Monday, December 27, 2010

Oconee BOE Scheduled to Swear in Two Members at Meeting on Jan. 3

May 10 Again

At its Jan. 3 meeting, the Oconee County Board of Education is scheduled to swear in two members, bringing to an end a year that saw one board member resign, the board announce and then abandon a plan to replace the member, and voters toss out an incumbent.

Mark Thomas will join the Board at that meeting as Post 2 member after handily defeating both incumbent Post 2 Board member Mack Guest in the July Republican primary and Democrat Carter Strickland in the November general election.

Kim Argo, who ran unopposed in both the Republican primary and in the general election in November, also is scheduled to be sworn in for a second four-year term. She holds Post 3.

The two will join Wayne Bagley, chosen by the Board on Oct. 4 to replace Post 5 Board member Tom Breedlove, who resigned on May 10 after he decided to move out of the state to take a new job.

The terms of Board Chairman David Weeks, Post 4 member Mike Hunter and Bagley will expire in 2012. The terms for Argo and Thomas run until 2014.

On May 19, the Board announced it would turn to the four candidates who had filed for the Post 2 and 3 positions to find a replacement for the Post 5 vacancy.

That meant that Argo and Guest, along with Weeks and Hunter, were inviting Argo and Guest, along with Thomas and Strickland, to ask to be considered to replace Breedlove.

In the end, only Strickland said he was interested, and the Board decided on June 14 that it would pass Strickland over and seek applicants from the general public.

Bagley was chosen from 17 applicants after the Board shortened the list to three on Aug. 9 and interviewed those finalists on Sept. 2. Bagley was sworn in on Oct. 11, or a week after his selection.

In a conversation with me on Nov. 2, Weeks said the board had learned from the experience of selecting the Post 5 replacement.

“I know we have taken some heat on the process we went through,” he said. “I think in the end it did work out the way it was supposed to work out.”

Weeks said if he could go back to May 10, he would propose opening up the process “right off the bat.” But he said it was easy to second guess the decision and he didn’t want to do that.

Weeks said he didn’t think there would be any long-term consequences of the decision process and he is very pleased with the selection of Bagley.

The official selection of Bagley on Oct. 4 came after the Board voted to go into executive session at the end of its regular meeting, which started at 4:30 p.m.

According to the official minutes of the meeting, that was at 5:22 p.m. The Board returned from executive session at 5:33 and announced the selection of Bagley.

“I know that 11 minutes does seem like it was already predetermined,” Weeks said in our conversation. But he said that was not the case.

The Board had discussed the three candidates following their interviews on Sept. 2, Weeks said.

According to the official minutes of that meeting, the Board spent a little less than an hour and a half in executive session after the Sept. 2 interviews.

“At that time,” Weeks said, “We didn’t have a consensus.”

Weeks told me he encouraged the Board members to talk one-on-one with the candidates on their own, and that he had talked with Townsend by telephone and had lunch with Bagley and Burnette.

Weeks said he also encouraged the Board members to exchange information and ideas, though not in groups of three, since that would violate the state’s open meetings laws.

Weeks said the Board did not discuss the three candidates in meetings held on Sept. 13 and 20, because Guest missed the first of those meetings and Weeks missed the second.

So the next discussion of the full board about the three finalists was on Oct. 4, he said.

“When we got there, everybody said Wayne Bagley was their choice,” Weeks said.

Superintendent John A. Jackson attended the two executive sessions where the three finalists were discussed, according to Weeks, but he did not express his opinion, and the Board did not ask.

“He didn’t play any role whatsoever,” Weeks said.

No reporters for the papers were present when the Board came out of executive session on Oct. 4 and announced Bagley’s selection, and none of the papers mentioned the small amount of time the Board needed to select Bagley at that meeting in the stories they wrote about the meeting.

The Athens Banner-Herald had a story in its Oct. 5 edition about Bagley’s selection, and The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader had stories in their Oct. 7 editions.

Oct. 4 was a Monday, and that is the final day for copy for the Leader. The Enterprise normally includes in its Thursday editions stories from meetings on Tuesday nights.

Reporter Kathy Russo from the Enterprise was present at the Oct. 4 meeting but left when the Board went into executive session.

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Brook Whitmire sent a press release immediately after the meeting to the three newspapers, according to the response to an open records request I filed with the school office on Oct. 17.

The meeting ended at 5:35 p.m., and the news releases were sent at 5:46 and 5:47.

Superintendent Jackson handed me a copy of that news release about that same time.

The news release contained a lengthy quote from Weeks explaining the selection of Bagley and noting his credentials.

The Enterprise used the quote in its story, written by Russo, while Ryan Blackburn from the Banner-Herald used a part of the quote. Reporter Katie Tavernier did not use the quote in her story in the Leader.

According to an email message I received on Oct. 18 from Deborah Epps, administrative assistant to Superintendent Jackson, Jackson called Tavernier after the meeting because Epps had told Tavernier earlier in the day that she did not expect an announcement of a selection at the meeting.

Tavernier quoted Jackson praising Bagley rather then Weeks in her story.

The Jan. 3 work session where Argo and Thomas are scheduled to be sworn in starts at 5 p.m. at the school system’s administrative offices, 34 School street in Watkinsville.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Oconee County News and Information Web Site Scheduled to Launch Tomorrow

Hyperlocal and Interactive

Oconee County’s local news and information site is scheduled to go live tomorrow.

Jane Lee, the editor of the Oconee County site, said the plan is for the site to be made available to the public sometime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The Oconee launch will follow a successful launch of a site in Dacula on Dec. 17. A Barrow County site is scheduled to launch on Dec. 28, Lee said. The Athens site will launch after the first of the year, she added.

In all, AOL Inc., the web site owner, plans to launch 12 sites in the northeast Georgia region in coming months as part of the its national roll-out of the local web sites, according to Lee. web site shows the service as available in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

AOL Inc., formerly known as America Online, is attempting to move from being an Internet service provider to an Internet content producer.

The web site will be both “interactive” and “hyperlocal,” Lee said, distinguishing it from anything else available in the market.

It will contain news produced by Lee and correspondents working for her as well as materials submitted by the readers.

Readers will be able to contribute to a calendar, post birth, wedding and other types of announcements, and place advertisements for such things as garage sales. AOL will not charge for these postings.

The company will charge for some types of reader contributions, such as job posting, Lee said.

The site also will have a directory of local businesses and governmental offices. Businesses can pay extra for a larger listing, similar to what they do in printed telephone directories.

Readers will not pay for access to the web site. AOL plans to support the site through advertising.

At present, Lee said she has lined up seven freelance writers to contribute to the Oconee site. She said she plans to cover governmental meetings and post stories to the site upon the meeting’s completion.

The two Oconee County weeklies, The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader, have web sites, but both papers give priority to their print products, which come out on Thursday.

Many county meetings are at the front of the week, with the Board of Education meeting on Mondays and the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesdays.

On Dec. 13, a Monday, both papers had reporters at the meeting of the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority and the Oconee County Board of Commissioners. The meeting was from 4 to 6 p.m.

Both included stories in their Thursday, Dec. 16 editions.

Neither paper put the story on its web site.

The daily Athens Banner-Herald also wrote about the story in its Dec. 16 edition and put the story on its web site.

Perry Parks, a Georgia regional editor for AOL’s project, told me in October that he planned to hire a professional editor for Watkinsville and Oconee County in November.

Lee, 47, told me on Saturday that she has been living in Oconee County for a little more than a month.

She is a graduate of the University of Georgia (in classics) and has worked as a journalist in Thomaston, in Upson County, south of Atlanta.

Lee said readers will have easy access to her telephone and email address via the web site.


Online Media Daily on 12/21 released a projection by eMarketer that 2010 will be the first year in which online advertising exceeds advertising by newspapers, including for their online editions. eMarketer also expects online advertising to continue to grow and print advertising to decrease.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oconee County Industrial Development Authority Seeks Advice from Board of Commissioners

Offers Bond Tips Too

The Oconee County Industrial Development Authority, seeking guidance on what it should do next, spent two hours yesterday afternoon tossing out ideas to members of the Board of Commissioners.

Among the proposals put forward was adding roadways and other infrastructure to the Gateway Park, enticing companies now incubating at the University of Georgia to locate in Oconee County, and getting voters to approve liquor by the drink so the county can develop a convention facility.

