percent of annual Gross Revenue from each of the companies.

The Charter agreement includes the provision that the cable company would give the county up to two channels for non-commercial, video programming for education and government access programming and provide to the county a one-time grant of up to $10,000 educational and governmental programming costs once the county began using the first of these channels.

The KLIP and Comcast agreements also include the provision that the cable company would give the county two channels and a one-time grant of up to $20,000 each.

All three cable agreements require the cable operator to provide and maintain the equipment for the sending and receiving of signals from the courthouse, but they do not cover the costs of cameras and editing equipment needed to produce the telecast.

Governments generally use the cable franchise fees to cover the costs associated with production of the telecasts. These franchise fees are passed along to consumers as part of the cable subscription costs, of course, which means that Oconee County cable subscribers have been paying for the franchise fee without receiving anything tangible in return.

Theriault told me on Friday that the county does not want to telecast BOC and Planning Commission meetings on cable because only about 30 percent of the households in the county have cable service.

Chairman Davis in the past and Commissioner Luke in his email message to me expressed concern about people watching the meetings live, rather than watching delayed webcasts. The delay, of course, gives the county the ability to edit what is uploaded to the web.

I had my conversation with Theriault on Friday as I was entering the courthouse to obtain materials the county had provided me in response to an open records request. I had asked for and obtained the three franchise agreements.

All three contracts had been signed in December of 2004.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Video Request of Oconee County Commissioners

See 'em Live or On Demand

On May 6, four citizens, including me, used the citizen comments section of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners meeting to ask the Board to begin exploring ways to make a videocast of its meetings available to citizens.

I observed that citizens often are too busy to attend meetings, and the Board should do what neighboring counties are doing already by telecasting its meetings and making them available on the web. I also said that a video of meetings would provide everyone with a complete record of BOC activities.

Russ Page, who is active in farmland protection and has been a frequent attender of BOC meetings, reminded the Board that it has rejected citizen requests in the past for televised coverage, but that the web has created new, less expensive options.

Charlie Baugh, another frequent visit to the BOC chambers who operates a listserv for people in the County interested in what happens there, asked the Board to immediately instruct County Administrator Alan Theriault and County Attorney Daniel Haygood to bring back to the Commission a report on the options available for telecasting, webcasting and providing video on demand of BOC meetings.

Finally, Tony Glenn, active in preservation of the rural nature of the southern part of the county, told the BOC that we are prepared to start creating and distributing video of the BOC meetings on our own if it did not take action.

As is usually the case when citizens speak at BOC meetings, not a single commissioner responded.

Chairman Melvin Davis immediately entertained and obtained a motion to adjourn, and the group ended its meeting.

The Oconee Enterprise, which is the designated legal organ of the county (meaning it is where the County publishes its legal notices) and which usually acts as if it were the official mouthpiece of the county, did not include any mention of our presentation it its account of the meeting.

The Oconee Leader ignored the meeting entirely, which is its habit.

Athens Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson included an account of our presentation in his blog, which the paper reprinted in its May 11 edition. Thompson correctly pointed out that the county has rejected the request for video in the past on the grounds it is too expensive, though some of the cost could be born by cable company franchise fees.

Thompson also linked in his blog to a story in the Banner-Herald in October of 2004 in which Chairman Davis was quoted as saying he felt television coverage of meetings would be confusing to citizens.

Here’s the full quote:

"You may just be catching parts of the meetings and not know all the details and get really upset about something. Or you may be pleasantly pleased with something going on, but you don’t know all the details."

Thompson was dismissive of our efforts. His blog had this headline:

"The Mel-volution will (probably not) be televised."

Following the May 6 meeting, I wrote to all five of the commissioners asking them to put our request that they ask Theriault and Haygood to explore the options for videocasting on the May 27 agenda.

Only Commissioner Jim Luke responded. He said he had no position on the issue at present, but he was worried about commissioners "playing to the camera," making meetings too long. He said he will "support some study of the process beginning soon, but not as an agenda item next month."

