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."