Gateway Park, on SR 316 near the Barrow County line and envisioned as a technology park, is a project of the IDA. At present, it is undeveloped.

The commissioners present were less than committal about which projects they favor and what they want the IDA to do.

The ideas the Authority was pitching came for a survey of the members.

Leonard Meyers, acting as facilitator for the meeting, methodically went through the responses, encouraging members to elaborate and commissioners to respond. Meyers said about halfway through the session he was surprised how little comment his presentation was generating.

Those who did speak favored an activist and expansive role of county government in promoting development, consistent with the comments in the survey Meyers was summarizing.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood, who also represents the IDA, said the authority has been in existence since 1962, when it was approved by the citizens of the county under the authority of the state’s constitution.

Haygood said the IDA can receive gifts, it can borrow money, it can make intergovernmental agreements, and it has the powers of private corporations.

This latter power, according to Haygood, means the IDA can do such things as build a building “without having to comply with all the state law that a county would have to comply with.”

“The big one, and this is the one you are all here to really think about and talk about,” said Haygood, “is encourage or promote expansion and development of industrial facilities and commercial facilities in Oconee County to relieve possible unemployment.”

Haygood said the IDA can acquire or build a building and even provide the furnishings and machinery for it.

The IDA also can accumulate funds year to year, he added, and can negotiate tax abatements for businesses seeking to expand or locate in the county.

Haygood introduced Jim Woodward, an attorney at Miller & Martin law firm in Atlanta, who said his speciality is counseling governments on bond sales.

Woodward added “an additional benefit for governments” of the IDA.

“You can borrow money without a voter referendum,” he said.

Haygood said the county can dedicate property taxes to pay for bonds and projects of the Authority.

Commissioner Margaret Hale was unable to attend the meeting, and Commissioner Chuck Horton came in with only about a half hour remaining. He apologized and said he was attending another government meeting.

Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke and Commission Chairman Melvin Davis sat through the entire two-hour session.

“We need somebody to come back to us and say here is what you can do in Oconee County,” Daniell said. “If you want this type of business, you’ve got to do this. If you want this type, you’ve got to do that.

“After we have all the options on the table, that is when the Board of Commissioners have got to raise their hands and say, all right, let’s go down this road.”

Commissioner Jim Luke turned to Chairman Davis at one point and said of the IDA:

“They are sitting here asking us, what do you want us to do? We’re saying, figure it out and tell us.”

Horton said the county should not waste its effort going after companies not interested in coming to Georgia.

“I think you’ve got to look at where money currently is going and where you have a legitimate chance of getting some of that money,” he said.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who is a member of the IDA by virtue of his BOC role, was more determined to push forward with a directive for IDA.

He introduced Tom Griffith, whom, Davis said, he had invited to the meeting.

Griffith, founder of Golden Pantry Food Stores, based in Oconee County near Bogart, said the county needs to purchase what is called the Orkin property, a piece of land at the U.S. 78 and SR 316 interchange and stretching into Clarke County, and have it available for development.

Griffith also said the county should put “one person” in charge of leading the development effort in the county and “trust” him to go forward. That person, he said, should be Davis.

The Industrial Development Authority has five members.

Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank, is chairman, and he opened the meeting last night, which was held from 4 to 6 p.m. in the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The IDA meets at 4 p.m. on the second month of each month.

Other members are BOC Chairman Davis, Oconee Chamber of Commerce President J.R. Whitfield, Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter, and Rick Waller. Waller and Williams are appointed by the BOC.

The county also has a Development Authority, which consists of the IDA and six additional members, four of them at-large appointments of the BOC.

The meeting was last night was attended by two reporters from The Oconee Enterprise, one from the Athens Banner-Herald, and even one from The Oconee Leader.

About a half dozen citizens also attended.

Williams said at the end of the meeting he felt some progress had been made and that the “ball is now in the court of the IDA.”

“I would ask that we keep the dialog open,” he said.


The full video of the meeting is at the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oconee Planning Commission Adds to Size of Planned Epps Bridge Centre

The Equivalent of Four Trader Joe's

The Oconee County Planning Commission took only 10 minutes tonight to agree that developer Frank Bishop should be allowed to increase the maximum square footage of his proposed but as yet unstarted Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge parkway.

Bishop, through his representative, Philip Cranmer, told the commissioners tonight he needed the additional 42,185 square feet of space because of an “increased interest in retailers locating in this area." He said “we wanted to make sure we can accommodate those interested parties.”

Bishop has not submitted any construction drawings for the $76 million project and gave only vague indications of how the extra space would be spread around the 22-building complex, located west of Lowe’s.

The documents Bishop did submit list one tenant, Georgia Theatre Company, which, according to the documents, will occupy an 80,000 square foot building at the rear of the complex. The building will have 16 screens and seat 2,992, according to the submitted documents.

The Board of Commissioners approved a rezone for the 68-acre tract in October of 2008.

The state currently is building the Oconee Connector Extension, which will provide five of the six proposed entrances to the shopping center. The sixth is off Epps Bridge parkway itself.

The Planning Commission’s unanimous recommendation is scheduled to be on the agenda of the Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 4, 2011, meeting.

Planning Commission member George Rodrigues, who represents Watkinsville, asked Oconee County planner Brad Callender if there was going to be any change in the amount of paved parking area as a result of the increased size of the shopping center.

Callender said the increase would be about three percent.

Rodrigues had complained about the amount of impervious surface in the complex back when it was before the Planning Commission in 2008.

According to the documents submitted with the rezone modification request by Bishop’s Oconee 316 Associates, LLC, the Atlanta company developing the project, tree canopy on the site now covers 35 percent of the site.

Bishop plans to clear 100 percent of the land but replant tress so that 34 percent of the site will be covered by trees within five years of build-out of the center and 40 percent of the land will be covered “at tree maturity.”

According to the submitted documents, the project will take about six years to build out once construction begins.

Bishop also plans to put two streams on the site in pipes and to fill wetlands on the site. He has been given permission to do this by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is allowing him to mitigate these damages on a site Bishop purchased in Greene County.

Planning Commissioner member Bill Ramsey asked where the mitigation site was and if it was going to be “downstream from here.” Greene County is south of Oconee County.

In addition to the increase in total square footage for the project from the 444,056 approved in 2008 to the 486,241 requested, the Planning Commission also recommended that the BOC grant Bishop three additional exceptions to zoning regulations.

Bishop wants to increase the number of lots that will use a private access road, modify the minimum front and side yard setbacks for parking areas, and modify the setbacks between buildings.

The 42,185 increase in square footage will allow Bishop to add the equivalent space of 80 percent of the Kroger’s across Epps Bridge parkway from the planning shopping center.

Or, about the size of four Trader Joe’s, also located across Epps Bridge parkway from Bishop’s complex.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Board of Commissioners Approves Rezone Modification for Possible Move of Oconee County USDA Offices

Dormers Added

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight approved a modification to an earlier rezone that could result in the United States Department of Agriculture relocating its offices from the county Government Annex on Greensboro highway south of Watkinsville to near the USDA farms on Hog Mountain road.

The modifications would allow Allen Giddens of Gainesville to purchase a vacant lot (below) in Twelve Oaks Office Park, build a single-story building and lease the building to the USDA.

Prior to the unanimous vote tonight, buildings in the five-lot office park could not be larger than 2,800 feet of ground coverage. The BOC vote increased the amount to 5,600 square feet.

The USDA currently is renting space on a monthly basis in the Government Annex for its Farm Service Agency and for its Natural Resource Conservation Service. The county had a lease with USDA for the space, but the lease expired earlier this year.

In May the county began discussing the possibility of renovating the Government Annex to accommodate county space needs. It told the USDA after those discussions began that it would have to leave.

On Nov. 2, the BOC voted to stop the discussions of the renovation.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told the BOC tonight that the county has informed USDA it can stay. In that circumstance, the county and USDA would have to renegotiate the lease.

Theriault told me after the meeting that the USDA was paying about $10,000 a year for use of the Government Annex space and has not told the county what it plans to do in the future.

Giddens told the BOC tonight he has an option to purchase the lot in the Hog Mountain road office park from Robert and Joanne Fine of Bishop. Giddens said the option runs only through the end of this year.

Giddens said he submitted a bid to USDA earlier this year but has not heard if it will be accepted. He said he hopes to hear in the next few weeks.

