Thursday, May 28, 2009

QuikTrip Wants Variance for Oconee Connector-Daniells Bridge Road

Fewer Trees, Less Buffer, More Parking

QuikTrip Corporation is asking the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to allow it to reduce the number of shade trees, eliminate the minimum screening buffer and allow parking inside setbacks so it can build a gas station and convenience market at the busy Oconee Connector-Daniells Bridge road intersection.

The county’s planning staff has found that the request does not meet the conditions to grant two of the variances and has recommended that the third be denied in part. The county’s Public Works Department did not comment on the first two variances and supported the planning staff recommendation on the third.

The 1.3 acre lot already is zoned for highway business development, so QuikTrip does not need a rezone. What it does want is permission to develop the site at odds with the county’s Uniform Development Code, or the coding regulations of the county.

The Board of Commissioners already has granted QuikTrip a temporary construction and grading easement on the adjacent Fire Station 8.

On June 2, the Board will hold a public hearing before deciding whether to grant the variances.

The proposed gas station would have 16 fueling positions and a 4,555 square foot building for the convenience market and would have entrances from both the Oconee Connector and Daniells Bridge road. The Connector is three lanes wide at that point, while Daniells Bridge road is two lanes wide.

The property is bordered on the north and east by the fire station. Just further east on Daniells Bridge road is a hotel currently under construction. The property for the gas station is owned by A. Paul Keller, Jr., and JJMB, LLC. According to the tax records, the mailing address for Keller and JJMB is 1010 Prince Ave., Athens.

The UDC requires that 14 shade trees with a minimum height of 10 feet be planted in the landscape strip between the gas station and the roadway. QuikTrip only wants to plant seven.

The planning staff said this requested change would result in "reductions to the quality and consistency of the landscaping on the site along one the most traveled corridors of the county."

QuikTrip wants to eliminate the evergreen screening buffer required between the gas station and the fire station.

The planning staff concluded that "If this request were approved to reduce the opaque buffer requirements, substantial detriment to the public good would occur in the forms of a reduction in the rural character of the area and lack of buffering between incompatible land uses."

QuikTrip also wants to be allowed to build two parking spaces inside the 30-foot setback from the right of way for the Oconee Connector and four parking spaces inside the 30-foot setback from the right of way for Daniells Bridge road.

The planning staff–and the Public Works Department–recommended acceptance of the violation of zoning requirements on Daniells Bridge road but not the Connector.

"If this request is approved to allow parking spaces in the required parking space setback along Daniells Bridge road," the staff concluded, "there should not be a substantial detriment to the public good. However, parking spaces inside the setback adjacent to the Oconee Connector should not be allowed."

The report does not explain the difference between an adverse effect for the two roads.

The Oconee County BOC decided on Dec. 4 to spend $400,000 in improvements for Daniells Bridge road to justify its decision to rezone property just east of the blind curve on the road for development of an office park.

Those improvements, which would include an upgrade to the intersection of Daniells Bridge road and the Oconee Connector, has not begun.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Oconee Officials Met Secretly to Discuss Assembly Session

Davis Set Two December Meetings Without Public Notice

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis sent out an email message on November 14 of last year to 18 local governmental officials, including the four other members of the board, inviting them to a special meeting on Dec. 1 with Sen. Bill Cowsert and Rep. Bob Smith.

The secret meeting, held at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain road, is a previously undocumented part of the complex story about the unsuccessful efforts by the Board of Education to increase its salary during the most recent legislative session.

Two members of the Board of Commissioners told me that Rep. Smith used the meeting to sharply criticize the Board of Education for always wanting more state money, though he made no specific reference to Board of Education salaries.

The critical comments, on the surface at least, makes it particularly odd that the BOE and Smith subsequently discussed legislation that would have increased the salaries of the board members.

The two commissioners who told me of that discussion, Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton, confirmed they attended what was billed as a "Pre-Legislative Session" and that Davis was there, meaning that a quorum of the board was in attendance.

