Monday, August 31, 2009

Oconee BOC To Take Action on Mars Hill Widening

Spend And Wait

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tomorrow night plans to move forward on land acquisition for the widening of Mars Hill road.

The board will do this by acting on two items on its consent agenda at its regular 7 p.m. meeting at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The first is to approve a proposal by Moreland Altobelli Associates of Norcross for design services related to the project. The second is to authorize a request for proposals for right-of-way acquisition services.

The board put the items on the consent agenda at its meeting on Aug. 25. Items on the consent agenda are passed without discussion, unless a member of the board objects.

The state’s decision to move forward on the Mars Hill project after delaying it in October of last year was reported by Athens Banner-Herald on Aug. 14.

The discussion at the BOC meeting on Aug. 25 indicated that some risk will be associated with the decision to go forward with the project.

While the state has indicated it has $9.8 to cover the costs of the right away, Oconee County will have to front that money and take payment whenever the state decides to reimburse the county.

In addition, the state will cover the cost of the right of way purchases, but not all of the other expenses associated with the acquisition.

Oconee County will be responsible for all preliminary engineering costs, 20 percent of utility relocation costs, all appraisal, consultant and attorney fees and any in-house staff expenses.

The county at the end of the fiscal year ending on June 30 was projecting a budget surplus of about $11 million, or just about $1 million more than would be required for the right of way acquisition.

The county earns money on that surplus that it plows back into the county budget.

Once the county spends the money on the right of way purchases, it loses interest revenue on that money. The longer the state takes to reimburse, the more money the county loses.

The county also fronted right of way acquisition costs for the Oconee Connector Extension , which will create a loop from SR 316 at the current connector intersection with SR 316 back to Epps Bridge Parkway at Lowe’s. The roadway is designed to open up land for commercial development.

The county paid out $5.9 million for right of way for the road, beginning in October of 2007, and continuing through May of 2008. The county received the first reimbursement from the state on Nov. 14, of 2008, and the last on May 20 of 2009, according to records of the transactions I received in response to an open records request I filed in July.

Finance Director Jeff Benko cited the loss of interest revenue–which he estimated at about half a million dollars at the April 21 BOC meeting–as one factor in the county being about $1.2 million behind in projected revenue as the fiscal year closed out.

So the county has to be careful about how quickly it purchases the land and hopeful the state will be quick to reimburse.

Benko (clip above) stated those concerns at the meeting on Aug. 25. During the time of right of way acquisition, "cash will be a concern of mine," he said.

He said he will seek to "use that money consecutively and have enough in the event a payment from the state of Georgia doesn’t happen, gets extended and takes a little bit longer."

The request for proposals won’t have any effect on this payment schedule. The county is merely seeking bids for someone to handle the acquisition work.

As Chairman Melvin Davis said at the meeting on Aug. 25, the state reimburses on its own schedule.

Originally, the widening of Mars Hill was to run from SR 316 to SR 15 in Watkinsville, but the plan now is to first widen the road from SR 316 to Hog Mountain Road at Butler’s Crossing. The next phase would be from Hog Mountain Road to US 441. The final phase would extend the widening to SR 15.

The board tomorrow will be authorizing right of way purchase only for that first phase, which is about three miles in length.

Because the original plans were for the full project, the county will be asking Moreland Altobelli to review plans and identify the properties that will need to be purchased only in this first phase.

If the board approves the consent agenda it will approve a change order in an existing contract with Moreland Altobelli Associates that will cover the expenses associated with these revisions.

The new costs are not to exceed $142,666.

The right of way work is expected to begin in five months and take about two years.

The Mars Hill widening is designed to ease traffic flow but also to open up more land for commercial development.

So far, the state has not found the $19 million for actual construction of the road.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oconee County BOC Chairman Davis Addresses Interbasin Transfer Issue

One Out of Three

The Oconee Enterprise in today’s edition quotes me as saying three things at the meeting on Tuesday night.

I did say one of them.

Here’s what the paper’s story on the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night reported:

"Visitor Lee Becker emphasized the importance of securing water if the rapid build-out of Hard Labor Creek Reservoir proceeds."

I really don’t know what it means. To make sure I hadn’t said it, I listened to the video and audio recording I made of the meeting. Nothing I said was even close.

Hard Labor Creek is proceeding and is designed to address the water needs of Oconee and Walton counties. Oconee and Walton counties are discussing with the state the possibility of obtaining state funding to speed up the project as a way to help Atlanta with its urgent water needs.

The Enterprise story continued:

"Becker emphasized his concern that the county could lose its own access to water if Atlanta was given too much authority."

I never said that either, but, in this case, I know what the sentence means.

The story then said:

"And in a related issue, he was concerned that water removed to satisfy Atlanta’s needs might reduce the amount of water downstream in the Apalachee."

This is pretty close. I said the county should be looking for ways to make sure that water that was transferred out of the basin–as any water sold to Atlanta will be–comes back into the basin after use. In fact, this was the sole issue I raised about the discussions.

The paper said that Commission Chairman Melvin Davis and commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke emphasized "that those issues had already been discussed."

