Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oconee Coroner Candidates To Meet in Runoff

Incumbent to Leave "Office"

Oconee County voters are being asked to go to the polls again on August 5 to select someone for an office that most people probably know little and care even less about.

Because none of the three candidates for coroner in the July 15 Republican primary received a majority of votes, the two top candidates–Cathleen Quillian-Carr and Ed Carson–are in a runoff on August 5.

No candidates filed to run as a Democrat or an independent, so the August 5 vote will determine who will serve as coroner for the next four years.

The coroner is responsible for determining the cause of death when a person dies as a result of violence, suicide or an accident. The coroner also must determine the cause and manner of death if someone dies unattended.

So the most common encounter the average citizen has with a coroner is if a loved one dies unexpectedly at home.

The coroner asks questions of the bereaved and examines the death scene, so a good coroner knows what to investigate and how to talk with people, usually under very difficult circumstances.

The coroner also has to work with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to determine if an autopsy needs to be performed. Any autopsy will be done by medical examiners at GBI, not the coroner.

Coroners can be viewed as heads of a small, local, governmental department. The county Board of Commissioners provides the funds to run the department and provides office space, though incumbent Oconee County Coroner John Simpson operates out of his personal office.

In Georgia, coroners are elected except in a few counties that have abolished the position in favor of an appointed medical examiner.

Each coroner must have at least one deputy.

When the election began in June, incumbent Coroner Simpson, who is stepping down, had two deputies, Carson and Quillian-Carr.

Simpson endorsed Quillian-Carr, who has been a deputy since 2007, and in the middle of June he dismissed Carson, who had been his deputy for 10 years.

In early July Simpson appointed Bryan Hooper, a chiropractor, as the new second deputy.

Hooper also is the campaign treasurer for Quillian-Carr.

The main issues in the election seem to be the needed qualification of the coroner and the actions of Simpson.

Quillian-Carr has said the county needs a physician who has practice and training in how to deal with patients. Carson says the county needs someone trained in death scene investigations.

Simpson’s endorsement of Quillian-Carr, dismissal of Carson and selection of Hooper as his new deputy have raised questions about Simpson’s judgment.

With Quillian-Carr the favored deputy in the campaign, Carson openly questioned how Simpson ran the office of coroner in such settings as the candidate forum organized by local citizen groups on June 2.

Carson said when he received a letter from Simpson on June 18 informing him he had been dismissed Simpson complained about recent statements Carson had made and said that Carson needed to learn "not to bite the hand that feeds you."

Quillian-Carr, 43, is a doctor of osteopathy with a family practice in Oconee County.

Carson, 45, is an emergency medical technician at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Quillian-Carr got 2,759 votes in the July 15 primary, and Carson got 2,129. Former coroner Bill Mayberry got 1,090 votes. Mayberry has endorsed Carson, so a shift of Mayberry’s votes to Carson would be enough to give him the election.

But a simple shift of that sort is unlikely. In fact, it is unlikely anything like the 5,978 voters who cast a ballot for coroner on July 15 will return to the polls on August 5. All of these voters are eligible to vote, as are registered voters who did not vote on July 15. Voters who selected the Democratic ballot on July 15 cannot vote in the coroner runoff election.

Sheriff Scott Berry has endorsed Quillian-Carr, but it is hard to know if that will help or hurt her. Not everyone loves Berry. The sheriff and the coroner must work together at death scenes, and the coroner serves as sheriff in the case of a vacancy until the probate court judge appoints a replacement sheriff.

Neither candidate raised or spent much money during the first month of the campaign.

According to the Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report filed by Quillian-Carr on June 27, she raised $724, all from donations of under $101, and spent $461 for campaign materials.

Hooper, the chiropractor appointed deputy coroner a few days later, signed the report.

Carson raised $2,810, including a $775 loan he made to his campaign. He raised $785 in donations of less than $101 each and $1,250 in five donations between $200 and $300. He spent $2,086 on advertising and signs.

I sent both candidates a list of seven questions on July 25. Quillian-Carr responded later that same day, and Carson responded the next.

The unedited responses of the two candidates are available here.

Carson said voters should pick him on Aug. 5 because of his experience as an investigator of death scenes. He said the major change he would make as coroner is to set up an office for the coroner and do more of the work himself so he would need only one deputy.

Quillian-Carr said voters should pick her as the next coroner because of her leadership skills and her compassion. She said she also would set up an office for the coroner.

I asked the candidates to review the 2007-8 and 2008-9 budgets for the coroner office. Quillian-Carr said she would talk to Simpson to get the information needed and gave the most detailed response. Carson said he had turned in all his files when he was relieved of his duties and had to guess about some of the figures.

According to Quillian-Carr, the total budget for the coroner office in 2007-8 was $25,347, and the total requested for the office for 2008-9 was $20,847. The coroner was paid $4,507 last year and will be paid $5,997 this year.

Carson said he felt he actually could spend less than the amount budgeted for 2008-9 since he would only have one deputy. Deputy coroners are paid $175 for each call they make.

The amounts of money spent in the last fiscal year and budged for this are not large, but the money comes from taxpayers.