“If we don’t get the bid, the project will not go forward,” he said.

The proposal calls for use of 4,100 square feet of the 5,500 square-foot building Giddens said he plans to build. He said the additional space would be available to the USDA for future expansion.

Giddens told the Board the USDA specified it wants a one-story building. He told me that the cost of an elevator for such a small building would increase the price by $100,000, making it too expensive for him to build.

Total estimated cost of the proposed building without the elevator is $400,000, according to a letter Giddens submitted to the county along with the rezone application.

The rezone the BOC approved in March of 1993 for the office park specified that the buildings must have a brick exterior, be built “in a Georgian style” and be one and a half stories or two stories in height.

The BOC tonight added the requirement that Giddens modify his submitted plan to add dormers at the front of the building to give it the appearance of being a story and a half in height.

The Board also added the stipulation that the change it was making to allow Giddens to build a single-story building did not apply to another unbuilt lot in the subdivision.

Giddens was the only person speaking in favor of the proposed change tonight. No one spoke against, though I did ask the Board several questions about the proposal, including how the one-story structure meshed with the 1993 ordinance and whether the change applied to the other empty lot.

Twelve Oaks Business Park was designed when the adjoining Twelve Oaks subdivision was built early last decade. Both adjoin USDA farm land.

Two lots in the subdivision are used by Summer Hill Recreation Club for a commercial pool and tennis court facility under a Conditional Use Permit approved by the county in 1994. Summerhill also uses space in Twelve Oaks Business Park for parking.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Gives Nod to $1.9 Million Sewer Projects


The Oconee County Board of Commissioners gave tentative approval last night to two new sewer projects that include an upgrade to the county’s only existing sewage plant and replacement of the main arterial line that feeds the plant.

The $1.9 million project will be funded in part through a loan from the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority (GEFA), the state agency that administers programs that provide financial assistance and other support services to improve Georgia’s environment.

The money actually comes from the federal government through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides funds for water quality protection projects around the country.

The county applied for and was awarded a $1.8 million loan for the project. GEFA already has indicated it will forgive $270,000 of the loan, which is not due until completion of the project or September of 2011.

The county either will pay off the 10-year loan when it comes due with monies already available, County Finance Director Jeff Benko told the commissioners last night, or it will pay off the $1.53 million over time at 3 percent interest, depending on which is more favorable to the county.

Benko said the county has collected fees from developers wishing to reserve capacity for sewage treatement that will allow the county to pay for the project and that money is invested and earning interest.

Benko told me after the meeting that the county also will seek additional loan money from GEFA, since the $1,939,057 total cost of the project is greater than the initial estimated budget of $1.8 million.

The commissioners last night gave initial approval to a bid of $1,233,809 from Southern Champion Construction Inc. of Stone Mountain for the upgrade to the head works of the Calls Creek sewage plant and immediately included a change order that would reduce that project’s total price by $84,500.

The commissioners also gave preliminary approval to a bid of $789,778 to Gary’s Grading and Pipeline Company of Monroe for a replacement of the main sewage line feeding that plant.

Approval of both bids will be on the consent agenda at the Dec. 7 meeting, meaning they will be approved without further discussion unless a commissioner asks that the items be removed from the agenda for further consideration.

Jimmy Parker from Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville, acting as a consultant to the county, told the commissioners last night that the county’s application with GEFA was rated tops in the state, receiving a score of 93 out of 100 possible points, because of project needs and environmental impact and because of the compliance record of the county’s utility department.

“A lot of things your utility department has been doing spoke well in that application,” Parker said.

The Calls Creek sewage plant upgrade includes a new receiving well below the plant into which the sewage flows before it is pumped uphill to the treatment plant itself as well as screens to filter out heavy materials before they enter the plant.

That well will have a 5 million gallon per day capacity, although the plant itself is only permitted to operate at 0.67 MGD at present.

The county will use an existing emergency backup pump rather than buy a new one, as originally proposed, saving the $84,500 covered by the change order.

The upgrade also will include a septage receiving station that will preprocess the contents of septic tanks that haulers bring to the plant.

At present, the county does not have such a facility, though one had been incorporated into the plans for the proposed Rocky Branch sewage plant. Those plans are now on hold due to the drop in demand in the weak economy.

Chris Thomas, Utility Department director, said last night the inclusion of the septage receiving station at Calls Creek could make such a facility at Rocky Branch unnecessary.

The sewer line to be upgraded currently handles all of the effluent going into the Calls Creek plant and follows Calls Creek from near the county jail on Experiment Station road in Watkinsville to the plant itself.

The county will replace a 10-inch line with a 24-inch line and remove four aerial crossings of Calls Creek and Lampkin Branch, which feeds into Calls Creek. The new line will be entirely underground, flow by gravity and run a total of 5,500 feet.

The county also has received a grant of $187,000 from the state for an unrelated sewage project that would serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Hospital Highland Hills on Jennings Mill road. That project is currently on hold while the county negotiates over easements.

Funding for that grant also comes from the federal government.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Oconee County Land Use Committee Delays Decision on Bike and Walking Plan

I’ll Say Please

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning has delayed until at least January any decision on the Northeast Georgia Plan for Bicycling and Walking.

The plan, designed to increase the safety and prevalence of walking and bicycling, was developed by the staff of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission in collaboration with its Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force. Six Oconee County representatives serve on that 32-member body.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee reviewed and discussed the plan for 75 minutes at its Nov. 9 meeting and considered a resolution drafted by Oconee County staff that would have “recognized” the plan rather than “adopt” or “endorse” it, as NEGRC proposed.

The Committee voted 9-2 to consider the plan again in the future.

Twenty-five minutes later the Committee cancelled its December meeting, meaning the earliest it can discuss the plan again is at its scheduled meeting on Jan. 11.

The plan has four goals and objectives.

*Develop “facilities and policies” to encourage walking and bicycling in Northeast Georgia.

*Generate “confidence and security” for people walking and bicycling through the region.

*Support bicycling and walking trips between neighborhoods and regionally important destinations.

*Foster “active lifestyles,” promote “community-based commerce” and reduce the environmental impact of motorized transportation.

The plan contains a proposed “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network” that includes SR 15 from Watkinsville to the Greene County line, US 441 from Clarke County to Morgan County, and Mars Hill road.

The plan proposes that SR 15 have a paved shoulder in the future and that US 441 have a separate path for biking and walking. Mars Hill road widening plans already include a bike lane.

The plan also lists greenways along the Apalachee, Middle Oconee and Oconee rivers and the Athens Line, the rail line running from Athens to Madison and now designated as a Regionally Important Resource by NEGRC.

The biking and walking plan is advisory. NEGRC has no enforcement authority.

Following the vote to postpone a decision on the Bicycling and Walking Plan, the Committee took action on a request from the Oconee County Cycling Organization to post Share the Road signs on four county roadways.

All 11 members of the committee agreed to recommend to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that the signs be installed on the roadways if OCCO pays for the signage.

County Public Works Director Emil Beshara said he would put the signs on Simonton Bridge road at county expense, but he also wants to put up a sign that says bicyclists should Ride Single File on the road, even though state law allows bicyclists to ride two abreast.

Beshara said his sign would be yellow—meaning it was advisory—rather than white, which, he said, designates a requirement.

Beshara also said he already has put up Share the Road signs on New High Shoals road, one of the four roads for which OCCO had originally requested the signage. The others were Simonton Bridge road, Colham Ferry road and Barnett Shoals road.

The Athens Banner-Herald reported on Nov. 15 on the Nov. 9 recommendation of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee that the roadways be signed, but it made no mention of the discussion of the Plan for Bicycling and Walking in its story.

I did not attend the Nov. 9 meeting, but I did watch a video of it made for me by citizen Sarah Bell.

The Committee first viewed a PowerPoint presentation about the Bicycling and Walking Plan by Nina Kelly, a planner with NEGRC, and then discussed biking in the county. Little was made of walking, and almost nothing was said of the actual details of the plan.

NEGRC included two sample endorsement resolutions as part of the appendix to the bicycling and walking plan.

In one, Oconee County would endorse the plan. In another, the county would adopt the plan.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for Oconee County, offered the Committee a third resolution that he said he had drafted. It merely recognized the plan.

The two resolutions proposed by NEGRC said the county recognized the “need to promote non-motorized transportation options to improve air quality and public health.”

