Sunday, January 18, 2009

Oconee County and Its Citizens

Naysayers, Tongues, Dogs and Fleas

Just-retired Oconee County Commissioner Don Norris used a recent interview with Athens Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson to complain about citizens he called "naysayers," singling out me and Citizens for Oconee’s Future President Charles Baugh.

"It’s gotten very complicated to conduct the county’s business anymore," Norris said. "Especially, you know, with the open records requests and everything of that nature."

The interview appears on a blog Thompson filed on the newspaper web site on Jan. 16. Thompson reported that he transcribed parts of an hour and a half long interview with Norris he did in preparation for a story on Norris’ retirement.

An open records request is the way set forth in Georgia law for citizens to ask formally for information from local and state governments. Both Baugh and I have used this procedure frequently to obtain information from Oconee County. The County even requires citizens to file open records requests to view minutes of local meetings.

The Oconee Enterprise, the private weekly newspaper that carries the legal advertisements for the county and usually reflects the county’s point of view, also voiced its complaints about citizens in an editorial in the paper on Jan. 15.

While most of those speaking out at two recent rezone requests before the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 6 were "civilized and cordial," the paper’s editorial said, they contrasted with those speaking at "many earlier hearings that the BOC has held" where "free speech flowered at its ugliest" and citizens were "more like thugs using brass knuckles on their tongues."

Because the county has now started making video recordings of its meetings–after Baugh, Russ Page, Tony Glenn and I said we would make and post the recordings ourselves if the county did not do it–citizens can judge for themselves whether presenters have abused their rights to free speech at recent rezone hearings.

Citizens spoke at hearings before the BOC on Oct. 7, Dec. 2, and Jan. 6, and all of those meetings are on the county’s web site.

Oconee County is going through a transition. It is less homogeneous than in the past, and there is a tension between "old" Oconee, represented by people with deep roots in the county, such as former Commissioner Norris, and people who have moved into the new subdivisions concentrated around the northern part of the county.

Rezone disagreements often pit the interests of "old" Oconee, which wants to do things on its terms, as in the past, and the interests of people in the subdivisions, where some also want to have a say in how things are changed and do not necessarily want to follow the old rules.

The rezone request voted on by the Board on Dec. 2 illustrates the conflict well. It will put another office building on Daniells Bridge Road in what is now a residential neighborhood.

The way the decision was made shows the arms-length distance the county government tries to keep from its citizens.

The property that was rezoned is owned by Dorothy N. Anglin and Delores N. Lance. According to the deed, the property earlier belonged George F. Norris and Sarah D. Norris, distant relatives of former Commissioner Norris.

On April 3, 2007, the BOC decided to approve the rezone of two separate properties on Daniells Bridge Road for another office park and for the SpringHill Suites by Marriott hotel now under construction.

At that April 3 meeting, the BOC required the two developers to agree to work with the county on design and upgrade of the roadway.

On May 1, 2007, one of the developers was back before the Board, seeking to develop another office park on 9 acres further down Daniells Bridge Road–just east of the blind curve in the roadway.

Once again, the planning staff recommended that the developer agree to work with the county on design and upgrade of the roadway.

This time, however, after strong protest from neighbors who said the office park was a safety hazard and would adversely affect the residential character of the area, the Board voted to turn down the rezone.

Just after the Board rejected the Daniells Bridge Road rezone for the office park, Commissioner Chuck Horton told me that the rezone was likely to come up again and that I and others in the area affected by the rezone should be prepared for that eventuality.

As a result, on May 24, 2007, I sent an e-mail message to Alan Therialt, administrative officer of the county, informing him that my neighbors and I wanted to be involved "in discussions about the upgrade of Daniells Bridge Road" that were taking place between the county and the developers.

Theriault wrote me back via e-mail on May 31 saying such involvement was unlikely. He copied the e-mail to all five of the members of the Board of Commissioners.

"While we may ask that the project developers involve or allow citizen input into their design, we cannot force them to do so," Theriault said. The developer has to meet state and national standards, he said, and need not respond to the desires of citizens.

Theriault did say he would "be more than happy to inquire on your behalf" about the willingness of the developers to talk with citizens "and will advise you accordingly."

Theriault also said that if the Board of Commissioners decided to undertake upgrades to Daniells Bridge Road beyond that which would be required of the developers, "we would of course welcome input from residents in the area."

That was the last I or any of my neighbors heard about Daniells Bridge Road from Theriault or anyone else in county government.

On May 24, 2007–the same day I wrote Theriault--Dorothy N. Anglin, James L. Lance Sr. and James L. Lance Jr. filed suit in Oconee County Superior Court, claiming the county had acted unconstitutionally in denying the rezone and asking the court to overturn the BOC decision. James L. Lance Sr. and James L. Lance Jr. are co-executors of the estate of Delores N. Lance.

More than a year later, on Oct. 7, 2008, the county prepared a consent order to settle the suit and to proceed to grant the rezone requested by the property owners.

How, when and why that decision was made remains unknown to the public. The Board of Commissioners meets with County Attorney Daniel Haygood in secret sessions, and records of those sessions are never released to the public. Haygood, however, would not have moved forward with a settlement without Board acquiescence or approval.

It would have been easy for members of the Board to have contacted concerned citizens to explain the decision to settle the suit, either before the Oct. 7 consent order or after.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Horton and Jim Luke had met with the Welbrook Farms Home Owners Association on April 30, 2007, to learn of the concern of citizens in that neighborhood. I was president of the HOA at that time. The association voted that night to ask the BOC to deny the rezone.

Board Chairman Melvin Davis also had met with several neighbors and me on the site of the rezone before the Board vote.

In addition, the county had in its files the signed petitions of more than 400 citizens, many of them from Welbrook Farms, Lake Wellbrook, Birchmore Hills, Settlers Ridge, Founders Grove, and Chestnut Glen, which are near the rezone site.

Welbrook Farms has a website that lists the association officers. It is easily found through an Internet search.

Citizens learned of the settlement not from their elected officials but via the legally required announcements of the public hearings on the rezone. The legal advertisement for the hearing appeared in the The Oconee Enterprise on Oct. 2, 2008, and signs appeared on the rezone site at approximately the same time.

At the Oct. 20 hearing before the Planning Commission, I and neighbor Ralph Johnson informed the Commission that the neighborhood remained opposed to the rezone. Horton from the Board of Commissioners was there.

Fifteen citizens, again including me, appeared at the legally scheduled hearing on Nov. 4, 2008-- election night--only to learn that the Board, at the initiation of Commissioner Horton, had decided not to hold the hearing.

Instead, the Board decided to ask Emil Beshara, director of Public Works for the county, to come back to the Board on Nov. 25 with plans for improvements in Daniells Bridge Road.

Beshara presented the Board at the Nov. 25 meeting three such designs for a $400,000 widening of Daniells Bridge Road from the Anglin and Lance property to the intersection of Daniells Bridge Road and Mars Hill Road. No citizens had been consulted.

At the rescheduled hearing on Dec. 2, the Board finally allowed citizens to speak. None spoke in favor of the rezone, but seven spoke in opposition, and one of those turned in petitions signed by 384 persons asking the Board to turn down the rezone.

It did just the opposite.

Oconee County has a Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation that meets monthly. In theory, it provides the County with citizen feedback on transportation issues, such as improvements to Daniells Bridge Road.

The minutes of the Committee back through January of 2006 show that the Committee never discussed improvements to Daniells Bridge Road from the Anglin and Lance property to the Mars Hill Road intersection.

At its meeting of Jan. 9, 2007, the Committee did discuss, at the initiation of then County Public Works Director Mike Leonas, the proposed Daniells Bridge Road flyover to Home Depot, an improvement to the east of the Anglin and Lance property that the county has acknowledged is at least 10 years away.

Had Beshara or anyone else decided to involve the Land Use and Transportation Committee in deliberations about the proposed settlement of the Anglin and Lance case or planned improvements in Daniells Bridge Road from the site to Mars Hill Road, they would have reached affected citizens.

Bob Isaac and James Morris are two of the 12 citizens members of that committee. Both live in Welbrook Farms. Both signed the petition turned in on Dec. 2 opposing the rezone.

The Land Use and Transportation Committee is but one of six permanent committees on which citizens can serve. Others deal with such issues as development, recreation and cultural affairs.

The Board appoints members to these committees after advertising for applications. Candidates fill out a form and appear before the Board at one of its regular meetings for an interview.

The Board then goes into closed sessions to talk about the applicants. When it returns, it simply announces the winners, and that is that. No public announcement is ever made of what the Board considered in making its decision.

It is clear, however, that at least some members of the Board are far from passive in getting people to apply.

Isaac and Morris–very able individuals–were professional associates of Chairman Davis when he was an extension agent for the University of Georgia.

In October of 2007, I applied for a seat on the Oconee Development Authority. Another candidate was Steve Hollis, the CEO of Power Partners Inc. of Athens and a resident of Oconee County.

Three times Hollis missed his chance to be interviewed by the Board, and the Board kept putting off its decision. Then, on Nov. 6, 2007, he finally showed up and began his interview with these words: "It is an honor to be asked to serve."

The Board went into executive session that night and appointed Hollis to the Development Authority.

The Board also appoints ad hoc committees to deal with issues that arise. Last fall an Impact Fee Study Committee reported to the Board. It didn’t reach agreement on whether fees should be enacted, and the Board decided to take no action.

Another ad hoc committee has reported favorably on the feasibility of a Transfer of Development Rights program, and the BOC will be asked to act on that soon.

The Board of Commissioners schedules a time for citizen comments at each of its two monthly meetings. Specific rules apply, such as one allowing the Chairman to "terminate discussion of any item or statement at any time it is deemed irrelevant or repetitious."

The time for citizens to talk is near the end of the session, and the Commissioners seldom appear to be paying much attention to what is said.

The public hearings on rezones are required by law, and for these as well the Board has a tightly regulated policy restricting the amount time for comments and how they are to be presented. Chairman Davis reads the rules to the audience at the start of each such hearing.

The Board postpones these publicly scheduled hearings without notice, and citizens who turned out to speak, as was the case on Nov. 4, are simply left hanging.

The Oct. 7 hearing on the Epps Bridge Centre in Epps Bridge parkway had been scheduled for a month earlier and postponed at the last minute without prior announcement. Citizens were in attendance and planning to speak at the originally scheduled hearing.

The Jan. 6 BOC meeting involved two public hearings, and one of those had been scheduled earlier and postponed. It was for a shopping center on U.S. 441 at LaVista Road, and the number of people who turned out in opposition on Jan. 6 was so great that about half were not even able to get into the meeting chambers.

Without any advance warning to those who came to speak, the Board switched the rezone request and approved an office park for the property, though none had been requested. The citizens never had a chance to indicate how they felt about that swap or even see any plans for what an office park on the site might look like.

For the last four years, citizens in the county have closely monitored county plans for an upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant. The upgrade called for discharging treated sewage water into Barber Creek, which flows through many residential neighborhoods in the northern part of the county.

I and others formed a group called Friends of Barber Creek to help keep people informed about this issue and to help organize a public hearing before the state Environment Protection Division on the discharge permit.

The group is legally registered with the Georgia Secretary of State, has officially listed officers and operates a web site.

On Nov. 14, without any prior notice to officers of Friends of Barber Creek or other concerned citizens, County Clerk Gina Lindsey sent out an official announcement that the BOC would hold a work session at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 "to discuss options for the expansion of wastewater treatment capacity."

The Board met in the Grand Jury Room at the Oconee County Courthouse, which is small and has space for only a few citizens. It did not make a video recording of the session. Russ Page, who is an advocate for farmland protection, did record it, however, and I’ve uploaded it to my Vimeo site.

The Board voted to put on hold everything it had discussed for more than four years regarding the Rocky Branch plant and decided instead to expand the operation of the Calls Creek plant outside Watkinsville. Citizens who live along Calls Creek also had no notice of the change.