That alone should be an incentive for voting.

Another is what happens when citizens do not vote.

Oconee County Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis, who beat challenger Sarah Bell by only 100 votes on July 15, is quoted in the July 24 issue of The Oconee Leader as minimizing the challenge because only 34 percent of the registered voters turned out.

Some of those people stayed home because they thought "everything is going okay," Davis is quoted as saying. "Its hard to read any kind of mandate, whether you won by a large margin or a close margin."

In the July 15 election for School board, all of the candidates listed first received the majority, suggesting that voters were not being too thoughtful in their choices.

This is true despite the fact that much of our taxes is controlled by the Board of Education. At the Board of Commissioners meeting last night, the tax rate was set at 17.5 mills (one tenth of a cent per assessed property value) to fund Oconee County schools and only 6.7 mills to fund county government–including the coroner’s office.

As long as the coroner is selected directly by the electorate rather than appointed by other elected officials, it makes sense for all of us to get involved in the choice.

The Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Leader have run stories providing additional background on the race.

A video of the candidate forum is on the web. I, by the way, was the moderator. The Chamber of Commerce did not include the coroner candidates in either of its two candidate forums.

Both candidates were interviewed by WGAU’s Tim Bryant today. The interviews can be listened to or downloaded at the WGAU web site.

Former Oconee County Board of Commission Chairman Wendell Dawson also offers comments about the race on his web site posting today.

Not voting on August 5 only means that someone else is going to make the choice.

It makes more sense to consider which of the two candidates will do the better job of providing the services required of the office and to turn out to vote before the polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oconee County Commission Election Revisited

Sign of a Big Mandate or a Big Tent?

It may be a bit unfair to Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis to take too seriously his comment to Athens Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson on the night of the election.

According to the story in the next day’s paper, Davis told Thompson that Tuesday's election showed most Oconee residents are pleased with the quality of life provided them during Davis' eight years in office.

Davis, Thompson reported, said residents wanted quality growth and services, good decision-making, leadership and action. "And I think that's what has been provided," Thompson quoted Davis as saying.

No doubt Davis was more focused on his victory than on the margin of victory, and he may have been a bit more reflective even a few hours later.

The fact is that had Sarah Bell been able to move 51 votes from Davis’ column to hers, or picked up 101 additional new votes, she would be chairing the new commission, not Davis.

The fact is that as of June 30, Davis had spent $17,375 trying to get reelected, while Bell had spent $6,129 trying to unseat. Davis, as incumbent, received vast amounts of free exposure; Bell received almost none.

The fact also is that the two commissioners most critical of Davis’ leadership in the last year, Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale and Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton, easily beat out challengers who espoused pro-development positions similar to those of Davis. Hale beat Esther Porter 71% to 29%, while Horton beat Mike Maxey 59% to 41%.

Davis’ most loyal supporter or the Commission, Don Norris, was soundly beaten by John Daniell, 57% to 43%. And Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke, who has often been critical of Davis but aligned himself with the pro-growth slate during the election, beat out Johnny Pritchett by 207 votes, the narrowest margin in the Commission races other than that of Davis over Bell.

No one officially used the designation, but there was something very much like a Citizen Ticket and a Chamber of Commerce Ticket in the campaign. The Citizen Ticket challenged the benefits of the rapid development experienced in recent years, and the Chamber Ticket said development, particularly commercial development, needs to be even more rapid.

The Citizen Ticket got three slots by wide margins, and the Chamber Ticket got two, by slight margins.

Of course, this analysis is simplistic. Norris also was carrying with him a record of voting on zoning issues when many people felt he should have recused himself. Post 4 candidate Maxey also was challenged for his voting as a member of the Planning Commission. Post 3 challenger Porter had difficulty answering questions about her stand on some key issues and literally took a vacation in the middle of the campaign.

And, in fact, only about a third of the registered voters in the county actually turned out.

So a claim that the majority of citizens voted on a single issue–development–and tossed out the development crowd is simplistic. Davis’ claim that he got something of a mandate to do in the next four years what he has done for the past eight seems to be at least as wrong.

The comment Davis made about a mandate, however, is consistent with Davis’ style. To put it simply, he does not hear things very well.

For months, Horton, Hale and Luke–in that order of loudness–have been complaining that Davis does not share enough information with them for them to be effective in their jobs as commissioners. Davis refused then and during the campaign to acknowledge there is a problem.

Davis hires and fires the department heads in the county, and the pattern is for the department heads to give information to the other Commissioners only if and when Davis approves. I’ve been told this independently and repeatedly by Hale, Horton and Luke. And I’ve certainly observed first-hand how difficult it is to get information from the County.

Davis one time required me to fill out an open records request to get a copy of the minutes of a Board of Commissioners meeting! (Now recent ones are available on the county web site.)

The Board of Commissioners can force Davis’ hand by refusing to vote unless it has the information it wants. It has been reluctant to do this. Horton and Hale have told me they haven’t had the three votes they needed.

