Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Oconee County BOC Chair Asks for Delay of Action on Reorganization

Following Citizen Comments

At the end of a public hearing tonight during which seven citizens spoke, Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis suggested the board should postpone action on its proposed reorganizational plan until citizens have a chance to consider all the options.

The seven speakers were not unified in their reaction to the proposed change, which is designed to strengthen the hand of the commissioners in dealing with county affairs, though most were critical and thought more public involvement was needed before a decision is to be made.

Franklin Shumake told the board that the county should “make a thorough study in the next 12 months of what forms of government will be most beneficial for our county” before any action is taken.

Kate McDaniel said the county needed a citizen “advisory committee” to study the proposed action.

When the last person had spoken, Davis said the board should consider “tabling and postponing” action on the resolution given the comments of the citizens and that a future decision should be taken only “with the public very involved.”

Final action on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for the next regular meeting of the board on Aug. 4. The hearing tonight was the second scheduled on the ordinance, which County Attorney Daniel Haygood drafted after discussions with the board going back to last September.

Board members provided few reactions to the comments of the citizens tonight. Commissioner Margaret Hale once again offered to discuss personally the proposals with anyone who wanted to call her for that purpose.

Two of the seven persons who spoke during the public hearing and two additional citizens addressed the board about the ordinance during the public comment period at the end of the meeting, and during this time Commissioner Jim Luke challenged a response Chairman Davis gave to businessman Mike Power, who had not spoken earlier.

Davis told Power that the full commission was involved in hiring of department heads, and Luke said that certainly was not the case. In the end, Davis withdrew his statement and said he alone hired department heads.

(I was one of those who spoke at the meeting. I asked the commission to pass the ordinance after eliminating a section dealing with the powers of the chairman. I said I felt the section was unnecessary and that the commission should focus on defining its own operating procedures rather than specifying the activities of the chairman.)

The chairman of the commission–the legislative body of the county–also serves as chief executive officer for the county.

Davis had told me in an interview I did with him on July 13 that he planned to ask the board to table the ordinance. He said at that time he had no plans to challenge the ordinance legally if it is passed.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Some Opposition Builds to Oconee County Reorganization Plan

Newspaper Lends Pen

With The Oconee Enterprise leading the way, at least some opposition has built to the attempt by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to change the way the county conducts its business.

The weekly paper has run critical stories at the top of the front pages of the last two editions. It also has strongly attacked in editorials in each of those two papers the four commissioners pushing the ordinance .

The Enterprise also has run letters critical of the four commissioners in both papers.

The commissioners have been working on the ordinance since last September, but they did not allow public comment until they gave it first reading on July 7. Only nine people spoke, with opinions mixed. (I was one of those who spoke, and I criticized part of the ordinance and favored other parts.)

Those with opinions on the proposed ordinance will get another chance to express them tomorrow night in the second public hearing, which will be held at the regular agenda-setting meeting of the commission. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the commission chamber in the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The commission is scheduled to take final action on the proposed ordinance at its regular meeting on Aug. 4.

The ordinance, drafted by county attorney Daniel Haygood, has eight sections. It changes the organizational chart for the county so that the county attorney, the county clerk, the administrative officer and the finance director all report to the full commission.

At present, the county attorney and the clerk report to the commission, but the administrative officer and the finance director report to the chairman of the board of commissioners.

The chairman of the board of commissioners is both the chief administrator of the county and head of the commission, according to the enabling legislation for the county. The commission is the legislative body of the county.

At the meetings leading up to drafting of the ordinance, Commission Chairman Melvin Davis has defended the status quo, while the other four commissioners have called for change.

The proposed ordinance gives the full commission a stronger role in developing the budget for the county, specifies that the board has final authority for hiring of department heads, and gives the board more control than it currently exercises over the agenda of its meetings .

The existing enabling legislation makes the full board of commissioners responsible for the finances of the county, and the proposed ordinance states how the commission wishes to exercise that responsibility. In the past, the four commissioners have been deferential to the initiatives of the chairman.

One section of the ordinance does attempt to assign "leadership" to the chairman in coordination of intergovernmental activities, economic development, public relations and evaluation of county services. The chairman already does each of these things.

(In my comments on July 7, I said it was my view that this section was unnecessary and seemed to be attempting to restrain the chairman rather than specifying full commission responsibilities.)

In last week’s edition of the Enterprise (July 23), the paper had as its top story on the front page an article about a meeting of county department heads in which, according to the article, opposition to the reorganization was voiced.

All department heads now report to Chairman Davis, though the article did not point out that fact.

The headline on the article in the Enterprise was "County staff drags feet." The paper had posted a more restrained version of the same article on its web site on July 17 under the headline "County department heads have questions."

The paper ran a list of 38 questions posed by the department heads on the web site and again in the July 23 edition of the paper. One of those questions was: "Do the commissioners understand the impact of 300-plus county employees and their families and friends as a voting block?"

The editorial in the paper criticized the commissioners for cutting the salary of the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission director during the budget process. Chairman Davis had not included that cut in his proposed budget, but it was added by the other four commissioners.

The editorial about this budget decision was tame compared with the one the paper ran on July 16.

That editorial was in response to a lead story in the paper that Chairman Davis had decided not to accept a salary increase of $4,393 specified in the enabling legislation to take place at the beginning of this year, though Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke were accepting their increases of $1,050 each.

Daniell, as a newly elected commissioner, was not entitled to any increase.