At the same meeting, the Board put its final touches on its plans for the upcoming Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue allocations. Citizens will be asked to approve or disapprove the tax on March 17.

The county had held two public hearings on the allocation of funds for SPLOST earlier, but citizens at the meetings were presented a list of priorities of the county departments and the Sheriff’s office at the beginning of the meetings. Only once representatives of those units spoke were citizens allowed to indicate what they thought should be included in the SPLOST funding.

Farmland advocate Page asked for $1 million for farmland protection and $1 million for historic preservation. He got half his request for farmland protection and an uncertain amount for historical preservation.

Oconee County Commissioners rarely explain their votes at the public meetings either before or after they make them. Citizens are not given copies of documents they are reviewing, and those documents generally are not shown on the projector in the room, though the commissioners often view them on computers screens at their desktops.

At rezone hearings, most, but not all, of the rezone documents are presented via the projector, but once citizens have made their comments, the Commissioners mostly talk with staff and the developer about their concerns. Rarely is there even reference made to the comments of the citizens.

The five commissioners are all elected at large, so none of them has any particular connection to citizens in specific sections of the county. They also seem to subscribe to the view that citizens have a chance to vote on them every four years and once elected they have the power to make decisions largely without seeking out citizen input.

The media could serve as an advocate for citizens. Many journalists like to talk about themselves as the watchdog of government and the representative of the public interest.

Now-retired University of Minnesota Journalism Professor Phil Tichenor, an expert on the relationship between the media and the community, has found, however, that the media in small towns are more likely to be supporters than critics of the local government and power structure.

The Enterprise is a case in point.

In fiscal year 2007-2008, the Enterprise received $28,563 for subscriptions, legal advertisements and other public notices it ran for the county, according to documents provided to me by the county in response to an open records request I filed. The year before, the county paid the paper $21,874.

The spending is not clearly delineated in the documents I received, but it appears that most of it is for general notices in the paper, rather than required legal advertising. For example, the Utility Department paid the paper $3,276 in calendar year 2007, much of it for display advertisements about water use restrictions.

Publisher Vinnie Williams reported in her column in the Jan. 8, 2009, issue of the paper that the Enterprise had 12 employees on the payroll, including two reporters and an editor. The two reporters were hired after completing their college studies last spring, the paper reported at the time.

My own research on the journalism labor force shows that the median starting salary for entry-level reporters hired at weeklies around the country last year was $26,900.

The county’s payments to the Enterprise, in other words, would cover a major part of the salary of one of those two reporters–depending on what they actually are paid–but it is only a small part of the overall budget of the paper. Yet the county does have options for its advertising, and it is unlikely the Enterprise would like the county to exercise them.

The treatment the county receives in the Enterprise reflects that.

The paper has begun offering BOC Chairman Davis a weekly column so he can tout what he sees as the achievements of the county. The sheriff also has a column.

Just below the editorial in the Jan. 15 issue of the paper (with the odd simile about tongues wearing brass knuckles), Davis explained how the county decides which roads to pave. He also used the column to make a pitch for the March 17 SPLOST vote.

In the editorial above the column, the paper sang its praises of Davis and his fellow commissioners. "Never have we been as proud of the Oconee County Board of we were last Tuesday evening," the editorial said.

The reference was to the meeting at which the Board swapped the shopping center for an unrequested office park and approved another massive shopping center that citizens said was going to create traffic problems and noise and light pollution for their neighborhood.

The Enterprise in that same editorial said it was proud of the county’s citizens who attended those hearings. The citizens were not critics of the county. Rather, they were "committed, concerned, articulate" and "cordial."

That, it seems, is what citizens in Oconee County are supposed to be–quiet until called upon, and then respectful.

Former Commission Don Norris, in his interview with Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson, said the critics were simply "naysayers," but he acknowledge the group was made up of others in addition to Charlie Baugh and me.

"That goes with the job," he told Thompson. "A dog’s going to pick up fleas."