Davis was particularly clear in saying that in discussions so far about the possibility of moving water from the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir to Atlanta "Interbasin transfer was discussed, putting water back in the Apalachee."

That was new, but the paper didn’t seem to realize that.

The experience only confirms what many people who attend BOC meetings know. It is better to be ignored by the Enterprise than quoted in it.

By the way, though I was labeled a visitor, I do live in Oconee County and identified myself as a resident before I spoke.

My name and address also are on the subscription list for the Enterprise.

NOTE: Here is how my comments were recorded by County Clerk Gina Lindsey in the officially approved minutes for the meeting on 8/28/09.

Citizen Remarks: Lee Becker expressed his appreciation for Oconee and Walton Counties’ discussions with representatives of the Governor’s Office on obtaining State and Federal funds for the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Project. Mr. Becker asked the Commissioners to keep in mind the issue of inter-basin transfer of waters and how water will be returned to the Oconee River Basin.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Oconee BOC Agenda Has New Opportunities For Speaking

Citizens Get Uprade

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners meeting will have a different feel tomorrow night, courtesy of the just-passed ordinance resetting the county’s organizational structure.

At the top of the agenda will be "Statements and Remarks from Commissioners," an item completely new to Oconee BOC meeting agendas.

Following this will be an opportunity for citizens to make statements. This is usually the final item on the agenda–just ahead of adjournment to executive session or of the meeting entirely.

Tomorrow night’s meeting is an agenda-setting session, when the board will agree on the agenda for its regular session on Sept. 1. Citizens will now have a chance to suggest items for that agenda before the agenda actually is set, rather than after it is set, as in the past.

The ordinance passed at the Aug. 4 meeting reorganizing the way the board interacts with key county administrators and BOC Chairman Melvin Davis included a new Rules of Order. One of those rules stated that "There shall be an agenda item on each agenda providing Commissioners the opportunity to speak at the beginning of the meeting."

The Rules of Order also stated that each agenda shall contain an item allowing the public to comment, but that has been procedure in the past.

The Rules do not state where this opportunities to speak shall be on the agenda, but citizens complained during the public hearings on the ordinance that they had been forced to wait until the end of the meeting, when commissioners are tired and ready to end the session.

County Clerk Gina Lindsey distributed the agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting on Friday, and I sent her an email message over the weekend asking her at whose initiative the changes had been made.

"The order of items on the BOC agenda have been changed according to the Rules of Order adopted by the Board," she wrote me in an email message today.

The actual first item on the agenda tomorrow night is the agenda itself.

After the comments from the Commissioners and from the citizens, the board will be asked to approve the 2009 tax millage levy for Oconee County Schools and then the levy for the county government itself.

The board also will discuss a jail reimbursement fee agreement with Fulton County–Oconee County has excess capacity at its new jail–and get an update on the proposed widening of Mars Hill Road.

The board will discuss proposals for right of way purchases for the road. Money for construction has not yet been made available by the state.

The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Oconee, Walton Delegation Discusses Funding Options for Hard Labor Creek Reservoir

Water for Atlanta

A four-person delegation from Oconee and Walton counties met in Atlanta on Aug. 10 with a representative of the governor’s office to discuss the possibility of obtaining state and federal funds for the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir in light of the federal court ruling against Atlanta’s future use of water from Lake Lanier.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, who with Hank Huckaby represented Oconee County at the meeting, called the discussions "exploratory."

Davis said the goal was to see if excess water capacity of the reservoir could be diverted to Atlanta to address the pending water crisis in exchange for federal and state funds for the reservoir.

Davis stressed that any deal that would be made could "not jeopardize" the long-term needs of Oconee and Walton counties for the water from the reservoir.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled on July 17 that metropolitan Atlanta has been taking water illegally from Lake Lanier, which, according to the judge, the federal government built for hydroelectric power generation and other uses, but not for drinking water.

The judge said the region will have to return to the levels of water withdrawal from the lake of the mid-1970s in three years, unless Georgia works out some solution with Alabama and Florida over the disputed water from the Chattahoochee River.

Davis was joined by Walton County BOC Chairman Kevin Little and Jimmy Parker from Precision Planning Inc. at the statehouse meeting. Gov. Sonny Purdue was represented by Ed Holcombe, his chief of staff.

Huckaby, a retired administrator from the University of Georgia, organized the meeting, according to Davis.

Huckaby is one of three Oconee County representatives on the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board. Little is one of the four Walton County representatives. Parker’s PPI is project manager for the reservoir.

Davis said the meeting was called in the hopes that state will help pay for some of the $350 million reservoir project in Walton County as a way of addressing the acute needs of Atlanta for water.

In a 3-2 vote in March of 2007, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted to join with Walton County in construction of the reservoir on Hard Labor Creek.

Chairman Davis joined with Commissioners Jim Luke and Don Norris in voting to join the project, and Commissioners Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton voted against joining.

Luke is chairman of the reservoir management board but did not attend the meeting on Aug. 10, according to Davis.

On April 7, Oconee County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told the Board of Commissioners that the county was slowing its involvement in Hard Labor Creek because of lack of Utility Department funds resulting from the drought and from the housing market collapse.

