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.

4 comments:

Oconee Democrat said...

You should add an "n" to correctly spell the last name of the Mayor of Watkinsville Jim Luken

Lee Becker said...

Thanks. Fixed it. My apology to Jim for the error.

Mark Fennell said...

Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought all of these peeps had regular jobs and really just served as decision makers for the county given the input received from the county's citizens at public meetings. If I'm right, then it would seem that their service to the county should be on a volunteer basis with nominal stipends for travel or superior performance.

Regarding the school board, I don't see Mr. Guest or Mr. Weeks hurting for supplemental income. In all honesty, I don't even understand their qualifications for the job. Did they publish articles in peer-reviewed journals regarding methods of education or human development? I suspect they were "elected" based on a playground popularity contest.

Obviously, their interest in making money supersedes their interest in providing the best education or the best county services. That's just my $0.02.

Anonymous said...

Our School Board got exactly what it deserved. Does't matter to me what Rep. Smith's intent was. If he did in fact promise to support and then didv't matters not one bit. What matters is that our Board wanted to raise pay during a particularly trying economic period when school employees were being laid off and others did not know from day to day if they would have a job. I look forward with glee to being able to vote some of them out of the positions.
It was just greed on a small scale.