Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Athens-Clarke Weighs in Softly on Epps Bridge Centre

A Chance Not Seen

Among the 21 letters that the state Environment Protection Division received in response to its public advisory on the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre was one from the government of Athens-Clarke County, but the letter simply repeated arguments the city and county already had made to the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center.

W. Alan Reddish, Athens-Clarke County manager, said "There is obviously some potential for environmental impact to ACC property downstream" from the site off Epps Bridge Parkway and that "the project could potentially degrade water quality and likewise affect quantity."

The letter said that areas around the Tanglewood, Towns Walk and McNutt Creek subdivisions are most likely to be affected by the project, but it also could "affect the quality of the receiving waters for ACC’s waste water treatment plants on the Middle Oconee and North Oconee Rivers. Recommendations for greater infiltration of stormwater and increased canopy cover would seem to be in order."

Reddish wrote his letter on Jan. 16, three days after Holly Hills resident Pamela Kohn contacted ACC District 6 Commissioner Ed Robinson to object to the variance and ask for assistance in fighting it.

The state EPD had issued the advisory seeking public comment on Dec. 18, and the deadline for comments was Jan. 19, the Martin Luther King holiday. Reddish’s letter was stamped received by the EPD on Jan. 20.

The letter was a shortened version of comments submitted by Leah Graham Stewart of the Athens-Clarke Planning Department to the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center on July 1, 2008. NEGRDC concluded in July of 2008 that the "development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefor the State."

Despite that, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the rezone request by developer Frank Bishop of Atlanta for the shopping center project on Oct. 7, 2008.

The only new part of the Jan. 16 letter from Reddish was a request that EPD hold a public hearing before it reaches its decision on the shopping center project.

The EPD has forwarded the 21 letters it received during the public comment period to developer Bishop and asked him to respond. April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network and one of those who wrote to object to the variance, obtained copies of the letters and gave them to me.

Michael Berry, environment specialist at the EPD handling the variance request, told me on Tuesday that there is no timetable for the EPD to decide on the variance request. He confirmed, as reported in the Athens Banner-Herald on Feb. 9, that he had sent the 21 letters to Bishop asking for comment.

Bishop is asking the state to allow him to encroach on the 25-foot buffers on the half mile of flowing streams on the site so he can build his shopping center, which is to include restaurants, a movie theater and both large and small retail buildings. The plan is to pipe and fill those streams, which are tributaries to nearby McNutt Creek.

On Jan. 16, 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit to Bishop allowing him to pipe and fill the 2,678 feet of perennial streams, 396 feet of ephemeral streams, and 0.56 acres of wetlands so he can build his shopping center.

Bishop is required to mitigate this destruction of the Oconee County streams and wetlands by restoring 981 feet of perennial streams and 2 acres of wetlands on a tributary of Town Creek in Greene County north of Greensboro. Bishop bought that land for the mitigation project.

Bishop has until Jan. 16, 2014, to complete his project, according to the USACE permit.

In the USACE application, Bishop stated that the site consisted of 80 acres. In the NEGRDC and Oconee County documents, he said it was 68 acres. Oconee County rezoned those 68 acres. In the EPD documents, he said the site is 63.15 acres and he plans to disturb 62 of those acres.

Berry told me that he was aware of the discrepancies in the acreage in the various applications and asked Bishop for clarification. He said he believes Bishop finally has gotten the acreage right in the EPD application.

In the end, Berry said, the state is concerned about the 2,678 linear feet of perennial streams, and that figure has been consistent across the various applications. The USACE application does use that figure, but the NEGRDC report said "approximately 2,421 linear feet" of streams will be impacted.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is expected to let contracts next month for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension, which will provide access to Epps Bridge Centre. The state rejected bids that were submitted in December.

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the requested rezone for Epps Bridge Centre, it stipulated that the county will not grant any permits for the shopping center until the state had let contracts on the roadway project.

Athens-Clarke County has kept a low profile in the discussions of the Epps Bridge Centre project, which will dump a lot of traffic on Jennings Mill Road. One of the access roads from the Connector will connect with Jennings Mill Road.