Provost’s rewrite said the county “recognizes the potential for non-motorized transportation options to improve air quality and public health.”

Provost said he offered the revision because of “a skepticism of central planning” on the part of local government officials.

In fact, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis sent the other four members of the Commission an email message on Oct. 1 telling them he thought “the Board should give strong consideration to supporting the ‘Recognition” resolution” rather than the two from the NEGRC.

Committee member Richard McSpadden spoke out against Provost’s resolution.

“Let’s either have the leadership to say we endorse the plan or we don’t,” he said. “I want this committee to take a leadership stand and push the county into thinking strategically about where we want the county to go.”

Planner Kelly told the Committee NEGRC expects each of the 12 counties in the NEGRC region to reach a decision on the plan by June.

After deciding to continue discussion on the plan in the future, the Committee turned to the signage issue.

In a letter written in July by McSpadden, who was then president of the Oconee cycling organization, the cyclists asked the county to sign the four roads and said the group “is ready to partner with the county to fund and install the signage.”

The county sent the request to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, which took it up at its meeting on Sept. 14.

At that meeting, Public Works Director Emil Beshara said he was concerned that installation of the signs might increase the county’s liability should an accident with a cyclist take place on a road with a sign.

Beshara conceded at the Nov. 9 meeting that the signage would have no effect on liability. State law specifies that bicyclists have the same right to the roadways as do drivers of automobiles, he said.

Beshara also acknowledged at the Nov.9 meeting that he had installed the signs on New High Shoals road this summer, even though he raised the objection at the September meeting.

The Committee dispensed with the signage issue in 10 minutes.

Citizens attending Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting are allowed to speak only on issues on the agenda, and only after the committee has finished its discussion of those issues.

So Committee chairman Abe Abouhamdan recognized the dozen citizens present, mostly bikers, after the action on signage had already been taken.

Tony Glenn, an Oconee County citizen representative to the Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force, was present. He, among others, objected to the proposed signs telling bicyclists to ride single file.

The argument was that motorists would think riding two abreast was a violation of the law.

Beshara offered a counter proposal.

He said he would be willing to change the wording of the sign to Please Ride Single File.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

University of Georgia Law Students Report Findings from Monitoring of Calls Creek

Cows and Septics

Nearly a year of monitoring of multiple sites on Calls Creek in Oconee County by law students at the University of Georgia has confirmed what the Georgia Environmental Protection Division concluded based on single reading of the same creek back in 2004.

Calls Creek, at least at times and in some places, has fecal coliform readings that exceed federal standards, meaning that the stream is legally impaired.

The most likely culprits are failing septic systems and cattle.

The question now is what to do about it.

The UGA students, in a meeting tonight at the Oconee County Government Annex attended by about 20 people, proposed a series of activities.

These included continued monitoring of the stream, precise identification of the sources of the pollution, talking with the owners of the cattle and with owners of the septic systems about federal and state funding for compliance, and working with county and Watkinsville officials to determine what else can be done.

Lee Carmon, from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, who chaired tonight’s meeting, said she will follow up on these suggestions.

Carmon opened tonight’s meeting with some background of the work of the students and then turned it over to those students to report on the findings of the monitoring.

The monitoring project has been funded by a grant to the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Students enrolled in a course directed by Laurie Fowler, associate dean, Odum School of Ecology, undertook the stream monitoring. Fowler was at tonight’s meeting.

Back in 2004, Calls Creek had a reading of 9,000 colony forming units (cfu), or more than double the 4,000 cfu standard for a fishing stream for the sampled time period.

In 2007, the state designated the 4-mile segment of the creek from where Lumpkin Branch meets Calls Creek near the county jail to the Oconee River as impaired. Calls Creek is roughly six miles long.

According to the report by the UGA students tonight, monitoring from March to the end of the summer confirmed problems with Calls Creek particularly in the area downstream from Oconee County’s Calls Creek sewage plant.

Many of the Watkinsville homes in this area are on septic, the students reported, and a small farm with cattle is nearby.

The sewage plant itself has not been identified as a source of the pollution, the student team reported.

As a result of the higher cfu levels near the plant, the students began monitoring additional sites in that area.

Again in September, October and November, the students found high levels at several sites, including those around the sewage treatment plant.

Calls Creek is particularly important because it flows through Watkinsville and other neighborhoods in the county.

Children wade in Calls Creek in many places, and particularly at Harris Shoals, a popular park in Watkinsville.

So far, the readings at Harris Shoals usually have not exceeded federal standards, according to the law students.

“There are kids and mommies playing in that creak about nine months out of the year,” former Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken said at the meeting tonight. “It is terribly important to the local community that that is safe.”

Carmon said that concern would be incorporated into the future program.

“I would like to see us build some partnerships in the community so that the community will long-term take on this monitoring,” she added.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Regional Commission to Hold Meeting on Calls Creek at Government Annex

Goal: Make Creek Safe

The Northeast Georgia Regional Commission will hold a meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Nov. 16 at the Oconee County Government Annex on SR 15 to present the results of its study of pollution of Calls Creek and its recommendations for dealing with the contamination.

The meeting is a follow-up to one held in September, at which data were presented from monitoring of the stream from March through September and from a walk of the stream from its origins west of Watkinsville to its confluence with the Oconee River just upstream from Simonton Bridge road.

The monitoring plan calls for continued sampling of data from the stream from nine different sites until the end of the year.

The study is the consequence of the classification by the state of Georgia of a section of the stream as impaired due to a fecal coliform reading in 2004 of 9,000 colony forming units (cfu), or more than double the 4,000 cfu standard for the sampled time period.

That state took its reading just upstream from confluence of Calls Creek and the Oconee River and about two miles downstream from where the Oconee County Calls Creek sewage plant discharges. The discharge from the sewage plant is constantly monitored to meet state discharge standards.

The state designated the 4-mile segment of the creek from where Lumpkin Branch meets Calls Creek near the county jail to the Oconee River as impaired. Calls Creek is roughly six miles long.

The popular Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville is on Calls Creek.

NEGRC initiated the monitoring plan in March to determine the source of the contamination and to develop strategies to reduce it.

At the first meeting in September, the monitors reported that the stream was “visually healthy.” At the same time, the report said that “debris was found in larger quantities near houses and other developments.”

A report by those who walked the stream noted “trash and rusting appliances” and “junked vehicles” near the county’s sewage plant. “During the stream walk,” according to the report, “students observed a foul smell immediately at and after”the sewage plant.

The report is called a Visual Field Survey.

NEGRC states that its goal for the project is to “bring Calls Creek up to regulatory water quality standards so that it is again safe for community use.”

The meeting on Tuesday will be held in the Small Conference Room at the Annex, 1291 Greensboro highway (SR 15).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Oconee County Land Use Committee Has Bike Signage and a Biking and Walking Plan on Agenda

Only Maybe

The Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee will return to the issue of bicyclists tomorrow night when it takes up a request that the county put up Share the Road signs on four Oconee County roadways.

The committee also is scheduled to review a Plan for Bicycling and Walking from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

On Sept. 14 the Committee discussed at length the July request from the Oconee County Cycling Organization that the county install Share the Road signs on four county roads.

Those roads are Colham Ferry road from Watkinsville to Watson Spring Mill road, Simonton Bridge road from Watkinsville to the county line, New High Shoals road from U.S. 441 to SR 186, and Barnett Shoals road from Watkinsville to the county line.

Much of the discussion was quite critical of the request, with Emil Beshara, county director of Pubic Works, saying he believed the signs would create liability issues for the county.

Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan agreed to take up the issue again at the meeting tomorrow night, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Community Center in Veterans Park.

The committee’s last meeting was devoted to a discussion of a new judicial facility for the county.

In the meantime, the Board of Commissioners has sent the Land Use Committee the Plan for Bicycling and Walking for review.

The citizen committee has been asked by the BOC to make a recommendation to it both on the signage issue and on the Northeast Georgia plan.

The Bicycling and Walking plan was on the agenda of the BOC for Oct. 26 when County Clerk Gina Lindsey released it on the afternoon of Oct. 22. She released a revised agenda on Oct. 25 that eliminated the item.

Lindsey said in releasing the second agenda that the biking and walking plan was being sent to the Land Use Committee for review.

