Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Oconee County Republican Candidates Not All Pure Republicans, Voting History Shows

Some Cross Over in Primaries

While all the Oconee County candidates in competitive contests in the July 20 Republican primary have declared not just that they are Republicans but that they are Conservative Republicans, an analysis of voting files for 2004, 2006 and 2008 shows several have flirted with the Democratic party, some as recently as in February of 2008.

Tammy Gilland, seeking the Post 3 position on the Board of Commissioners, voted in the Democratic presidential primary in February of 2008, in the Democrat primary and primary runoff in 2006, and in the Democratic presidential primary in March of 2004.

In sum, Gilland voted as a Democrat as often as she voted as a Republican in the last three elections.

Mack Guest, the incumbent Post 2 member of the Oconee County Board of Education, also voted in the Democratic presidential primary in both 2008 and 2004, but he voted in the Republican primaries at the state and local levels.

Hank Huckaby, seeking to represent the county in the Georgia House of Representatives, voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 2004, but he has voted as a Republican in six primaries since, including in the 2008 presidential primary.

At the June 17 candidate forum, sponsored by the Oconee County Republican Party and by the Oconee Regional Republican Women, moderator Blake Giles, with Oconee County Republican Party Chairman Jay Hanley at his side, asked each candidate to declare if she or he was a Conservative Republican.

All did so.

Giles also asked Guest and challenger Mark Thomas how they would vote in the state school superintendent race and Huckaby, Tommy Malcom and Kirk Shook how they plan to vote in the governor’s race. Malcom and Shook also are running for the 113th House seat.

And he asked incumbent BOC Commissioner Margaret Hale and Gilland if they were members of the Oconee County Republican Party and of the Oconee Regional Republican Women. Hanley certainly had the ability to know in advance how the two candidates were going to answer at least the Republican Party part of the question.

Individuals can join the Republican Party by simply filling out a form and paying a $20 annual membership fee. Being a member is completely voluntary and has no impact on voting choice, or, as Hale’s answer indicated, on being a candidate.

Gilland said she was a “new member” of both groups.

Hale said she was not a member of either, though “I do support the local Republican Party and will join after the election.”

Hale has voted as a Republican in seven of the eight primaries or primary runoffs in 2004, 2006 and 2008. She did not vote in the August primary runoff in 2006.

None of the candidates has a perfect voting record. Guest, Huckaby and Malcom did the best, missing only two of the 14 elections in the three years.

Public records show who voted–but not how they voted–as a necessary step in preventing voter fraud. In Georgia, where voters do not register by party and publicly ask for either the Republican or the Democrat ballot before voting, that information also is public, again to provide a mechanism to check against fraud.

Candidates can request a list of registered voters, as can individual citizens. That record indicates the name, address, and registration number for each voter as well as the ballot the voter selected in the most recent primary.

The Georgia Secretary of State also has available on the official web site the historical records of voting by year, though these records contain only the county of each voter, his or her registration number, and the elections in which that voter participated during the year. The record also indicates which ballot was selected by the voter in the primaries that year.

I purchased, with my own funds, the Oconee County voter list in the autumn of 2008 for a graduate class I teach each year at the University of Georgia. As part of that class, I downloaded the voting history files to show students how to use the available records to validate samples drawn for public opinion surveys.

I did not have access to these same files from Oglethorpe County, so I could not check on the voting history of Shook, who lives there.

I have summarized the records for the other candidates for the 113th House seat as well as for Kim Argo, incumbent Post 3 BOE member who is unopposed on the July 20 Republican primary ballot, and for John Daniell, incumbent Post 2 commissioner, who also is unopposed in the Republican primary.

These are viewable in this table stored on

Daniell selected the Republican ballot in six of the primaries in 2004, 2006 and 2008. No vote is recorded for him for the 2008 presidential primary or for the 2006 August runoff.

Argo voted in the 2008 Democratic primary, but she has voted in six Republican primaries and missed a runoff in the three years for which I examined the records.

Daniell and Argo did not participate in the June 17 GOP forum, since neither has opposition in the primary.

At that forum, moderator Giles asked Gilland and Hall if they would support making the BOC election nonpartisan. Both said they would not.

“You need to know exactly who you are electing. What Party we represent,” Gilland said.

“The system that we have now works very well,” Hale said.

Giles did not ask this of the House candidates, who would be the ones who would need to introduce any such change to the Georgia legislature, which would have to approve before the change could go into effect.

