Monday, March 31, 2008

Oconee Commissioners Respond to Citizen Concerns

Story Behind the Rocky Branch Victory

The March 4 meeting of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners produced a major victory for those of us interested in protecting Barber Creek, though this fact has been largely ignored by the media.

As I reported in my blog on the evening of March 4, the BOC accepted a design for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant that should produce water of a higher quality than is required by the state and that includes holding facilities that will allow the County to store water from the sewage plant when Barber Creek is flooding.

The decision was made because of the actions of three members of the Board, Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke, and was contrary to the desires of county administrators, who report to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis.

Here’s the background of the story.

At the December 12, 2006, hearing before the state Environmental Protection Division on the permit for Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant, the Friends of Barber Creek turned in more than 45 signed petitions asking for three concessions.

First, we wanted Oconee County to agree to treat the effluent to the highest standard the technology used in the plant would allow.

Second, we wanted the County to agree to hold water from the plant when Barber Creek was flooding. The County was seeking and received a permit to discharge effluent into Barber Creek from the sewage plant.

Third, we wanted the County to set up a system of independent monitoring of the plant.

We knew when we made these three requests that the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, not the EPD, was the body that could provide what we needed. The EPD hearing gave us a forum to voice our requests.

The Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek, made up of Tim Price, Karen Kimbaris, Eleanor Cotton, Joe Block and myself, restated these requests to the BOC on numerous occasions after the EPD hearing.

The crucial time for two of these requests–dealing with water quality and flooding–was the March 4 meeting, when the BOC was voting on the design contract for the Rocky Branch upgrade.

At the BOC meeting, County Utility Department Director John Hatcher and Herb Feldman, the president of HSF Engineering, said the plant will be able to match the quality of the County's Calls Creek plant, which exceeds state standards significantly. HSF submitted the successful bid for the Rocky Branch upgrade.

Hatcher and the Feldman also said that the design includes ponds capable of holding 25 day's worth of water and that these would be used to hold water in times of flooding of Barber Creek.

Hearing these promises, the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek endorsed the bid selection, and the BOC approved the bid.

These are only promises, of course, which is why monitoring remains crucial.

Monitoring is an operational rather than a design issue. At some point in the future, the BOC should address how the new capacity from the plant will be allocated between commercial and residential development. That will be the time when independent monitoring can be raised.

So how did we accomplish what we have already accomplished?

To understand the answer, it is important to differentiate between the four members of the Board of Commissioners and the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

Oconee County has a strong Chairman, by statute, by tradition, and because of the practices of the incumbent, Melvin Davis.

It makes sense to think of Davis as the chief executive of the County, and the four commissioners as the legislative body. The problem with the characterization, however, is that Davis is, in fact, the Chairman of the Commission as well. He sets the agenda and he votes in the case of a tie.

More important than the power to run the Commission meetings, however, is the executive power of the Chairman. He appoints all the non-elected officers of the County, and they report to him. Included are the heads of departments, the chief administrative officer, and the clerk of the Commission.

Chairman Davis and Gary Dodd, Chris Thomas and John Hatcher, all from the Utility Department, have repeatedly touted the quality of water that Calls Creek produces and the upgraded Rocky Branch treatment plants would produce, because they said, these plants used membrane filtration.

Davis and his Utility Department repeatedly said the water coming out of these plants exceeds and will exceed the standards set by the state for reuse quality water--which each plant is permitted to produce.

Davis and his administrative colleagues said, because of membrane filtration, these plants were producing "near drinking level quality water."

Data that Davis released to me from Calls Creek in September of 2007--the same data the County filed with the EPD for the plant--showed that the plant does greatly exceed the permitted standards.

In fact, Calls Creek for the seven months for which I was given data nearly matched the permitted output quality of the F. Wayne Hill sewage plant in Gwinnett County--the plant that has the highest permit standards in the state.

But the Calls Creek plant has a big problem. It goes through membranes very quickly and consumes a lot of energy. For these reasons, it is very expensive to operate.

Davis and the Utility Department never publicly acknowledged this problem. Instead, they tried to abandon the membrane technology through a series of secret maneuvers.

