Friday, December 04, 2009

Oconee Commissioner Horton Voices Criticism at Zoning Request

Visions of bombers?

The image is pretty hard to create.

According to a literal reading of the Dec. 3 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton blew himself up--"exploded"--at the end of the Tuesday night meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

As is often the case, a literal reading of the Enterprise isn’t to be recommended.

Here’s what actually happened:

At the 35th minute of a 60 minute meeting, Horton, without raising his voice, expressed his disappointment with a rezone request that had come back before the board for review.

"I’m disappointed with this project," Horton said calmly. "I think the record will show I voted for it back in ‘06. But this is not what I voted for. I’m not in the construction business and I understand slight modifications. But this is not a slight modification, Ken, I’ll tell you that. That’s me. Seventeen thousand four hundred feet is not a slight modification."

Horton said the design of the buildings also was not what had been approved, and he added, "To me, it should have come back before the board and we deal with it."

He spoke for one minute and 30 seconds, and he stopped.

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Here’s how the paper started its report on that meeting at the top of the front page of Thursday’s edition:

"All was calm, even dull, until the end of the Oconee Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday when member Chuck Horton exploded.

"‘This is not what I voted for,’ he declared. ‘It’s not what we talked about. These aren’t minor modifications, and they’re already built! You need to come back before this board!’"

The applicant already was before the board, and Horton was talking to the representative of the applicant, which should have been a tip for the reporter that Horton didn't say that.

Commissioner Jim Luke "chimed in" to support Horton, the paper wrote, while Chairman Melvin Davis "murmured" and Commissioner John Daniell "sat silent." Commissioner Margaret Hale "was out sick."

Ken--in Horton's actual quote--was Ken Beall of Beall and Company, representing Oconee Safe Storage, 1711 Hog Mountain road, which was seeking to modify the original development plan to increase the overall square footage for the storage facility, which already has been built.

In October of 2006, the BOC had approved a rezone for the site to allow for construction of an office building of 686 square feet and 12 storage buildings totaling 50,925 square feet.

Instead of that, the current site has an office building of 1,270 square feet and eight buildings totally 68,210 square feet. The storage building square foot difference is 17,285, though the application uses the 17,400 figure Horton referred to.

Beall explained the changes by saying "we discovered there was more topographical relief on the site that what we originally envisioned," causing the builders to alter the plans accordingly. He said such modifications of plans were routine.

The 3.3 acre site fronts on Hog Moutain road and slopes down to the adjoining pasture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Piedmont Experiment Station.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to approve the changes, allowing the builder to have fewer buildings with more square feet in storage and of a different design than had been proposed and approved initially.

The Enterprise consistently provides negative coverage of the four members of the Board of Commissioners, so the exaggeration and misquotes of Horton are not so surprising.

The paper usually provides favorable coverage of Chairman Davis, however, making the second known error on the front page of the Dec. 3 paper a little more surprising.

In a story at the bottom, left side of the page, based on the agenda-setting meeting of Nov. 24, the paper announced that because of budget problems "county jobs will go and expenses will be cut across the board."

This statement--not attributed to anyone--appeared near a picture of Davis, who is quoted as saying "FY 2011 and 2012 will be tough and even more so (than this past year). Where else can we cut to make up the difference?"

Here’s what Davis actually said, this time literally at the end of the meeting:

"I’m predicting...that FY11 and FY12 is going to be just as tough as FY10, maybe more so. We’re looking already at what our revenue and expenditures will be and whether or not it will go south as far as income is concerned, or where else we can cut in order to make up that difference. We’ve got to have a balanced budget, just like everybody else."

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Neither he nor county Finance Director Jeff Benko, who also spoke, said anything about cutting jobs or cutting across the board.

Journalists are supposed to worry about mistakes out of fear that readers who find errors in stories they know something about will assume that other stories they don’t know anything about also have errors in them. Then the whole paper becomes something not to be trusted.

Because the county now puts recordings of BOC meetings on Vimeo, readers have the opportunity to judge for themselves how accurately the Enterprise covers commission meetings.

They have to judge for themselves what to believe about other stories in the paper.

Because of personal knowledge, I can say that the Dec. 3 issue of the paper did contain at least one other error.

The Enterprise ran a letter from me on page A5 in which I tried to correct errors in a story in the Nov. 19 issue of the paper about a mitigation resolution I had introduced to the BOC.

The letter was used unedited, except for my address.

I closed the submitted letter with my name, street address, and "Oconee County." My mail is delivered out of Athens, as is the case for many others in the county, but I did not list that on the letter, which was submitted electronically.

The paper removed "Oconee County" and substituted in "Athens," so the letter was signed, according to the paper, as from "Lee Becker, Athens."

I am from here, even if the Enterprise wishes–and wishes to suggest–otherwise.