Sunday, April 26, 2009

Oconee BOC Scheduled To Debate Chair's Power

Are Effectiveness and Efficiency Enough?

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis would like the discussion of the proper relationship between the chairman and the other members of the board to be narrowly focused.

"I thought I heard you say it," Davis prodded Harry Hayes from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vison Institute of Government at the April 7 BOC meeting. "You were commenting regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of county operations and saying that is a very positive..."

"Yes sir," Hayes responded. "I was very impressed with the operations I saw."

Hayes had just presented to the board a report he produced for the commissioners on county government "Form and Function," and Davis was pleased with the response Hayes gave.

Commissioners Jim Luke, Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton have made it clear, however, they are more concerned about process than efficiency and effectiveness.

Each had stated strongly in a meeting with Hayes and Davis on Sept. 25, 2008, that Davis achieves his efficiency and effectiveness by withholding information from them, making it hard for them to make independent assessments of the issues before the county.

Luke and Horton said they are unwilling to go through their second four-year terms–which started in January--without fixing that problem.

The dispute should play out in public again on May 6 and possibly on May 7 when Davis and the four commissioners are scheduled to meet to discuss the structure of county government.

Davis clearly would like to set the parameters for discussion narrowly. In giving notice of the meeting, he said the board will "discuss and review the Oconee County Assessment performed by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government."

The May 6 session is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. in the meeting room at Veterans Park Community Center on Hog Mountain Road. The board will meet the next night if necessary.

The report by Hayes is an outgrowth of the meeting held back in September. That was a "retreat," but the board did not go out of town, as it had a year earlier, because of the controversy that 2007 improperly announced meeting in Madison caused. The Board met in September around the table in the Grand Jury room at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

I did not attend that meeting, but Sarah Bell, who ran unsuccessfully against Davis in the Republican primary election in July, did attend, and she made an audio recording of the meeting for me.

The conversation around the table makes it clear that the central issue is the differential power of the chairman versus the other four commissioners.

Davis uses his power, Hale, Horton and Luke said, to keep them in the dark, further eroding what little power they have and rendering them ineffective in their efforts to check the power of the chairman.

Davis brought Hayes to the meeting to serve as a moderator, and Hayes began by saying he would like to hear from the other commissioners about their concerns.

Luke was the first to speak. He said he has been frustrated since he joined the board in 2005, but his frustration is now at a new level. Much of the frustration is that the county department heads, who are hired by Davis and report to Davis, don’t release the information the commissioners say they want.

Horton said he is particularly frustrated that the commissioners are forced to vote, often with only the small amount of information Davis will release. Davis, on the other hand, only votes in the case of a tie. According to Horton, Davis controls the vote through his control over information, but his influence is out of the public limelight.

Hale, who started her third term in January, said the problem of information control is long-standing and has been discussed at numerous retreats in the past. She said she often cannot get department heads to give her information even after repeated requests.

Commission John Daniell, who began his first term in January, attended the meeting, but he did not speak. Don Norris, unseated by Daniell and a usual ally of Davis, did.

Norris said he has no complaints because he also got the information he wanted.

According to the enabling legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1998, the chairperson of the Board of Commissioners has the duty and responsibility "to act as the chief executive officer of the county."

The legislation doesn’t do a lot to spell out what it means to be "chief executive officer," but the chairman serves full time. The four commissioners do not.

The enabling legislation also says that the chairman runs the meetings of the commissioners.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the board at the September meeting that a big part of the problem is that there is no clear division between the executive and legislative branches of government in the county.

The enabling legislation puts Davis in control of the executive branch of government, but it also makes him chairman of the legislative branch–the commission. He has the authority to control the agenda and run the meetings.

The board members didn’t respond to this civics books explanation of the problem. They said if they had more information they could be effective as members of the administrative team with Davis.

Haygood technically is appointed by the commission, but he has been held that position since December of 1988–before any member of the current board was elected.

Even if the board would accept that it is a legislative body rather than a part of the executive, it would need information to be effective. It is hard to be a check on power without the ability to independently gather and assess what is going on.