Autos leaving Epps Bridge Centre and using that exit will travel north past Kingswood subdivision on Jennings Mill Road to its intersection with the Atlanta Highway across from Logan’s Roadhouse. That is one of the more congested areas in that part of the city.

The Epps Bridge Centre, with its proposed anchor retail stores and movie theater, will compete with nearby Georgia Square Mall in Athens-Clarke County.

Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County are currently negotiating over creation of a joint economic development body for the two counties that was recommended by a task force of local business leaders.

The issue was discussed at the Athens Clarke-County mayor and commission meeting on Feb. 19 and at the Oconee County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night. It is clear that there is no consensus at present as to how to proceed.

Any strong effort by Athens-Clarke County to slow down Epps Bridge Centre, which Oconee County has strongly promoted, would not help that cause. Oconee County fronted more than $5 million to the state to cover right of way purchases for the Oconee Connector gateway to the project.

Among the letter writers asking the state not to grant the requested variance for construction of Epps Bridge Centre, in addition to Reddish and Ingle, were representatives of the Athens Grow Green Coalition, the Upper Oconee Watershed Network and Georgia Conservancy. Individuals from Oconee and Clarke counties also wrote. I submitted a letter.

All but four of the 21 letter writers asked the EPD to hold a public hearing before making a decision.

Berry said the EPD would look at the responses to the 21 letters when Bishop and his environmental consultants provide them and then make a decision.

"I don’t see there is very much likelihood of there being a public hearing," Berry told me on Tuesday. He said he had not been involved in a public hearing on a variance request in the four years he has been in his current position.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oconee County Struggles With Open Meetings Law

Openness can be Burdensome

Georgia’s Open Meetings Law places only a small burden on county governments to notify their citizens when official governmental bodies meet, but that minimal burden has been cited on two recent occasions by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to justify holding meetings that exclude citizens.

At the Feb. 3 regular BOC meeting, County Attorney Daniel Haygood advised the Board that if it were to follow through on a suggestion by newly elected Commissioner John Daniell to create committees of the BOC to develop the 2010 fiscal budget, those committees would have to give public notice before meeting.

The Board decided not to appoint the committees.

Melvin Davis, chairman of the BOC, left a Dec. 17 meeting his staff had called to discuss the county courthouse because he had not given proper notice of the meeting, and his presence would have made it illegal since a quorum of the BOC was present.

The meeting had been called more than a month in advance, so David had plenty of opportunity to give proper notice had he wanted to.

All that Davis was required to do, and all the committees the BOC considered but did not appoint would have been required to do, was tell citizens when and where the meetings were to be held.

The law requires that citizens be given "due notice." That means that Davis would have had to have posted a notice at the courthouse about the meeting and informed The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald about the meeting at least 24 hours before it took place.

The county has to inform the Enterprise because it is the legal organ of the county, that is, the publication that carries legal advertisements. The county has to inform the Banner-Herald of the meetings because it has officially requested that it be notified.

A committee of the commissioners would have to do the same. In an emergency, it could meet with less than 24 hours notice, provided it notified the two newspapers.

The only other requirement is that there must be at least some type of agenda for the meetings.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for the county, sent out an agenda for the Dec. 17 meeting about the courthouse as an attachment to a memorandum dated Nov. 19. The Banner-Herald placed that memorandum on its web site when it learned of the Dec. 17 meeting and wrote about it on Feb. 6.

The memo from Provost was addressed to Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens, Clerk of Superior Court Angie Watson, Tax Commissioner Harriette Browning, Sheriff Scott Berry, District Attorney Ken Mauldin, Probate Court Judge David Anglin, Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken, Public Works Director Emil Beshara, and Davis.

The memo also was copied to the other four members of the Board of Commissioners. According to minutes of the secret meeting prepared by Provost and on the Banner-Herald web site, Davis left the meeting after two other commissioners showed up. Those commissioners were Chuck Horton and Don Norris.