The Nov. 14 email message from Davis also went to members of the Board of Education, making it possible a quorum of that body was present as well.

The county has not released any agenda for the meeting, any minutes or any record of who was in attendance, though I filed an open records request asking for precisely that information.

The county also has not provided any documentation that the legally required advance notice of the meeting was given to the public and the media, though I asked for that as well in my open records request.

County Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost, saying he was acting at Davis’ suggestion, called another meeting of 16 elected and appointed governmental officials for Dec. 17. That meeting, held at the courthouse, was to discuss future plans for the courthouse building.

That Dec. 17 meeting also was not properly announced, so the county had two meetings at odds with the state’s open meetings laws in a little more than two weeks. The Dec. 17 meeting did not become publicly known until The Oconee Enterprise wrote about it on Feb. 5 of this year.

Davis left the Dec. 17 meeting after greeting the other guests because two other commissioners, Don Norris and Horton, were in attendance. The three would have made a quorum, as Hale, Horton and Davis did at the Dec. 1 meeting, which Davis did not leave, according to Hale and Horton.

I filed my open records request regarding the Dec. 1 meeting with the county on May 10, and County Clerk Gina Lindsey sent me an email message on May 14 indicating that she had 10 pages of email regarding "the Pre-Legislative Session sponsored by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce."

Lindsey asked me to let her know when I wanted to come by the courthouse to review and copy the pages. Lindsey is responsible for handling open records request for the county.

When I dropped by late in the afternoon of May 15 and read the email messages, I noted to Lindsey that there was no reference in any of them to the Chamber of Commerce. She said Chairman Davis had told her that the session was sponsored by the Chamber. She said she had not even known of the meeting until I filed my open records request.

On May 20 I called Howard J. Whitfield, the new president of the Chamber of Commerce, to ask if the Chamber had any records of the Dec. 1 meeting that were available to the public. He said he had been asked by someone else about the meeting and, being new to the job, had asked Zoe Gattie in his office for details.

According to Whitfield, Gattie checked with former President Charles Grimes and was told the Chamber had not been a sponsor of the Dec. 1 meeting.

The state’s Open and Public Meetings Law excepts from the definition of a public meeting one called by another "agency" provided the meeting is "at places outside the geographical jurisdiction" of the governing body and "no final official action is to be taken" at the meeting. The Civic Center is both in Oconee County and under the control of the Board of Commissioners.

In the email message Davis sent to county officials on Nov. 14, he said that "Arrangements have been made for the Pre-Legislative Session" with Cowsert and Smith. The session, according to the email, was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. and conclude by 5 p.m.

"Please come prepared to discuss subjects you desire to be addressed during the ‘09 legislative session," Davis said.

The message was sent to Hale and Horton as well as Commissioners Jim Luke and Don Norris. It also went to Christine Franklin, then head of the school board, and board members David Weeks, Mack Guest, Tommy Malcom and David Williams. Superintendent John Jackson also was on the list.

Others on the invite list were North High Shoals Mayor Jeff Thomas, Bishop Mayor Johnny Pritchett, Bogart Mayor Terri Glenn, Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken, and Chuck Williams, chairman of the Oconee County Development Authority and president of North Georgia Bank.

Copied on the email were Alan Theriault, county administrative officer, Jane Greathouse, executive assistant and deputy clerk, and John Daniell, elected to Board of Commissioners in November.

Hale and Horton could not remember which of those invited actually attended but said members of the Board of Education definitely were present, that Smith directed the discussion at the school board and that discussion of education was a key part of the meeting.

Davis sent an email message to Smith and Cowsert on Nov. 8–four days after all three of them we re-elected–saying that "We have discussed the Oconee County/Legislators pre-session discussion earlier" and asking which dates "suite you for this session." He suggested a breakfast meeting on Nov. 19, Nov. 21, Dec. 1 or Dec. 8.