So if the election on Tuesday night did anything, it has called the bluff of the Commission. With Norris gone and Daniell added, the Commission is now in a position to assert its power. It should now be much harder for Davis to control the Commission and much easier for the Commission to play the role of an independent check on the strong Commission Chairman.

The Commission also is likely to be more feisty because half of its members are up for reelection in only two years. At the request of the Board of Commissioners, voters last year staggered the terms of the Commissioners.

Hale and Daniell won shortened terms that will expire in 2010. It is easy to imagine that some people who lost power on the Commission are plotting to retake it in two short years.

Which raises another possible interpretation of the election outcome on Tuesday: "Old Oconee," at least for the moment, lost some of its control of the County.

Last Sunday I posted a story on the upcoming election on this blog, and within an hour I got a comment back from someone who thought the posting was overly critical of Mike Maxey.

Because I use StatCounter to monitor traffic on the blog, I know by the computer IP address that the writer has visited before and sent back critical comments defending Mike Maxey in the past. The writer hasn’t signed a name, so I don’t know the actual identity of the writer.

"Anonymous" took me to task for an error I had made and said it was because I’m not an Oconee native.

I had used MapQuest to locate the residence of each of the candidates running for the Board of Commissioners so I could indicate in which part of the county the candidate lived. I next went to a printed map and, where appropriate, named the subdivision in the posting.

In the case of Chuck Horton, I made a mistake. I placed Horton in Great Oaks rather than Hickory Hill subdivision. The two subdivisions are next to each other off Simonton Bridge Road east of Watkinsville. Horton lives on Ramblewood Place, which is at the front of Hickory Hill and much closer to the name "Great Oaks" on the county map I was using than it is to the name "Hickory Hill."

As far as I can recall, in the 11 years I’ve lived in the County, I have been in Hickory Hill subdivision one time, and it was not to visit Chuck Horton.

Here’s what "Anonymous" had to say:

"It is a shame that you do not have a clue where the candidate that you support lives. I would probably suggest that the rest of this article is filled with inaccurate information. All of this talk and you still do not realize that you have no credibility because you have no Oconee natives onboard with you. Your group and the others that so called sponsored the "tree hugger" forum are a bunch of transplants that are trying to change things to your liking. Until you get credibility, it is not going to work because the majority of the people in the community think you are a joke. You will see on election day that all of this has fallen on educated ears that have better things to listen to."

I thanked "Anonymous" for the correction and fixed the name of the subdivision. The beauty of the web is that I get feedback. I hate making errors, but I am really pleased when I can fix any I’ve made.

I hope one conclusion that we all can reach from the Tuesday election is that elections are not just for "Old Oconee," and everyone has a right and a responsibility to participate in Oconee County matters, whether the person has lived here since birth, for "only" 11 years, or even for only 11 days.

The county is big enough for all of us, and we’ll do a lot better if we are open to input from everyone.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oconee Election Campaign Comes to Close

Build Your Own Scorecard

I probably don’t need to remind readers to vote on Tuesday. The county is littered with reminders of the election. Not only will Tuesday give us a chance to exercise our right to select our county leaders, but it will be step toward cleaning up the litter of the signs.

Please encourage every eligible member of your household to vote, and bring along as many of your neighbors as possible.

The decisions made by the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education affect our lives in many ways, from the taxes we pay to the quality of our schools and of our roads, and even what we can eat and drink in restaurants. The candidates this year have presented some dramatic differences in terms of how they approach these important matters.

It is quite possible several of the races will be decided by small numbers of votes. In 2004, Chuck Horton defeated W.E. Wilkes for Post #4 on the Board of Commissioners by 62 votes, and Jim Luke defeated Johnny Pritchett by 135 votes in the Post 1 contest. In the August runoff, Don Norris defeated Liz Headley for Post #2 by 130 votes.

In the 2004 July election, 6,122 people voted, or 40% of the 15,190 registered voters. This year, the county had 20,264 registered voters for the February 5 presidential primary, and 49% of them voted, compared with 23% for the March 2 presidential primary in 2004. So it is likely the number of voters on Tuesday will be higher than last year.

In the July primary in 2004, 85% of the participating voters selected the Republican ballot. That year, the only Democratic contest of note was for the U.S. Senate. The situation is much the same this year, so it seems reasonable to expect that about 85% of the votes cast on Tuesday will be with the Republican ballot. Since we don’t have party registration in Georgia, voters can select whatever ballot they want on election day.

In the February presidential primary this year, 66% of the ballots cast were in the Republican primary, and 34% were in the Democratic primary, but in 2004, only 29% of the ballots cast were with the Republican ballot, and 71% were in the Democratic primary.

The final voting choices each of us makes in an election can be the outcome of a complex weighting of assessments of the candidates and their stands on issues. My list of important issues is not likely to be exactly the same as yours. And my assessment of the better candidate on any give issue is not likely to be exactly the same as yours either.

With that in mind, I’m presenting a summary scorecard below of actual votes of those candidates for the Board of Commissioners with voting records on issues that I have been involved with over the last several years. Many of the issues are related to preservation of Barber Creek and neighborhoods, such as mine (Welbrook Farms), that lie on the Creek. I’ve also summarized a few characteristics of all of the candidates from the public record.