Only two weeks later, on April 21, Parker, vice president of Precision Planning Inc., appeared before the Oconee BOC to give a presentation to reassure it and to say that the project was "on schedule and under budget."

The project is to be built in two phases, with the first scheduled to come online in 2014. Cost for that first phase will be $170 million, with $36 million for land acquisition, $34 million for reservoir design and construction, and $73 million for the treatment plant and transmission system.

The first phase will yield 41.4 million gallons per day of water, 71 percent of which will go to Walton County and 29 percent of which will go to Oconee County. Cost of the project are shared based on these percentages. That phase is scheduled for completion in 2014.

In the first phase, water impounded would come from Hard Labor Creek itself. In the second phase, water would be pumped from the Apalachee River south of where Walton, Morgan and Oconee counties intersect and stored in the reservoir.

When the second stage is completed, the water treatment plant would be able to produce 62 million gallons per day of water. The reservoir would be upstream from the Hard Labor Creek State Park, which is in Morgan County.

The second stage is not scheduled to be completed until 2050, but, with state and federal funding, it could be built more quickly, and the excess water could be diverted to Atlanta.

Hard Labor Creek ultimately flows to the Apalachee. Water from the reservoir pumped to Oconee County would stay in the Oconee River basin, since both of the Oconee sewage treatment plans flow to the Oconee.

Water pumped from the reservoir to the western part of Walton county and to Atlanta could be lost to the Oconee River Basin unless efforts are made to send treated water back to the Oconee River basin.

Walton county straddles the Ocmulgee and the Oconee River basins. Originally, Walton was a member of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District for metro Atlanta, but it switched to the Upper Oconee Regional Water Planning Council after 10 new councils were created with passage of the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan by the General Assembly in 2008.

In the autumn of 2007, I tried to get the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to pass a resolution drafted by the Georgia Water Coalition opposing interbasin transfer of waters. The board refused.

I took the resolution to the board in my capacity as president of Friends of Barber Creek.

Prior to the drought, Walton County was purchasing 14 million gallons of water per month from Oconee County. Those sales stopped in September of 2007.

Walton is now purchasing about this same amount of water–a half a million gallons per day–from Oconee County and from the Upper Oconee Water Authority. The water authority operates Bear Creek Reservoir in Jackson County in a partnership made up of Barrow, Clarke, Jackson and Oconee counties. Oconee gets most of its water from that reservoir.

A story about the meeting in Atlanta appeared in today’s edition of The Walton Tribune, though the paper did not identify the time or place of the meeting and mistakenly said it involved the reservoir management board. Davis is not a member of that board.

I learned of the meeting on Saturday when found the story on the Internet. The software behind, a news aggregator, scans the Internet for stories involving Oconee County. Though the story did not appear on the Tribune web site until today, somehow found it on the web a day earlier.

I posted the story to the Oconee County page of, which I edit, on Saturday, but I did not write about it here until I was able to confirm the story.

Chairman Davis was kind enough to respond to an email message I sent him late this morning. He called me this evening to confirm the meeting and provide details about those who attended.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Two Oconee Commissioners Agree to Town Hall Meetings

Everyone Has An Opinion

In response to suggestions by a citizen, two members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners at the Aug. 4 meeting committed to begin holding town hall meetings to learn about citizen concerns.

The board also passed an organizational policy at the same meeting that gives it more control over day-to-day operations of the county, the county budgeting procedures and its own agenda.

Town hall meetings could be a second source of power for the board, as these meetings could increase the amount of contact the board as a whole has with members of the public.

County Clerk Gina Lindsey found the commitment on the part of board members Margaret Hale and Jim Luke to the town hall meetings important enough to include it in the draft minutes of the Aug. 4 meeting, but none of the three newspapers that covered the event made any mention of it.

The newspaper reports focused on how the changes would affect Board Chairman Melvin Davis. Consistent with Davis’ contention, the reports in the Athens Banner-Herald, The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader said that the vote took power away from Davis and shifted it to Administrative Officer Alan Theriault.

Under the old organizational chart, most department heads reported to Theriault, who reported to Davis. Davis then reported what he wanted to the other four members of the board.

Under the new organizational chart, all department heads except one report to Theriault, who reports to Davis plus the other four members of the board. What is new is that the four members of the board now will get their information directly from Theriault rather than from Davis.

The ordinance adopted unanimously by the board makes the four members of the board stronger by giving them all access to Theriault, but it weakens Davis’ power only because the other four members become his equal in getting information from Theriault. Davis is a full member of the board and will have the same access to Theriault as the others.

The media framed the story as an effort by four members of the board to decrease Davis’ power. The media could just as easily have cast the story as an effort by the four members of the board to increase the power of the board as a whole.

Davis has been straightforward in his opposition to the ordinance, drafted by the county attorney at the request of the other four members. Davis argued at the Aug. 4 meeting that the ordinance changes the form of government in the county illegally.

County Attorney Daniell Haygood, who reports to the full board as specified in state statutes, said at the public hearing at the Aug. 4 meeting that Davis has his current power not because it is specified in the state laws governing the county but because he has asserted it.