Before writing his report, Hayes and the CVIOG interviewed department heads, elected constitutional officials (sheriff, tax commissioner, clerk of courts, probate judge), the chairman, the commissioners and Haygood.

He also compared Oconee County’s governmental structure with that of Barrow, Cobb, Gwinnett, Houston, Jackson, Murray, Newton, Paulding and Whitfield counties.

The report lists a number of changes the county might make in five different areas: (1) operational communications and decision making; (2) lines of authority; (3) agenda setting procedure; (4) meeting procedure, and (5) budget procedure.

For example, Hayes said commissioners could divide up the departments and "agree to be responsible for contact with those departments."

The commission could annually appoint the clerk and county attorney, and the administrative officer could be assigned to jointly report to the chair and the commission.

The chair and the vice chair could set the agenda, rather than just the chair. Commissioners might be given time to report on their concerns at meetings. A budget drafting committee might be created and include commissioners.

Davis pushed hard at the Sept. 25 meeting to get Hayes to include the conversations with the department heads, all of whom report to him, in the report. They were unlikely to be critical.
And they were likely to allow Hayes to reach his conclusion that the current system is "efficient and effective."

"Changes that you might feel like you need to make will potentially have consequences relative to efficiency and effectiveness," Hayes told the commissioners after he took the underhand pitch of a question from Davis on that topic. "It is always a trade off."

Davis may or may not have liked what Hayes said next.

"The most efficient form of government you’ve got here in terms of county government is a sole commissioner," Hayes said. "There’s no debate. No motions. No second. The commissioner just announces the decisions."

Hayes didn’t state the obvious. Control by one individual may be efficient and effective, but it isn’t necessarily good government.


The pictures used with the audio clips above were taken at recent commission meetings. The picture of Don Norris came from a video clip.

The audio from this portion of the Sept. 25, 2008, meeting is available at

Part 1

Part 2

Here is an abstract of the session and a key to recognizing the voices:

On Sept. 25, 2008, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners met in the Grand Jury Room at the courthouse in Watkinsville. The meeting began with an open discussion of BOC structure and control. Harry Hayes from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the Univeristy of Georgia moderated. This is an audio recording of that discussion. To follow, you'll have to recognize voices. Here is the order of speakers: Chairman Melvin Davis; Commissioner Chuck Horton; Commissioner Margaret Hale; Commissioner Don Norris, turned out of office and ending his term; County Attorney Daniel Haygood; Harry Hayes; Horton; Haygood; Hayes; Haygood; Hayes; Haygood; Commissioner Jim Luke. (All speakers have now been introduced.) John Daniell, elected to replace Norton, was present but did not speak.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Oconee Connector Delayed Again

Got a Deferral

Oconee County officials and Atlanta developer Frank Bishop got a setback today when the Georgia Department of Transportation deferred the awarding of a bid for the Oconee Connector Extension, which will open up land for development in the county, including for Bishop’s proposed Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway.

GDOT opened six bids on April 17 for the project and was expected to select the successful bidder today. The department offered no explanation for the deferral.

The state today did make awards for a $1.2 million truck weigh station on I-20 in Douglas County and for $1.1 million for traffic signal upgrades in Spalding County. It deferred awarding a project in Coweta County, which had a low bid of $23.2 million.

The low bid for the Oconee County project was $13.5 million. The 1.5 mile Oconee Connector Extension will form a loop from SR 316 at its current intersection with the existing Oconee Connector back to Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe’s. It will include a flyover of SR Loop 10.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners rezoned the 63 acres for the shopping center in October but said Bishop could not begin any construction on the $76 million Epps Bridge Centre until bids for the Oconee Connector Extension had been let by the state.

Oconee officials had said they expected the state to call for bids for the Oconee Connector Extension several times during the last year, but the state delayed doing so until Nov. 21, 2008. On Dec. 12, 2008, the department opened eight bids, and on Dec. 24 it rejected all eight for unspecified reasons.