The editorial said: "Only Davis showed leadership, example and class, if you will, and thought, if he did not say, no, it would be indecent, vulgar." (That is the original punctuation in the editorial.)

Also on the front page of the paper, another article carried the headline "Citizens puzzled over BOC shuffle." The article does not quote any citizens, but rather contains quotes from all of the commissioners except John Daniell about the proposed ordinance and its justification.

The July 16 editorial ends with a reminder that Daniell and Hale will be running for reelection in less than a year–if they want to keep their seats.

Oconee County voters overwhelmingly approved staggered terms for the commissioners in 2007 after the commissioners voted to put the issue on the ballot. Hale and Daniell were elected to two-year terms last November.

One of the criticisms of staggered terms is that they mean at least some members of the commission are almost always confronting reelection, making decision-making within the commission more political.

The Enterprise–and at least one department head, it seems–want to make sure no one forgets about next year's elections.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Oconee County Reports Sewage Spills on Calls and Barber Creeks

Two in Two Days

Oconee County had two sewage spills into local creeks last week, requiring formal posting of signs at the sites and the filing of reports to the state Environmental Protection Division.

Both spills were minor, with 1,290 gallons of sewage entering Calls Creek on July 13 and 1,050 entering a tributary to Barber Creek on July 14.

According to the notices the county put on its web site last week, sampling of Calls Creek downstream from the spill indicated fecal coliform levels were below EPD plant permitted effluent limitations and sampling downstream of the Barber Creek spill indicated fecal coliform levels were below detection level.

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told me in an email message today that "due to the size and nature of the spills, EPD did not require creek sampling. In a situation like this, the peace of mind that the sampling provides was worth the extra cost and effort."

Visitors to the popular Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville over the weekend were confronted with a sign where visitors often wade. The sign, pictured on the right, informed the visitors of the spill.
Thomas told me the spill was about a half mile upstream from the sign.

According to the public notice on the county web site, the spill was caused by an accumulation of roots in a sewer line. After the blockage was removed, crews applied lime and removed debris associated with the resulting spill, the notice said.

The spill affecting Barber Creek occurred at the intersection of Malcolm Bridge Road and Rocky Branch Road, according to Thomas, and then followed the ditch on Rocky Branch Road and entered the stream that feeds a pond at the corner of Rocky Branch and Malcolm Bridge roads.

The spill was caused by a traffic incident that severed a valve attached to a pressurized sewer pipe, according to the county report. After the line was repaired, crews applied lime and removed debris and standing water associated with the spill, according to the report.

Barber Creek flows through a large number of subdivisions in the northeastern part of the county downstream from the spill.

On Feb. 24 the county reported a spill of an estimated 8,000 gallons of sewage into Calls Creek near the lift station on Durham Mill Way. The line became blocked, forcing the sewage out of a manhole and into the creek.

The county operates two sewage treatment facilities, the first on Calls Creek in Watkinsville and the other on Barber Creek on Rocky Branch road near the new high school. The Calls Creek plant uses membrane filtration for treatment, while the Rocky Branch facility applies the sewage to controlled hay fields on the site.

The county is in the process of expanding the capacity of the Calls Creek facility. Plans to upgrade the Rocky Branch facility to a membrane filtration plant have been put on hold because of the effects of the economic downturn and the drought on Utility Department revenues.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Daniells Bridge Road Upgrades Put on Hold by Oconee County

Forget the Flags

Travelers along Daniells Bridge Road can expect to see roadway construction in the next month or two at the intersection with the Oconee Connector, but the county has no firm schedule for doing any additional work on the roadway east of that intersection, according to the head of Public Works for the county.

In December, the county had said it planned to finish by the end of June widening of Daniells Bridge Road to three lanes back to just east of the blind curve.

"Assuming the BOC agrees with our final numbers and approach, I’d like this to be completed before the end of this fiscal year (end of June)," Public Works Director Emil Beshara wrote me on Dec. 3, when I asked him to confirm what he had said at the Board of Commissioners meeting the night before. "Weather could cause delays as could availability of contractors."

Beshara told me in an interviews in his office on July 10 that the county is waiting on further development along Daniells Bridge Roadway before it begins the upgrade it presented to citizens back at the end of last year.

Specifically, Beshara said, the county is waiting to see what happens to the 9.1-acre site just east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road. That piece of property, owned by Dolores N. Lance and Dorothy N. Anglin, was rezoned from agricultural and residential use to Office Business Park on Dec. 2, 2008.

The county said at the time of the rezone of that property that it would upgrade Daniells Bridge Road by making it three lanes wide with a center turn lane to the eastern end of the site.

The county committed $400,000 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money to the project. That money had previously been dedicated only for improvements to the Daniells Bridge Road and Oconee Connector intersection.

Beshara said in my interview with him on July 10 that the county does not have enough money to do the full upgrade it presented to the public at the Dec. 2 BOC meeting. Some of that money, he said, must come from the developers of the Lance and Anglin site, who agreed, as is usual in such cases, to make roadway improvements as part of their request for the rezone.

"There is no way we could do this project start to finish with only $400,000," Beshara told me in the interview.

As of this writing, the 9.1 acres remain in the hands of Lance and Anglin, according to the county tax records. Because of the rezone, however, its value has increased from $349,267 to $637,000 for 2009.