On Nov. 14 Davis wrote back by email to the two of them saying that "As per my conversation with you personally and your office, it appears the time of December 1, 2008 from 3:00PM to 5:00PM works best for the two of you." He sent out the message to the invitees later that day.

Despite the negative feedback from Smith at the Dec. 1 meeting, the Board of Education and Smith went forward with discussions about salary increases for board members.

Smith sent me an email message on April 13 indicating that "sometime in late February, 2009, I instructed my legislative aide to have the Oconee County School Board attorney communicate directly with my legislative counsel regarding the legislation being proposed."

The Legislative Counsel Office drafts laws for legislators and, according to Smith the office drafted two bills, one on March 2 and the other on March 10. Smith said "My first preview of the original draft (LC 5574) was on a Thursday following the March 2, 2009 draft."

That would have been March 5.

Smith sent me copies of the two pieces of legislation. Both set the salary for the chairperson of the Board of Education at $10,000, the salary for the vice-chairperson at $7,000, and the salaries for the other three members at $6,000. All five board members currently receive $1,800 per year.

The first of the two bills made the effective day of the legislation July 1, 2009. The second made the effective date July 1, 2010. Otherwise the bills are identical.

The Enterprise edition of Feb. 5–the same one that revealed the secret Dec. 17 meeting called by Provost for Davis–contained a required legal advertisement announcing the intent of the Board of Education to introduce local legislation to change school board member salaries.

The Georgia constitution requires that this type of advertisement be placed in the local newspaper before the legislature takes action on it. The Enterprise, however, didn’t write a story about the increase until more than a month later.

On March 9, the Board of Education voted in its regular public meeting to approve the request for the pay increase. Then Chairman David Weeks, Vice-Chairman Mack Guest, and members Tom Breedlove and Mike Hunter all voted yes. Board member Kim Argo voted no.

The March 9 motion included the effective date of July 1, 2010. That was the date included in the second piece of legislation drafted by legislative counsel for Smith on March 10. The first piece of legislation, with the earlier effective date, had been drafted seven days earlier.

According to the story in the March 12 edition of the Enterprise, Smith told the paper on March 11 he was not going to introduce the legislation.

Weeks didn’t send the copy of the minutes of the March 9 meeting to Rep. Smith and Sen. Cowsert until March 11.

I learned that as a result of an open records request I filed with with the Weeks on April 7.

I asked for "Any and all written correspondence or electronic correspondence between you, other members of the Board of Education, or representatives of the Board of Education, including but not limited to the Board’s attorney, and Representative Bob Smith of the Georgia General Assembly written or sent between Nov. 1, 2008, and this date related in any fashion to the salary of members of the Board of Education."

I received a package of materials from the BOE postmarked on April 20.

Included was the March 11 email from Weeks to Smith and Cowsert as well as an email from Superintendent John Jackson on that same date.

In that email, Jackson told Weeks "If Bob doesn’t agree to the January 2011 start, let’s take our lumps and move on. I know you like to win, but this isn’t just about us. It can be a huge distraction for the School District and give the press lots of fodder. We’ve learned a very valuable lesson; now let’s move on–raise or no raise."

The documents I received from the Board of Education in response to my open records request show that new board member Breedlove was particularly aggressive in responding to criticism about the proposed salary increase.

He also was most direct in criticizing Smith.

"Prior to our meeting we were told by Representative Smith that he was supporting us, that he would carry the legislation forward," Breedlove wrote in an email to James M. Allison on March 13.

"Only when we had the public meeting this Monday and successfully voted to move it to the House did Mr. Smith do an about face and break his commitment to follow through with the support he had given us," Breedlove continued.

"You may commend him for that," Breedlove wrote. "Or you might read into this that perhaps there were already other motives he had in mind for steering in an alternative direction to that which he had personally committed."

Breedlove copied this and his other similarly worded messages to Smith.

The list of recipients and persons copied on the email messages I received were sometimes incomplete, with printing stopping in the middle of an address.