According to Haygood, the other members of the board, through the ordinance, simply were asserting their power, as allowed by the state statutes for the county.

Davis, who by statute votes only in the case of a tie, asked Clerk Lindsey to record his opposition to the ordinance in the minutes, and she did so.

Until the Aug. 4 meeting, the four members of the board had done little to communicate to the public about the goals of the ordinance, leaving Davis to make his case, with the help of The Enterprise, that the ordinance was an illegal attempt to change to a county manager form of government.

Commissioner John Daniell asked Davis at the beginning of the public hearing on the ordinance on Aug. 4 for a chance to lay out the time line for discussions that had led to the proposed ordinance. Daniell said those discussions had begun in 2005 and had included opportunities for the public to observe and comment.

The central argument advanced by the four board members is that Davis used his monopoly of access to County Administrator Theriault and county department heads to keep the board in the dark about issues before it.

By controlling that information, they said, Davis weakened their ability to make informed decisions on issues that came before them.

The job description for Theriault as administrative officer of the county in place before the Aug. 4 vote stated that he was "responsible for assisting the Board of Commissioners with the overall administration of the county government."

The job description further said that day-to-day management by Theriault was to be "coordinated with the Chair of the Board of Commissioners who is the Chief Executive Officer."

Neither the 1998 enabling legislation for the county nor earlier legislation makes mention of the administrative officer position, so the board has the right to redefine the job description or even eliminate the position entirely.

The ordinance passed on Aug. 4 rewrote the language to say that the administrative officer "will keep the Chairperson of the Board of commissioners, as the Chief Executive Officer, apprised as to day to day matters" but eliminated the stipulation that the administrative officer is to coordinate with the chair of the board.

During the Aug. 4 public hearing on the ordinance–the third and final chance for citizens to speak before the vote–Michael Reuter said there has been a lack of opportunity for citizens to communicate with the board across time and suggested that some formal mechanism be put into place to change that.

"I’ll make a commitment now that in the future I will schedule at least two to three town hall meetings every year," Commissioner Hale said.

At the end of the meeting–after members of the public again spoke about the ordinance already passed, Luke said he "he would like to go on record supporting that idea" of town hall meetings and said that the board should hold at least one town hall meeting in the future to see if it works.

Members of the Board of Commissioners all are elected at large, but Hale lives at 1901 Salem Road in Farmington in the southern part of the county, Chuck Horton lives at 1061 Ramblewood Place east of Watkinsville, Luke lives at 1320 Meriweather Drive in the urbanized north central part of the county near Bogart, and Daniell lives at 1922 Elder Road in the western part of the county near North High Shoals.

Davis also lives in the southern part of the county, at 1772 Oliver Bridge Road.

The majority of those who have spoken at the three public hearings opposed the ordinance, and many echoed Davis’ charge that the county was illegally moving to a county manager form of government.

Daniell asked Davis to explain that interpretation at the end of the public hearing, and
Davis said that the county was going to a county manager form of government simply by having Theriault report to the full board rather than to him alone.

The state does not define a county manager form of government, and counties differ in the responsibilities of persons assigned this job. The state does allow counties to create a county manager without changing their enabling legislation.

At the end of the public hearing, Davis also made the assertion that "approximately 24 percent" supports the ordinance and 76 percent "of the public" opposes it. Only when challenged by Jim Luke did he acknowledge that his count was based on those who spoke at the public hearings, onletters to the editor and on email "the board" had received.

In response to Luke’s probe, Davis said that his email analysis did not include any messages sent to individual board members, but only those sent to him.

Davis did not say how problematic it is to judge public opinion based on email, letters and public statements. Nor did he acknowledge the vast majority of the citizens who likely have not taken enough time to have an opinion on the matter.

Esther Porter, who ran against Hale in the July 2008 Republican primary, also told the board that "from what I gather, most citizens are not in favor of this. And I cannot understand you not taking that into consideration."

Porter said she was not sympathetic with the board members’ assertions that they could not get information they need at present. "It is your job to find out what is going on," she said. "Don’t tell me you cannot get communication."

Most of the citizens who spoke at the hearings assumed that the changes being proposed were radical, particularly as they relate to Administrative Officer Theriault.

The old job description for the administrative officer said the "Focus of this position will be developing, administering and coordinating the County’s public policies."

The new ordinance includes a job description for the administrative officer that says that the "Focus for this position will be on administering the county government and on developing, administering, and coordinating the county’s public policies."

In the past, the organizational chart said Theriault reported only to Davis. In the new organizational chart and in the job description, he reports to Davis plus the other four members of the board.

The job description for the finance director also was changed by the ordinance. In the past, the finance director reported to the chairman of the board along, according to the job description and the organizational chart.

The ordinance passed on Aug. 4 said the finance director reports to the administrative officer on a day-to-day basis for operational matters and to the full board of commissioners, rather than just to Davis.

In the old organizational chart, which Davis created, the finance director, the director of Human Resources, the director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning, the director of the Utility Department, and the director of Economic Development, all reported directly to Davis, as did Theriault.

All other Department heads reported to Theriault.