When the property was rezoned, Stephen D. Jenkins and Edward Nichols of Athens proposed to build a two-story office building on the site to be known as Perimeter Center. According to documents filed with the rezone request, infrastructure construction plans were expected to be approved by June of 2009, and total build-out was to be completed by January of 2011.

Nothing has been done since the rezone, and the Lance and Anglin property remains the only property east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road that is not agricultural or residential, shown in green, blue or white on the county zoning map.

Lance and Anglin first asked for the rezone in May of 2007, and residents in the subdivisions around the site protested that the development was unsafe because it is located just east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road as the road nearly touches the entrance to SR Loop 10 off SR 316 East.

The BOC turned down that rezone.

Lance and Anglin filed suit against the county, and the matter came back before the board in the fall of 2008 as part of that settlement. More than 400 individuals signed another petition against the rezone, but this time the board approved the rezone after asking Beshara to present it with redesign plans for the roadway.

Just after the rezone, small flags appeared in the right of way on both sides of Daniells Bridge Road, making it seem that some action on the roadway improvements was imminent.

"What you saw out there on the ground starting back in December was the utility location process," Beshara said on July 10. "All those flags out there identified the exact locations of the various underground utilities, including fiber optic, gas, power, telephone, what have you. All those had to be surveyed."

The purpose was to determine which of these, if any, would have to be moved, Beshara said. In the end, it turned out that just a couple "would be under asphalt" and will have to be relocated, he said.

He said when I talked to him that he had not yet seen final plans, being prepared by ABE Consulting. Abe Abouhamdan, the president of ABE Consulting and winner of the bid for design of the widening of the road, also is chairman of the county’s Land use and Transportation Committee.

ABE Consulting is "about 95 percent completed with the design," Beshara told me in the interview.

Beshara said the county road crews might do some paving at those places on Daniells Bridge Road that are now only two lanes wide "if they have a week where they are caught up with their maintenance activities."

In the meantime, he said, citizens will see work being done at the Oconee Connector and Daniells Bridge Road intersection, where QuikTrip plans to build a gas station and convenience store.

Beshara said he expects QuikTrip to start filling the site and adding turn lanes along both roadways within the next six to eight weeks.

The county will then do some similar work to add lanes on the opposite side of the Connector, he said.

QuikTrip will have two entrances, one on the Oconee Connector and the other on Daniells Bridge Road. At some point in the future, a median will be added to the connector, Beshara said at the hearing on the QuikTrip plans on June 2.

At that point, traffic entering the station heading south on the Connector will have to enter the station via the Daniells Bridge Road entrance.

Beshara at that June 2 meeting expressed concern over safety of the Oconee Connector entrance because traffic will be entering the station after crossing two lanes of traffic on the Connector heading north to SR 316.

The long-range plan is for Daniells Bridge Road to be five lanes wide, with two lanes in each direction and a center turn lane. Daniells Bridge Road will serve as the southern part of a loop road circling the busy SR 316 connection with SR Loop 10.

Construction of the northern part of that loop will begin soon, but the southern part will require a second flyover of Loop 10, and Beshara said that probably won’t happen until between 2020 to 2025.

The plans to make Daniells Bridge Road three lanes wide will serve as a stopgap.

Reconstruction of Daniells Bridge Road as part of the QuikTrip roadway will only result in four lanes–two on the north, a center lane, and one on the south, according to Beshara.

It will not be possible to make Daniells Bridge Road any wider than three lanes through the blind curve without taking additional right of way from property along the roadway, Beshara said at the Dec. 2 BOC meeting and again in my conversation with him earlier this month.

An option, which Beshara acknowledged both before the BOC and to me again, was to create a new roadway behind the existing houses on Daniells Bridge Road. This would have the effect of eliminating the curve in the roadway.

The county has never made public a full map of this "circle" route, and I asked Beshara if he had any to make available.

He said he had a drawing of the full loop that he created for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) in April of this year. He gave me an electronic copy of that map.

The blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road is the result of the construction of SR 316 and SR Loop 10.

Beshara showed me a copy of a GDOT map of the County from 1972. A blowup of the map shows Daniells Bridge Road intersecting with Epps Bridge Road and then circling back around to meet Mars Hill Road near the current intersection.

I began the interview on July 10 by telling Beshara "I was trying to get a picture of what the status of the Daniells Bridge Road upgrade is."

In answering, he referred first to the drawings that had been done by ABE Consulting and then started talking about the work at the QuikTrip site.

About 20 minutes into the 45-minute conversation, I asked again about plans for the work discussed when the Lance and Anglin site was rezoned. I’ve edited the next seven minutes of the interview, and it is available for listening and download on my Box.net site.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

QuikTrip Coming to Oconee County Site Despite Denial Of Variance Request

Trees Not a Problem After All

QuikTrip is going ahead with plans to build a gas station and convenience store at the corner of Daniells Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector even though Oconee County refused to grant a variance to its tree ordinance that the representative of QuikTrip said in June was essential for the project.

The project is scheduled to be reviewed tomorrow morning by the county’s Development Review Committee. Representatives of QuikTrip have been informed of the review and invited to attend the meeting, which was scheduled on July 2.

County Planner Brad Callender told me today that QuikTrip has not asked that the meeting be cancelled.

Members of the Board of Commissioners struggled at their June 2 meeting to support the planning department staff, which was arguing that the tree ordinance should be upheld, and at the same time show QuikTrip how much it wanted to have the gas station at the busy county intersection.

