Sunday, June 22, 2008

Oconee County Candidates and Rocky Branch Monitoring

Five Willing to Work with Citizens

Five of the 10 candidates for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, representing one candidate each for the five open slots, have committed to work with Friends of Barber Creek to establish independent monitoring of the outflow of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant into Barber Creek.

Sarah Bell, a candidate for the chairman post, stated support for working with the group on monitoring, as did Johnny Pritchett (Post 1), John Daniell (Post 2), Margaret Hale (Post 3) and Chuck Horton (Post 4).

Incumbent Chairman Melvin Davis did not respond to two email messages on the issue. Incumbent Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke said he was undecided. Incumbent Post 2 Commissioner Don Norris did not respond. Esther Porter, seeking Post 3, said she did not have enough information to offer an answer. Mike Maxey, seeking Post 4, said he was opposed.

On June 10, I sent the following message via email to all of the 10 candidates seeking to be elected to the BOC at the July 15 Republican primary:

Dear Candidates,

We did not get a chance to pose the question below at the June 2 Candidate Forum because there were so many questions from other members of the audience. We ask that you respond to the question now via email. We will post the responses for our members.


Friends of Barber Creek is pleased that the design for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant will guarantee water treated to a very high standard and will allow the county to hold water in times of flooding. Now we need help from the BOC in setting up an independent monitoring system. Will you commit to working with Friends of Barber Creek to this end?

The message was sent on behalf of myself and Karen Kimbaris, Tim Price, Joe Block, Eleanor Cotton. We make up the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek.

I followed on June 14 up with an email message, addressed individually to the candidates who had not responded to the first message (Davis, Daniell, Norris, Porter, Horton and Maxey).

For all of the mailings, I used email addresses that I know are working. For Davis and Norris, who never responded, I used their official Oconee County email addresses. For Norris, I used a personal email address as well.

Independent monitoring of the outflow of the Rocky Branch plant is important for at least three reasons.

First, the county has agreed to meet a higher standard than set by the state Environment Protection Division, which has granted the permit to discharge into Barber Creek. The EPD would not register any complaint unless the lesser standard it has set had been violated.

Second, the EPD standards are averages for a month and allow fluctuations during that period.

Third, the EPD, because of funding limitations, relies almost entirely on data reported to it by the plant operators to judge whether the plant meets standards.

Friends of Barber Creek has asked that the county work with it to develop an independent monitoring system. It has not put forward a firm proposal, preferring to work with the county to that end.

Here are the responses of the eight candidates who responded to the email messages, in the order of receipt:

June 11, Margaret Hale.
Have no problem with working with your group to ensure the treatment plant lives up to it promise and potential. This might be a double way to check the quality by organizing monitoring (by both groups) at different times.
Thanks again for Friends of Barber Creeks support in hosting the forum.
Margaret Hale

June 11, Jim Luke.
Maybe? I am not sure what you have in mind, could you share some more detail on the proposal.

June 11, Sarah Bell.
Dear Friends of Barber Creek:
Independent monitoring is essential, I believe, for ALL water sources in Oconee County. I definitely support an independent monitoring system and will work with you to create and implement one.
Sarah V. Bell

June 11, Johnny Pritchett
If elected I want input from citizens and have no problem with your request.

June 15, Chuck Horton

Sorry. I do support a monitoring system or systems with which citizens feel comfortable.
Chuck Horton

June 16, Mike Maxey
Mr. Becker,
I am responding to your question concerning the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.
My response is that I have great faith in the Oconee County employees that are assigned to the plant to do what is required by the EPD concerning the monitoring. I also trust that Oconee County has employed qualified personnel to perform this and perform it well. If for some reason or another you do not think that the monitoring is up to standards set forth by the EPD then I would be receptive to independent monitoring but not at the expense of the county taxpayer. If you think that the requirements are not being met, to your standard, then it is your right to have an independent monitoring company come in and check those standards and make sure they are correct. Once again, this should not be at the expense of the taxpayer of Oconee County and only paid for with private funding.
I hope this helps you understand my opinion on this matter.
Michael W. Maxey

June 17, Esther Porter

I am not as informed on this issue . I do know that the EPD has in place monitoring for these types of sites and they are very strict. I have placed a call to Chris Thomas to get info on this subject. Also I read in the booklet from the county that Oconee received a Gold award for the Barber Creek site. I guess I don't understand why you would want an independent group unless you had reason to believe the county was not meeting required testing. I will get back to you after I talk with Chris.
Esther Porter

June 17, John Daniell
I am open to discussions on this issue. I look forward to hearing more, so the county can address your concerns and increase the level of trust between the government and the citizens.


I responded to Jim Luke by telling him that we did not have specific plans. I only acknowledged each of the other responses.

Chris Thomas, referred to in Porter's message, was the head of the Oconee County Utility Department until late last summer and resumed that position just this month.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ethics at Issue at Oconee Candidate Forum

Bid Me Now, Bid Me Later

It is perfectly ethical for members of the Board of Commissioners to do business with individuals and companies that come before them for such things as rezones, as long as no money has changed hands or contracts been written before the BOC has voted, at least three of the candidates for the Board said at the June 2 Candidate Forum at the Library.

Others expressed a different point of view, and at least one seemed confused by the question of ethics.

The second half of the June 2 Candidate Forum contained an exchange that focused on the business interests of the candidates and the potential impact of those business interests on decisions the candidates have made and will make in the future.