Luke said the BOC is busy with too many other things at present, and "I don’t see this as an election issue." He copied his message to Baugh, Page, Glenn, the other commissioners and Thompson at the Banner-Herald.

Charlie Baugh also wrote to the five commissioners. Commissioner Chuck Horton sent back a brief message to Baugh saying he has "no problem" with the idea of videocasting BOC meetings.

In my view, the county ought to do everything it can to help citizens get involved and become informed about what it does.

I also think the argument about the need for a full record of BOC meetings is compelling.

At present, as a matter of policy, the minutes of the meetings are very limited.

On Feb. 26, 2008, for example, I used the "Statement and Remarks from Citizens" section of the meeting to ask some questions.

The exchange took just a few seconds more than six minutes, and during it Chairman Davis and Administrator Theriault contradicted information that County Attorney Haygood had given to the Georgia Attorney General’s office in response to a complaint I filed against the county.

In the official minutes of the meeting, approved by the Board, this exchange is reported as follows:

"Lee Becker asked questions about the bids for engineering and design support services for the Rocky Branch Water Reclamation Facility Upgrade Project."

At the March 25, 2008, BOC meeting, the commissioners, led by Commissioner Margaret Hale, questioned Utility Department Director John Hatcher regarding the amount of money Hatcher wanted to spend on consulting work by Precision Planning Inc. for the Rocky Branch sewage plant upgrade.

The exchange took just a few seconds less than eight minutes. Chairman Davis agreed at the end of the exchange to modify the original request Hatcher made of the Board.

The minutes make no reference to this exchange at all and do not reflect the change Hale was able to get Davis to agree to at the meeting.

A third example also is interesting.

On April 8, the BOC voted 3-2 to allow the sale of beer and wine in county restaurants. The controversial decision had been under discussion since the summer of 2007. None of the commissioners said a word to explain her or his vote.

Had they done so, however, it is doubtful the minutes would have reflected the comments.

Baugh, Glenn, Page and I decided in advance to make a video of that meeting. It, at least, is one you can view in your home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Oconee Chair Claims Secrecy Saved County Money

Design Change Real Explanation

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin claims that the decision to conduct in secret the bidding for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage plant saved the county $70,000.

The claim is based on some questionable comparisons, and it is possible the secret bidding procedures cost the county money.

In his Chairman’s Corner Spotlight on Oconee on the County’s web site, (the file is dated March of 2008, but it remains on the site at this writing), Davis summarizes the outcome of the bidding and correctly states that the state Attorney General rejected my contention that the secret meetings violated the state’s Open Meetings Laws.

Davis then offers the following statement:

"The County saved well over $70,000 in design fees from the original round of proposals as a result of the RFP that was generated for the project and the process that followed."

County Attorney Daniel Haygood, at the Jan. 29 BOC meeting, went to great lengths to justify the secret bidding process as a way to save the county money, so Davis’ assertion is hardly a surprise.

The county had the option of conducting the bidding in the open or in secret.

At the Feb. 26 meeting of the BOC, Davis said the County had saved $40,000 by getting the successful bidder to do design work that had not been included in the original Request for Proposal.

According to documents released by the County in response to an open records request I filed, at a closed meeting on Feb. 7, the members of the Selection Committee reviewing the bids told the three top-rated bidders that the Committee wanted the bidders to reduce their costs before the Committee would make a final recommendation of a winner.

The Selection Committee also told the bidders the county wanted to add design features, namely a "septage" treatment system to treat what septic haulers drain out of septic tanks and a "belt press" to compact treatment plant sludge.

When the three bidders came back with their final bids, none had dropped the price. Two, including successful bidder HSF Engineering of Snellville, agreed to add the design features without increasing the price. The single bidder that did increase the price, Brown and Caldwell, added about $40,000.

The winning bid by HSF Engineering employed an alternate design that was $75,000 lower than what it said it would charge for the design specified as the standard in the Request for Proposal. The alternate design was included in the RFP, which was a publicly released document at the time the bidding was initiated.