Ultimately the board voted 2-1 to support the staff and uphold the tree ordinance. But it voted 2-1 to toss out staff concerns about the safety of one of the two entrances because of proposed parking in what should be a buffer area.

QuikTrip was blowing smoke with its threat not to build the gas station and convenience store unless the county caved in to its request.

A check of the records at the courthouse shows that QuikTrip purchased the property from JJMB, LLC, and A. Paul Keller Jr. on June 10, or eight days after the variance hearing, with the stipulated purpose of building the gas station and convenience store.

The sale price was $1.2 million, according to the notice of the sale appearing in the June 25, 2009, editions of The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader.

At the meeting on June 2, QuikTrip was asking for three variance requests so it did not have to meet requirements of the county’s Unified Development Code.

It wanted to reduce the number of shade trees required to visually screen the parking lot from the roadway, to eliminate a buffer screening requirement behind the convenience store, and to allow parking inside the required 30-foot parking setback from the roadway right of way.

QuikTrip claimed the first variance was necessary because the trees would keep motorists from seeing the signs and visiting the site. QuikTrip wanted to reduce the number of shade trees in the area separating the site from the Oconee Connector and from Daniells Bridge Road from 14 to seven.

Oconee County Planner Callender, in his overview of the first request, showed the board five different QuikTrip sites already developed here in Georgia that meet the tree ordinance requirements in Oconee County.

Nathan Richardson, representing QuikTrip, was undeterred.

"The visual corridor of our sites are critical because, in a convenience store environment, the typical time for someone to make a decision on whether or not to stop is typically 12 seconds," Richardson said. "If they don’t see the sign and have three or four seconds to make a decision, they are not going to stop there."

"We are going to bring flexibility with this and make some changes," Richardson continued. "However the area that is outlined, those (seven) frontage trees, are the most that I can get approved from my corporate office. I will tell you that I did propose to them a site plan that was consistent with the county ordinance and they quickly rejected that during the approval process for the project."

"I appreciate QuikTrip willing to be flexible with us," Commissioner Chuck Horton said in response.

At this point, however, Callender, Planning Director BR White, and Planner Krista Gridley dug in their heels.

"It is very common for commercial sites to ask us to reduce the number of trees because it will block visibility," Gridley said. "We have always in the past said this is our code and they have all planted them."

Commissioner John Daniell asked if it wasn’t simply a matter of moving the trees elsewhere on the site to get the required number of trees planted.

"No, not exactly," Gridley said. "Part of this is placement," she continued, but it "also is a site design issue."

According to Gridley, the county requires the shade trees be planted every 25 foot in the frontage area "because part of what we do is screen property. This is a parking screening requirement. We are trying to screen the parking from the road. We also are trying to provide shade for all of this paved area."

Gridley said that the total tree requirement is based on "not only the number of parking spaces they have but also is based on the amount of impervious surface they have. And it is based on the amount of street frontage they have. They just cover the site in impervious surface. It requires a lot of trees."

Gridley said the county’s code does not allow the developer to move the trees around on the site.

Commissioner Jim Luke said he was not going to second guess the staff on this issue, but "I think our UDC may need to be fine tuned in this area. I think there may be some problems we are not able to address, some speciality issues on sites."

Horton and Luke voted to turn down the variance. Daniell voted against the denial. Commissioner Margaret Hale missed the meeting.

Next Richardson said he didn’t want to plant evergreens to screen the property from the adjacent Oconee County Fire Station because he is concerned about what people would do in the trees.

"The sole issue for this variance request is strictly safety," he said. "It gives room for people to go and hang out behind the trees."

Richardson said he was particularly concerned that people would "hang out and sit back there and drink beer or just hang out with their buddies and don’t want to be seen by anybody and do things that they don’t want anybody to see."

QuikTrip, in its application, did not indicate it intends to sell beer at the convenience store, but the two other gas stations and convenience stores in the vicinity–the Exxon station at Mars Hill Road and Hodges Mill Road and the Shell station on Epps Bridge Parkway across from Lowe’s–both sell beer and wine.

The QuikTrip will be about .4 of a mile from the Exxon Station and 1.5 miles from the Shell station. It also will be about .3 of a mile from Mars Hill Baptist Church, or more than twice the 600-foot setback distance from a church required in Oconee County’s beer and wine ordinance.

That section of Daniells Bridge Road has been designated by the BOC as appropriate for beer and wine sales.

County planners told Richardson he did not need to plant the trees to meet the buffer requirement. After a five minute delay for Richardson to discussion his options–a delay that actually stretched to 20 minutes–Richardson withdrew the variance request and said he would put up a six-foot fence instead.

Part of the request for the parking variance by QuikTrip also posed a "safety issue," according to both the planning staff and Emil Beshara, director of Public Works. Both were concerned about cars backing out of two of the parking spots and colliding with cars using the Oconee Connector entrance and exit to the site.

The other part of the variance request–near the Daniells Bridge Road entrance and exit–did not present a problem, according to the planners, because of excess right of way in that area due to earlier construction of the roadway.

Beshara offered a compromise for the area in question by proposing that the two parking spots be designated for employees of QuikTrip only, though he did not explain why employees would be better drivers than others.

Commissioner Daniell asked why the employee parking was not moved elsewhere on the site, but Richardson said the spots were selected because they can be monitored from inside the store. "We don’t require our employees to park in areas that cannot be seen," he said, because of concern for the safety of the employees.