I’ve not listed promises made by the candidates who are not currently in office, with one exception. That exception is the previously reported pledge of candidates to work with Friends of Barber Creek on independent monitoring of Barber Creek. In a previous posting I listed sources of information on the candidates that voters can consult.

I hope you find this scorecard of value.

Stormwater Ordinance

In August of 2006, Oconee County passed a stormwater ordinance at the request of the State Environment Protection Division. The ordinance passed required developers throughout the county to implement procedures to protect the streams in the county from runoff. The final ordinance was very similar to model legislation offered by the state.

After a public hearing on the original ordinance, incumbent Chairman Melvin Davis instructed his staff to rewrite the ordinance so that it would apply only to the urbanized area of the county. He took this action even though no public opposition to the draft ordinance had been voiced at the public hearing.

At a July 17, 2006, Planning Commission meeting, I and others urged the Planning Commission to reject the weakened ordinance. The Planning Commission voted 6-2 not to recommend that the Board of Commissioners approve the weakened ordinance.

Voting in the minority that night was Mike Maxey, then and now a member of the Planning Commission and now running for Post 4 Commissioner.

The Board of Commissioners amended the ordinance to make its requirements apply to the whole county and approved it on August 1, 2006. Voting for the stricter ordinance were Jim Luke, now seeking reelection to Post 1, Don Norris, nowseeking reelection to Post 2, Margaret Hale, now seeking reelection to Post 3, and Chuck Horton, now seeking reelection to Post 4 and being opposed by Maxey.

Rocky Branch Engineering

Last summer, the county began advertising for bids for engineering and design work for the proposed Rocky Branch sewage plant expansion, which will result in the discharge of 1 million gallons per day of treated sewage water into Barber Creek. On March 4 of this year, the Board of Commissioners awarded the contract.

Staff who report to Melvin Davis worked behind the scenes in the months before the March 4 vote to bring forward a design for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant that would have produced a lower quality water than originally announced. They also opposed creation of holding ponds for effluent that could be used in the times of flooding.

Commissioners Luke, Hale and Horton publicly spoke out during Commission meetings for the tougher standards and, with Commissioner Norris, voted to accept the final design that guaranteed the higher quality water and included the holding ponds.

Independent Monitoring of Rocky Branch

On June 10 of this year, on behalf of the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek, I sent the following question via email to all of the 10 candidates seeking to be elected to the BOC:

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?

Sarah Bell, running for the Chair of the Board of Commissioners, Johnny Pritchett, running for the Post 1 slot, John Daniell, seeking the Post 2 seat, incumbent Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale, and Incumbent Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton all said they would commit to work with Friends of Barber Creek. Incumbent Chairman Melvin Davis, Incumbent Commissioner Jim Luke, Incumbent Commissioner Don Norris, Post 3 candidate Esther Porter and Post 4 candidate Mike Maxey did not.

Openness in Government

On December 7, 2007, the Board of Commissioners held a meeting in Madison, Georgia, at which the Rocky Branch upgrade, a proposed beer and wine ordinance, and a number of other important issues were discussed.

Though Chairman Melvin Davis had scheduled the meeting three weeks earlier, no public notice was given, as is required by law, until less than 24 hours before the meeting was to be held. Davis is responsible for these public notices, and he has apologized and blamed the staff for not giving the minimum 24-hour notice. But he has never apologized for not giving notice when the meeting was first scheduled three weeks in advance, for holding the meeting in a place distant from the county and in a setting–a small meeting room for which meals were catered–that would have made it difficult for citizens to participate even had they known of its existence. Davis again blamed his staff for the error on notice at the June 2 Candidate Forum and said he would hold meetings out of the county again in the future.

Incumbent Commissioners Jim Luke (Post 1), Margaret Hale (Post 3), and Chuck Horton (Post 3) criticized Davis at the time for not giving proper notice. Incumbent Commissioner Don Norris (Post 2) defended him.

Davis also instructed his staff to conduct bidding for Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant using a procedure that allowed the county to close the procedures to the citizens. Commissioners Hale and Horton criticized Davis at Commission meetings for this decision, and Commissioner Luke asked Davis to open the bidding meetings up to members of the Commission. Davis agreed.

Rezone on Daniells Bridge

At the May 1, 2007, Board of Commissioners meeting, a large number of citizens presented an even larger number of petitions in opposition to the rezoning of nine acres on Daniells Bridge Road. Landscape Architect and Land Planner Ken Beall asked the Board to rezone the property for construction of a business center just east of a blind curve on the road in an area that is now residential. The citizens in opposition were from Founders Grove, Settlers Ridge, Birchmore Hills, Welbrook Farms, Lake Wellbrook and other smaller neighborhoods.

Commissioner Don Norris (Post 2) recused himself because of an unstated conflict of interest. Commissioners Jim Luke (Post 1), Margaret Hale (Post 3), and Chuck Horton (Post 4) voted against the rezone.