Davis in his Spotlight column, referred to the "original round of proposals." In fact, the county did have a first round of bidding in the summer of 2007. Davis and his staff tried to get the Board of Commissioners to give the contract to Jordan Jones & Goulding, who submitted a bid of $680,580, or $108,580 higher than the successful final alternate bid by HSF Engineering and $33,580 higher than the bid for the base design submitted by HSF.

HSF didn’t bid in the first round; in the second, it bid $647,000 for the original design, or $75,000 more than its winning bid of $572,000.

JJ&G, who had designed the plant as outlined in the RFP, didn’t bid in the second round.

The first round of bids was evaluated without any secret meetings.

County consultant Precision Planning Inc. of Snellville played a different role in the first round of bidding compared with the second.

In the first round, PPI was involved in the Selection Committee that evaluated the bids, but in the second round, Jimmy Parker from PPI chaired the Committee.

PPI charges the county different fees for its consultancy, based on who is providing the consulting and the nature of the service provided, John Hatcher, Utility Department head, told the BOC at the March 25 meeting. On average, the county pays PPI $100 per hour, he said.

Jimmy Parker attended the secret Dec. 7 meeting of the BOC in Madison, Georgia, at which the Rocky Branch upgrade was discussed. With travel time, that meeting took up nearly a full day.

Parker attended and spoke at BOC meetings on Dec. 18 and Jan. 29. He and fellow PPI staffer and Selection Committee member Jim Sunta also were scheduled to be involved in two secret meetings the Selection Committee held on Jan. 4 and Feb. 7 to review the submitted bids. Since no minutes of those meetings have been released, it isn’t possible to know for sure if they attended.

At the April 1 meeting of the BOC, Hatcher said he expected to pay PPI $42,500 for consulting for the next phase of bidding on construction of the Rocky Branch plant, which would seem to be less involved than the second round of design bids.

There is at least some indication the extensive use of PPI in the evaluation was associated with the decision to conduct the bidding in secret during the second round.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood wrote to me on Feb. 13, 2008, that PPI, not a committee of the Board of Commissioners, was conducting the evaluation of the bids. He copied that letter to the Attorney General’s office, saying there is an "issue of whether the evaluations are actually County records."

The State’s Open Records Laws state clearly that the law does not allow "an agency’s placing or causing such items to be placed in the hands of a private person or entity for the purpose of avoiding disclosure."

At the Feb. 26, 2008, meeting of the BOC, Chairman Melvin Davis acknowledged that the Selection Committee appointed by the BOC, not PPI, was conducting the evaluation of the bids.

Did the county save "well over $70,000 in design fees from the original round of proposals as a result of the RFP that was generated for the project and the process that followed," as Chairman Davis contends?

The change in the RFP resulted in a savings of $75,000, which HSF has said will not adversely affect the quality of water coming out of the plant. The secret "process" did not produce the savings.

The change in the RFP resulted from the rejection by the BOC of Davis’ recommendation from the first round of bids.

Even if the county had gone with the more expensive design, it still would have saved $33,580 simply by ignoring Davis’ recommendation that the contract go to JJ&G in the initial bidding round.

Did the county save $40,000 by negotiating in secret with three of the bidders? One of the three said it would not do the extra work being asked by the county without charging that amount, while two others said they would take on the extra work at no charge.

It is impossible to know if this $40,000 would have been this high had these extras been incorporated in the original RFP, as should have been the case, rather than used as a negotiating tool at the last minute.

Given the fees charged by PPI and the extra work it did as part of the secret bidding process, it is likely that the $40,000 "savings" was offset by the higher fees paid to PPI. It is even possible the secret bidding process cost the county money, rather than saved it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Oconee Candidate Forums Set for June 2 & 4

Meet the Candidates at the Library

A consortium of Oconee County citizen groups announced yesterday that it will hold two Candidate Forums for the July 15 Oconee County primary elections.

The first Forum will be on June 2 and will be for candidates for the Board of Commissioners, including the chairman, and for Coroner.