Richardson said four to six employees are usually at a QuikTrip site at any one time.

Richardson said he was not happy with the requirement that the parking in the buffer area be designated as for employees because of what it communicated to customers, but, by a vote of 2-1, the variance, with this condition, was approved. Horton was the dissenter.

The commission devoted one hour and 45 minutes, including the recess, to the discussion of these three variance requests. I’ve edited the county version of the video to include just this discussion (minus the recess) and placed it on my vimeo site. It is worth viewing.

Local businessman and developer Mike Power expressed his frustration with the board, but not because it invested so much time on the issue but because of its unwillingness to give QuikTrip what it wanted.

"I’m thinking about what I’m listening to and realizing about how much we need this kind of economic development in our county," Power said after Richardson made his case for his second variance request.

"I’m concerned that we’re not showing some flexibility for this type of company. Very concerned. We need the tax base. This is the highest and best use that I can think of since I’ve been sitting here and previously known of this rezone. If we are talking about an ordinance that doesn’t have any more flexibility than that, we’ve got a problem."

QuikTrip, in the end, was less concerned than Power about the flexibility.

Beshara told me last week he expects to see construction work begin on the site in a few weeks.


Note: I made an error in my earlier story about the QuikTrip hearing. I said Commissioner Horton had voted with Daniell and Luke on the parking variance request, and he did not. I’ve corrected the error, which resulted from my misreading of the minutes, which did not print out fully on my printer. I was not in attendance. I’ve corrected the error and apologize to Commissioner Horton.]

Monday, July 13, 2009

Oconee County Chair Will Not Mount Legal Challenge to Ordinance

Wants to Table Ordinance Instead

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis does not intend to mount a legal challenge to the ordinance being considered by the full board that would reduce his power and increase the power of the other members of the board, though he said he has considered it and sought legal advice about the possibility.

He said he has not thought about resigning should the ordinance be passed, but "there’s always options."

Davis said passage of the ordinance "would be a factor that would cause me to make a decision on whether I would or would not seek reelection" when his terms expires in three years.

Davis said he "will probably end up asking the board" to table the ordinance before it and instead launch a larger study of what kinds of changes should be made in the governmental structure of the county.

The chairman, now in his third four-year term, said the county has changed a lot in recent years, but the structure of government has remained the same.

He said one thing that should be considered is creation of districts for the members of the commission. At present, the chairman and the four commission members run at large.

Davis made these comments in a 15-minute interview with me this morning in his office at the courthouse. I had asked for the interview in an email message I sent him on Friday night because I realized he had not been asked these questions by journalists.

I was interested in his answer and thought others might be as well.

Davis said he had been asked before in recent weeks by at least one citizen if he intended to challenge through the courts the ordinance.

"No, I would not do that because of primarily the cost involved," he said in response to my question. "I don’t think that is fair to the Oconee County citizens."

Davis said he has sought legal advice from someone other than County Attorney Daniel Haygood, who drafted the ordinance before the commission after a series of meetings going back to last September. Davis said he is still waiting on the response from one person he has consulted but wanted to keep "private" the identity of his adviser or advisers.

Davis said he has not had conversations with any others who may be interested in challenging the ordinance.

"I think the public needs an opportunity to determine what form of government we have," Davis said. "That’s the public’s decision."

Davis said the public should decide what kinds of executive officer it wants as well as how the commissioners are elected.

"They now run county wide," he said. "Should they still run countywide, or represent a certain district...These are all options that I think the public needs to take a look at."

Neither Davis nor any of the other commissioners sought public comment as the current ordinance was drafted. At the meetings held for the purpose, the public was told specifically it would not be given a chance to speak.

Nine citizens did speak at the first reading of the proposed ordinance on July 7. Public comment is scheduled to be allowed again at the board’s agenda-setting meeting on July 28. Final action on the ordinance is scheduled for the regular meeting of the BOC on Aug. 4.

The proposed ordinance, available with related documents on the county web site, has eight sections.

Section 1 names the ordinance as the "Oconee County Organization Policy."

Section 2 adopts an organizational chart for the county that is radically different from the one currently in place.

The ordinance specifies that the county attorney, the county clerk, the administrative officer and the finance director all report to the full commission, which includes the chairman, and that all department heads report to the administrative officer.

At present, the administrative officer and the finance director report only to the chairman of the board. Department heads also report to Davis.

Sections 3 and Section 4 define the responsibilities of the administrative officer and the finance director respectively.

Section 5 spells out duties of the chairperson of the Board of Commissioners and states that "It shall be the policy of the Board that the Chairperson shall have particular leadership and emphasis" in six listed areas.

The specified areas are coordination of intergovernmental activities, economic development, public relations, development of policies related to future needs of the county, evaluation of county services, and review of reports of the administrative officer and finance director and of staff activities.

If these are the only activities of the chairman of the board, the chairmanship would be a very different position than at present, since all activities of the county currently flow through the office of Chairman Davis.

Section 6 specifies a budget process that involves the commissioners explicitly in the deliberations and creation of the budget. In the past, the budget has been submitted to the commission by the chairman.

Section 7 states that department heads can be hired only with the approval of the board, upon the recommendation of the chairman, the administrative officer and the human resources director. At present the chairman hires and fires department heads.

Section 8 deals with meetings of the board and states explicitly that commissioners "have the right to have a matter placed on the agenda." At present, Davis controls the agenda.