On April 16, 2007, the Planning Commission had reviewed the same application. Citizens also had spoken in opposition and presented petitions. Mike Maxey, a member of the Planning Commission and now running for Post 4 Commissioner, made the motion to recommend approval of the rezone application to the Board of Commissioners. The motion passed 8-1.

Beer and Wine

In the summer of 2007, in response to pressure from the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, the county scheduled two hearings on a proposed beer and wine ordinance for the county. Following the hearing, Chairman Melvin Davis refused to indicate how he would vote, and the Commission’s other four members were split 2-2, meaning Davis would have to break the tie for an ordinance to pass. In December, Davis included the ordinance on the agenda for the meeting he scheduled of the Board without proper notice in Madison. In early 2008, Davis stated publicly that he would vote in favor of the ordinance, and on April 8, 2008, the BOC voted 3-2 to pass the ordinance, with Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke and Post 2 Commissioner Don Norris voting in favor, and Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale and Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton voting against. Chairman Davis broke the tie by voting in favor of beer and wine sales at restaurants.

The ordinance allows restaurants in the county to sell beer and wine with food. There is no provision for enforcement of this restriction. The ordinance also creates districts that run like fingers along major roads in the county and that likely will have be adjusted frequently by the Commission. The area along Daniells Bridge Road where the BOC voted down the rezone on May 1, 2007, has now been declared "wet," as are parts of the USDA farms on Hog Mountain Road and a piece of property on the corner of Hog Mountain Road and Daniells Bridge Road that has been rezoned for commercial development. In both cases, these properties abut residential neighborhoods.

Hard Labor Creek

On Sept. 4, 2007, the Board of Commissioners voted to become a minority partner with Walton County on a reservoir on Hard Labor Creek. The vote was 3-2, with Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke and Post 2 Commissioner Don Norris voting in favor, and Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale and Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton voting against. Chairman Melvin Davis broke the tie by voting in favor of the partnership.

The reservoir is designed not to meet the needs of current residents and commercial properties in the county but the needs of those residents, commercial and industrial users who come to the county in the future. The county is growing at less than 3% per year, but projections of a much higher rate were used to justify the reservoir. In fact, the rate used is based on the expectation that the population will double in population by 2015–an extremely unlikely occurrence. The county also projected that water revenues will increase at 8% per year to pay off the bonds, and that level of growth is extremely unlikely as well.

Unless the state provides some funding–and the county is now seeking state funds–the reservoir is likely to be a serious burden on taxpayers in the county in the future. But state funding will come at a cost. The reservoir will have to be designated as regional, which means that water from the Apalachee River likely will be diverted to feed Atlanta’s needs. Oconee County gave up a permit to withdraw water from the Apalachee for its own needs when it partnered with Walton County on Hard Labor Creek. The Hard Labor Creek project also involves an interbasin transfer of water, since much of the water is not returned to the Oconee River basin for reuse.

Occupations and Where They Live


Sarah Bell, 53, instructor, Gainesville State College, lives in Indian Hills subdivision off Hog Mountain Road near Butler’s Crossing.

Melvin Davis, 67, retired district director for state agriculture extension and finishing his eighth year as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, lives on Oliver Bridge Road off SR 15 southeast of Watkinsville.

Post 1

Johnny Pritchell, 58, part-time fire inspector, Walton County and former Oconee County Commissioner, lives on U.S. 441 in Bishop.

Jim Luke, 59, owner, Luke Hardware in Athens and Butler’s Crossing and finishing his fourth year as Post 1 Commissioner, lives on Meriweather Drive in Jennings Mill.

Post 2

Don Norris, 71, adjuster for Custard Insurance, member of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank, and completing his 20th year on the Board of Commissioners, lives off Jimmy Daniel Road near Jennings Mill.

John Daniell, 41, vice president of operators for Boswell Oil Company, lives on Elder Road near North High Shoals.

Post 3

Esther Porter, 67, president, American Building Products, lives in Summit Grove subdivision off SR 15 north of Watkinsville.

Margaret Hale, 46, administrative specialist, University of Georgia libraries, and completing her eighth year as Post 3 Commissioner, lives on Salem Road just south of Farmington.

Post 4

Mike Maxey, 41, owner, M&P Grading Contractors, lives off Elder Road near North High Shoals.

Chuck Horton, 53, retired University of Georgia police chief and completing his fourth year as Post 4 Commissioner, lives in Hickory Hill subdivision off Simonton Bridge Road east of Watkinsville.

If you want to see my scorecard for the candidates, click here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Oconee Commissioner Norris and the Land Planner II

To Recuse or Not to Recuse?

On Jan. 3 of this year, landscape architect and land planner Ken Beall came before the Oconee County Board of Commissioners representing his client, Ronnie Kittle, developer of the Coldwater Creek project off Whippoorwill Road in Oconee County.

Kittle had discovered an extra 9.9 acres when surveying the original property for Coldwater Creek, and Beall was asking the BOC to rezone that 9.9 acres from A1 (Agriculture) to R1 (Residential). The 9.9 acres had not been included in the earlier rezone for a Master Plan Development.

Beall and Oconee County Commissioner Don Norris, who was hearing Beall’s request with the other four commissioners, both serve on the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank.