At the beginning of the forum, Giles said the questions he was asking had been submitted to him by the audience and he was adding some of his own. He didn't indicate which were which.

The Republic Party might find it easier to enforce a conservative orthodoxy if the county had more people who identified as Democrats and a stronger Democratic Party. Candidates who were not so conservative might be willing to run as a Democrat if they had a chance of being elected.

With the Republicans being so dominant in the county at present, however, Democrats are probably the ones who would gain from nonpartisan elections.

Which is why the question was relevant at the GOP forum.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

BOC Candidates in Oconee County Differ More Than Forums Suggested

Fear of Forums vs. Fear of Wet T-Shirts

While the three forums for candidates for Post 3 of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners highlighted agreement between the two candidates seeking the office, a close examination of their stands on important questions before the commission shows significant disagreements.

Incumbent Commissioner Margaret Hale is opposed to interbasin transfers of water, saying Oconee County must protect its water resources “for the future of our area.”

Challenger Tammy Gilland says interbasin transfers are being used in the state and will continue to be used in the future and should be allowed in the future “only if the effects on the donor basin and its economy and ecology have been thoroughly researched and discussed.”

Hale said she agrees with “the concept” of requiring developers to do mitigation in Oconee County for damage to streams and wetlands in the county and said the county can tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of that preference.

Gilland said she is in favor of telling the Corps to “first consider the Upper Oconee River Watershed,” which is current Corps policy, but “I do not feel we should solely restrict mitigation to Oconee County.”

Gilland is opposed to impact fees, which is a charge on new development to pay for the construction or expansion of off-site capital improvements that are necessitated by and benefit the new development.

A citizen committee has recommended that the county hire a consultant to develop a program for consideration in the county.

Hale is willing to study impact fees further.

Hale says the county should purchase Elder Mill when the owner decides to sell. Gilland says the county and interested citizens should work together to “develop a strategic plan” for funding purchase of the mill “through public and private means.”

Hale (left) said she is concerned about the debt the county has assumed as a result of the decision to partner with Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek reservoir and wants to find a way to pay that debt solely through the Utility Department, not by all citizens of the county.

Hale and Chuck Horton voted against the Hard Labor Creek decision, while Commissioner Jim Luke and Commission Chairman Melvin Davis, along with former commissioner Don Norris, voted in favor.

Gilland (right) said “I support the HLC Reservoir” and said that water customers “may experience an increase in water rates” to pay for the reservoir “but the long term benefits provided by the HLC Reservoir will be worth it.”

Water rates will increase on July 1 to help pay down the debt for the unbuilt reservoir.

These disagreements surfaced in written responses from the two candidates to 15 questions I posed in an email message on Tuesday evening. The two Republicans meet in the July 20 primary.

Hale sent me her written answers on Wednesday, and Gilland sent hers on Thursday.

Some of the questions had been covered in the June 3 forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the June 9 forum organized by Russ Page and me on behalf of citizen groups, and the June 17 forum sponsored by the Oconee County Republican Party and by the Oconee Regional Republican Women.

When the question had been asked, I sought clarification or elaboration.

Other questions simply had not been asked in any of the forums.

Gilland gave general responses to a number of the questions, suggesting that disagreement might be even greater between the two candidates had she responded more specifically.

I asked if the candidates favored or opposed the designation of Elder Mill, Elder Mill Bridge and the Athens line as Regionally Important Resources by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

Gilland said “I am in favor of the concept of protecting resources that are considered not only important to Oconee County but to the region as well” but never indicated if she supported the classification for these three.

Hale said “I do not have a problem with these three areas being designated.” She said she was concerned about the impact of the designation of the rail line, which runs through the county, since the designation “could potentially impact land owners surrounding the tracks.”

The nomination of the three resources was made by citizens, and Commissioner Luke and Chairman Davis raised strong concerns about the Athens line designation when the nominations were presented to the commission. Davis did not vote against the designation at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

I asked what the two candidates proposed be done with the roughly $4.2 million in unspent 2003 SPLOST funds that had been set aside for the courthouse and other governmental facilities.

Gilland said some of the money will be needed for renovation work at the Government Annex and left it at that.

Hale said the money should be allocated to renovation at the Annex.

I asked the two candidates if they would be willing to discuss modifications to the enabling legislation for the county that might create districts for at least some commissioners, might alter the number of commissioners, might change elections to nonpartisan, might change the pay for commissioners or might change the terms of office of commissioners.