The presence of Davis, Horton and Norris meant that a quorum of the five-person commission was present. Under that circumstance, public notice was required, and none had been given.

Why Norris, whose term expired 14 days later, didn’t go home so that Davis could join Horton, both of whom started a new four-year term on Jan. 1, is an interesting question that neither the Banner-Herald nor the Enterprise explored.

It was this requirement of public notice that created the problem for several on the Board when Daniell suggested on Feb. 3 that the Board create committees to help develop the budget.

Davis said that he had seen a copy of Daniell’s proposal before the meeting and had discussed it with County Attorney Haygood.

Daniell proposed that the Board create six budget committees. These committees would work with the finance department to review and shape the budgets for the county departments and for the other governmental officers, such as the sheriff and tax commissioner.

Daniell wanted each committee to be made up of no more than two commissioners, which is less than a quorum of the Board.

When prompted by Davis, Haygood said the open meetings law applied to the committees regardless of how many commissioners were present. A quorum would be a quorum of the committee, not of the full Board.

"If you appoint committees of the Board, they are going to have to comply with the open meetings law," Haygood said. "There is nothing wrong with that of course. But it is going to make it a little more cumbersome. But you’ve got to post notices and take minutes and that kind of thing."

"I don’t care who comes," Commissioner Jim Luke said. "I don’t want to have to schedule a week ahead and post and go through the process."

"It is not really a committee if it is just commissioners sitting in," Commissioner Margaret Hale asserted.

"In my mind, it was a committee," Daniell said. "That was my intention. If you have to post notice, I’ve not got a problem with that either way."

A meeting cannot be open to the public if members of the public are not informed about it before it takes place. To avoid the requirement that the meeting be open to the public, the Board rejected Daniell’s proposal and decided instead that no more than two commissioners, including Davis, would attend the budget meetings.

At the end of the Feb. 3 meeting, when citizens were given a chance to address the Board, Kate McDaniel, a frequent meeting attender who manages the web site A Positive Vision for Oconee County, asked if these budget meetings would open to the public.

Davis told her emphatically that they were not public meetings.

That raises the question, of course, as to whether the meeting is not public because no notice is required by law or whether the lack of a required notice is being used to keep the public from attending.

In the case of the Dec. 17 meeting on the courthouse, it is quite clear that Davis was doing what the law allowed to keep the public in the dark.

A Banner-Herald editorial on Feb. 8 criticized Davis for holding a secret meeting, arguing that the public should be involved in discussions about the courthouse. For some reason, the editorial also praised Davis for leaving the Dec. 17 meeting so as not to break the law.

Haygood’s argument about the applicability of the state law to committees appointed by the Board of Commissioners also was interesting in light of arguments he had made less than a year earlier.

On Nov. 17, 2007, the Board, as part of its request for proposals for engineering work on the then proposed and now postponed Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant, created a selection committee to review the bids.

Such a committee, as Haygood told the BOC on Feb. 3, should be covered by the state’s Open Meetings Law.

When I asked in February of 2008 to be informed of the time and place of the meeting of the selection committee so I could attend, however, I was told by Haygood it was not a public meeting.

I filed a complaint with the state attorney general on Jan. 17, 2008, claiming I had been wrongly excluded from what should have been a public meeting.

In response to my complaint, Haygood told the attorney general that the committee that met was not the one specified in the request for proposals and that the committee wasn’t covered by the state’s Open Meetings Law because it was dealing with sealed bids.

Committees dealing with sealed bids, however, are not a listed exemption to the Open Meetings Law. The committee that met in secret to review the bids also was the only one appointed by the county for that purpose.

On Feb. 29, 2008, Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter wrote me and rejected my complaint, saying that the "meetings of the Selection Committee are not meetings as defined by the Act or at least I have insufficient evidence to believe that they are open meetings."

In April of 2008, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Senior Assistant Attorney General Ritter joined Executive Director Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and others in producing the Fourth Edition of "A Citizen’s Guide to Open Government."