Without this road, Epps Bridge Centre will have only one entrance and exit–on Epps Bridge Parkway opposite the Waffle House restaurant.

Oconee County has promoted the project and even put up $6 million to purchase right of way for the roadway.

The state has now reimbursed the county this amount, but county Finance Director Jeff Benko told the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night that the loss of interest income on the $6 million contributed to the $1.2 million revenue shortfall the county is expecting for this fiscal year in its general fund.

The county also is running a deficit in collection of revenue for the Utility Department, Benko said Tuesday night. The Utility Department operates with a budget separate from the general fund. The county is considering a water rate increase to address an expected shortfall next year.

GDOT posted its decision to defer awarding bids on the Oconee Connector project this morning, and I sent email messages to County Administrator Alan Theriault and Public Works Director Emil Beshara asking them if they had any insights as to when the decision might be made. Neither has responded.

The bidding has been closely followed by county officials, and The Oconee Enterprise contained a story in the April 23 edition in which Beshara was quoted as saying he expected the low bidder to get the award.

The Enterprise touted that story, based on the opening of the bids, with a "Seen First" red label indicating that the paper had posted the story on its web site on April 20. The state actually had announced the opening of the bids on April 17, and I had posted that information and a link on this blog on April 17.

The Enterprise story on April 23 contained an error the paper has made in earlier stories as well. The Connector will intersect with Epps Bridge Parkway between Lowe’s and the building containing the Starbucks, not between Starbucks and McDonalds, as the paper reported.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oconee BOC Agrees to Consider Mitigation Resolution

Damage Here, Mitigate Here

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight agreed to give preliminary consideration at its regular meeting on May 5 to a resolution that would state the county’s preference that future mitigation of damage to streams and wetlands in the county be carried out in the county.

A draft resolution for the county to review was presented to the Board by Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Sheehan prepared the resolution after discussing mitigation issues in the county with me. I spoke to the Board before Sheehan presented the resolution and asked that the resolution be put on the May 5 agenda.

Under current federal law, a developer wishing to destroy streams or wetlands that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, as most streams and wetlands do, must obtain a permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

When the Corps grants a permit, it requires the recipient to restore wetlands and streams to "mitigate" the damage being permitted by the Corps.

Sheehan said the resolution tells the Corps that Oconee County wants the Corps to require when granting permits for streams and wetlands in Oconee County in the future "that any compensatory mitigation required by the Corps for impacts to wetlands and streams be conducted within Oconee County itself."

In my comments to the Board I said I contacted the River Basin Center and Sheehan after I learned about mitigation required by the Corps for the Epps Bridge Centre shopping mall on Epps Bridge Parkway.

The Corps granted developer Frank Bishop of Atlanta a permit to pipe and fill about a half mile of flowing streams and wetlands on the 63 acre site and to mitigate that damage on a stream in Greene County.

I told the Board that the rules had been changed since Bishop was granted his permit and that two mitigation banks in Oconee County now are in development–one on tributaries to the Apalachee River and the other on Rose Creek in the southern part of the county–that did not exist when Bishop made his application.

In addition, the Corps has designated the Georgia Environmental Policy Institute's Georgia Wetlands Trust Fund as an organization that can receive monies to use for preservation and restoration projects in Oconee County in lieu of mitigation. This option was not available to Bishop.

The resolution drafted by Sheehan acknowledges the changes in Corps procedures as well as the emergence of the three options.

The three-page resolution states "wetlands outside of Oconee County rarely, if ever, provide the level of values and services to Oconee County residents as those found in Oconee County" and notes that "an explicit goal of the Oconee County Comprehensive Plan is to ensure that the county’s natural resources are protected."

The proposed resolution states "that Oconee County Board of Commissioners urges the Army Corps, when making compensatory mitigation site decisions for impacts to wetlands and streams in Oconee County, to compel permitees to engage in compensatory mitigation in the following order of preference: (1) on-site, in-kind mitigation; (2) mitigation in Oconee County in wetlands or streams with a high conservation value; (3) mitigation in Oconee County."