On a March 13 message that Breedlove sent to "Ms. Goodroe," however, it is clear he copied BOC Chairman Melvin Davis. The original message from Liz and Mike Goodroe to which Breedlove was responding also included Davis’ name.

The connection, at least in one sense, was appropriate. The Dec. 1 secret meeting that Davis called was the early stage of the behind-the-scenes negotiations of elected officials that flared up in public three months later with the Board of Education salary fiasco.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Oconee Public Hearing on Budget Set for Tuesday

Not a Routine Year

The public will be given a chance to comment on the proposed 2010 Fiscal Year Budget during a scheduled half-hour hearing Tuesday night at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Almost no details of the budget have been released to the public or discussed in the media, so it is unlikely the few citizens who show up at the 6:30 p.m. hearing will have much to say.

That’s not because the budget is likely to be a routine one.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said to me in response to questions I asked him on Thursday that the commissioners are being told the projected revenue from all sources for the budget starting July 1 will be about $21 million.

That is $2 million less than the county expected to collect this year and $4 million less than the county had budgeted to spend this year. The budget approved for fiscal year 2008-2009 drew $2 million from county reserves to cover the $25.2 million in projected general fund expenditures.

According to a report county Finance Director Jeff Benko gave to the BOC on April 21, the county had collected $17.3 million as of the end of the first three-quarters of the year, or 75 percent of the expected revenue.

Benko told the board, however, that he was projecting a $1.2 million shortfall in general fund revenue by the fiscal year’s end on June 30.

Collections from the penny-per-dollar Local Option Sales Tax--one important source of county General Fund revenue--have been running behind most of this year and were down $127,580 in April compared with a year earlier.

The county has frozen spending in many categories to bring expenses in line with revenue.

The Utility Department, which operates with its own budget, had collected only $3.7 million during the first nine months of last year, Benko reported. That represented 57 percent of income, versus the expected 75 percent.

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told the BOC at a budget meeting on April 15 that he needs a 32 percent increase in base water rates and a 24 percent increase in base sewer rates as part of his budget for 2009-2010.

Commissioners in short order will have to approve that budget and the rate increases as well as figure out how to deal with the $4 million General Fund shortfall. They can cut back on expenses, dip again into the reserves, increase property taxes or do some combination of these.

The budget is supposed to be in place by July 1, and the first item on the BOC agenda at the regular meeting on Tuesday night is the 2010 Fiscal Year Budget.

That meeting starts immediately behind the official public hearing, meaning the public will be commenting without the information given to the commissioners only a few minutes later.

Among the missing pieces of information is the Tax Digest, or the estimated worth of property in the county. The value of property in the county determines the amount of money a set property tax will produce.

The Athens paper has written extensively about budget problems in Athens-Clarke County but largely ignored the problems in Oconee. The local weeklies have been even worse.

Without more information, the public isn’t in a very good position to ask tough questions about the budget at the required legal public hearing Tuesday. Only a half hour has been set aside at any rate.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oconee BOC Spends 3+ Hours in CEO Debate

How Many Chefs the Question?

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners spent three plus hours tonight trying once again to figure out how to decrease the power of the board chairman and increase the power of the other four commissioners without changing the county’s enabling legislation.

In the end, the board agreed to meet again in five weeks to consider what County Attorney Daniel Haygood can put on paper that reflects what the four commissioners want and what Haygood feels they can achieve given the county’s existing legislation.

That legislation makes the board chairman both the head of the legislative branch of the county’s government and the chief executive officer of the county. Haygood told the board tonight he thinks the chairman must have broad powers as chief executive officer and the board cannot do much to change that.

In the end, the chairman can sue the board if the chairman thinks power has been improperly usurped, and the courts generally have sided with the chairman, Haygood said.

What the board can do, however, according to Haygood, is change the reporting lines in the county.

The board told Haygood to create the legal documents needed to make the county’s administrative officer and finance director report to the full board, rather than just to Chairman Melvin Davis, as is the case at present.