The second forum will be on June 4 and will be for candidates for the Board of Education.

Both forums will be in the auditorium of the Oconee County Library on Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville. The forums will start at 7 p.m. and last until 10 p.m.

Only Republicans filed for and qualified for the Oconee Board of Commissioner slots.

Sarah Bell and Melvin Davis, both with Watkinsville mailing addresses, are seeking the four-year term of Commission Chairman. Davis is the incumbent.

Jim Luke and Johnny Pritchett have qualified for the four-year term of Post #1 Commissioner. Luke has a Bogart mailing address; Pritchett has a Bishop mailing address. Luke is the incumbent.

John Daniell and Donald "Don" Norris have qualified for the two-year term of Post #2 Commissioner. Daniell has a Bishop mailing address, and Norris has a Bogart mailing address. Norris is the incumbent.

Margaret Hale and Esther Porter qualified for the two-year term of Post #3 Commissioner. Both have Watkinsville mailing addresses. Hale is the incumbent.

Chuck Horton and Michael Maxey qualified for the four-year term of Post #4 Commissioner. Horton has a Watkinsville mailing address; Maxey has a Bishop mailing address. Horton is the incumbent.

Three Republicans also have qualified for the Coroner position: Ed Carson (Bishop), Bill Mayberry (Watkinsville), and Cathleen Quillian-Carr (Watkinsville). Incumbent John Simpson is not running for re-election. The position is for four years.

Ten Republicans have qualified for the Board of Education races.

David Weeks (Bishop mailing address) qualified for the Chairman of the Board. He is unopposed for the four-year term. He currently occupies Post #3 on the Board.

Mack Guest (Athens mailing address) and Ryan House (Bishop mailing address) qualified for the Post #2 position. The term will be for two-years. Guest is the incumbent.

Kim Argo, Carter Brank and Ashley Hood qualified for the Post #3 position. Argo and Brank have Bogart mailing addresses; Hood has a Bishop mailing address. The term will be for two years.

Michael Hunter (Bishop mailing address) and Charles Toney (Watkinsville mailing address) qualified for the Post #4 position. The term will be for four years.

Tom Breedlove (Bogart mailing address) and Kyle Martin (Watkinsville mailing address) qualified for the Post #5 position. The terms will be for four years.

Rich Clark qualified as a Democratic candidate for the Post #5 position. He has a Watkinsville mailing address.

Each of these candidates will be asked to attend or send a representative to the appropriate Candidate Forum. The forums will be open to the public, and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions directly of the candidates.

The Candidate Forums will be moderated by members of the five citizen organizations that set up the forums: Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Citizens for South Oconee County, Friends of Barber Creek, Friends of the Apalachee, and Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth.

The consortium held a Candidate Forum in 2006 for the Georgia House and Senate races. Citizens for Oconee’s Future organized a forum for the 2004 county elections.

Registration in Georgia is not by party, so anyone can choose to vote in the Republican primary.

If none of the three candidates for coroner or none of the three candidates for Board of Education Post #3 receives a majority, a runoff will be held on August 5.

A voter who voted in the Democratic Primary in July 15 cannot vote in the Republican runoff on August 5, and a voters who voted in the Republican Primary on July 15 cannot vote in a Democratic runoff on August 5.

Five Democratic candidates have filed to run against Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss.

Incumbent state Senator Bill Cowsert will be opposed in the Republic Primary on July 15 by Tommy Malcom.

Three Oconee County incumbents are unopposed in the Republican Primary. They are Scott Berry (Sheriff), Angela Watson (Clerk of Superior Court), and Hariette Browning (Tax Commissioner). No one has filed to run against District Attorney Ken Mauldin, a Democrat.

Independents have until July 8 to file as candidates for the November 4 election.

The deadline for voter registration prior to the July 15 Primary is June 16.

Two of the four Oconee Board of Commissioner Posts and two of the four Oconee School Board positions will be filled for two years rather than four in November because the state legislature passed legislation--at the request of the two bodies--to create staggered terms. All terms will be for four years in the future.