Chairman Melvin Davis sent the other four commissioners an email message on Oct. 1 advising them of the request by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission that the county approve the plans.

He sent with his Oct. 1 memo three resolutions for the commissioners to consider. One endorsed the resolution and one adopted the resolution.

The third, which Davis said he recommended, simply recognized the resolution. That third resolution, which he told the commissions had been drafted by Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost, greatly distances the county from the plan.

The other two drafts say that the county “will implement” or “will consider implementation” of the plan.

The document drafted by Provost says the county “may consider” the plan “when making some planning development decisions.”

Nina Kelly of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission is scheduled to appear before the Land Use Committee to make the case for the plan.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Oconee County BOC Refuses To Rebid Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Project

Developer’s Name Surfaces

A sewage line that the Oconee County administration has been touting as a way of providing sewage services for two existing customers, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Health Care System Highland Hills, actually will provide sewers for a separate tract of land that the county wants to open for development.

The 114-acre tract, previously undiscussed in public meetings, is owned by Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family, a limited partnership from Atlanta. Varsity Real Estate, also of Atlanta, is a partner of the Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family company.

Representing the Gordy Family in discussions with the county about the tract and sewage services is developer Frank Bishop, who expects to open his Epps Bridge Centre once the Oconee Connector Extension, now under construction, is completed.

According to an Oct. 29, 2010, email message from Chris Thomas, Oconee County Utility Department director, to Alan Theriault, Oconee County administrative officer, Bishop has an option on the 114-acre tract, which also will be accessible via the new roadway.

Bishop also purchased part of the tract for his shopping center from the Gordy Family.

The state is paying for that roadway, which will loop traffic from State Route 316 just west of LOOP 10 through the Bishop and Gordy land back to Epps Bridge Parkway just west of Lowe’s.

At the meeting of the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night, Chairman Melvin Davis urged the Board to approve rebidding for the sewer line project, since the bids received in response to a request for proposals of September of 2009 have now expired.

The four other members of the board objected, however, because both St. Mary’s and the Gordy Family are asking the county to pay for easements to run the proposed sewer line across their property.

That means that the owners of two of the properties that would benefit from the sewer line not only are not willing to help pay for its construction but also want the county to use taxpayer dollars to pay them for use of their land.

The city of Athens, which also owns a piece of land the line will cross, also is asking the county to pay for an easement.

Despite the request from Davis to go forward with the project, the board agreed only to continue discussions regarding the easements.

Davis, in fact, had tried to keep the item off the agenda on Tuesday night, telling Theriault in an email message on Oct. 18 that “the board has already approved the project, the need for the project has not changed, the projected expense was approved from SPLOST and the grant, the BOC was aware that the property owners had the option of being paid for the easement.”

The grant he referred to was for $186,711 from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The remainder of the estimated $773,000 cost of the sewer line is to be paid for from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues.

The sewer line appeared on the Nov. 2 BOC agenda because commissioners Jim Luke and Chuck Horton objected to going forward without further public discussion.

The possibility that some properties other than Zoom Bait and St. Mary, both on Jennings Mill road, might be served by the proposed sewer line was an issue at the July 27 meeting of the BOC, when the issue was last discussed publicly.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Horton and Luke specifically asked Thomas of the Utility Department if other properties would be served by the sewer line.

In the exchange, Thomas seemed to be conceding that the new sewer line might be used by customers other than Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood interrupted him.

The land available for development behind WalMart and Lowe’s can be better served by an existing line the county installed more than a decade ago, Thomas then said.

“This project is specifically designed for those two businesses,” Thomas said. No other customers had been identified, he said, but, at least theoretically, others could use it.

When I called Haygood on the phone on July 30 and asked him again if there were others customers, he said the sewer line was for two customers, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

The county also told the state of Georgia in its Department of Communnity Affairs grant application that the project was designed to help Zoom Bait and St. Mary's, existing businesses in the county.

While Davis on Tuesday night was acknowledging that Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s were not the only parties involved in discussions, he refused to even use the name of the owner of the “large tract” in arguing that the rebidding should go forward.

It was Thomas who explained who really is to benefit from the sewer line.

He told the commissioners that he had organized a meeting with Bishop on July 7 that was attended by Davis, Theriault, Rusty Haygood, County Attorney Daniell Haygood, and county Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost.

“We were going to try to get some participation from the Gordy family for the project to help cover that shortfall,” Thomas said.

The project nearly doubled in cost after the first estimates used in the Department of Community Affairs application, and Thomas was hoping Bishop or the Gordy Family would help make up the difference.

Thomas even said he told Bishop the county might actually cancel the sewer project without some assistance.

The threat didn’t work, and Bishop didn’t come up with any money, though he did say he would work on the easement issue, Thomas said.

Commissioner Horton told me yesterday that he first learned of Bishop’s involvement in the discussions with the county about the sewer line only on Oct. 25.

Horton said he and Commissioner Hale met with Bishop–at Bishop’s invitation--at the Starbucks in downtown Athens at 10 a.m. that day to talk about progress on Epps Bridge Centre.

At the end of the meeting, Horton said, after Hale had already left, Bishop brought up discussions with the county about the sewer line on the Gordy property.

“That was the first I knew he had something to do with the Gordy property,” Horton said.

He said he also checked with Commissioners Hale, Luke and John Daniell and learned that they also were in the dark about discussions between the county and Bishop regarding the Gordy property.

On Oct. 28, Horton sent an email message to Davis and the other commissioners, with copies to Thomas, Rusty Haygood and Daniel Haygood, and Theriault.

“I would also like to know about any meetings with other landowners or possible purchasers of property that would be positively impacted by the infrastructure improvements by the county” on the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer project, Horton wrote.

On Oct. 29, Thomas wrote back to Theriault, saying “I believe the meeting Commissioner Horton is referring to took place on 7/7/2010. I attended and initiated the meeting along with the Chairman, Frank Bishop, Rusty, Wayne, you.”

He included in his email to Theriault a copy of an email he sent to Bishop “following the meeting.”

In that letter, Thomas estimated that it would cost the developer of the Gordy property about $975,000 if it had to pump sewage to the existing sewer line–the one Thomas had said would serve the property at the July 27 meeting–if the new line were not built.

The proposed new sewer line would be downhill from much of the expected development on the Gordy property, so lift stations would not be required, making the project less expensive.

I obtained this correspondence via an open records request I filed on Thursday night. I asked the county to provide to me what Theriault had provided to the commissioners to brief them on the Tuesday night meeting.

Included was a hand-drawn map, which Rusty Haygood also had provided me on Wednesday.

It also included copies of detailed maps produced by Williams & Associates of the actual sewer line.

The maps make it clear how much of a benefit the new sewer line would be to Bishop or whoever develops the Gordy track.

While the project has been described as a gravity flow system from Zoom Bait, which sits on a high bank above McNutt Creek, to a pump station on McNutt creek behind Kohl’s on Epps Bridge parkway, the maps show that the sewer line, in fact, does not follow McNutt Creek.

Rather the line would leave Zoom Bait, cross Jennings Mill road, and follow the existing roadway on the creek side of the St. Mary’s complex.

Zoom Bait is willing to grant an easement for the small part of its land the line will traverse.

After leaving the St. Mary’s property, the sewer line would cross an edge of the property owned by Athens and then traverse large sections of the Gordy property before actually approaching McNutt Creek, which serves as the border with Clarke County.

From there it would connect with the existing sewer line.

An Athens-Clarke County line, according to the hand-drawn map, runs on the opposite side of the creek and roughly follows the creek.

Chairman Davis offered member of the audience a chance to speak on Tuesday night after he urged the commission to move forward on the project, and John Morrison, a member of the Oconee County Development Authority, came forward to support Davis’ recommendation.

He said he was certain that Zoom Bait was thinking of leaving the county if it didn’t get the sewage line to replace the septic system it now uses and said the county should do what it could to help support existing employers in the county. Zoom bait makes fishing lures.

St. Mary’s sends its sewage across McNutt Creek to the sewage line that parallels the creek and flows to a Clark County sewage treatment facility.

Commissioners Horton and Luke urged Thomas to explore whether Athens-Clarke County could handle the Zoom effluent as well.

A story in the the Athens Banner-Herald on Aug. 17 said, in its headline, that the proposed sewer line “will help prevent job drain.”

The story also said the new sewer line will “encourage more commercial growth along Jennings Mill road.”