As it turns out, Kittle also had a relationship with North Georgia Bank at the time the request was before the Board of Commissioners.

On July 20, 2007, Kittle secured loans from North Georgia Bank on five pieces of property in Phase 3 for Coldwater Creek, according to deed records filed in the Oconee County Superior Court clerk’s office. Kittle signed for the loans, which totaled $1.28 million, as president and CEO of Oconee River Development Inc.

What Commission Norris knew on January 3 about Kittle’s relationship with North Georgia Bank is not public record. Norris and Beall, as trustees of the bank, are ultimately responsible for all activities of the bank. The Board of Trustees meets to review bank transactions for that purpose.

The effect of the Jan. 3 rezone on the loans held by Kittle for the five pieces of property in Coldwater Creek also is not known. According to records in the Clerk’s office, loans on the 9.9 acre out parcel had been secured on May 19, 2006, from McIntosh Commercial Bank in Covington, and March 14, 2008, from Chestatee State Bank in Dawsonville.

The ultimate success of the development, including the success of development of the 9.9 acres, does have impact on the ability of Kittle to repay his loans.

Norris did not recuse himself on Jan. 3, 2008, and the rezone request made by Beall on behalf of Kittle and Coldwater Creek was approved 3-1, with Commissioner Jim Luke voting in the negative.

Beall next asked the Commissioners to vote to allow for the construction of a new section of road through the 50 foot perimeter buffer that was part of the original Coldwater Creek Master Plan Development. The five lots on which the North Georgia Bank had made loans were part of the MPD.

Norris again did not recuse himself. The Board voted unanimously to approve Beall’s request.

At the Candidate Forum organized by citizens on June 2, Norris was asked about the impact of his serving on the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank on decisions he makes as a commissioner.

"If a rezone comes before the Board (of Commissioners), and the bank has a financial interest in the rezone, I would recuse myself," Norris said. "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."

The Coldwater Creek rezone illustrates the complexity of the relationship between members of the development community and the Board of Commissioners. It shows how difficult it is for a commissioner who is a member of the development community to keep responsibilities separate.

This issue has been prominent in this campaign, where the business interests of Norris, Esther Porter and Mike Maxey in particular have come under question. All are part of the development community. Norris is seeking reelection, and Porter and Maxey are seeking to be elected to the Board of Commissioners.

Of course, the issues is not whether members of the development community can serve on the Board of Commissioners, but those circumstances under which they should recuse themselves.

Norris has been challenged many times over the years on his policy of infrequently recusing himself. His answer is that he relies on the advice of County Attorney Daniel Haygood.

Charlie Baugh, who is a retired IRS agent, and I spent an hour in the Clerk of Court’s office on July 7 looking for votes by the Board of Commissioners where the Bank of North Georgia had made loans. That was when we found the security deeds for the five loans by North Georgia Bank to Kittle.

Charlie went back and spent more time going over the records of loans to Kittle a day later. He found no evidence of additional loans to Kittle for any of the properties in Coldwater Creek after the January 3 vote.

The security deeds that had been filed for the five properties in Coldwater Creek on July 20, 2007, were filed for recording by Daniel Haygood, in his capacity as an attorney in private practice.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mike Maxey's Does What He Says

Bidding Strategy Illustrated

Mike Maxey, candidate for Post 4 County Commissioner in the upcoming July 15 Oconee County primary election, is a man of his word.

At the June 2 Candidate Forum organized by citizens and held at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville, Maxey said he would gladly do business with companies that come before the Board of Commissioners should he get elected–after he has voted to approve their rezoning projects.

If, "three months" after approving a project, Maxey said, "a project manager, ...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."

Maxey is president of M&P Grading Contractors Inc., headquartered here in Oconee County, and he also is a member of the Oconee County Planning Commission.

On March 19, 2007, Glades Commercial Properties LLC came before the Planning Commission with a request to rezone 7 acres of land on Daniells Bridge Road near the Oconee Connector in preparation for building a hotel and conference center on the site.

Four citizens from nearby Settler’s Ridge subdivision spoke in opposition on the grounds the hotel would create too much traffic for Daniells Bridge Road.

The Planning Commission voted 7-2 to approve the rezone. Mike Maxey, according to the minutes, voted with the majority.

On April 3, 2007, the rezone, with the recommendation of the Planning Commission, was before the Board of Commissioners for final action.

Chairman Melvin Davis recused himself, because Larry Benson, builder of the hotel, has been a long-time supporter of Davis. The Board, in Davis’ absence, approved the rezone unanimously.

In May of this year, grading work on the site began in earnest. Trucks labeled M&P Contractors adorned the site.

When Maxey landed the contract for the grading isn’t public record, of course, but, given Maxey’s statement on June 2 that he has never voted on any zoning request before the Planning Commission in which he had a vested interest, Maxey must have landed the deal after he voted to approve the rezone.

"In not one instance, since I have been on the Planning Commission, have I voted on a project that I knew, at the time it was presented to the Planning Commission, that I was involved in. Not a single time. Not even not one," Maxey said at the June 2 forum.