Sheehan also prepared an abstract for the resolution that summarizes the main points in the resolution itself.

The meeting tonight was for setting the agenda for the May 5 meeting. Public comment at agenda setting meetings follows actual reading of the agenda, so both Sheehan and I were asking the Board to modify the agenda just approved.

Chairman Melvin Davis thanked Sheehan for her comments but did not respond to the request that the item be placed on the May 5 agenda.

Commission Chuck Horton said he thought the May 5 agenda should include at least a preliminary discussion of the proposed resolution. Commissioner Margaret Hale agreed, and Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke said they were comfortable with that decision.

Davis asked Commission Clerk Gina Lindsey to amend the agenda to include the item.

Friday, April 17, 2009

GDOT Opens Bids for Oconee Connector

Six Firms Want the Work

The Georgia Department of Transportation today opened and read six bids ranging from $13.5 to $15.7 million for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension that will lead to the proposed Epps Bridge Centre shopping mall on Epps Bridge Parkway. The department said it will announce its decision on the bids in a week.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners in October set the issuing of bids for the roadway as a condition for beginning any construction on the $76 million shopping center.

GDOT also opened bids today for three projects in Douglas, Coweta and Spalding counties.

Oconee officials had said they expected the state to call for bids for the Oconee Connector Extension several times during the last year, but the state delayed doing so until Nov. 21, 2008. On Dec. 12, 2008, the department opened eight bids, and on Dec. 24 it rejected all eight for unspecified reasons.

The 1.5 mile Oconee Connector Extension will form a loop from SR 316 at its current intersection with the existing Oconee Connector back to Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe’s. It will include a flyover of SR Loop 10.

Without this road, Epps Bridge Centre will have only one entrance and exit–on Epps Bridge Parkway opposite the Waffle House restaurant.

The low bid opened today was submitted by G.P.S. Enterprises Inc. for $13,465,759, and the high bad was offered by Pittman Construction Company for $15,652,040.

Both firms had submitted bids that were opened in December, though the estimate in each case was lower the second time around. The G.P.S bid in December had been $13,969,803, while the Pittman bid in December had been $16,724,618.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources on April 1, 2009, issued a variance to Atlanta developer Frank Bishop to allow him to violate the 25-foot buffer on a half mile of flowing streams and wetlands on the site.

In issuing the variance, the state informed Bishop that "the amount of land cleared during construction must be kept at a minimum." Bishop has indicated he plans to disturb 62 of the 63 acres that make up the site and to pipe and fill the flowing streams.

On Jan. 20, Bishop was given a permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers to pipe and fill the streams and wetlands on the site and to mitigate the damage by restoring wetlands and streams on a site he purchased in Greene County between the Oconee County line and Greensboro.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Oconee Water and Sewer Rate Increases Proposed

Paying More to Drink and Flush

Oconee County residential water users will be asked for the second time in a little more than a year to pay more for water if the Board of Commissioners approves a budget request made Wednesday night by Utility Department Director Chris Thomas.

Thomas presented a budget that calls for an increase of 31.8 percent in the base water rate, or the minimum amount paid by water customers. That rate will increase from its current $14.04 per month to $18.50, if the proposal is approved by the Board.

The rate increases are needed to compensate for a decrease in water sales and consequent decrease in revenues for the Utility Department, Thomas said.

For $18.50 customers would receive 2,000 gallons of water per month. Under both the current and the proposed scheme, water rates increase with use. Thomas proposed that at each step in the rate scheme water would cost 10 cents more per 1,000 gallons used.

For example, the rate for each additional 1,000 gallons of water used up to 5,000 gallons would increase from $3.80 per 1,000 gallons to $3.90 per $1,000 gallons. At the highest level of use–more than 20,000 gallons per month–the rate per 1,000 gallons would go from $6.72 to $6.82.

The Board of Commissioners increased water rates in the county on April 1, 2008, but only for those who used large amounts of water. For those using more than 12,000 gallons of water per month, the rate of increase was 30 percent or more.