To substantiate that, reporter Erin France included a quote from Oconee County Finance Director Jeff Benko saying the sewer line “strategically opens up a corridor that goes toward Epps Bridge parkway.”

Jennings Mill road does not connect with Epps Bridge parkway, but much of the traffic leaving a developed Gordy Family tract certainly will.

Benko, it seems now, had it right, though he was not toeing the official line when he said that a key purpose of the proposed sewer line is future development.


I have put the full video of the discussion of the sewer line at the Tuesday meeting on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Oconee County BOC Says No to Government Annex Renovation

Judicial Facility Also Panned

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night officially voted to end discussion of renovation of the Government Annex on SR 15 south of Watkinsville.

Commissioner John Daniell argued that the county should go forward with the latest plans for the building and was supported by Commissioner Margaret Hale.

Commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke were opposed, as was Commission Chairman Melvin Davis.

The Board has been discussing since May a major renovation of the facility, which now houses the Public Works and Utility departments as well as an office of the United States Department of Agriculture and an adult education program of Athens Technology College.

The Board held a public session on the plans at the Civic Center on Sept. 21. At that time, several board members expressed concerns about the cost. One of the proposals was just under $2 million.

At its Oct. 26 meeting, County Administration Officer Alan Theriault brought forward a scaled back version costing $1.3 million. In deference to Commissioner Hale, who said she still needed more information, the Board agreed to postpone final action until last night.

Daniell, who has been a strong proponent of the renovation, gave a five-minute argument last night for the scaled back plan and then made a motion that the county go forward with the renovation. The motion was seconded by Hale.

That motion was defeated 3-2 with Horton and Luke voting against and Davis breaking the tie with his no vote.

Luke next made a motion, seconded by Horton, that the county cease planning for the annex renovation.

That motion was passed 3-2, with Luke, Horton and Davis voting in the majority.

Daniell used an estimate of $2 million in costs for the renovation by adding costs for a needed new roof and other code upgrades to the $1.3 million figure used by Theriault.

Finance Director Jeff Benko had proposed the plan to renovate the Government Annex back in May as a way of saving money on the current and future budgets.

The idea was for the county to vacate the Courthouse Annex, located across the street from the courthouse in downtown Watkinsville, and move the departments housed there to the renovated Government Annex.

The county leases the Courthouse Annex, referred to as the Dolvin property, and pays other expenses totaling about $105,000 per year.

Running parallel to the discussion of the renovation of the Government Annex has been discussion in the county’s Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee about the future of the county courthouse.

At a public meeting on Oct. 19, that group argued that the county needs to build a separate judicial facility near the county jail in the next 10 years. The committee estimated the cost at between $20 and 22 million.

That proposal came up last night as well.

Davis told Daniell he thought the proposal for the Annex renovation “was way to expensive.” Daniell countered that it was a lot cheaper than the proposed judicial building.

“I don’t have any alternatives at this point,” Davis responded.

Luke used the opportunity to express his views on the judicial building proposal.

“I have no intention, probably in my life time, of going out and looking at that judicial center,” he said.

Horton also said he wanted to be on the record as not wanting to go forward with the plan of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee.


I have put the video of this entire section of the BOC meeting on my Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Challenger and Incumbent for Superior Court in Oconee and Clarke Counties Differ on Accomplishments, Qualifications

Big Campaign Costs: Yard Signs

Challenger Pamela Hendrix and incumbent David Sweat have very different views about what distinguishes one from the other, about what each would bring to the Superior Court were she elected or he re-elected, and their most significant accomplishments in the last 10 years.

In responding to a series of questions I posed, Hendrix repeatedly focuses on her gender and the need, in her view, for a woman to join what is now a three-judge court made up entirely of men.

Sweat focused on his experience and his accomplishments during the eight years he has served Oconee and Clarke counties as a Superior Court Judge for the Western Judicial District.

“I am a woman and he is a man,” Hendrix said. “Men and women have different decision-making and administrative styles. Neither is better than the other, but our courts are best served when both types of decision-making and administrative styles are represented on the bench.”

“I brought 23 years of courtroom and legal experience to the bench when the voters elected me in 2002,” Sweat said. “Now, I have nearly 8 years of experience doing this work. I have been recognized by members of the community and fellow judges as an effective judge and leader in trying to solve the problems facing our community.”

“The voters should select me because I have a proven record of experience and success,” Sweat, who is 55, said.

“Voters deserve some fresh, new ways of thinking from the bench and not just judges that are making a nice salary and marking their time until retirement,” Hendrix, 44, said.

Hendrix has mounted an aggressive campaign against Sweat. She has put up yard signs in both counties (downtown Watkinsville pictured) and run advertisements, some with a negative play on the incumbent’s name, pronounced just as it is written. She also has been assertive in interviews with reporters.

The incumbent has been restrained in his response, relying on his name recognition and focusing on his incumbency.

Sweat also has mailed to Oconee County voters an endorsement from Sheriff Scott Berry, who said that Judge Sweat is “the kind of judge that law enforcement needs on the bench.”

The race, however, is likely to be decided in Clarke County, where Sweat resides, rather than in Oconee County, where Hendrix lives.

The Western Judicial Circuit, consisting of the two counties, is the western-most circuit of the Tenth Superior Court District of Georgia.

Clarke has 66,827 registered voters, and Oconee has 22,606.

As of the end of the day today, 6,688 Clarke County voters, or 10.0 percent of those registered, had voted in the 25-day early voting period, and 4,127, or 18.3 percent of the Oconee County voters, had cast their ballots.

In 2006, the last comparable election in terms of offices to be filled, 55.9 percent of Clarke County’s registered voters cast ballots, while 60.3 percent of Oconee County’s registered voters went to the polls.

If those ratios hold this year, just fewer than 51,000 votes will be cast in the two counties, and about a quarter (26.7 percent) will come from Oconee County.

The Superior Court race is a late bloomer, since judges run without party endorsement or identification. Hendrix filed her paperwork to run against Judge Sweat only on July 15, or five days ahead of the party primaries for most of the candidates whose names will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Early voting is now ended, and voters will have from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday to cast their ballots at their polling places. Any voter confused about that venue or uncertain about her or his registration status can go to the My Voter Page of the Secretary of State web site for additional information.

On Oct. 21 I sent a list of 11 questions to Hendrix and Sweat, asking them to respond and indicating I would report the answers in Oconee County Observations.

I received the completed form from Hendrix on Oct. 25 and from Sweat on Oct. 28. The full responses are on the Oconee County Observations site. I formatted the responses to make them comparable but otherwise did not edit them in any way.

The questionnaire I sent to the candidates began by asking them to identify “the personal characteristics that make (or will make) you a good Superior Court Judge for the Western Judicial Circuit of Georgia?”

Sweat’s answer was short and direct. He listed “Honesty, empathy, patience, intelligence, compassion, experience, insight.”

Hendrix said “I have a love for people, especially children, and a servant’s heart. I am very even-tempered and am often called a ‘peace maker.’ As a mother and self-employed attorney, I am a master multi-tasker and administrator. I am smart and my character is above reproach.”

Hendrix listed a number of professional skills that would make her a good Superior Court Judge, including those gained from “over 19 years of legal experience in diverse practice areas including real estate, general business, wills and probate, property tax appeals, family law and criminal defense.”

Sweat said that before he was elected in 2002 as a judge of the Superior Court he “had 23 years experience in private law practice, handling a broad variety of criminal and civil legal matters in all levels of state and federal courts...As a judge I have conducted hundreds of jury and non-jury trials and handled thousands of cases.”

Sweat gave a long list of professional accomplishments over the last 10 years, including that he established and now presides over a “Child Support Problem-Solving Court which is one of two model child support problem-solving courts for the State of Georgia. “

Hendrix listed a number of accomplishments as well, but she began by saying “What I am most proud of is giving birth to and raising mostly on my own (their Dad left when my two boys were just three and six years old) two well-adjusted children who are model students and well on their way to becoming hard-working, productive citizens.”

I asked the two candidates what they hoped to be able to point to in four years as their most significant accomplishments as Superior Court Judge. Hendrix listed several things, but ended by focusing on families.

“I would especially hope that the children in fractured family situations would feel I had really listened to them if they desired to speak,” she said.