The organizational chart the four commissioners said they want to adopt would put Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Finance Director Jeff Benko under the control of the full five member board, along with County Attorney Haygood and County Clerk Gina Lindsey.

The other department heads in the county would report to the administrative officer.

The four commissioners and Davis, working with facilitator Gordon Maner of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, next began elaborating on the things they want Davis as chief executive officer to do.

Included on the list were such things as economic development, public relations, maintaining a full-time office in the courthouse and coordinating intergovernmental activities.

Haygood said he would add to the list some language that elaborated on "what is the general overriding responsibility of a CEO."

Commissioner Margaret Hale expressed frustration with the discussion at several points, saying "I don’t see anything happening."

Davis made his position clear as well: "I don’t think you can have individuals reporting to five people."

The four commissioners had set as a goal having a new organizational chart and new operating procedures in place by July 1.

Haygood said he will send pieces of his proposed document spelling out the responsibilities of the chairman, the administrative officer, the finance director and others to the board for discussion and reaction before the next meeting on June 23.

Earlier in the evening, Haygood had warned the board in another context that meetings by email were covered by the state’s open records laws, meaning they had to be open to the public.

He did not reconcile that advice with his request for feedback on his proposed documents so that the board could hash out differences and come to at least general agreement before it meets again on June 23.

Ten people, including two reporters, attended the meeting tonight. Once again, they were not given any chance to talk. No mention was made during the three hour and nearly 30 minutes of discussion of citizens or how they might be involved in the discussions before any new procedures were put into place.

[I made a video recording of the meeting and will upload it to my Vimeo site as soon as I have edited it.]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oconee BOC to Resume Conversation on May 19

What To Do With a CEO?

Oconee County’s four commissioners, who will resume their conversation about county administrative procedures next week, have been much clearer about what they do not want Board Chairman Melvin Davis to do in the future than about what they do want him to do.

The four said at the May 6 work session that they do not want Davis to be the sole day-to-day manager of county activities. They want a county manager–or someone with a title similar to that–to run the county under their and Davis’ supervision.

What Davis is supposed to do under a new organizational chart proposed at that May 6 meeting is something the four commissioners and Davis are set to negotiate at another work session starting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the Community Center in Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road.

At the end of the May 6 session, the five agreed tentatively to an organizational chart for county government that removes Davis from his position as chief executive officer of the county sitting between the board and the departmental administrators and places him off to the side with unspecified responsibilities.

The problem is–or at least could be–that the chairman of the board of commissioners is designated in the county’s enabling legislation as both chief executive officer of the county and chairman of the commission. In other words, he is both head of the executive and head of the legislative branches of the county government.

Davis made it clear at the May 6 work session that he feels he ran for reelection five years ago and again last year promising to be a strong chief executive, and he isn’t going to be in favor of the new organizational chart until he knows what is left for him to do in any new configuration.

Davis’ comment about his election raises implicitly a question about what citizens thinks about the current way county government operates and about how it should operate in the future.
No one knows what citizens think, because no one has asked.

At the May 6 meeting, Gordon Maner of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia made it clear that citizen input was not only not being sought at that time, but was not even wanted.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said at one point at the May 6 meeting that he thought the public ought to be given a chance to speak, but neither he nor anyone else has offered any concrete plans for soliciting citizen input.

What the commissioners have said is that they want to have in place by July 1 a new set of operating procedures for county government, and they expect to implement those procedures via formal votes of the commissioners.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Jim Luke and Chuck Horton have made it clear that they feel past efforts to solve informally what they see as a problem with county government have not worked.

In their view, Chairman Davis does not provide them with the information they need and does not allow the department heads he controls to do so either.

The meeting on May 6 started with a discussion of creating a county manager–either with that title or another–to do what Davis currently does.

Harry Hayes, also of the Carl Vinson Institute, reviewed for the board his study of Oconee County’s government and of nine other counties selected for comparison.

Each of the nine selected counties has a full-time chairman and an administrative officer, as does Oconee County. The counties vary, however, in how much power they give to the chairman.