Thomas said at the special meeting of the Board on Wednesday to review budgets requests for the 2010 fiscal year that the county has not increased the basic water rate since 1998.

The 2008 rate increase did not change the base rate and was presented as an attempt at conservation pricing. Thomas acknowledged at the Wednesday night meeting that he could not determine if the conservation pricing had decreased use, given restrictions on water use imposed by the state.

The 2008 increase did not affect commercial users, but the rate increase Thomas proposed on Wednesday night would increase the commercial base rate from $14.04 to $18.50, and the rate per 1,000 gallons of additional water used from $4.80 to $4.90.

Commercial users at present and with the new plan would pay the same per 1,000 gallons used above the base regardless of how much was used.

Sewer rates also would increase, if the Board accepts the proposal put forward by Thomas. The residential base would go from $12.48 to $15.48, or an increase of 24.0 percent. The commercial base rate would go from $21.51 to $25.51, or an increase of 18.6 percent. In both cases, the base rate would provide for 2,000 gallons of treatment.

Residential rates for sewage above the base rate would increase from $2.39 to $3.22 for each 1,000 gallons treated, while the commercial rate for each 1,000 gallons treated would go from $2.84 to $3.52.

The Utility Department had revenues of $3.3 million for the first eight months of the current fiscal year. That means the department has only four months to make up the $3.2 million needed to reach the projected budget of $6.5 million.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, the Utility Department fell $1.2 million short of its projected budget of $7.1 million.

Thomas said he hopes the county implements more frequent rate increases in the future so customers are not confronted in the future with the kinds of dramatic increases in the base rate he is proposing this year.

Thomas said even with the increases he is proposing, Oconee County citizens would have a lower base rate for water than residents of Barrow County and Winder, though it would be higher than in Walton and Jackson counties.

At the April 7 BOC meeting, when Thomas first said that he expected to be proposing rate increases for water and sewage services, he also indicated that the Utility Department was slowing work on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County.

To same money and because of decreased need, the county plans to move forward with land acquisition but delay other parts of the project, Thomas said. Oconee is a junior partner with Walton County on the project.

At the end of 2008, the Utility Department was serving 8,497 water customers and 1,298 sewer customers, according to figures Thomas released on April 7. The number of water customers was 380 higher than a year earlier, while the number of sewer customers was 87 higher.

The BOC will hold a public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2010 budget from 6:30 to 7 p.m. at the courthouse on May 26.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tax Protestors Ignored Oconee SPLOST

Nice Park for a Protest

Less than a month after Oconee County citizens approved a 1 cent on the dollar sales tax for the next six years, tax opponents are being asked to show up at an anti-tax rally on April 15 at Oconee Veterans Park.

No opposition surfaced for the March 17 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax renewal, which was approved by 71.2 percent of the 1,457 voters who turned out to vote. Those who went to the polls made up only 6.6 percent of the registered voters in the county.

The Tax Protest is being organized by Bill Mayberry, who ran unsuccessfully for coroner in the July Republican primary. Those interested are being asked to "join in a public display of protest, outrage, disbelief, bewilderment and anger" at 11 a.m. at the new county park.

No mention is made in the email flier Mayberry is circulating indicating which taxes, if any, are preferred. April 15, of course, is the deadline for filing federal and state income tax returns.

A review of the record of Oconee County votes on local sales taxes going back nearly 30 years indicates a broad base of support for that tax–at least among those who turn out to vote. Mary Lane in the Oconee County Board of Elections office pulled those records for me.

On Nov. 4, 1980, Oconee County voters narrowly turned down a 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax. Of the 4,206 persons who voted in that election, 49.6 percent voted in favor of the tax.

That was the last time the county ever put a sales tax vote before the voters at a major election when turnout generally is high.

In an election on Dec. 7, 1982, only 1,448 turned out to vote, and 74.7 percent of them approved.

That vote in 1982 put in place a tax that does not require renewal by voters and that today makes up one of three cents on the dollar collected by Oconee County for local use. The state also collects 4 cents on each dollar spent. Groceries are exempted from the state sales tax, but not the local sales taxes.