On page 6 of the booklet, the authors discuss what meetings in Georgia are open to the public.

The booklet listed as examples of open meetings those of a number of bodies, such as county commissions, regional development authorities, library boards, school boards, commissions or authorities established by state or local governments, planning commissions and zoning boards.

"In short," according to the booklet, "the Law applies to nearly every group that performs any function of a government entity. Very few governmental bodies are exempt from coverage."

Someone even could argue that the meeting Wayne Provost called on behalf of Chairman Melvin Davis involving most of the elected officials of the county to talk about what needs to be done to make the courthouse safe and efficient for conducting county business is covered at least by the spirit of such a law.

But making that meeting open would have required the giving of public notice some time between when Provost wrote his memo on Nov. 19 and 24 hours before the meeting got underway at 9:30 a.m. in that courthouse on Dec. 17.

And that was too burdensome.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Oconee County and Cities to Split SPLOST Funds

The Power of Suggestion

Oconee Countians who were surprised to learn from stories on the front pages of The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald this past week that the county is holding behind-the-scenes discussions about courthouse renovation should not have been.

A county that gets citizen authorization to collect $4.6 million in taxes for a “County Facilities and Expansion and Renovation Project” and hoards the money obviously has something up its sleeve.

That this is a government that prefers to consult with its citizens only after major parts of decisions have been made also is clear.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis is quoted in the Banner-Herald story as saying citizens will be asked for their opinions only once the commissioners have settled on the options.

The resolution for the five-year 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax stipulated that voters were being asked to provide $4.6 million from the $25 million to be collected by the 1 cent per dollar sales tax for a host of county facilities project.

The actual language of the resolution stated the county would use the money for “the acquisition, construction, equipping and installation of expansions of the County Courthouse, the County Government Annex Building, County Libraries, and the County Code Enforcement Office, all to be owned and operated by the County, including the acquisition of all property, both real and personal, necessary therefor.”

The County posted the resolution on its web site once discussion of the 2009 SPLOST got serious this past fall. Voters on March 17 will be asked to approve a new SPLOST, again for 1 percent, but this time to run for six years.

In December of 2008, as required by law, the county ran an advertisement in the Enterprise, the legal publication for the county, indicating that, as of June of 2008, the county had spent only $167,217 of the $4.6 million.

At the Jan. 27, 2009, BOC meeting, County Finance Director Jeff Benko told the commissioners that even given their authorized spending for the current fiscal year, they still had $4,237,808 left to spend.

That document was not distributed to public, but I was able to get a copy by officially asking via an open records request.

The County is supposed to commit the money during the time period covered by the tax. The 2003 SPLOST is set to expire in November of this year, meaning the county has to make its decision on how to spend the remaining $4.2 million relatively soon. The next fiscal year starts on July 1, and the county is about to begin the budgeting process.

The resolution passed by the BOC is not what voters see when they cast their ballots. The ballot language simplifies the issue before the voters.

I asked last week, via an open records request, for the actual resolution behind the 2009 ballot issue. To be allowed to collect the tax for the extra year, the county also had to enter into intergovernmental agreements with the four incorporated areas of the county. I asked for these agreements as well.

The BOC approved these documents at its final meeting of 2008–on Dec. 16. As is usually the case, citizens were not given a chance to see these documents at the meeting.

The intergovernmental agreement was signed on Dec. 16, prior to the BOC meeting, and it stipulated how the county and Bishop, Bogart, North High Shoals and Watkinsville will divide up the proceeds from the SPLOST, if voters approve it.

The state will take 1 percent of the intake for administration of the tax. Of the remaining 99 percent, the county will get 85.8 percent and the cities will get the remaining 14.2 percent. The calculations are based on the population counts for the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county from the 2000 U.S. Census.

The actual division is: Watkinsville (7.99 percent), Bogart (4.00 percent), North High Shoals (1.67 percent) and Bishop (0.55 percent).

The county is estimating that total intake for the tax across the six years will be $40.4 million, but any lesser amount received will be distributed based on the agreed-upon percentages.