Hale said districts might result in fighting among commissioners now focusing on the whole county, that the “number of commissioners currently is right,” and that she does not support nonpartisan elections for commissioners.

Hale said that she does not like the way pay was handled by the previous board, which stipulated compensation in the enabling legislation and tied it to state salaries, but “I feel that the board is compensated sufficiently for their work.”

Hale said she is not opposed to term limits but feels “the citizens are the best judge of that decision.”

Gilland said she has not heard concerns “voiced by residents about the structure of the commission, payments of commissioners or their terms of service.” She said she is open to discussion but “I do not think any of these are of major concern to our citizens.”

At present, the four commissioners are spread around the county. Hale lives in the south. Horton lives east of Watkinsville. Luke lives in the north near Bogart. And John Daniell lives near North High Shoals. Gilland lives close to North High Shoals as well.

Hale said she is supportive of studying a program of Transfer of Development Rights, which another citizen committee recommended be given further consideration by the BOC, “when the budget and economy turn around.”

The committee proposed the further study be done while development was stalled by the economy so a plan, if approved, could be put in place before new development pressure build. A TDR program would allow land owners in designated sender areas to sell the right to develop to land owners in designated recipient areas. The purchaser could use the new rights for such things as higher density development.

Gilland said she would be willing to consider the committee proposal “once I understand the upfront costs involved” in hiring a consultant.

I asked the two candidates for their position on construction of a southern loop that would link the current Oconee Connector Extension, also know as Jennings Mill Parkway, with the current Daniells Bridge road via a new flyover behind Home Depot.

Gilland said only the project is “several years down the road” and first attention should be given to the “Oconee Connector Extension, widening of Mars Hill road, and routine maintenance of existing roads.”

Hale said “At this time the Daniells Bridge Road infrastructure could not support this additional fly over.” She said that any proposal for a flyover “would have to incorporate improvements for safety on Daniells Bridge Road” before she would support it.

The county has listed the flyover as its top priority behind the widening of Mars Hill Road with the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS). Chairman Davis represents the county on MACORTS.

Hale committed to work with citizens along Barber Creek “to secure funding” to build a monitoring and warning capability to track discharges from the proposed Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

Gilland said she would “commit to meeting with citizens along Barber Creek to learn about the type of monitoring and warning system they would like in place.”

Hale said she would be pleased to be a member of a committee I am forming to help the county develop policy for its web site and “would be happy to bring recommendations back from this committee back to the board.”

Gilland said she “would be willing to help facilitate a discussion among the committee and the county’s Information Technology Department about the county’s web site.”

The web site is controlled at present by Chairman Davis, Administrative Officer Alan Theriault, Finance Director Jeff Benko and Commission Clerk Gina Davis. The IT Department is not involved in decisions about content, Theriault told me earlier this month.

It isn’t surprising that Gilland would have less formed answers than Hale on the issues covered by my questionnaire. Gilland has not been a regular attendee of BOC meetings during the last year and a half, when these issues have been before the board.

Hale is completing her 10th year as a board member.

In fact, on at least two of the 15 issues where Gilland and Hale are in agreement, Gilland’s position has moved toward agreement as the campaign has progressed and she has gained more knowledge about the issue.

Both candidates agree that the “next logical step” for the county as it considers future space needs for administrative and judicial offices is to assess what those needs really are.

On May 5, in an interview with WGAU’s Tim Bryant, Gilland said it already is clear that “the space we’re currently in is just too small. We’ve grown, and we’ve got to look at other space.”

She said the BOC is looking at space surrounding the courthouse and “at some property further down on (US) 441.”

In response to a question I posed to the BOC on April 20, all the commissioners except Chairman Davis denied that they are looking at any property at the present.

At the June 9 forum, Gilland said “I think we are still in the discussion stage on moving the courthouse.”

Gilland and Hale both said they would propose no change to the reorganization ordinance passed by the BOC in August of last year that made Theriault and Benko report to the full board rather than just to Chairman Davis. Neither proposed any additional changes.

When moderator Tim Bryant from WGAU asked a similar question of Hale and Gilland at the June 3 candidate forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, Gilland did not answer. She said she wanted to ask some questions first, including whether the problems the ordinance was designed to fix “could have been more effectively addressed internally rather than have a change of government.”

She was asked the same question at the June 9 candidate forum, and she also did not give a firm answer. Only at the June 17 forum did she say she supported the changes. She said she had come to the conclusion based on conversations with citizens who indicated they were happy with the changes made.