In fact, the 159 counties in Georgia have a variety of different forms of government. Hayes reported that 73 percent of them (116) have either an administrator or a manager, but how much power that administrator or manager has varies.

Commissioner Chuck Horton, who has served on the Oconee County Board of Education, said at the May 6 meeting he felt the county could benefit from having a strong manager, somewhat like a school superintendent, with the four commissioners and chairman providing policy guidance to that manager, whom they could hire and fire.

At present, Alan Theriault, who holds the title of administrative officer, is a type of county manager, but, according to the organizational chart Davis provided Hayes for his study, Theriault reports only to Davis.

How far the county can move in the direction of creating a strong manager under the control the whole board without changing the enabling legislation is an open question, but Horton was clear in saying at the May 6 meeting he is willing to change the legislation if necessary.

The enabling legislation for the county can be changed, however, only by the Georgia General Assembly. Local Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert are under no obligation to introduce such legislation, and it will not pass the Assembly without their support.

In the past, local members of the Assembly have been willing to introduce legislation only if there is agreement among all the affected parties. In this case, that would seem to include Davis.

Senators and representatives in Georgia serve two-year terms, which means they can be kept on a short leash by the voters. If citizens had a strong feeling about what changes they wanted in the local enabling legislation, Cowsert and Smith probably would listen.

Since no one has asked, however, no one knows what changes the citizens might want in that legislation. The legislation could be changed to increase or decrease the number of commissioners, to create districts for the commissioners and to establish an elected executive who would not be part of the commission.

At present, the only thing that differentiates Davis from the other four commissioners is that Davis chose to run for commission chairman. All five commissioners run at large, meaning they have the same constituency.

In the November general election, when all five ran without Democratic opposition, the four commissioners each got more votes than did Davis, who faced a write-in candidate.

Rather than try to decrease the power of Davis, the four commissioners could try to increase their own power. At present, County Attorney Daniel Haygood and Clerk Gina Lindsey report to the full commission, and the board could turn to these two as sources of information.

Haygood said at the May 6 meeting that the Board already calls on him more now than in the past.

At that meeting, however, the board made it clear it wanted County Administrative Officer Theriault and County Finance Director Jeff Benko to report to the full board, rather than just to Davis, as is now the case.

Davis’ response has been that this will be inherently less "efficient and effective," and CVIOG’s Harry Hayes said the county could lose efficiency and effectiveness as a result of the proposed changes.

Do citizens want an efficient and effective government, or a more open, though perhaps less efficient and effective, one? Would citizens like the commissioners to have the resources to serve as a check on the power of the chairman?

Tools and techniques for learning the answers to these questions exist, but someone has to want to use them.

The focus at Tuesday’s meeting is supposed to be on what to do with Davis in his role as chief executive officer of the county. Unlike in business, as County Attorney Haygood reminded the four, they cannot just fire him.

Note: The video from the May 6 meeting is available at my vimeo site.

Friday, May 08, 2009

GDOT Mitigates Oconee Site in Jackson, Hall

Better Upstream than Down?

The Georgia Department of Transportation will mitigate damage it will do to streams and wetlands on tributaries to McNutt Creek in Oconee County with stream and wetland credits it has purchased from commercial mitigation sites in Jackson and Hall counties.

GDOT has purchased 3.2 wetland credits from Jeffco Boys LLC of Atlanta for a mitigation bank the company operates on the Middle Oconee River in Jackson County and 3,268 stream credits from Environmental Services Inc. of Stone Mountain for a mitigation bank that firm operates on a tributary to the Middle Oconee River in Hall County.

GDOT needed these wetland and stream credits as a condition for a permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension that will create a loop from SR 316 at the current intersection with the Oconee Connector back to Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe’s.

The roadway will cross streams and wetlands as it makes the loop.

The GDOT project is being undertaken to open up land for commercial development. Oconee County in October rezoned 63 acres between Lowe’s and SR Loop 10 for a $76 million shopping center to be built by Frank Bishop of Atlanta.