Under the organizational chart adopted as part of the ordinance on Aug. 4, the administrative officer and the finance director will report to the full board, including Davis, and all other department heads will report to Theriault.

The 1975 enabling legislation for the county specifies that the county clerk reports directly to the full board, and that will remain unchanged.

The ordinance passed on Aug. 4 also specifies that the county budget will be prepared with involvement by the full board. In the past, Davis prepared the budget with the staff and presented it to the board.

The new ordinance specifies that "Commissioners have the right to have a matter placed on the agenda." In the past, Davis prepared the agendas.

The new ordinance has only one section dealing with the duties of the chairman of the board acting as chief executive officer. The board delegated to the chairman duties he already performs, such as representing the county on intergovernmental bodies and doing public relations work for the county.

In fact, much of the power of the chairman of the board comes about as a result of participation in intergovernmental bodies. Davis serves on the Upper Oconee Regional Water Council, for example, after being appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.

Commissioner Horton said at the end of the public hearing that the Board repeatedly has tried to reach an agreement with Davis about power sharing without success.

"I don’t know of any group of people who tried to find a route to resolve it anymore than the majority here," he said. "I wish we had."

Davis’ intentions regarding the proposed ordinance were revealed at the June 30 regular BOC meeting, when County Attorney Haygood presented a draft of the ordinance to the board. Haygood also reported to the public that Davis had proposed three changes to the ordinance and that the other board members had not supported the changes proposed by Davis.

Haygood did not report specifically what Davis had proposed, however, so I did an open records request to ask for the proposals.

Davis asked that the job descriptions for the administrative officer and the finance director both be changed by inserting the words "with supervision by the Chairperson" into the statement of responsibility. He also wanted that phrase inserted into the body of the ordinance where the responsibility of the administrative officer also was stated.

At the July 28 meeting, Davis asked that the board postpone action on the ordinance, as he did again at the Aug. 4 meeting. In both cases, he said the board should instead change the enabling legislation if it wanted to make the proposed changes.

What Davis did not say was that the enabling legislation can be changed only by a vote of the Georgia General Assembly, that the bills to make those changes can be introduced and passed only with the support of Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represent the county in the General Assembly, and that, by tradition, bills are introduced by local representatives only when there is consensus among local officials.

In other words, Davis’ opposition is enough to guarantee that the enabling legislation will not be changed.

It is a complicated system of government, and it is hardly surprising that citizens who spoke misunderstood much of it. The media coverage has done little to explain what really was being proposed.

Franklin Shumate, who spoke at the July 28 and Aug. 4 meetings, was particularly fixated on what he termed the changes in "the form of government in Oconee County" and said the changes were inconsistent with the existing enabling legislation.

He also said he did not want members of the board "arguing among themselves publicly" and proposed instead that the board solve the differences in a "back room in executive session."

This would be a violation of the state’s open meetings laws, as Commissioner Daniell noted at the Aug. 4 meeting.

What happens at this point depends mostly on Davis. If he adapts to the changes in the reporting lines of Theriault, Finance Director Jeff Benko and the other department heads, citizens probably will notice little difference in their county government.

One thing citizens should notice at commission meetings and at the proposed town hall sessions is that all members of the board know about the issues before that government.


I’ve edited the county’s recording of the Aug. 4 meeting to include only the public hearing and citizen comment components. This edited version is on my Vimeo site. The clips above come from that edited version.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mitigation Resolution Put on Oconee Advisory Committee Agenda

Nov. 10 Set for Discussion

Abe Abouhamdan, chairman of the Oconee County Citizens Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning, tonight agreed to put onto the Committee’s Nov. 10 agenda consideration of a resolution that could affect the way mitigation of stream and wetland damage in the county is handled in the future.

On May 5 the Oconee County Board of Commissioners referred a resolution drafted by attorney Katie Sheehan to the Land Use committee that would put the BOC on record with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as preferring mitigation in Oconee County or upstream from Oconee County for damage done to streams and wetlands in the county.

The board asked the advisory committee to report back to it once it has reviewed the resolution, which Sheehan drafted after talking with me and reading several blogs I had written on mitigation for construction of the planned Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway.

Mitigation for damage done to streams on the site of that shopping center will be in Greene County south of Oconee.

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

The Corps of Engineers has responsibility for protection of streams and wetlands in the state and requires mitigation of damage to them, usually through restoration of other streams and wetlands.

The state currently is constructing a roadway that will open up land adjacent to the Epps Bridge Centre and behind Lowe’s for development. That land contains streams that, if disturbed, also would require mitigation.

At the May 5 meeting, the Board of Commissioners forwarded the proposed resolution to the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which meets monthly. The resolution did not make it onto the agenda until I appeared before the Committee tonight and asked that it be scheduled for discussion. The Committee did not meet in July.

The Land Use and Transportation Committee will meet at 7 p.m. on Nov. 10 in the Community Center at Oconee Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road west of Butler’s Crossing. The committee has 14 citizen members.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

John Daniell Saved Oconee County Money By Being Elected

Well Paid vs. Not So Well Paid

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis saved county taxpayers $4,394.09 starting in January of this year when he refused to accept the increase in his salary that is specified in the county’s enabling legislation as a reward for his election to a third term.

