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.