Had the Board of Commissioners--on which Maxey is seeking a seat--not approved the rezone, however, Maxey could not have gotten the job. So Maxey as a Commissioner would have a strong incentive to rezone property for which he might get work.

Maxey has made no secret that he originally planned to run against Chairman Melvin Davis, rather than against incumbent Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton. Maxey said at the June 2 forum he decided he wasn’t ready yet for the chairman position.

Horton has been Davis’ most outspoken critic on the current Board of Commissioners, so the switch from a challenger of Davis to a challenger of the critic of Davis’ was interesting.

Even if Larry Benson’s contract had no influence on Maxey’s decision not to challenge Davis, neither Davis nor Benson is likely to have been very upset about the coincidence.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Oconee Campaign Spending Figures Released

Publisher Waves Advertising Fee for Favored Candidate

Perhaps the most interesting contribution listed in the Campaign Contribution Disclosure Reports filed by Oconee County Board of Commission Candidates on June 30 is one listed for Post 3 candidate Esther Porter.

Vinnie Williams, owner and publisher of The Oconee Enterprise, contributed three newspaper advertisements free of charge, each to be one quarter page in size. The estimated value of the contribution is $852.

Newspapers are usually more discrete about their favors for political candidates.

Porter reported total contributions of $2,453 and spending of $3,606.

Incumbent Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale reported contributions of $3,450 for the campaign and a carryover of $1,887 from before the campaign began, for a total of $5,336. She spent $3,945.

Hale did not list any spending with The Oconee Enterprise.

Incumbent BOC Chairman Melvin Davis raised and spent the most money, according to the records filed in the Board of Election office. But Mike Maxey, seeking to unseat Chuck Horton in the Post 4 Commission race, raised nearly as much money as Davis, including loans he made to his campaign, and spent heavily as well.

Incumbent Chairman Davis raised $13,325 since the campaign officially began with qualifying in April. He also carried over $16,118, giving him $29,443 in campaign funds. He reported spending $17,375.

Davis’ biggest contributor was Melissa Bourbeau, listed as a housewife, who gave $2,300. Stuart Cofer, home and garden store owner, Jack Quackenbush, a financial advisor, and Richard Garrett, a grading and paving contractor, each gave $500.

Davis’ biggest expenditures were for advertisements placed with The Oconee Enterprise ($4,928) and The Oconee Leader ($4,120).

Sarah Bell, also running for chair of the commission, reported raising $7,243 during the campaign to June 30, and spending $6,129. Her biggest donors were herself ($1,150), Walter Gordon, listed as retired, who contributed $1,000, and Charles Baugh, also listed as retired, who contributed $500.

Bell’s largest expenditure, other than the qualifying fee, was for yard signs.

Incumbent Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke raised $14,035 and carried forward from before the campaign $68, for a total of $14,103. He spent $9,980.

Johnny Pritchett, also seeking Post 1, raised $3,500, mostly via a loan to his campaign from himself, and spent $3,246.

Incumbent Post 2 Commissioner Don Norris raised $8,200 and carried forward $143. He spent $5,414. He loaned his campaign $1,000.

John Daniell, also seeking the Post 2 slot, raised $2,450 and spent $2,445. He contributed $1,000 to his own campaign.

Incumbent Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton raised $6,185 and carried forward $1,377, for a total of $7,562. He spent $5,298.

Maxey, also seeking the Post 4 position, raised $13,194 plus another $2,000 in in-kind contributions. He spent $10,487. Maxey lists $5,094 of the raised money as a loan from himself to his campaign.

Maxey spent $1,078 on advertisements with The Oconee Enterprise, $1,800 for advertisements with The Oconee Leader, and $1,770 for outdoor (billboard) advertising, making him the biggest spender on advertising with the exception of Davis.

Only Esther Porter got by without paying.

Oconee County Voters Have Election Sources

News Stories and Recordings of Forums Available

A variety of information about the candidates for the Board of Commissioners, the Board of Education and coroner is available to Oconee County voters who will be making crucial decisions about the future of the county on July 15.

All the local action is in the Republic primary on July 15, and any voter can ask to participate, since registration is not by party in Georgia.

All the Republican contests except the coroner race will be decided at the July 15 primary, since only two candidates are running for each of the other open positions. If none of the three candidates for coroner gets a majority of votes, that race will go to a runoff on August 5.

Democrat Rich Clark, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary for Board of Education Post 5, will face either Tom Breedlove or Kyle Martin, Republican candidates for that post, in November. This will be the only contested election for a county office in November.

The free weekly newspaper, The Oconee Leader, has run a series of helpful stories on all the races, and these are available at the paper’s web site.

The Athens Banner-Herald has summary stories on the Board of Commissioners races, and there are available at:

County Commission Chairman (Bell and Davis)

County Commissioner Post 1 (Luke and Pritchett)

County Commissioner Post 2 (Daniell and Norris)

County Commissioner Post 3 (Hale and Porter)

County Commissioner Post 4 (Horton and Maxey)

Tim Byrant from WGAU interviewed all the candidates for the Board of Commissioners and for the Board of Education. These are archived and can be located and listened to or downloaded at the stations website.