Davis today said, in effect, he was accepting that the board has the right to make these changes.

The type of county government is not spelled out in the Georgia Constitution, but rather in what is called local enabling legislation. Each county asks the legislature to pass laws setting up the type of county government it wants.

Since each county has its own enabling legislation, a court would have to interpret the ordinance under consideration by the Board of Commissioners against the specific legislation for Oconee County.

The county commission system that Oconee County has was established in 1917. According to that legislation, the chairman "shall be the chief manager of the affairs of said county that are within the jurisdiction of said board of commissioners acting as its executive officer."

The legislation put the chairman in charge of making contracts and purchasing for the board and said the chairman "shall discharge all the duties of the board of commissioners during interim between the dates of the board's meetings."

The full commission, according to the 1917 enabling legislation, has responsibility "over all matters concerning county property, county taxes..., in establishing and changing ... election precincts, in examining and auditing and setting accounts of all offices having the care, management, correction, keeping and distribution of moneys belonging to the county or appropriated to its use and benefit, ... in establishing, altering and abolishing roads, bridges and ferries..."

The enabling legislation for Oconee County has been changed many times over the years, mostly to adjust the salaries of the chairman and the commissioners.

In 1919, the number of members of the board was increased from three to five. In 1975, the legislation created the current four "posts" plus the chairmanship, with candidates having to indicate which post they were seeking at the election. All posts cover the whole county.

In 1988, the duties of the chairman were greatly restricted.

They were: (1) serving as presiding officer at meeting of the Board, (2) stating questions coming before the board and announcing decisions, (3) voting in the case of a tie, (4) signing ordinances, (5) executing statements of indebtedness, (6) acting as ceremonial head of the county, (7) and exercising "other administrative duties that my be delegated to the chairman by the board of commissioners."

In 1998, the enabling legislation was changed again, restoring the power of the chairman. The 1998 enabling legislation repeated the seven responsibilities of the chairman listed in 1988 and added an eighth: "To act as the chief executive officer of the county."

The chairman, in sum, serves as both the executive officer of the county and as chairman of the legislative body. The legislation does not say that the board defines the powers of the chairman, but only that it can delegate some of its own powers to the chairman.

County Attorney Haygood was asked at the July 7 meeting if he felt the ordinance was consistent with the enabling legislation. He said he would not have written it unless he did.

The board, rather than pass the ordinance, could change the enabling legislation, and that is what Davis advocated in his interview with me this morning.

He said the county might hold an election "to determine what the public desires to do." Such an election would be followed by "legislation to go to the general assembly" for approval.

Such a series of steps--coupled with a tabling of the current ordinance--certainly would do much to maintain the status quo. That is something the board is unlikely to entertain.

To listen to or download the full interview with Davis, go to my box.net site.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Citizens Speak on Oconee County Governance Ordinance

First Chance to Comment

Nine individuals came forward last night to express opinions on and ask questions about a proposed ordinance that would change the way the Oconee County Board of Commissioners interacts with administrators and department heads who run the county day-to-day.

Some of those taking a position were supportive of the ordinance, and some were critical.

Mary Mellein, who has been active in local politics, questioned whether the full board efficiently could handle hiring and firing of the administrative officer and finance director, as is proposed in the ordinance. At present, the administrative officer and finance director report only to the chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank and chair of the Oconee County Development Authority, also expressed doubts that the proposed changes would improve the operation of the county.

Charles Baugh, president of Citizens for Oconee’s Future, spoke in favor of the ordinance, which was drafted by County Attorney Daniel Haygood after lengthy discussions over the last 10 months about the power of the chairman and the others members of the commission.

The chairman both runs the meetings of and votes on issues before the commission in case of a tie and is the chief executive of the county. Baugh applauded the four commissioners for their work to strengthen their role in county governance.

At one point during the meeting, Commissioner Margaret Hale restated emphatically her position that Chairman Melvin Davis has withheld information from the commission during his nearly nine years in office, making it difficult for the commissioners to function effectively.

Chairman Davis responded by unpacking a box he had brought to the meeting, saying it contained documents he had given to the commission recently. "Communication is a two way street," he said.

Sarah Bell, who ran unsuccessfully against Davis in the Republic primary in July of 2008, also supported the ordinance. I also spoke in favor of the ordinance but asked that it be modified to eliminate the section specifying duties of the chairman. I said I did not believe the existing enabling legislation gave the commissioners the right to limit the chairman acting as chief executive officer of the county.

The public comments followed the first reading of the ordinance by Haygood. The public also will be given a second chance to comment at the next agenda setting meeting of the commission, which starts at 7 p.m. on July 28 at the courthouse.

The second reading of the ordinance, and final action, is scheduled for the next regular meeting of the commission on Aug. 4.

The ordinance and supporting documents are available on the county web site. The video recording of last night’s meeting is available on the official county site on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Reorganization of Oconee County Government Set for Tuesday Vote

Davis Unlikely to Get to Vote

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to give first reading on Tuesday night to an ordinance that would change the organizational chart for the county and put the full commission–rather than just the commission chairman–in charge of administration of the county.

Specifically, the ordinance would make the administrative officer and the finance director of the county responsible to the full five-member commission, rather than just to the chairman. The heads of county departments would be approved by the full board. At present, they are hired by the chairman of the board.

The County Clerk and the County Attorney would continue to be appointed by the full board, as in the existing organizational chart. The revised organizational chart reflects the changes.