That half of the program had been set aside for citizen questioning of the four incumbent commissioners and each of the four challengers.

After being recognized by moderator Russ Page of Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth, Charlie Baugh asked each of the eight candidates if "it is ethical for a member of the Planning Commission to hear and vote on rezone petitions and then profit by doing work on the project?"

To a candidate, each said it was not, but further questions showed that there really was not agreement on the principle behind question. At least three of the candidates said profiting was acceptable in the case of the Board of Commissioners under some circumstances.

After the question by Baugh, president of Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Page recognized Ann Hollifield, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Georgia. Hollifield is a former television journalist and former editor of a weekly business newspaper, and she is my wife. I could only guess about her question before she asked it and played no role in her being recognized.

"I have a follow up to that I’d like to ask to...address to Mr. Norris and to Mrs. Porter and Mr. Maxey afterwards, because if they are elected they will find themselves in a very similar situation," Hollifield said.

Norris, according to the Oconee County official web site, is chairman of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank. Porter and her husband own a building products company. Maxey, who currently serves on the Planning Commission, is president of a company, M&P Grading Contractors.

Hollifield reminded Norris that as an incumbent member of the Board of Commissioners he had been asked by her and others in the past to recuse himself because of his role as chairman of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank and he had not done so.

"So if you don’t believe, Sir, that being chairman of the board of the bank that is financing the project you are voting on is not a conflict of interest," Hollifield said, "would you please give us an example of what would be a conflict of interest that you would recuse yourself from."

Norris said that he is "no longer chairman of the board of North Georgia Bank," but he did not deny that he is still a member of that board. He said if a rezone "comes before the Board (of Commissioners), and the bank has a financial interest in the rezone, I would recuse myself. What happens in many cases is, when the rezone comes before the board, the bank has no financial obligation. Later on, it sometimes, it may acquire an interest in that. But, again, too, I don’t make loans."

Hollifield then asked Porter and Maxey to respond. Porter is challenging incumbent Commissioner Margaret Hale, and Maxey is challenging incumbent Commissioner Chuck Horton.

Porter said her company does business with the county and that she would not vote on any issue in which she had a business interest. She didn’t indicate how she would vote if there was the potential of future business coming from an issue being decided on by the Board of Commissioners and had difficulty following the line of questioning.

Mike Maxey did understand, and he gave a clear answer. He said he would gladly bid on projects after he voted on their approval.

"Three months later, if a project manager, if a general contractor, whatever the case may be, comes to me and asks me to put a bid on a project, I’m going to submit the bid," he said.

Commissioner Hale thought the issue was more complex than that. "It is a tough, ethical thing to evaluate," she said, and then indicated that she recused herself when a piece of property she had owned in the past was up for rezone.

"I went to our county attorney and I said I’m not comfortable sitting and listening to this," Hale said, even though she had no financial interest in it at that time.

Incumbent Commissioner Jim Luke also decided to chime in, supporting the position of Norris and Maxey. "It would be hard to run a government without somebody who sells something to that government who might get elected to it at some point," he said.

Commissioner Horton had a simple answer: "I don’t own anything."

John Daniell, who is challenging Norris, is vice president of operations at Boswell Oil Company. The question was not directed to him, and he did not respond.

(A transcript of the entire exchange is available here. Also, the full video is available for viewing here.)

The position taken by Norris and Maxey, and, it seems, Luke ignores the simple fact that the commissioners in the construction and development business cannot make money on a rezone if they turn it down, giving those who are likely to benefit from the rezone plenty of incentive to do the rezone.

Across time, as well, commissioners certainly understand who is likely to bring them money in the future based on what has happened in the past.

Luke’s position that business people are going to get elected ignores the point of the question as well. Hollifield did not challenge Norris for running for office or getting elected, but for failing to recuse himself when North Georgia Bank might profit from the decision.

In any small community, of course, the local banks play an important and sometimes crucial role. They also often are involved directly and indirectly in government.

Chuck Williams, the president of North Georgia Bank, is currently the chairman of the Oconee Development Authority, a legislatively created body in the county whose members are appointed by the Board of Commissioners. Williams replaced Amrey Harden in that position last year. Harden is president of Oconee State Bank.

Williams also is an associate director of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and a frequent attenders of Oconee County Board of Commission meetings.

In fact, though Williams was not at the June 2 Candidate Forum, he was prominent at the June 4 forum for school board candidates. During the first half of the meeting, he was seated, but he stood at the rear or the room, flanked closely by incumbent Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis, for the entire second half of the meeting. (See the picture above, with Williams on the left and Davis on the right.)

In May a neighbor told me he had just visited North Georgia Bank to take advantage of a promotional rate for Certificates of Deposit and a gift certificate of $25 for opening a new checking account.

A few days later, on his advice, I purchased a CD from North Georgia and opened a checking account myself to take advantage of these incentives.

One June 5, I sent an email message to President Williams on the advice of my "Personal Banker" at North Georgia, and asked Williams if he would tell me the names of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank, since they are not listed on the web.

He wrote me back this nice message on June 6:

"Good afternoon and thank you for your interest in our organization. I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you for discussion of North Georgia Bank and your areas of interest. Feel free to contact me for consideration of a mutually convenient time if you so desire."

He didn’t provide the names of the members of the Board of Directors.

My CD expires in a couple of months and with it, I guess, my financial link with North Georgia Bank.

Oconee State Bank, where I also have an account, lists the members of its Board of Directors on the web. None of them serves on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.