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.

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