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.


Anonymous said...

Very informative article. Thank you for your time and effort in keeping Oconee Countians informed.

Anonymous said...

I thought Horton lived in Hickory Hills. 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.

Lee Becker said...

I thank anonymous for the correction, which I have made. Great Oaks and Hickory Hill adjoin each other, and I made an error, which I am happy to have correct.

Oconee Democratic said...

Lee, you have an overabundance of credibility simply because you give a damn and stuck your neck out on the line. You are to be commended and the anonymous flamer needs to realize the natives no longer run the ship.

Anonymous said...

I am one of the few folks in Oconee who can claim to be a "native". The rest of you are transplants. I like Oconee the way it is and I like what Mr. Becker is doing. Thank you Mr. Becker for being willing to put up with "educated ears" who write such drivel. Lets hope that person is not a product of Oconee Schools.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information on the candidates. I appreciate your efforts.

Anonymous said...

It is clear that the informative narrations presented in this blog are direct from the public records as are comments by the candidates and other players. There can be no question of credibility when the facts speak for themselves. Thanks Mr. Becker for shining the light on Oconee County government.

Anonymous said...

I quote the person above.

"You will see on election day that all of this has fallen on educated ears that have better things to listen to."

Given the election results from yesterday (July 15th), I concur that educated ears were indeed listening and voting. Seems it is Davis and Luke (re-elected by only 100 and 200 votes, respectively) who better start listening now. The voters also have spoken loudly and clearly with the defeat of Norris and the overwhelming re-election of Hale and Horton.