The tax expires when $40.4 million is collected, or in six years. Given the current economy, the $40.0 million appears to be a very generous estimate.

The intergovernmental agreement–and the resolution passed by the BOC on Dec. 16-- spells out in detail the projects for the cities and the county. Since everyone in the county will be voting on these same projects whether they live in the incorporated or unincorporated parts of the county, the distribution is important to everyone.

I’ve copied this part of the agreement and put it on the companion web site for Oconee County Observations.

Streets, roads and bridges make up the largest category of expenditure for each of the four incorporated areas as well as for the county at large.

The intergovernmental agreement also stipulates that all projects listed will be funded concurrently, meaning that if the county only takes in 90 percent of the $40 million, or $36 million, each of the projects listed would receive 90 percent of the listed amount.

The intergovernmental agreement also stipulates that all facilities funded by the 2009 SPLOST will be available to all Oconee County residents, regardless of whether they live in the incorporated or unincorporated parts of the county.

The last day to register to vote is for the March 17 special election is Feb. 16.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for the county, called the Dec. 17 meeting on the courthouse at the request of BOC Chairman Davis, according to documents obtained by the Banner-Herald and on its web site.

Provost said he did this because “citizens” raised the question at the Oct. 21, 2008, public meeting on the upcoming SPLOST.

That meeting in on my Vimeo site, and it shows that one citizen, Charles Baugh, president of Citizens for Oconee’s Future, did ask about the courthouse.

According to the memo from Provost, Baugh had a lot of impact.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

SPLOST Language Shows Oconee County Wish List

Two Front Teeth Not Included

Bishop will get a community shelter, roads, streets and bridges, and town hall renovations.

Bogart will get a "streetscape facility" composed of roads, streets and bridges, and sewer facilities.

North High Shoals will get water facilities, roads, streets and bridges, a town hall, and a community building.

Watkinsville will get public safety facilities and equipment, recreation and park facilities, roads, streets and bridges, and water and sewer facilities.

Oconee County will pay down its debt on its recreational facilities, on the county jail and on the emergency operations center. It also will add water and sewer facilities, roads, streets and bridges. It will get recreational, historical and scenic facilities, fire stations and equipment, and communication facilities. And it will get farmland protection.

What’s the catch?

Voters on March 17 must approve a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax "for a period of time not to exceed six consecutive years" to pay for the things on the wish list.

The tax is estimated to raise $40.4 million. At least that is what will be stated in the ballot language that those who cast their votes will see before selecting either the Yes or No option.

The ballot language does not spell this out, but the state will get $400,000 just for collecting the tax. Of the remaining $40 million, the city and towns will get $5.7 million and the county will get $34.3 million.

The actual resolution behind the ballot language spells out the maximum amounts that the cities and the counties will spend in specific areas, such as for county roads ($8 million) and farmland protection ($0.5 million).

That presumes the county will collect the $40.4 million, or an average of $6.7 million over the next six years.

The county currently has a SPLOST in place, due to expire in November of 2009. The average collected for fiscal years 2006, 2007 and 2008 was $5.4 million, and the current fiscal year, 2009, is likely to be below that average.

It is doubtful very many people will be paying close attention to these details.

In November of 2003, when the current SPLOST was on the ballot, 82 percent approved, but only 1,696 went to the polls, or 10.2 percent of the registered voters at the time.

In November of 1999, when the previous 1 percent SPLOST was on the ballot, 75 percent approved, but only 2,152 votes were cast, or 14.4 percent of the registered voters.

Across the state, research has shown that SPLOST votes get more support when turnout is low than when it is high.

So far, no one has done much of anything to encourage voting on March 17. In November, the county had 21,579 registered voters, and 79.7 percent of them voted in that election.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko gave members of the Board of Commissioners records on SPLOST spending at its agenda-setting meeting on Jan. 26. I obtained copies through an open records request.