Voters in June of 1985 approved the first SPLOST overwhelmingly, with 96.6 percent voting affirmatively. SPLOST was renewed in 1987, 1991,1995, 1999 and 2003. All of these were by big margins, with the exception of 1987. That 1987 vote was the closest for a local sales tax after the 1982 LOST approval until the vote on March 17.

In September of 1997, voters approved the first Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales tax, again for 1 cent on the dollar. Voters renewed that tax in 2002 and again in 2006.

The 1,037 voters who approved the March 17 tax was the smallest number of voters to support a local sales tax back to and including the unsuccessful LOST vote in 1980, with the exception of the SPLOST renewal in 1987.

The records for the elections for the taxes prior to 1995 do not include the number of registered voters at the time of the vote, so it is not possible to compare turnout rates back beyond that point.

The 6.6 percent turnout rate on March 17 is the lowest since the SPLOST vote of 1995 and considerably below the 24.1 percent vote in the most recent ESPLOST vote in July of 2006.

The number of registered voters has more than doubled in the county since 1995, yet the number of people who voted in the SPLOST election was 332 fewer in 2009 compared with 1995.

The most recent tally of tax intake for SPLOST–March returns for January collections–was up slightly from a year earlier. The county has eight more months to collect on the current tax, and it should reach the projected amount of $25 million by that point–the end of November for September receipts.

The county would continue to collect the current SPLOST through the November collection regardless, and the new tax would take effect the following month, which would be the beginning of the next fiscal quarter. It will run for six years from that point.

Veterans Park, where the tax protestors are planning to meet on April 15, would have been an appropriate place for an anti-SPLOST protest as well.

To build the very beautiful and very large park, the county went into debt. The current SPLOST is and the SPLOST approved on March 17 will pay down that debt.

SPLOST cannot cover the operating costs for the park, however, which means the county has to cover those costs through other sources, such as from LOST and property taxes. A walk or drive around the park gives a sense of how extensive those maintenance costs are going to be as the park comes fully operational.

There also have been cost overruns with the project.

Whether the protestors will praise the county for raising taxes to build the park where the protest is being held or condemn the county for doing that remains to be seen.

Or perhaps the protestors will support SPLOST and other local taxes at the rally through their silence, as they did in the runup to the March 17 vote.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Oconee Board of Education Learns Power of Bob Smith

Kings and Court Jesters

Underplayed and unexplained in last month’s controversy involving the self-proposed salary increase for the Oconee County Board of Education was the role of the state legislature generally and local Representative Bob Smith and Senator Bill Cowsert specifically in Oconee County governance.

The legislature has control not only over the salaries of the members of the Board of Education, but also over the salaries of the members of the Board of Commissioners. It also controls the structure of local government, even determining how the board members are elected.

The legislature will act, however, only if Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert–or whoever holds their seats in the legislature–agree that it should do so. The representative and senator representing the county are kings when it comes to what is called local legislation.

In the controversy regarding the Board of Education’s efforts to increase salaries, Bob Smith played the role to the hilt.

The basic facts in the controversy are not in dispute. The Oconee County Board of Education decided it wanted to increase the salaries of its members.

Board Chairman David Weeks’ salary was to go to $10,000. Vice Chairman Mack Guest’s salary was to go to $7,000. The other three board members would get $6,000 each. All five currently receive only $1,800.

Smith was quoted in the March 12 issue of The Oconee Enterprise as saying Weeks approached him about a month earlier asking him to introduce legislation to increase the salary of members of the Board of Education.

Weeks has said he did what Smith asked and put an advertisement in the Enterprise about the requested change and held a public vote. Only board member Kim Argo voted against the increase at that meeting.

Smith then decided he was not going to introduce the legislation. "I don’t think it is right," he is quoted in the Enterprise as saying.

Without the support of Smith and Cowsert, local legislation of this sort isn’t going to pass the state legislature.

In Georgia, unlike in many other states, the type of local government and school board is not fixed in the constitution, but rather is determined by local or enabling legislation.