The Candidates for Board of Commissioners and for the Board of Education participated in two candidate forums, one organized by a consortium of citizen groups and the other organized by the Chamber of Commerce. The coroner candidates were included in the Candidate Forum organized by the citizen groups.

Through the work of citizens, these are available for viewing at: and .

Additional stories relevant to the elections have been posted on this blog on 7/1, 6/22 and 6/10.

Another source of information on the elections is Another Voice from Oconee County. A series of critical reports on Incumbent Chairman Davis reflects the perspective of former Chairman Wendell Dawson, who stepped down rather than run for reelection eight years ago.

ADDED on 7/9/08

The Athens Banner-Herald, in today's edition, contains brief reports on the Board of Education contests and the coroner race.

Coroner (Carson, Mayberry, Quillian-Carr)

Post 2 (Guest and House)

Post 3 (Argo and Hood)

Post 4 (Hunter and Toney)

Post 5 (Breedlove and Martin)

ADDED on 7/12/08

The Athens Banner-Herald ran two stories yesterday that offer very concise summaries of the various races. If you were going to read only two things, these might be the best.

BOC and Coroner


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Oconee Commissioner Norris Votes for Banking Buddy

Now How Do You Define That Word "Recuse"?

Since January of this year, Ken Beall, a landscape architect and land planner and one of seven members of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank, has appeared before the Oconee County Board of Commissioners five times.

On Jan. 3, Beall brought three rezone requests before the Board for action.

On Feb. 5, Beall brought four rezone requests and three variance requests to the Board.

On March 4, Beall made a special use request of the Board.

The Board interviewed Beall on March 25 for a possible position on the Impact Fee Study Committee.

On May 6, Beall was back before the Board with the same four rezone requests he made on Feb. 5 and a single variance request.

Commissioner Don Norris, who is another of the seven members of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank, attended each of those five Board of Commissioners meeting.

He did not recuse himself from any of the discussions, and he voted with the majority to delay action on Bell’s petition on Feb. 5 and to approve Beall’s other petitions.

Norris also voted on April 1 when Beall was appointed to the Impact Fee Study Committee with a slate of other candidates. Included in the appointed Impact Fee Study Committee list was Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank and another member of the Board of Directors of the bank. Norris voted for Williams as well.

Williams was appointed an "ex-officio non-voting" member of the Study Committee. No reason was given for the designation. Williams is chairman of the Oconee County Development Authority, whose members are appointed by the Board of Commissioners.

The first four months of 2008 are hardly exceptional in terms of Beall’s involvement in Board of Commissioners meetings. He is clearly the most prominent representative of developers in Oconee County.

As members of the Board of Directors of North Georgia Bank, Beall and Norris, as well as the other five board members, are responsible to shareholders for all phases of the bank’s operations.

That includes responsibility for loans made to developers. The Bank’s list of clients is confidential, as is the composition of the Board of Directors itself.

Norris’ link to the North Georgia Bank is hardly a secret. The Oconee County official web site as recently as June 2 listed him as chairman of the Board.

At the Candidate Forum organized by citizen groups on June 2, Norris was asked about the connection between the Bank and his votes at BOC meetings. Norris said he was no longer chairman of the Board, and today the County web site lists him only as a member of the Board of Directors of the bank.

Following the June 2 Candidate Forum, I asked Bank President Williams to tell me the names of the members of the Board of Directors of the Bank, but he ignored my request.

I posted a report on Norris’ comments at the June 2 Forum and my request of Williams on this blog on June 10.

Subsequently, three shareholders of the bank told me who the members of the Board of Directors are, and one sent me a copy of the Proxy Statement used to elect the Board members on April 17, 2008.

According to that proxy statement, both Norris and Beall have served together on the Board of Directors since the bank was founded in 1999. Williams also has been on the Board since 1999, as have James A. Bowers Jr., Patricia W. Ivy, Edwin R. Thaxton and Harry B. Thompson.

Bowers is listed as a stockbroker and financial adviser, Ivy is in real estate sales and development, Thaxton is in real estate sales and development, and Thompson is an HVAC equipment distributor. Norris is listed as an insurance adjuster, not as a member of the Board of Commissioners.

At the June 2 Candidate Forum, Norris was asked to defend his decision to vote on development issues before the Board even though they might result in future financial transactions involving North Georgia Bank.

"I don’t make loans," Norris said.

But members of the Board of Directors do have oversight responsibility for loans made for the Bank.

Beall, who is the Principal in Beall & Associates, certainly is in a position to discuss loans and other financial aspects of development with his clients, both before and after he brings their rezone requests before the Board of Commissioners. According to the company website, Beall founded the land planning firm in 1985 to "help clients develop the best use for their land and real estate investments."

The more rezones banking partner Don Norris approves as a member of the Board of Commissioners, the more clients Beall can advise on financing their developments.

That’s a pretty strong incentive for rezoning, and a pretty strong relationship between public official Norris and private citizen Beall.

Here’s how the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines recuse: "to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest."