Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oconee County Commission Election Revisited

Sign of a Big Mandate or a Big Tent?

It may be a bit unfair to Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis to take too seriously his comment to Athens Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson on the night of the election.

According to the story in the next day’s paper, Davis told Thompson that Tuesday's election showed most Oconee residents are pleased with the quality of life provided them during Davis' eight years in office.

Davis, Thompson reported, said residents wanted quality growth and services, good decision-making, leadership and action. "And I think that's what has been provided," Thompson quoted Davis as saying.

No doubt Davis was more focused on his victory than on the margin of victory, and he may have been a bit more reflective even a few hours later.

The fact is that had Sarah Bell been able to move 51 votes from Davis’ column to hers, or picked up 101 additional new votes, she would be chairing the new commission, not Davis.

The fact is that as of June 30, Davis had spent $17,375 trying to get reelected, while Bell had spent $6,129 trying to unseat. Davis, as incumbent, received vast amounts of free exposure; Bell received almost none.

The fact also is that the two commissioners most critical of Davis’ leadership in the last year, Post 3 Commissioner Margaret Hale and Post 4 Commissioner Chuck Horton, easily beat out challengers who espoused pro-development positions similar to those of Davis. Hale beat Esther Porter 71% to 29%, while Horton beat Mike Maxey 59% to 41%.

Davis’ most loyal supporter or the Commission, Don Norris, was soundly beaten by John Daniell, 57% to 43%. And Post 1 Commissioner Jim Luke, who has often been critical of Davis but aligned himself with the pro-growth slate during the election, beat out Johnny Pritchett by 207 votes, the narrowest margin in the Commission races other than that of Davis over Bell.

No one officially used the designation, but there was something very much like a Citizen Ticket and a Chamber of Commerce Ticket in the campaign. The Citizen Ticket challenged the benefits of the rapid development experienced in recent years, and the Chamber Ticket said development, particularly commercial development, needs to be even more rapid.

The Citizen Ticket got three slots by wide margins, and the Chamber Ticket got two, by slight margins.

Of course, this analysis is simplistic. Norris also was carrying with him a record of voting on zoning issues when many people felt he should have recused himself. Post 4 candidate Maxey also was challenged for his voting as a member of the Planning Commission. Post 3 challenger Porter had difficulty answering questions about her stand on some key issues and literally took a vacation in the middle of the campaign.

And, in fact, only about a third of the registered voters in the county actually turned out.

So a claim that the majority of citizens voted on a single issue–development–and tossed out the development crowd is simplistic. Davis’ claim that he got something of a mandate to do in the next four years what he has done for the past eight seems to be at least as wrong.

The comment Davis made about a mandate, however, is consistent with Davis’ style. To put it simply, he does not hear things very well.

For months, Horton, Hale and Luke–in that order of loudness–have been complaining that Davis does not share enough information with them for them to be effective in their jobs as commissioners. Davis refused then and during the campaign to acknowledge there is a problem.

Davis hires and fires the department heads in the county, and the pattern is for the department heads to give information to the other Commissioners only if and when Davis approves. I’ve been told this independently and repeatedly by Hale, Horton and Luke. And I’ve certainly observed first-hand how difficult it is to get information from the County.

Davis one time required me to fill out an open records request to get a copy of the minutes of a Board of Commissioners meeting! (Now recent ones are available on the county web site.)

The Board of Commissioners can force Davis’ hand by refusing to vote unless it has the information it wants. It has been reluctant to do this. Horton and Hale have told me they haven’t had the three votes they needed.

So if the election on Tuesday night did anything, it has called the bluff of the Commission. With Norris gone and Daniell added, the Commission is now in a position to assert its power. It should now be much harder for Davis to control the Commission and much easier for the Commission to play the role of an independent check on the strong Commission Chairman.

The Commission also is likely to be more feisty because half of its members are up for reelection in only two years. At the request of the Board of Commissioners, voters last year staggered the terms of the Commissioners.

Hale and Daniell won shortened terms that will expire in 2010. It is easy to imagine that some people who lost power on the Commission are plotting to retake it in two short years.

Which raises another possible interpretation of the election outcome on Tuesday: "Old Oconee," at least for the moment, lost some of its control of the County.

Last Sunday I posted a story on the upcoming election on this blog, and within an hour I got a comment back from someone who thought the posting was overly critical of Mike Maxey.

Because I use StatCounter to monitor traffic on the blog, I know by the computer IP address that the writer has visited before and sent back critical comments defending Mike Maxey in the past. The writer hasn’t signed a name, so I don’t know the actual identity of the writer.

"Anonymous" took me to task for an error I had made and said it was because I’m not an Oconee native.

I had used MapQuest to locate the residence of each of the candidates running for the Board of Commissioners so I could indicate in which part of the county the candidate lived. I next went to a printed map and, where appropriate, named the subdivision in the posting.

In the case of Chuck Horton, I made a mistake. I placed Horton in Great Oaks rather than Hickory Hill subdivision. The two subdivisions are next to each other off Simonton Bridge Road east of Watkinsville. Horton lives on Ramblewood Place, which is at the front of Hickory Hill and much closer to the name "Great Oaks" on the county map I was using than it is to the name "Hickory Hill."

As far as I can recall, in the 11 years I’ve lived in the County, I have been in Hickory Hill subdivision one time, and it was not to visit Chuck Horton.

Here’s what "Anonymous" had to say:

"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."

I thanked "Anonymous" for the correction and fixed the name of the subdivision. The beauty of the web is that I get feedback. I hate making errors, but I am really pleased when I can fix any I’ve made.

I hope one conclusion that we all can reach from the Tuesday election is that elections are not just for "Old Oconee," and everyone has a right and a responsibility to participate in Oconee County matters, whether the person has lived here since birth, for "only" 11 years, or even for only 11 days.

The county is big enough for all of us, and we’ll do a lot better if we are open to input from everyone.