As a result, county governmental structure varies considerably around the state. Oconee County has five commissioners, all of whom are elected at large. Athens, which is merged with Clarke County in a unified government, has a mayor and 10 commissioners. All of the Clarke commissioners are elected by districts.

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners decided in 2007 to stagger their terms so all five of them could not be tossed out together, they had to get approval from the state legislature. That meant Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert had to agree to the change. The School Board made this same change a year earlier–again with local legislator approval.

Either the local representative or senator can introduce the legislation, but it is extremely unlikely to be passed if both do not agree on the changes.

There are no rules on how this is to be done, the conditions that the local legislators can set or the procedures to follow. If Bob Smith had told David Weeks he would introduce the legislation only if Weeks came to his office dressed as a court jester, Weeks would have had to find the costume.

And the local legislators can change their minds, leaving the jester with an unneeded clown suit. Weeks has had the experience.

"He always indicated his support to us, and then at the 11th hour that changed," Weeks is quoted as saying in the March 13 edition of the Athens Banner-Herald. "We never
would have gone through with it if we thought he wasn't going to support it."

Compensation for Board of Education members in the state of Georgia is set by state law at $50 per month plus expenses, but the law allows for an exception, if the legislature approves. And the legislature does that on a case-by-case basis.

In 1999, the legislature set salaries for all Oconee County school board members at $150 a month, or the current $1,800. A year earlier the legislature had set the salaries of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

The chairman of the Board of Commissioners gets 113 percent of the highest base salary of the sheriff, probate judge, tax commissioner or clerk of superior court, whose salaries are set by the legislature. The other four members of the board get 27 percent of the highest base salary of these four office holders.

Each commissioner also gets an additional 5 percent of the respective salary for each four-year term completed and an annual cost of living adjustment. In the current fiscal year, Chairman Melvin Davis is earning $92,276, Commissioner Hale is receiving $23,098, Commissioner Chuck Horton and Commissioner Jim Luke each earns $22,048, and the newest commissioner, John Daniell, receives $20,998.

The Rules of the House of Representatives refer to legislation of this sort as local legislation. House Rule 18.1 state that the Committee on Intragovernmental Coordination "shall not favorably report any legislation affecting a political subdivision unless all of the Representatives whose districts are wholly or partially located within the political subdivision shall sign such legislation."

In the case of Oconee County, that one person is Republican Bob Smith, representing the 113 District, which includes all of Oconee County but only parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties.

"When the Committee on Intragovernmental Coordination staff reports to the chairman that local legislation meets the technical requirements for which the staff inspects and has been signed by the requisite local delegation members under Rule 18.1, the legislation shall be favorably reported as a matter of course," according to House Rule 18.2.

That "requisite local delegation member" is Bob Smith.

Senate Rule 3-2.2 says that "In order for local legislation to be favorably reported by the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee, such legislation must be signed by a majority of the Senators representing the political subdivision affected by such legislation."

For Oconee County, that "majority" is Republican Bill Cowsert, representing the 46th District, made up of all of Oconee County but only parts of Clarke and Walton counties.

If Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert agree, the Oconee County Board of Education can increase its salary. If either of them doesn’t, it cannot. It doesn’t really matter what the members of the school board want.

The only way voters even have a say is when they vote for or against Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert–or whoever holds those offices.

Though no rule of the House or Senate specifies this, local bills supported by the local House or Senate member are passed by that chamber as a matter of what is termed "local courtesy." This works because each member defers to the others on these local laws.

The Georgia constitution does require an advertisement of the intent to introduce a local act be placed in the local organ. In this case, that is the Enterprise.

A one column wide by 2.5 inch deep legal notice appeared on page 5 of the second section of the Feb. 5 edition of the paper, under the category heading Public Notice. The headline to the advertisement read: NOTICE OF INTENTION TO INTRODUCE LOCAL LEGISLATION.

The advertisement was so well hidden in the paper, it seems, that even the Enterprise reporters and editors failed to notice. The paper didn’t print a story about the proposed salary increase for the School Board members until the March 12 edition.