This is a significant amount of money, but it is $855.46 less than the voters saved on their own by turning down Don Norris’ request that he be given a fifth term as commissioner.

The amount saved when voters selected Commissioner John Daniell to replace Norris in the Republican primary in July of 2008 was $5,249.55 and was considerably more than enough to cover the costs of the increases given to Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke.

The county’s enabling legislation specifies that each of the three re-elected commissioners as well as Davis was entitled to a raise starting in January as a result of their re-election.

The total for Hale, Horton and Luke was $3,149.73, or $2,099.82 less than the difference between the salary Norris would have received with his reward for being elected for a fifth term and the salary paid Daniell.

Daniell, who was elected in November without opposition after defeating Norris in the Republican primary in July, earns $20,998.26, versus the salary of $26,247.81 that Norris would have received. Norris was seeking his sixth four-year term.

This bizarre set of calculations of the salaries of the commissioners was not an issue in the election campaigns of last July, but The Oconee Enterprise made Davis' decision to reject his increase an issue as Daniell, Hale, Horton and Luke pushed for passage of an ordinance changing the relationship of the four commissioners to the administrative departments of the county.

That ordinance was passed on Aug. 4,with all four commissioners voting for the change. Davis, who does not vote unless there is a tie, asked that his opposition to the ordinance be recorded in the minutes, and it was.

The Enterprise reported as its top story in its July 16 edition that Davis had not taken the salary increase specified in the county’s enabling legislation, while Hale, Horton and Luke had. In that same edition, the paper attacked all four commissioners in an editorial on the salary matter.

Though the raises took place on Jan. 1, in the county’s 2008-2009 budget, the paper linked them to the county’s 2009-2010 budget, in which the salaries of county employees were not increased.

"It has apparently not crossed the minds of his four board members that they might share the plight of their underlings," the paper said. "His" refers to Davis.

The editorial also incorrectly linked the salary increases to annual cost of living increases for the county’s constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the tax commissioner. In fact, there were no such increases for the county’s constitutional officers this year, or for the commissioners.

The pay for the chairman and the other four commissioners is spelled out in the 1998 legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly specifically for Oconee County. The need for changes in that enabling legislation was a part of the discussion of the just-past reorganizational ordinance, though relative salaries were not discussed.

That legislation specifies that "The chairperson and members shall receive an additional amount of 5 percent of their respective salaries for each four-year term as a commissioner completed."

The formula for computation of the salaries for the chairman and the four commissioners is spelled out in the enabling legislation. It is a complex formula, and the Enterprise got it wrong in its story.

According to the legislation, "The chairperson of the Board of Commissioners of Oconee County shall receive a base salary of 113 percent of the highest base salary payable to the following county officers: the sheriff, probate judge, tax commissioner, and clerk of superior court."

The members of the board of commissioners are to be paid a salary of 27 percent of the highest base salary payable to the same four officers.

The Enterprise presented a table showing the salaries of the sheriff, probate judge, tax commissioner and clerk of superior court. Since all have been elected numerous times, the salaries shown do not reflect the base.

Melinda Smith, director of Human Resources for the county, gave me a copy of a letter she had received from County Attorney Daniel Haygood specifying the salaries for the five members of the commission.

Haygood subsequently walked me through the computation of the salaries in a series of email messages to make sure I understood the procedures.

The base salary for computation of all of the salaries is based on the highest applicable minimum salary for the four officers listed in the legislation, which is $64,776.16, plus a state-set supplement of $8,609.23. The total base is $73,385.39.

The chairman’s base salary, at 113 percent of that figure, is $82,925.49.

Davis’ salary, had he decided to take the full amount allowed, would have added $8,292.55 to that amount, or two times 5 percent of the base, since he has begun his third term and is entitled to an additional 5 percent of the base for each four-year term completed.

In addition, the state had two cost of living adjustments of 2.89 percent and 3 percent prior to this year. These are compounded, meaning that the salary is adjusted for the 2.89 percent and then the total is adjusted again for the 3 percent.

Based on this computation, Davis could have received $96,669.87 but chose instead to take only $92,275.78.

Davis made his decision to not take the higher amount sometime before April 6, but there was no public announcement of the decision until the Enterprise ran the story on July 16, in the middle of the discussion of the reorganization ordinance.

I had asked Smith about salaries for the commissioners in early April, and she responded in an email on April 6 but made no mention of the decision by Davis not to take the higher amount.

The base figure for the commissioners is 27 percent of the base figure of $73,385.39, or $19,814.03. The 5 percent increases are added to this, as are the two cost of living adjustments.

Hale starting getting a salary of $23,098.08 on Jan. 1, compared with $22,048.17 prior to her reelection. Hale was beginning her third term.

Horton and Luke received salaries of $22,048.17 starting on Jan. 1, compared with $20,998.25 prior to their reelection. They were beginning their second terms.

Though the newspapers often refer to the four commissioners as part-time and to chairman Davis as full-time, there is nothing in the 1998 legislation that currently governs the operation of the county that makes that distinction.

Rather the distinction is in the salary.