The USACE permit, reissued on Jan. 22, 2008, to GDOT, allows it to impact 726 linear feet of intermittent streams and 0.4 acres of wetlands to build the roadway, identified in state and federal documents as the Jennings Mill Parkway Extension, but referred to locally as the Oconee Connector Extension.

Bishop also will fill or pave over streams and wetlands on the site of his shopping center, and USACE. allowed him to mitigate the damage with credits from a site Bishop purchased in Greene County, south of Oconee County.

The Jackson County site is upstream of the bridge on which SR11 crosses the Middle Oconee River, according to Tim Funk of Wetland & Ecological Consultants LLC, which operates the site for Jeffco Boys.

The Hall County site, called the Chicopee Woods Mitigation Bank, is on Walnut Creek in the Elachee Nature Science Center, according to Kevin Middlebrooks of Environmental Services Inc.

Most of the water the Oconee County Utility Department sells comes from the Bear Creek Reservoir, which draws and stores water from the Middle Oconee downstream from these two sites. The reservoir is in Jackson County.

On May 5 the Oconee County Board of Commissioners referred to the citizen advisory Land Use and Transportation Committee a resolution drafted by attorney Katie Sheehan that would put the BOC on record with the Corps of Engineers as preferring mitigation in Oconee County for damage done to streams and wetlands in the county.

The advisory committee is to report back to the BOC once it has reviewed the resolution, which Sheehan drafted after talking with me and reading several blogs I had written on mitigation for Bishop’s shopping center.

Sheehan told me on Thursday that she had sent to the Land Use and Transportation Committee a revision to the resolution that would state a preference for upstream as opposed to downstream sites for mitigation if none were available in the county.

Sheehan is a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Jeffco Boys and Environmental Services Inc. were the low bidders for the mitigation credits, according to Bobby Adams in the GDOT Office of Procurement. Jeffco Boys bid $21,440 for the 3.2 wetland units and Environmental Services Inc. bid $179,740 for the 3,268 stream credits.

GDOT issued an invitation to bid on the Oconee Connector Extension credits and 19 others on Feb. 24, 2009. Adams said the state delayed purchasing the credits needed for the project because of a lack of funds. The state has not yet released the names of the competing bidders.

On April 24 GDOT deferred awarding a bid for the Oconee Connector construction. Adams told me on Tuesday that the "lack of mitigation credits was a big part of that deferral."

Mary Dills from USACE told me on Wednesday that the Corps had received the paperwork for the wetlands credits but had not yet received the paperwork certifying that the stream bank credits had been purchased.

Adams said that check was cut earlier this week.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Oconee BOC Outlines New Organizational Chart

Board Gains, Chair Does Not

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners spent a little more than three hours tonight in a work session that ended in tentative agreement on an organizational chart that would greatly increase the power of the four commissioners and decrease the unchecked authority of Board Chairman Melvin Davis.

The board cancelled its meeting for tomorrow night and agreed to meet instead at 5:30 p.m. on May 19, again at the Community Center of Veterans Park, to flesh out the organizational chart by detailing the responsibilities of the chairman and the county administrative officer as well as of others on the chart.

After rejecting other charts drawn by board members, Davis tentatively agreed to an organization chart (see picture at left) in which the county finance officer, administrative officer (operational officer), clerk and attorney report to the Board of Commissioners as a whole. At present, only the county clerk and the county attorney report to the full board.

The organizational chart that was tentatively accepted distinguished between the responsibilities of Davis as chairman of the Board of Commissioners and as chief executive officer of the county, but it assigns no responsibilities to Davis as CEO. The board agreed to spell those out at the meeting on May 19.

Davis’ acceptance of the proposed chart, largely crafted by the other four commissioners, is tentative based on learning the responsibilities of the chairman as CEO, he said.

The board would have to formally vote on a set of administrative rules to make the organizational chart a reality. The board stated as a goal putting such changes in place by July 1.