Benko's report shows that the county has approved projects that will largely use up money in the 2003 SPLOST dedicated to recreation and culture, the emergency operation center and the jail.

The county as of the end of December of 2008 had about $1 million left to allocate for water and sewage projects, about $0.9 million left to allocate for roads and about $0.4 million left to allocate for the fire department.

And the county still has not allocated $4.2 million of the original $4.6 million set aside for county facilities. Talk about what to do with the courthouse has been behind the scenes so far, but funds from SPLOST are supposed to be allocated before it expires.

The fiscal year 2009 SPLOST budget, which Benko also released to the BOC on Jan. 26, shows only $185,474 allocated for county facilities, including $75,000 for a new roof for the library.

It is clear the county is going to be doing a lot of spending for county facilities from the current SPLOST once voters make their decision on the next one on March 17.

In addition to the 1 percent SPLOST sales tax, the county has a 1 percent educational sales tax, which was approved in 2006 and runs for five years, and a 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax, which does not expire. The state collects a 4 percent sales tax, bringing the total to 7 cents on the dollar for most purchases.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Oconee Commissioners Want More Budget Involvement

Smiling is a Nice Thing

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight decided to move forward with its scheduled budget submittal plans for fiscal year 2010 but with a higher level of involvement of the commissioners compared with the past.

The Board approved a motion to accept the submittal plan given it by Finance Director Jeff Benko with the stipulation that the commissioners could join in the discussions as they progressed.

Benko meets with the department heads as well as with the constitutional officers such as the sheriff to discuss budget requests in the process of preparing the county’s budget.

Commissioner John Daniell, who just joined the Board last month, initially suggested a more formal procedure in which the commission would create committees made up of at least two commission members to help develop the budget.

He made that request after being told at the Jan. 27 BOC meeting by Board Chairman Melvin Davis that the Board does not have a committee that deals with finances. "Mr. Benko, Mr. Theriault and myself" handle that, Davis said. Theriault is the county administrative officer.

Control over county affairs has been an ongoing issue with the Board. Davis chairs the commission but he also is the full-time administrator of the county. The other four commissioners serve in part-time positions.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said he favored more involvement of the commissioners in the budget, but he said he was not interested in getting involved in the day-to-day running of the county.

Chairman Davis only smiled at the comment.

In other action tonight, the Board approved a request by state Representative Robert Smith for a change in his plans for development of 12 acres of land in Porter Creek subdivision off Barnett Shoals road outside Watkinsville.

Smith developed the subdivision on part of what he said was the family farm. He came before the Board to ask for a change in his concept plan for the subdivision so he could split the 12 acres into six lots.

Three residents of the subdivision spoke against the change at the meeting, claiming that it would produce lots not of the same character as the others in the subdivision. After similar protests at the Planning Commission on Jan. 20, that body recommended against the change Smith was proposing.

Smith offered the BOC a different configuration for the development, reducing the number of lots from six to five. The Board approved that change.

Commissioner Horton spoke against the switch in the plans and was alone in voting against it, saying that he did not feel it was appropriate to approve a change that was offered at the last minute and was not formally part of the request.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood reminder the Board that it had done the same thing on Jan. 6 when it rezoned property on U.S. 441 for an office park with a concept plan when the developer had asked for a shopping center.

Horton made the motion to make the swap in zoning that night.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Oconee BOC Vote Misreported

"Whoa" in Dictionary, But Not in Transcript

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 27 decided to move forward with the study of the feasibility of a local Transfer of Development Rights program, but it would be hard for readers of the local newspapers to know that.

Under the headline “Commissioners say no to TDR funding” The Oconee Enterprise reported in its Jan. 29 edition that the “board said, ‘Whoa’” to a request that it hire a consultant to help move the TDR program along.

The Athens Banner-Herald on that same day reported that the “commissioners this week stopped short of spending money on developing a transfer-of-development rights program for the county, though they remained open to the idea.”

The Oconee Leader did not report on the commission meeting at all in its Jan. 29 edition.