The chairman, in addition to heading the board of commissioners, also is called the "chief executive officer of the county" in the legislation, but the duties of the chairman acting in that capacity are not spelled out.

The ordinance passed by the commission last week was designed in part to address that fact.

Perhaps the media in the future should take to distinguishing between the "well-paid" commissioner and the "not-so-well-paid" commissioners, or the WP commissioner and the NSWP commissioners, since salary is part of the defining legislation.

Davis’s decision not to take his reward for being re-elected didn’t change that distinction.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Oconee County BOC Passes Reorganization Ordinance

Chair Votes No

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 0 tonight to approve an ordinance specifying that the county administrative officer reports to the full board rather than just the chairman.

The ordinance contains an organizational chart for the county, specifies that the board will have control over its agenda, and outlines procedures to guarantee that the board plays a role in the budget process.

The board took the action after a final public hearing on the ordinance. Many of those who spoke asked the board to delay action and get more input from citizens.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis stated his opposition to the ordinance and also asked that a decision be delayed.

Commissioner Chuck Horton made the motion to approve the ordinance, and Commissioner John Daniell seconded. Commissioners Margaret Hale and Jim Luke approved.

Davis asked that his opposition to the ordinance be recorded in the minutes. The enabling legislation for Oconee County specifies that the chairman votes only in the case of a tie.

At the beginning of the meeting, Commissioner Daniell read a time line he had compiled of discussions of the need for a change in the way the Board of Commissioners operates that began in 2005.

Chairman Davis said that by his interpretation three-quarters of the people in the county opposed the changes proposed in the ordinance. He said he reached that conclusion based on public comments at the three public hearings and on email messages received by the county.

Luke challenged the usefulness of the data in judging public opinion.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood added two sections to the ordinance before it was approved. One specified how the ordinance could be changed and the other specified the administrative procedures for handling violations.

The ordinance was drafted by Haygood at the request of the four members of the board and in consultation with experts at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

Background information on the ordinance is contained in a posting here on Sunday.

Note: I could not attend the meeting. This posting is based on reports from Charles Baugh, Sarah Bell and Russ Page, who did attend.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Control at the Heart of Oconee County Discussions of Reorganization Ordinance

Citizen Power at Center of Discussion

The most informative part of the discussions with the public about the proposed reorganization ordinance for Oconee County came not during the two public hearings held by the Board of Commissioners, but in the public comment section at the end of the July 28 meeting.

Local businessman Mike Power came to the podium and said he was still trying to understand the proposed ordinance. "Who would have the last say in a personnel matter, a department head matter?" he asked.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood said that disciplinary matters would go to an administrative hearing officer, but simple hiring and firing of department heads "is going to be by the board."

Power asked: "And how is it now?"

Davis responded: "Now the chair has the responsibility, with the input and knowledge of the board. Fortunately, we haven’t had many of them."

Commissioner Jim Luke followed: "Mr. Chairman, I can’t let that pass. I’ve tried to be a gentleman through this process. But I just can’t let that pass. How many positions do we have that I’ve gotten a letter from you saying you hired somebody for that position? How often has that happened? In every case since I’ve been commissioner, but one. One hiring I knew the person was being considered before the hiring. I cannot let that pass."

Davis: "Which one was that?"

Luke: "The one I knew about was Mr. White. Any of those positions since then. Emil Beshara was one. I got an email from you saying that we had hired Beshara.

Davis said: "But you knew we were discussing it?"

Luke said: "No, I did not. Didn’t know who he was. Only after I got the letter from you."

Davis turned to Power and said: "Now I make the decision."

The reference was to the heads of two of the most important departments in the county. B.R. White is the head of the Planning Department. Emil Beshara is the head of the Public Works Department.

A third crucial department, Utility, has been headed by Chris Thomas, then John Hatcher, and now again Chris Thomas since Gary Dodd retired in 2007.

If the BOC passes the proposed ordinance at its regular meeting on Tuesday night, the hiring of department heads would be approved by the five-member board "based on the joint recommendation of the Chairperson, Administrative Officer and Human Resources Director."

"Discharge" of a department head would be by the board based on the county’s Human Resources Ordinance and upon recommendation of the administrative officer and the chairperson.

The ordinance also proposes that the county’s administrative officer and finance director "shall be hired and discharged by the Board of Commissioners." Both also would report directly to the full board. At present, both are hired by the chair and report to the chair.

The county clerk and the county attorney would continue to be appointed and discharged by the full board, as is the case now.

County Attorney Haygood drafted the proposed legislation after a series of meetings involving the commissioners going back to last September. He also consulted with experts from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia and reviewed case law on such ordinances in Georgia.

It was at Davis’ initiative that the Carl Vinson Institute was brought into the discussions.

The commission is scheduled to take final action on the ordinance on Tuesday night. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Power asked Haygood at the meeting on July 28 if the ordinance required the county to change its enabling legislation.

"Not in my opinion," Haygood said.

Haygood went on to say that the enabling legislation for the county is "vague" and only says that the chairman of the board of commissioners shall be the chief executive officer of the county.