In June of 2007, the County administration issued a Request for Proposal for the upgrade of Rocky Branch. The RFP specified that the plant would use membrane filtration and a design matching that at Calls Creek.

At a presubmittal meeting with potential bidders, however, the Utility Department tipped bidders that it was interested in abandoning membrane filtration.

Jordan Jones & Goulding submitted a bid that did not use membrane filtration and that could have met the state reuse standard required by the permit, but it would not have produced water of the same quality as Calls Creek.

The Selection Committee--made up of County appointees and consultants reporting to Davis--recommended that JJ&G get the contract.

When Davis brought the bid before the BOC on August 28, however, he could not get a motion for action. Commissioner Chuck Horton said he would not accept JJ&G, since he was unhappy with its work on a proposed County reservoir. Commissioner Margaret Hale said the County had never voted to go forward with Rocky Branch, so a vote on a bid was premature.

No action was taken. By the time the BOC met again on September 4, I had filed an open records request and reviewed the bids. I pointed out the irregularity of violating the RFP and that the County was abandoning membrane filtration.

At that meeting, the BOC voted to go forward with the Rocky Branch upgrade. County administrator Alan Theriault, who reports to Davis, said the County would start the bidding process over. He never explained why that was necessary.

In November, the County reissued a Request for Proposal for the Rocky Branch upgrade. This time, it specified that two designs were possible. The first was the original design; the second was some alternate that also used membrane filtration.

Emil Beshara, the County Public Works director, told me on February 5 that membrane's were specified because of the pressure of Friends of Barber Creek. The County administration didn't think it could get approval for a design that did not use membrane filtration, he said.

Beshara said the County didn't know what the bidders would propose in response to the second RFP with its alternate design option.

This second time around, Davis and his administrators decided to conduct the bidding process in secret. The stated reason was to save the taxpayers money by negotiating over costs, but the more likely reason was to negotiate over design.

At the February 5, 2008, meeting of the BOC, the Selection Committee appointed by the BOC to review the bids--made up of County officials and consultants who report to Davis--delivered its recommendation to the Board.

At the insistence of Commissioner Jim Luke, the Commissioners had been invited to the closed meetings of the Selection Committee. Luke told me he asked this because he knew I was not going to be allowed to attend, and I was not. Commissioner Horton attended those meetings.

I had a long talk with Commissioner Luke following the February 26 meeting. Luke made it clear his patience with Friends of Barber Creek was running thin.

I concluded that the BOC was going to accept the Selection Committee recommendation, and we had little room to negotiate.

On the morning of February 27, I sent a note to John Hatcher, now the Utility Department director, informing him that I wanted to recommend to the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek that we endorse the recommendation of the Selection Committee that the bid go to HSF Engineering. I copied the message to Davis and the four Commissioners.

I told Hatcher we only needed two things. First, we needed data from a plant using a similar design showing that it would match the quality of the Calls Creek plant. Second, we needed to know how many days of storage capacity the plant would have.

Two days later, Hatcher wrote me back and said there were no data he could provide me and that storage of water for flooding was not a part of the plant design.

Luke shot back a message to Hatcher saying his response on the Calls Creek standard was not sufficient. Horton seconded.

At this point, Beshara--who reports to Davis--weighed in on the storage issue. He said there was no "scientific" reason to limit discharge in times of flooding. He also said it had been a mistake for the County to cave to the pressure to require membrane filtration for the plant.

I met with Commissioner Horton on Saturday, March 1, and with Commissioner Hale on Sunday, March 2. I was pretty sure we had their support for our requests regarding water quality and quantity.

Commissioner Don Norris doesn't respond to my emails. He usually votes in support of whatever Davis and the department heads recommends.

During my meeting with Hale, she told me she pushed Davis to schedule a presentation by HSF President Herb Feldman at the meeting on March 4.

At that meeting, Hatcher and Feldman promised to meet our requests for water quality and to hold water in times of flooding.

It is quite clear that the water coming out of Rocky Branch would have been of a lower quality had Davis and his administration gotten what it wanted. And no provision would have been made to hold the water in times of flooding.

We scored a major victory because Commissioners Hale, Horton and Luke were willing to listen to our concerns and stand up to Davis and his administration.

It is a lesson we should not forget.