Kings and Court Jesters
Underplayed and unexplained in last month’s controversy involving the self-proposed salary increase for the Oconee County Board of Education was the role of the state legislature generally and local Representative Bob Smith and Senator Bill Cowsert specifically in Oconee County governance.
The legislature has control not only over the salaries of the members of the Board of Education, but also over the salaries of the members of the Board of Commissioners. It also controls the structure of local government, even determining how the board members are elected.
The legislature will act, however, only if Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert–or whoever holds their seats in the legislature–agree that it should do so. The representative and senator representing the county are kings when it comes to what is called local legislation.
In the controversy regarding the Board of Education’s efforts to increase salaries, Bob Smith played the role to the hilt.
The basic facts in the controversy are not in dispute. The Oconee County Board of Education decided it wanted to increase the salaries of its members.
Board Chairman David Weeks’ salary was to go to $10,000. Vice Chairman Mack Guest’s salary was to go to $7,000. The other three board members would get $6,000 each. All five currently receive only $1,800.
Smith was quoted in the March 12 issue of The Oconee Enterprise as saying Weeks approached him about a month earlier asking him to introduce legislation to increase the salary of members of the Board of Education.
Weeks has said he did what Smith asked and put an advertisement in the Enterprise about the requested change and held a public vote. Only board member Kim Argo voted against the increase at that meeting.
Smith then decided he was not going to introduce the legislation. "I don’t think it is right," he is quoted in the Enterprise as saying.
Without the support of Smith and Cowsert, local legislation of this sort isn’t going to pass the state legislature.
In Georgia, unlike in many other states, the type of local government and school board is not fixed in the constitution, but rather is determined by local or enabling legislation.
As a result, county governmental structure varies considerably around the state. Oconee County has five commissioners, all of whom are elected at large. Athens, which is merged with Clarke County in a unified government, has a mayor and 10 commissioners. All of the Clarke commissioners are elected by districts.
When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners decided in 2007 to stagger their terms so all five of them could not be tossed out together, they had to get approval from the state legislature. That meant Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert had to agree to the change. The School Board made this same change a year earlier–again with local legislator approval.
Either the local representative or senator can introduce the legislation, but it is extremely unlikely to be passed if both do not agree on the changes.
There are no rules on how this is to be done, the conditions that the local legislators can set or the procedures to follow. If Bob Smith had told David Weeks he would introduce the legislation only if Weeks came to his office dressed as a court jester, Weeks would have had to find the costume.
And the local legislators can change their minds, leaving the jester with an unneeded clown suit. Weeks has had the experience.
"He always indicated his support to us, and then at the 11th hour that changed," Weeks is quoted as saying in the March 13 edition of the Athens Banner-Herald. "We never
would have gone through with it if we thought he wasn't going to support it."
Compensation for Board of Education members in the state of Georgia is set by state law at $50 per month plus expenses, but the law allows for an exception, if the legislature approves. And the legislature does that on a case-by-case basis.
In 1999, the legislature set salaries for all Oconee County school board members at $150 a month, or the current $1,800. A year earlier the legislature had set the salaries of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.
The chairman of the Board of Commissioners gets 113 percent of the highest base salary of the sheriff, probate judge, tax commissioner or clerk of superior court, whose salaries are set by the legislature. The other four members of the board get 27 percent of the highest base salary of these four office holders.
Each commissioner also gets an additional 5 percent of the respective salary for each four-year term completed and an annual cost of living adjustment. In the current fiscal year, Chairman Melvin Davis is earning $92,276, Commissioner Hale is receiving $23,098, Commissioner Chuck Horton and Commissioner Jim Luke each earns $22,048, and the newest commissioner, John Daniell, receives $20,998.
The Rules of the House of Representatives refer to legislation of this sort as local legislation. House Rule 18.1 state that the Committee on Intragovernmental Coordination "shall not favorably report any legislation affecting a political subdivision unless all of the Representatives whose districts are wholly or partially located within the political subdivision shall sign such legislation."
In the case of Oconee County, that one person is Republican Bob Smith, representing the 113 District, which includes all of Oconee County but only parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties.
"When the Committee on Intragovernmental Coordination staff reports to the chairman that local legislation meets the technical requirements for which the staff inspects and has been signed by the requisite local delegation members under Rule 18.1, the legislation shall be favorably reported as a matter of course," according to House Rule 18.2.
That "requisite local delegation member" is Bob Smith.
Senate Rule 3-2.2 says that "In order for local legislation to be favorably reported by the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee, such legislation must be signed by a majority of the Senators representing the political subdivision affected by such legislation."
For Oconee County, that "majority" is Republican Bill Cowsert, representing the 46th District, made up of all of Oconee County but only parts of Clarke and Walton counties.
If Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert agree, the Oconee County Board of Education can increase its salary. If either of them doesn’t, it cannot. It doesn’t really matter what the members of the school board want.
The only way voters even have a say is when they vote for or against Bob Smith and Bill Cowsert–or whoever holds those offices.
Though no rule of the House or Senate specifies this, local bills supported by the local House or Senate member are passed by that chamber as a matter of what is termed "local courtesy." This works because each member defers to the others on these local laws.
The Georgia constitution does require an advertisement of the intent to introduce a local act be placed in the local organ. In this case, that is the Enterprise.
A one column wide by 2.5 inch deep legal notice appeared on page 5 of the second section of the Feb. 5 edition of the paper, under the category heading Public Notice. The headline to the advertisement read: NOTICE OF INTENTION TO INTRODUCE LOCAL LEGISLATION.
The advertisement was so well hidden in the paper, it seems, that even the Enterprise reporters and editors failed to notice. The paper didn’t print a story about the proposed salary increase for the School Board members until the March 12 edition.