The enabling legislation is clear about the power of the legislative branch, or the commission. According to the original 1917 legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly to set up the government structure in the county, the commission has responsibility for finances of the county.

The 1917 ordinance said the commission is responsible for "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."

Only seven citizens spoke at the public hearing on July 28, and only nine spoke at the first public hearing on July 7. In addition, four persons, two of whom spoke at the July 28 public hearing, spoke at the public comments section of the meeting.

Power did not speak at the public hearing itself.

The back-and-forth at the public comment section of the July 28 meeting contrasted with the passive response of the members of the commission in both of the public hearings.

In those cases, Commissioner Margaret Hale told citizens should would be pleased to talk with them via telephone or in person if they wanted to know why she was in favor of the ordinance. The other three commissioners did not speak.

The Oconee Enterprise, the weekly newspaper in the county, has been very critical of the commissioners and of the attempt to pass the ordinance. Chairman Davis has been clear in his opposition to the ordinance, and the paper has supported him both through its editorials and its coverage.

Typical of the tone of that coverage was the story that appeared at the top of the front page of the July 30 edition of the paper. The headline said "Luke lashes at BOC Chairman," and had as its first paragraph this sentence: "Commissioner Jim Luke blew his cool Tuesday night."

Luke was calm, as the video clip above shows. The unedited clip is taken from the county’s recording of the meeting.

The commissioners have said repeatedly that the problem is communication between the chairman and the other four commissioners, and this has turned out to be a mistake.

Johnathan McGinty, a former reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald who currently has a blog on local politics, has argued in today’s paper that communication problems can be fixed without an ordinance.

Enterprise Editor Blake Giles in a column in the July 30 edition of the paper argued that the commissioners have "attacked a communication problem with a sledge hammer."

By controlling the flow of information, the commissioners have said in their working sessions, Davis puts them in a position of voting in public on issues that they do not fully understand or are not confident they understand.

The enabling legislation says Davis votes only in the case of a tie, so the commissioners, rather than Davis, often have to deal with reactions to decisions once made. The commissioners also have accused Davis of making promises behind the scenes and then leaving them in a position to have to ratify or break the promises.

The ordinance specifically requires Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Finance Director Jeff Benko to report to all commissioners as a way around the communication problem. Since all department heads would report to Theriault, the commissioners would get their information from department heads through Theriault, whom they would hire and fire, rather than through Davis, who is elected.

Commissioners Hale, Luke and Chuck Horton have said the problem has existed during the time they have been on the commission. Luke and Horton are starting their second terms. Hale joined the commission when Davis was elected two terms-back.

Commissioner Don Norris, defeated in last year’s elections, defended Davis when these criticisms surfaced, saying he always had all the information he needed. This weakened the position of the other commissioners until Norris was replaced by Commissioner John Daniell in January.

The three continuing commissioners have said they have tried to fix this problem of lack of information repeatedly by simply talking about it with Davis. They have said they have had no success.

In an interview I did with Davis in his office on July 13, he argued, as he did on July 28, that citizens should have a say before the commissioners act on the ordinance. He did not make that argument until the ordinance was drafted.

Davis said during that interview that citizens might want to consider eliminating the commission entirely by electing only a single commissioner–the chairman–or consider having the commissioners run by districts.

If all of the commissioners were elected by districts, their power would be diminished relative to the chair, who would run at large and could claim to represent the whole county. This problem could be solved by having some commissioners run by district and others elected at large, but Davis did not suggest that strategy.

As the exchange between Davis and Luke at the July 28 meeting and the comments by Davis to me make clear, the tussle really is over power.

McGinty and Giles missed the point that "communication" has just been used as shorthand for "power" in the discussions.

It also is clear from comments of several of the citizens who spoke at the two public hearing that many also did not understand–or want to understand–what the issue is behind the commissioner’s complaint with how things are done at present.

The county now has a very strong executive branch represented by the commission chairman and a very weak legislative branch in the commission, on which the executive also sits.

The ordinance is designed to change that.


The edited version of the two citizen comment sections from the July 28 meeting is on my Vimeo site.

The public hearing on the ordinance at the July 7 meeting was at the front of the meeting. The recording of that meeting is on the county’s Vimeo site.

(I spoke at both hearings. I argued the county is well served both by a strong chairman and a strong commission and that the commission should pass the ordinance. I did recommend that one provision be dropped so the ordinance deals entirely with the power of the commission.)

Background information on the ordinance is available in a number of earlier postings here: July 28, 27, 13, 8, and 5, June 17, May 19, 13, 6 and April 26.

Video recordings of the May 6 and May 19 work sessions on the ordinance are on my Vimeo site, as is a clip on the ordinance from the June 30 commission meeting. The June 23 work session on the ordinance is on the county Vimeo site following the called meeting for that date.

The April 26 posting is particularly helpful in understanding the motivation of the four commissioners for pursuing the ordinance. It is based on a meeting held back in September and includes statements from the commissioners on their sense of frustration in trying to correct what they see as a problem short of passing an ordinance.

The April 26 report contains a full audio recording of the meeting, in Part I and Part II. The order of the speakers is explained at the bottom of the April 26 posting.