Sweat, among other things, said he hopes he is able to say he expanded the Child Support Problem-Solving Court “to include many additional parents who are failing to support their children, to make them accountable and responsible and to enhance the economic well being of their children.”

I also asked the two candidates to identify the challenges and opportunities facing the Western Circuit of the Superior Court.

Sweat said the economic downturn has resulted in greater stress on families and individuals and that, in addition to programs he already has in place, he would want to work more with the governments of the two counties to address the increased stress from the downturn.

He said technologies offer some new opportunities for the court and he has already tried to seize these and other opportunities available.

Hendrix cited the heavy case load for the three judges as a challenge, indicating that “good case management is imperative.” She also said “It may be time to consider a Family Court in the Western Judicial Circuit.”

She said the University of Georgia Law School is an opportunity for the Clarke and Oconee Superior Court and said that second and third-year law students could help with legal clinics “to help reduce the backlog of cases.”

Sweat made no direct reference to Hendrix in his answers. He did point out that he has lived “in this community since 1976.” Hendrix moved to Oconee County from Morgan County three years ago.

Hendrix made several references to Sweat in her responses.

“I have never been a judge,” Hendrix said in one response, “but eight years ago neither had David Sweat. I know that I am at least as intelligent as he is, so if he learned the job so can I.”

As of Sept. 30, Hendrix raised $10,134, with $7,407 of that being a loan she made to the campaign, according to the records she filed with the State Ethics Commission. No contributor gave more than $1,000.

Hendrix spent $8,689 during the period ending Sept. 30. She spent more than $3,000 for yard signs and other printing. She listed a filing fee of $3,607 as her largest expense.

Sweat had raised $29,277 in campaign contributions, according to his filing with the Ethics Commission. Though only required to list contributions by name if the amount was more than $100, he listed all contributions. The largest was for $2,000 from the law firm of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard and Ashley.

Sweat spent only a little more than $3,000, and a third of that was for yard signs. He listed $697 as postal expenses. That probably did not include the expenses for the mailing from Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry.

I received my letter from Sheriff Berry in the middle of October. The letter of endorsement of Judge Sweat by Sheriff Berry was listed as paid for by the Committee to Re-Elect Judge David Sweat.

The return address for the mailing was David Sweat, 1140 Experiment Station road, Watkinsville, GA 30677. That is the Oconee County sheriff’s office and county jail.

I spoke with Sherilyn Streicker, the deputy executive secretary of the State Ethics Committee, on Oct. 18 and asked if there was any provision of state law that would keep the sheriff from using the return address of a county facility for a paid political mailing.

Ms. Streicker, who is an attorney, said in her view the use of the return address alone does not constitute a contribution to a campaign. Use of county personnel to mail the envelopes would be a contribution and would be prohibited, she said.

Sheriff Berry indicated in his letter that he also had written to citizens four years ago endorsing Judge Sweat.

Voting in Oconee County had been slow during the first weeks of early voting, which began on Sept. 20. As of Oct. 22, only 1,804 persons had voted.

Until this week, voting only was possible at the Board of Elections and Registration office next to the courthouse in Watkinsville. The Civic Center on Hog Mountain road also was open for voting this week.

Of the total 4,127 votes cast in early voting, 844 were cast at the Civic Center.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Government Annex Renovation Stalls at Oconee County BOC Meeting

“Brilliant” Idea on Hold

Plans to renovate the Oconee County Government Annex building on SR 15 on the south side of Watkinsville stalled tonight after County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault announced the latest cost estimate of $1.324 million.

The Board of Commissioners delayed making a final decision and decided instead to put the item on the agenda for the Nov. 2 meeting.

Commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke spoke against going forward on the project.

John Daniell said he remained in favor of the plan. Commissioner Margaret Hale said she still wanted to explore some options before making the final decision and argued for the postponement of a decision.

If Hale joins with Daniell at the Nov. 2 meeting in favor of the project, as she indicated she might, and Horton and Luke voted against, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis would break the tie.

He indicated tonight he is opposed to going forward with the renovation.

The county has been considering a major renovation of the Government Annex since it was proposed in May by county Finance Director Jeff Benko as a way of saving money as the county tried to balance its budget in the face of revenue shortfalls.

The idea was to move the Planning Department, Code Enforcement and other offices out of the Courthouse Annex, across Main street from the courthouse in downtown Watkinsville, to the Annex and to cancel the lease on the Courthouse Annex.

The Government Annex now houses the Utility Department, Public Works and the Fire Department. It also is used by the United States Department of Agriculture and Athens Technical College adult education program.

At a public meeting on the renovation on Sept. 21, the commissioners looked at three separate plans for the renovation of the Government Annex, with the most expensive running to just less than $1.9 million.

Theriault said the $1.3 million version scaled back on expenses by eliminating roof repairs, a brick facade and covered entrance, and simplifying internal office structure. The cost estimate does include the cost of moving, of renting temporary office trailers and of furniture.

The plan includes space for adult education but not for the USDA.

Theriault said he had met with each of the commissioners individually over the last week and a half to discuss the renovation options.

The reduced plans and cost were not enough to satisfy Horton, who spoke first after Theriault summarized the new proposal.

“I think it is trying to do the right thing,” Horton said, but said he thought it wasn’t going to accomplish what the county wanted.

Davis next seized the opportunity to speak and said while he agreed that consolidation of the county departments in one location made sense, he was not sure the Government Annex was the right place.

“I think the final location of this concept deserves further study,” he said.

The county also has been considering building a new judicial facility, estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $20 million. A pubic hearing on that plan was held Oct. 19.

Commissioner Luke said he has been opposed to the renovation of the Government Annex from the beginning and that his position had not changed.

Daniell said he “can count to three most of the time, and I can see where this is going” but he was “very discouraged” with the decision. He called the original idea “brilliant” and said he was “really disappointed” with the apparent decision.

Hale said she wanted more information about a possible reduction in the lease price of the Courthouse Annex, referred to as the Dolvin Property, and about an increase in the amount of money the USDA might be willing to pay for its space.

She said she could be in favor of the proposal if all the pieces fell into place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oconee County to Get Local News Site as AOL Rolls Out

Friday News on Friday

The Oconee County media scene will have a new player come the first of the year if AOL launches the hyperlocal web site for Watkinsville it has in the plans.

Perry Parks, a Georgia regional editor for AOL’s project, said he expects to hire a professional editor for Watkinsville and Oconee County next month. That editor will be in charge of Oconee County exclusively and will have a budget to hire stringers to help with local coverage.

That coverage, according to Parks, will include Oconee County government, schools, sports, culture and politics. will have a dedicated web site for Oconee County that also will serve as a portal or one-stop gateway for other news sites and blogs in the county, he said.

Parks is even closer to having a staff person operating in Athens/Clarke County and is in the process of hiring staff for other counties in the state.

AOL is rolling out web around the country and announced on Aug. 17 that it plans to hire 500 professional journalists in 20 states this year. had 100 web sites operational at the time. now has about 300 sites up and has a goal of 500 sites by the end of the year, Parks said.

AOL is trying to move away from its historical roots as an Internet service provide to become a content provider.

“We are not trying to view ourselves as a competitor” of the county’s two weeklies, Parks said. “We want to be another voice. There is plenty of room in Watkinsville.”

Parks, who has taught at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and worked as a professional journalist, lives in Oconee County.

He said his goal is to hire someone to be Oconee County editor who will live in Oconee County and work out of the home.

The first assignment of the editor is to build a comprehensive directory of county businesses and governmental offices. The directory will contain copy produced by the editor and those working for her or him, but businesses will be able to pay for additional, premium listings.

This directory is the backbone of the local sites and is expected to bring traffic to the sites, which also will contain advertising separate from the directory as well as the other news content.

Neither of the two weeklies, The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader, has a full-service web site, and both papers give priority to their print products.

The Enterprise has an unaudited circulation of 4,000. The Leader is a free, total market circulation product, with the post office delivering to each of the roughly 9,000 households in the county.

The daily Athens Banner-Herald also has an insert in the Wednesday edition of the paper dedicated to Oconee County.

“Our overriding philosophy is that if we have more voices competing it will increase the engagement throughout the county,” Parks said. “We will do well if everyone does well.”

Parks said will take advantage of its ability to gets its news online quickly. “If news happens on Friday night, we will be able to report it on Friday night.”