Melvin Davis, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, made a full-scale assault on the ordinance in his column in the July 2 issue of The Oconee Enterprise and in an interview he did with Johnathan McGinty, who writes a column for the Athens Banner-Herald.

Davis wrote in the Enterprise that the "draft ordinance alters the state legislation" that governs the county by removing "the day-to-day responsibility of management from the county chair (CEO)." The ordinance assigns responsibility for management of the county to the administrative officer, he said.

Davis said that the other four members of the commission are trying to "change our form of government without voter input and approval." He said citizen input is needed and, if "citizens desire a change, then it should be implemented the proper way."

Davis doesn’t say this in his column, but he knows that state Rep. Bob Smith and state Sen. Bill Cowsert are not likely to introduce any legislation to the state General Assembly for approval unless there is agreement of the full board about what it should contain.

The proposed ordinance, which, minus some of the exhibits, is on the county web site, was drafted by County Attorney Daniel Haygood after a series of board meetings going back to last September.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke have been calling for change in the way the county operates from the start of those meetings, and they were joined in January by new Commissioner John Daniell.

Hale, Horton and Luke have repeatedly charged Davis with withholding information from them. They have argued that they need to have control over Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Finance Director Jeff Benko and some power over other department heads to fix the problem.

Davis has repeatedly said there is no communication problem. In the interview with McGinty, he is quoted as saying "communication is an excuse, not a fact. My honest belief is that the board desires more direct involvement in the day-to-day operations of government."

Davis has said that this kind of involvement is not efficient and goes against the current enabling legislation for the county, which says that the chairman of the board is the "chief executive officer" of the county.

Davis’ interview appears in three parts on a blog McGinty posts. Parts one and two deal with the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance that will be considered by the board on Tuesday states that "nothing in this Ordinance is intended to make any change" in the existing enabling legislation. The ordinance says that it "shall be the policy of the Board that the Chairperson shall have particular leadership and emphasis" in specified areas.

Those areas include coordination of intergovernmental activities, economic development, public relations, development of policies related to the future needs of the county and evaluation of county services.

The ordinance also says that the chairperson shall review "reports of the Administrative Officer and Finance Director" and "review staff activities to ensure the ordinances, resolutions, policies, actions and directives of the Board are being implemented and to take such steps as are reasonably required to correct any deficiencies."

The public was prevented from commenting at the meetings held to develop the ordinance but is scheduled to be given a chance to have input on Tuesday night. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The public also is to be allowed to comment at the July 28 agenda setting meeting of the board. The board is scheduled to take final action on the ordinance on Aug. 4.

Davis is unlikely to have a chance to vote on the ordinance. The existing enabling legislation specifies that the chairperson votes only in the case of a tie vote among the other four commissioners.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

QuikTrip Poised to Lead Oconee County Development on Corridor

Everything is Negotiable

The opening of a QuikTrip gas station on the corner of Daniells Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector–approved by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on June 2–almost certainly will be the first of a series of major upcoming changes for that busy intersection and Daniells Bridge Road itself.

The county has listed nearly all of Daniells Bridge Road from the intersection where the QuikTrip will be located to Chestnut Hill Road as part of a regional center intended for commercial and office park development.

Most of the tracts along the road and near it are owned by corporations waiting for the right time to begin development of them.

Two large properties on the Oconee Connector between SR 316 and Daniells Bridge Road are listed as for sale at present, as are three properties on Daniells Bridge Road itself.

Included among those on Daniells Bridge Road listed for sale is a 17-acre tract that was rezoned in 2007 for two, seven-story high office buildings. Developers said at the time that the buildings would be used for a Zaxby’s headquarters, currently in buildings adjoining that property.

The 17-acre tract, on the south side of Daniells Bridge Road, has just recently been posted for sale by Southern Land Exchange, with offices on Jennings Mill Road, while the others have been listed as for sale for longer periods of time.

Any new owner of the 17-acre tract will be required to come back to the county with a new development plan if the owner does not plan to build the two office buildings. The property was rezoned in 2007 for an office business park.

The 2030 Future Development Map for the county designates all of the properties on both sides of Daniells Bridge Road from the Oconee Connector to Chestnut Hill Road as part of the regional center that includes the existing massive commercial development along Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316.

The exceptions are the four eastern most lots on the south side of Daniells Bridge Road just before Chestnut Hill Road.

The county plans to make the section of Daniells Bridge Road between the Connector and Chestnut Hill Road the southern part of a commercial loop road circling SR 316 and Epps Bridge Parkway.

The northern part of that loop–called the Oconee Connector Extension--will run north from the current intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316 and reconnect with Epps Bridge Parkway between Lowe’s and the building housing the Starbucks.

The roadway to Home Depot then will be extended across SR Loop 10 to connect to Daniells Bridge Road near Chestnut Hill Road.

Work on the $13.5 million northern loop is expected to start soon and be finished by Dec. 31, 2011.

That roadway, which will provide access to the proposed $76 Epps Bridge Centre shopping mall next to Lowe’s, will dump traffic onto Daniells Bridge Road long before the second overpass or flyover to Home Depot is built. The county has said that construction of that flyover is at least 10 years in the future.

In the meantime, the county plans to spend $400,000 to make Daniells Bridge Road three lanes wide from the Oconee Connector nearly to Chestnut Hill Road. This upgrade will not eliminate the blind curve but simply run a center turn lane through it.

