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
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.