Not everyone thinks AOL’s strategy is a winner. Reuters quoted a number of skeptics last week in a summary story it wrote on the company’s plans for

Newspaper companies also have had trouble converting from their business model involving the printed product. will be operating without the expenses of an ink-on-paper operation and without any of the newspaper assumptions about how to go about the business.

“What we are starting is not a newspaper,” Parks said. “It is a web only site.” The product will be entirely focused on the local community, he added, and will be professionally staffed.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Oconee County BOE Candidates Differ on Assessment of School Board and Schools

Nature of Change the Issue

Carter Strickland and Mark Thomas are offering Oconee County voters distinctive choices for the Board of Education Post 2 position on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Strickland is critical of the current board, saying it needs to do a better job of listening to the citizens of the county and communicating back to those citizens.

Thomas says he does not have criticisms of the board.

Thomas says the county has “one of the top school systems in the state of Georgia” and the Board of Education must provide support, “thereby assuring our continual improvement.”

Strickland says “the BOE and the county must admit that we do have problems” and the BOE should “strive to be the best school system in the country, not just northeast Georgia.”

Strickland says the BOE should sell immediately the 6.7 acres on North Main street it bought for $900,000 on Dec. 7, 2009–“if there is anyone willing to pay the $900K the taxpayers were forced to pay for it.”

Thomas says: “We need to be good stewards of the assets we have” and, prior to making any decisions about use of the assets, “the school board should accurately assess our current and future needs.”

Thomas, who defeated incumbent Mack Guest in the July 20 Republican primary, says “That the people of Oconee County were obviously in favor of making a change in the membership of the school board” when they selected him.

Strickland agrees that voters tossed out Guest “because they clearly wanted a change.” Strickland adds: “By electing me they have a chance to make that change.”

Despite these and other differences, the candidates have similarities.

Both are self-employed, Thomas as owner of Mark Thomas Enterprises, Inc., a grading and electrical contractor, and Strickland as CEO of OurVarsity, a nationwide distributor of media content management systems.

Both have children in the Oconee County school system.

Neither of them mentions party as a reason to vote for them. Strickland, in fact, considered running as an independent before he filed as a Democrat in April.

Thomas is 50. Strickland is 40.

The man selected on Nov. 2 will be joining a school board made up of three other men and one woman.

Strickland and Thomas appeared together in two candidate forums in June, organized by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and by citizens groups.

And the race was featured in stories in the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Leader this past week.

By 4:55 p.m. on Friday, only 1,804 of the county’s 22,606 registered voters had cast their ballots. Early voting ends at 5 p.m. this Friday.

On Monday evening, I sent to both of the candidates a list of 10 questions, asking them to provide answers to be posted on my blog.

I received the responses from Strickland on Thursday and from Thomas on Friday.

I have uploaded the answers by Strickland and Thomas to my Oconee County Observations site. I formatted the responses but otherwise did no editing.

Thomas added some additional information about himself at the end of the form, and I left the information as he had provided it.

The responses show the differences between Thomas and Strickland highlighted above and some of the similarities.

Strickland has moderated some of his responses from the candidate forums.

At the June 3 forum organized by the Chamber of Commerce, in response to a question about Superintendent John Jackson, Strickland said “if we can get rid of him without having to pay him, let’s get rid of him.”

Thomas said Jackson had a contract and the county did not need a situation where someone was being paid and not working.

And at the June 9 candidate forum , the candidates were asked to comment on “turnover and turmoil in the Oconee County School System in the last two years.”

Thomas said some turnover, at least, was routine, but Strickland said “some of the things that have been done brought me to a boil, and that is why I’m here.”

In response to an invitation from the Board of Education to all the candidates who had filed for either Post 2 or Post 3, Strickland had applied for the then-open Post 5 position. He was the only one who did so.

He subsequently was rejected, the board solicited other applicants, and Wayne Bagley was selected.

Incumbent Post 3 member Kim Argo was the only candidate to file for that slot and will be on the November ballot unopposed.

Thomas has raised $6,437 for his campaign, which included the primary battle with Guest, and spent $5,630, most of it on signs and advertising with the two local weeklies.

Strickland has not raised any money, but he has spent $637 on yard signs, his only campaign expense.

In response to my question about criticism of Superintendent Jackson, Strickland said his “job is not to criticize what has happened in the past but to bring something new to the table.”

“Oconee County needs a visionary who is politically astute, understands how to network and has a strong business background,” he wrote. “We need a person who can look 15 years into the future, understand where we need to be at that date and then has the gumption and skills to take us to that place.”

“I will not become a school board member with preconceived opinions about the performance of the school superintendent or other personnel,” Thomas wrote in his response. “I will evaluate the performance of the staff objectively and address each issue based on the facts presented.”

Thomas responded to a question about the unique characteristics, talents and perspectives he would bring to the Board by saying that he is “willing to listen to ideas and solutions from parents, teachers, administrators, support personnel, students, local citizens, and local organizations...I will communicate, cooperate, and coordinate with my colleagues.”

Strickland said he would bring outside perspectives to the board. “I have lived beyond our borders. I know what is being accomplished in other school systems,” he said. “And I know our school system is capable of achieving those great and many things if we have the right leadership.”

Thomas said voters should select him on Nov. 2 because “I have a deep interest in our school system... I am a life long resident and my family has been in Oconee County for several generations.”

“The students, teachers, administrators and parents have created a legacy of excellence in our schools,” Thomas continued. “The school board serves as a steward of that legacy. Let us preserve this tradition of excellence by voting for me.”

“The public should vote for me because the current board doesn’t want me in there,” Strickland said in response to the same question.

“I’m different. I’m new. I’m transparent. I’m not afraid to admit when I am wrong. I’m in this for you and your kids.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Oconee Citizen Committee Gets Few Questions from Citizens about Its Courthouse Recommendation

Gets Praise from Officials for Hard Work

The Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee got only a handful of questions tonight from the audience of about 30 that turned out to view a presentation justifying the recommendation that the county start planning now to build a judicial facility separate from the existing courthouse.

Included in the audience were a host of elected officials, including the three superior court judges, the probate court judge, the sheriff, Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis, Commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke, and a number of county employees.

Sheriff Scott Berry, joined by the judges, argued that the current courthouse is both unsafe and inadequate for current judicial needs.

“There is a fundamental fairness, a fundament dignity that goes with being in the courthouse,” Berry said, and the current crowded facilities threaten those things.

The committee has recommended that the county build the new judicial facility near the current jail on Experiment Station road and renovate the current courthouse for administrative functions at an estimated cost of $20 to $22 million.

The goal, according to the committee presentation, would be to have the project completed in approximately 10 years.

Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan began the discussion of the work of the committee tonight before turning to county Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost.

Provost, who served as a resource person for the citizen committee, gave a 19-minute PowerPoint presentation, during which he noted that a number of uncertainties surround the committee proposal.

Among those is the effect of the economy on county resources and decisions now being made by the Board of Commissioners about how to renovate the Government Annex Building on SR 15 south of Watkinsville.

The BOC held a public hearing on Sept. 21 on the Government Annex renovation that ended inconclusively as the commissioners disagreed on the proposals before them.

The Sept. 21 meeting, attended by about 40 persons, was held at the Civic Center, as was the meeting tonight.

George Rodrigues, from Watkinsville and that city’s representative on the county Planning Commission, asked the committee how frequently the courthouse gets crowded as a result of the court dates, since that was mentioned as a justification for the construction of a new facility.

Sheriff Berry said there are times when five courtrooms are being used at once.

Citizen Sarah Bell asked what the committee had learned from other counties that had recently built new courthouse facilities.

She was told that mostly the counties were happy with what they had done.

Citizen Tammy Gilland asked how the other counties had funded the construction of these new facilities. The answer again was varied, with some using sales tax revenues and others leasing the facility from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

All but two of the 14-members of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee showed up for the meeting tonight, which lasted an hour.

Chairman Abe Abouhamdan had admonished the committee members at the Sept. 14 meeting for their poor record of attendance during the year and a half that it has been considering the courthouse space issue.

Missing tonight were members Diane Border and Chris Herring, who also missed many of those meetings.

BOC Chairman Davis, Commissioner Horton and Sheriff Berry were among those thanking the committee tonight for its hard work on the courthouse issue.

“I appreciate the work you have done,” Berry said. “I want to thank you for being diligent.”


The complete video of this meeting is now available on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.