Can the Board Make the Chairman Learn to Share?
Indications are that the power of the chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners is going to be a central issue in the July 15 Republican primary.
The issue of the dominance of current Chairman Melvin Davis was raised in a front-page article in The Oconee Enterprise on Feb. 28, under the headline, "Chairman under fire."
The Athens Banner-Herald followed on March 11 with an article under the headline "Oconee chair’s power an issue."
In both articles, current commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke complained that Chairman Davis controls information and dominates the Commission. The disagreement also flared up at recent budget sessions of the BOC, according to another article in the Banner-Herald on April 11.
Davis, in his capacity of chairman, also is the chief executive officer of the county.
Hale, Horton and Luke criticized both the behavior of Davis as chairman and the power of the chairman position. This was a rare public display of disagreement, but in numerous conversations I've had with these three commissioners in recent years, each has voiced these same criticisms.
The three say that Davis shares little information with them and that they find it difficult to get crucial information from county department heads, who report to Davis rather than to the Commission.
Even Commissioner Don Norris, who is not a critic of Davis, has said at BOC meetings on more than one occasion that the board members know no more than the citizens about what is coming before them.
How much of the "problem" is a result of the management style of Davis and how much is a reflection of the governmental structure of the county is crucial to its resolution, though it isn’t clear at this point that this distinction is going to be made in the campaign.
Candidates must file the paperwork to qualify for the elections the week of April 28. So far, Davis has announced he will seek his third, four-year term, and Sarah Bell has announced she also will run for the position of chair of the BOC.
Commissioner Norris is the only other incumbent so far who has announced plans to seek re-election. Esther Porter has announced she plans to run for the commission slot now held by Margaret Hale. Johnny Pritchett has announced he plans to run for the commission post now held by Jim Luke.
At Commission meetings, Chairman Davis presents himself as simply a member of that body. Behind the scenes, however, he wields tremendous power in his capacity as the chief executive officer of the county.
Following a public hearing on the proposed stormwater ordinance in Oct. 2005 at which no opposition was stated to the draft document, Davis instructed his staff privately to significantly reduce the scope of the ordinance because of opposition from developers. Because of public outcry, his action ultimately was overrturned. (See my posting of Sept. 4, 2006).
After irregularities were revealed in the first round of bidding for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant, county administrators who report directly to Davis decided to conduct the second round of bidding in secret, using provisions in the state law on bidding to circumvent the state's open meetings and records laws.
Davis also wields power by controlling the agenda of the BOC, but even here he tries to wield that power quietly.
Davis worked behind the scenes to get BOC support for the sale of beer and wine at county restaurants. Back in December he organized a meeting of the BOC in Madison to discuss the issue. Though he knew of the meeting at least three weeks before the Dec. 7 date, he gave public notice only on the day of the meeting. (See my posting of Jan. 6, 2008.)
Davis was under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, which wanted the beer and wine ordinance passed. In the end, he only was able to get the support of Commissioners Luke and Norris, and he had to break the tie at the BOC meeting on April 8. The chairman only votes to break ties, and Davis does that reluctantly.
While Davis has apologized for not giving proper notice for the Dec. 7 meeting, he has never apologized for holding the meeting out of the county or for knowing about the meeting for at least three weeks in advance and not publicizing it.
The minutes of that Dec. 7 meeting appeared on the web site for several weeks after the apology was issued on Jan. 8, 2008, but then they were removed. They still do not appear with the other publicly posted minutes.
The county does not have search capabililty on its web pages, so citizens would have to do a search with an external engine to know that they still reside on the county site.
Davis controls the web site.
Oconee County has a very strong chairman system of government, so, unless the system is changed, most people in that position are going to exercise a lot of power.
In Georgia, the type of county government is not spelled out in the Constitution, but rather in what is called local enabling legislation. Essentially, each county asks the legislature to pass laws setting up the type of county government it wants.
The county commission system that Oconee County has was established in 1917, and it included a strong chairman.
The chairman "shall be the chief manager of the affairs of said county that are within the jurisdiction of said board of commissioners acting as it executive officer."
The legislation put the chairman in charge of making contracts and purchasing for the board and "shall discharge all the duties of the board of commissioners during interim between the dates of the board's meetings."
The legislation specified that the chairman was to be a full-time position.
The enabling legislation for Oconee County has been changed many times over the years, mostly to adjust the salaries of the chairman and the commissioners.
In 1919, the number of members of the board was increased from three to five. In 1975, the legislation created the current four "posts" plus the chairmanship, with candidates having to indicate which post they were seeking at the election.
In 1988, however, the chairman's position was set as "part time," and the duties of the chairman were greatly restricted. They were: (1) serving as presiding officer at meeting of the Board, (2) stating questions coming before the board and announcing decisions, (3) voting in the case of a tie, (4) signing ordinances, (5) executing statements of indebtedness, (6) acting as ceremonial head of the county, (7) and exercising "other administrative duties that my be delegated to the chairman by the board of commissioners."
Wendell Dawson, who had been county attorney when the enabling legislation was changed, became chairman in 1989. In 1998, the enabling legislation was changed again, restoring the power of the chairman.
The 1998 enabling legislation repeated the seven responsibilities of the chairman listed in 1988 and added an eighth: "To act as the chief executive officer of the county."
The legislation, which remains in place today, did not specify if the chairman was a full-time position. Oconee County had experimented with a weak chairman, however, and had opted to return to the strong chairman system that has been in place for most of the last 90 years.
That hardly means the BOC itself is weak.
The BOC, according to the 1917 enabling legislation that is still in effect, has responsibility "over all matters concerning county property, county taxes..., in establishing and changing ... election precincts, in examining and auditing and setting accounts of all offices having the care, management, correction, keeping and distribution of moneys belonging to the county or appropriated to its use and benefit, ... in establishing, altering and abolishing roads, bridges and ferries..."
If three members of the BOC are unhappy with the chairman, they can easily change the chairman’s behavior by refusing to spend money, approve budgets and otherwise do county business.
The county needs an act of the state legislature to change the enabling legislation.
The Republican primary, in which all registered voters can opt to participate, could provide the forum for a discussion of the proper role of the chairman, of the willingness of the other BOC members to assert their power and of the optimal structure of governance for the county.