QuikTrip is counting on the traffic generated by Oconee Connector Extension, and its representatives told the Board of Commissioners on June 2 that it should not be required to plant the 14 shade trees required on the site by the county’s Uniform Development Code (UDC) because the trees would make it too hard for drivers to see the site and its signage.

County Planner Krista Gridley said she had been reviewing landscaping for three years for the Planning Department and that developers frequently ask to be allowed to plant fewer required trees. She said during those three years no exceptions had been granted.

After a 50-minute discussion, Commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke voted to turn down the request. Commissioner John Daniell voted against the denial motion, saying he didn’t want to force the developer to plant the trees as required by the code. Commission Margaret Hale missed the meeting because she was sick.

The 1.3 acre tract currently is wooded and slopes into a ditch below Daniells Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector. The gas station will have entrances and exits on both the Oconee Connector and Daniells Bridge Road.

When construction is completed, the gas station will contain a 4,555 square foot convenience market and 16 fueling positions.

QuikTrip also said at the June 2 meeting that the site was not big enough to accommodate the number of parking spaces required by the UDC unless the county agreed to allow it to put eight of the spaces inside the 30-foot parking setback from the roadway rights of way on the Oconee Connector and Daniells Bridge Road.

Daniell and Luke agreed to that request even though Public Works Director Emil Beshara had said in the staff report on the project that he objected to the intrusion into the buffer at the Oconee Connector entrance. "A vehicle backing out of either of the spaces in question may interfere with entering traffic," he said in the report.

The Commissioners stipulated that only employees are to be allowed to use the parking spaces in the setback on the Oconee Connector, presumably with the view that employees are better at backing out of parking spaces without interfering with entering traffic than patrons.

The property is owned by JJMB, LLC & Paul Keller Jr., 1010 Prince Ave., Athens, which also owns a half acre on the southeast corner of the intersection and 3.5 acres on the southwest corner of the intersection, according to county tax records.

The 47-acre tract listed for sale on the northwest side of the intersection is owned by Deferredtax, LLC, of Lawrenceville, according to Oconee County tax records. The tract actually is made up of three different parcels and contains all of the frontage on SR 316 between the Oconee Connector and Virgil Langford Road.

The 4.5-acre tract on the southeast corner of the Oconee Connector intersection with SR 316 also is listed for sale and is owned by 316 Holding Group, also with the same 1010 Prince Ave., Athens, address as the owners of the property to be used for the QuikTrip. That 4.5-acre tract is separated from the QuikTrip site by the Oconee County Barber Creek Fire Station, which has entrances and exits both onto the Oconee Connector and Daniells Bridge Road.

Adjoining both the 316 Holdings Group property and the Fire Station is the 6.3-acre site of the SpringHill Suites by Marriott, scheduled to open this summer. That site was rezoned back in 2007, at the same time as the site across the road where the two seven-story buildings were to be built.

The seven-acre site just east of the hotel is owned by Glades Commercial Properties LLC of 2500 Daniells Bridge Road, according to tax records. Glades also owns the 1.7-acre site that is listed for sale just east of the Office of Information and Instructional Technology (OIIT).

According to the Georgia Secretary of State database, Carl R. Nichols is the registered agent for Glades, which owned the hotel site, the OIIT site, and the site of the Exchange office building behind the 1.7 acres site listed as for sale.

The OIIT site is owned by the county itself through the Oconee County Development Authority.

The property on which the St. Mary’s Heart and Vascular unit sits is owned by 316 LLC of Watkinsville. According to the Secretary of State records, Jeff B. Bell is the agent.

The 17-acre site across Daniells Bridge Road now listed for sale is owned by Daniells Bridge Partners, LLC., with the same address as 316 LLC and also with Jeff B. Bell as agent.

Southern Land Exchange LLC, the agent for the 17-acre site, is headquartered at 1551 Jennings Mill Road. Secretary of State records list Steve Ebbert as the agent. Tax records list Steve and James Ebbert as owners of the seven-acre hay field at the corner of Daniells Bridge Road and Hog Mountain Road that already has been rezoned for commercial and office park development.

Developer Mike Thornton owns three tracts totaling five acres on the north side of Daniells Bridge Road opposite Founder’s Boulevard. The tracts, one of which contains a cell tower, are listed for sale.

Zaxby’s Holdings owns the 6.4 acre vacant lot east of Founder’s Boulevard, and Thorton owns three additional tracts on the south side of Daniells Bridge Road. Two of those are west of the blind curve and the other is on the east side of the curve.

The Board of Commissioners rezoned nine acres on the north side of Daniells Bridge Road just east of the blind curve on Dec. 2, ignoring the 400 plus petitions submitted by neighbors opposed to the rezone. That property was owned by Dolores Lance and Dorothy Anglin.

The BOC found the unspent $400,000 in Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax funds to cover the widening of the road as a way of justifying the rezone.

Reuben Moss and Thomas Kittle live on and own the remaining properties on the north side of Daniells Bridge Road up to Chestnut Hill Road. Moss’ property is 2.5 acres. Kittle’s 20- acre tract extends to and along Chestnut Hill Road itself.

The BOC votes on the QuickTrip variance requests on June 2 as well as on the rezone of the tract in the blind curve on Dec. 2 confirm what the developers in the county already seem to know:

Everything is negotiable when it comes to development in Oconee County.