The board reached agreement after discussing for much of the evening alternative charts to describe the operation of the county.

At the suggestion of Harry Hayes of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, the board tried to focus on changes that could be made without changing the enabling legislation for the county.

The conversation crossed the line at several points, however, with Commissioner Chuck Horton emphasizing that he wanted the chairman of the board to be required to vote. At present the chairman votes only in the case of a tie, as prescribed in the enabling legislation.

Commissioner John Daniell said he wanted the chairman to vote and also wanted to change how salaries for the chairman and the other four commissioners are set. The latter also is controlled by the enabling legislation for the county.

To change the enabling legislation, either Rep. Bob Smith or Sen. Bill Cowsert would have to introduce new legislation that would be passed by the state General Assembly. The two are under no obligation to introduce such legislation.

The meeting covered a lot of territory from an earlier session on Sept. 25, 2008. Complaints about the inadequacy of information filtering down to the commissioners were made forcefully by Commissioners Jim Luke, Margaret Hale and Horton.

Ten members of the public, including two reporters, sat in the back of the room for much of the discussion. Gordon Maner, also from the Carl Vinson Institute, served as facilitator for the meeting and said at the meeting’s outset that the public would not be allowed to participate in the discussion.

Horton said near the end of the meeting that the public should have a chance to voice its preference on administrative structure before a final decision is made by the board.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Oconee BOC Faces Power of General Assembly

What’s the Meaning of Unanimous?

If Oconee County’s four commissioners this week decide they want to change the way the county operates through new enabling legislation, they are going to have to deal with the power of state Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert.

Smith and Cowsert, neither of whom is elected solely by Oconee County voters, will determine if new legislation controlling the county’s governmental structure gets introduced in the General Assembly when it next meets. Any legislation introduced will not pass without their support.

By tradition, legislators usually have required that requests for changes in enabling legislation have the unanimous support of the government officials making the ask. The Board of Commissioners is made up of four commissioners and a chairman.

But Chairman Melvin Davis only votes in case of a tie.

Does that mean that the four commissioners alone determine what changes are requested, or will Davis, who isn’t very likely to support any change in the enabling legislation that weaken his power, have a voice as well?

Rep. Smith and Sen. Cowsert get to make the rules.

The Oconee County Board of Education learned this lesson earlier this year when it sought to increase its own salary. Smith refused to introduce the legislation in the end, though Board members said he earlier indicated he would.

Cowsert stayed in the background on that controversy, letting Smith set play king.

The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night at the Meeting Room in the Community Center at Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road in what is labeled a work session. As required by law, it is open to the public.

Technically, the board will talk about a report produced by Harry Hayes, local government projects director at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The real issue is what the four commissioners, each of whom serves part time, wants to do to counter the power of Davis, whose position is full time.

The structure of county government is not set by the state’s constitution, but by locally tailored enabling legislation passed by the General Assembly.

In 1998 the General Assembly made the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners both the "chief executive officer of the county" and the "presiding officer at all meetings of the board."

The chairman gets to "state every question coming before the board and to announce the decision of the board on all subjects," to "execute all ordinances, resolutions and contracts in behalf of the county," and to "act as ceremonial head of the county government."

A departmental organizational chart for the county, given to Hayes by Davis and included in the report Hayes gave to the commission on April 7, shows Davis pretty much in charge of everything.

Hayes’ report lists changes the board 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.

None of these involves changes in the enabling legislation.

The level of frustration of the four commissioners, voiced at a Sept. 25 meeting with Hayes, suggests they may not be satisfied with anything less.

Commissioners Jim Luke, Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton said they have tried repeatedly to make changes in the past without success. Commissioner John Daniell, whose term started only in January, did not participate in that discussion.

The complaint of Luke, Hale and Horton was simple. They said Davis, through his control the department heads, keeps them from getting the information they need to do their jobs.

The challenge before them now may be convincing Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert to do something about it.

Party won't play a role here. Cowsert, Smith, Davis and the four commissioners are all Republicans.