What the Board did at its meeting on Jan. 27, as I reported on my blog on Jan. 28, was vote to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for a consultant who would study how a TDR program could be implemented in the county.

The Board did not vote to spend the money on the consultant. The usual procedure is to get the bids and make a decision about moving forward based on those bids.

Here is the motion, formulated by BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, that the Board approved at its meeting:

“To authorize the (TDR Study) Committee to come up with a detailed scope of services for the RFP to get a competitive quote to present to you (the Board).”

The County put the video of the meeting on its Vimeo site on Jan. 31. I had made an audio recording of the meeting, and I transcribed it the day the Enterprise and Banner-Herald stories appeared to make sure what I had written was correct.

The transcription shows that the conversation took several turns, with the Commissioners initially quite cautious about how to respond to the unanimous recommendation of the 16-member citizen Committee. Once Finance Director Jeff Benko told them there was money in the budget for the study, they became more positive.

According to the traditions of journalism, words that appear within quotation marks in a news story are supposed to be the exact words as spoken by the person to whom they are attributed.

The transcription shows, of course, that no one said “Whoa” at the meeting, and perhaps the Enterprise was simply taking a little license at that point.

The transcription also shows that the Board did not vote to “come up with the scope of the work,” as the paper reported, though that is pretty close to the final language of the motion.

The Board did not add, as the paper reported, that “The BOC is making no commitment.”

Commissioner John Daniell said that, and Commissioner Chuck Horton agreed. All they were stating is standard procedure.

The Enterprise reporter, publisher Vinnie Williams, was sitting in the second row at the meeting, just in front of me. Williams, may or may not have written the headline over the story, which is clearly wrong.

The transcription does show that Williams took considerable liberty in presentation of the direct quotes in the story.

The paper also reported that the Transfer of Development Rights Study Committee has 10 members. I confirmed through a telephone conversation on Jan. 30 with Wayne Provost, Strategic and Long-Range Planning director, that none of the 16 members originally appointed to the committee and listed on the county’s web site had resigned.

The county’s free circulation weekly, the Leader, has a closing deadline for stories that is nearly a week before the paper appears in mailboxes. It rarely covers meetings as a result.

The lead front-page news story in the Leader’s Jan. 29 edition was about the appointment of John Jackson as superintendent of Oconee County schools. The Banner-Herald reported that story in its edition of Jan. 23.

The story about the BOC vote on the TDR report in the Banner-Herald on Jan. 29 was only three paragraphs long and appeared beneath the financial markets reports in the paper on page A6.

The paper’s Oconee County reporter, Adam Thompson, did not attend the Jan. 27 meeting. The story quotes Commissioner Jim Luke as the source of its information.

As the transcript shows, Luke was initially very cautious about going forward with the TDR study, but he shifted and made one of the strongest statements in favor of the motion.

“I think I’m going to change my mind and suggest that we just go on and ask for a quote on services and plan on moving forward unless we discover something in that process that we don’t like,” he said.

The vote to do just that was approved unanimously.

A TDR program, if enacted, would establish development rights for areas of the county that are not now developed and allow the owners of those rights to sell them to developers in other designated areas of the county.

When the owners sell their development rights, they would have to put a restrictive clause on their property stating that it could not be developed in the future.

The developers who purchase the development rights from the "sending" areas would be able to use them in the "receiving" areas for such things as more intensive development, priority access to water and sewage capacity or development prohibited by current zoning regulations in the county.

News coverage of the county in local newspapers is not likely to get much better in this economic crisis. The Banner-Herald reported on Jan. 28 that it is cutting 15 jobs, including from the newsroom. Reporter Thompson will be covering Madison County as well as Oconee County as a result.

The good news is that every citizen can be a journalist, and the citizen journalism move around the country is becoming quite strong.

The Knight Citizen News Network has just releasee a handbook to help citizen journalists know how to gain access to government records and meetings. It is just one of many resources on the site available to citizens who wish to be journalists.

Oconee County already has quite a number of citizen journalists. I’ve prepared this list of those I know of.