Hale and Gilland also committed to using membrane filtration or a comparable technology for the proposed Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant that would discharge into Barber Creek and to building sufficient holding ponds to hold water when the creek is flooding. The project is currently on hold because of the downturn in the economy.

The one significant area on which the two candidates have disagreed during the campaign has been on collaboration with Clarke County on regional development.

Gilland is strongly in favor of this, and Hale is strongly opposed.
But even in this case Gilland’s position has changed during the campaign. At the June 9 forum, she said “At this point in time I would not support a formal agreement or partnership with the two counties.”

The following night at a town hall meeting held by the Board of Commissioners and at the June 17 forum she stressed that she supported such an agreement in the future.

The two candidates also have background and stylistic differences, as responses to two questions posed at the GOP candidate forum on June 17 showed.

Moderator Blake Giles of The Oconee Enterprise asked the candidates “What makes you different from your opponent?” and “What has been the most difficult thing you have experienced on the campaign trail so far?”

Gilland’s responses were intense, and she said that her high energy will be beneficial to her and the rest of the county. She said the candidate forums were difficult for her because she likes to talk to people one-on-one.

Hale was folksy. She said didn’t mind the forums but really liked going door-to-door, even in the heat. She said she told her husband on one recent neighborhood walk that “we’re fixin' to have a wet t-shirt contest here” because of her perspiration.

Gilland said her volunteer work will be a big plus. Hale said she has focused on learning how to be a commissioner.

Gilland made it obvious that she sees her Clarke County experience as a positive and she feels voters will as well.

Hale made it clear that she does not agree on either count.


I have put the questions I sent to the candidates and their answers on a single document that can be downloaded. I did not do any editing. What the candidates wrote, I pasted into the document.


Getting people to the polls now is an important part of the campaigns.

As of Friday, only 301 voters had cast a ballot during the first three weeks of early voting. At the end of week two, 198 persons had voted, and at the end of the first week 129 votes had been cast. On June 1, the county had 22,203 registered voters.


All three candidate forums are now available on the Oconee County Observations channel on Vimeo. Thanks to Sarah Bell, who recorded the first video.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Candidates Differ, Agree at GOP Candidate Forum

Both Like Transparency

Oconee County Board of Commissioners candidates Tammy Gilland and Margaret Hale used the GOP Candidate Forum last week to showcase differences on approaches to regional development and similarities on views about the county courthouse and last summer’s redrawing of the county’s organizational chart.

Gilland once again said she favored cooperation between Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County on development.

Hale said the two counties already are working closely enough together and that the proposed regional plan is not good for Oconee County.

Gilland said she has come to the conclusion that the reorganization ordinance passed by the commissioners last August has worked.

Hale, who was a proponent of those changes, said the same.

Hale said she doesn’t feel that there is any need at this time to move the courthouse.

Gilland agreed.

Neither Hale nor Gilland said a move to a county manager form of government is needed.

“I do support regional economic development because Oconee County is not an island,” Gilland said. “We want to make sure Oconee County is at the table...I think it is very important that we remain competitive and that we work regionally with the communities in our area.”

“The regional economic development plan that was presented to the board for consideration,” Hale said, “talked about taking our economic office out of the county, merging it with Clarke County.” She said such a move ignored differences between the economic development offices of the two counties.

“I spent the last couple of weeks talking to a lot of people,” Gilland said. “They say the county government is running efficiently. It is transparent.”

“I see no need to change the government,” she added. “I know there is talk out there ‘that if you elect her, she is going to turn everything over. She is going to change the government.’ No, I’m not.”

“As far as moving the courthouse,” she said. “No.”

“I am glad the board moved toward transparency,” Hale said. “I can say as a commissioner that the information I receive is daily. It is on time. I know what’s going on. I don’t have to read an issue that’s in the paper.”

“I don’t see the need right now to move the courthouse,” she said. “If a decision comes that that has to be done, it will be done publicly.”

Local blogger Johnathan McGinty, who also writes a column for the Athens Banner-Herald, stirred the pot last week regarding the regional economic development proposal for Athens-Clarke and Oconee County.

McGinty, a proponent of the proposed regional development plan, in a June 18 posting on his blog Beyond the Trestle quoted Gilland as saying in an email to him that the argument that Oconee County would lose its economic development office is “a fear tactic” that isn't rooted in the reality of the existing proposals.

McGinty quoted Gilland as saying that she had spoken with several members from both the Athens-Clarke County Chamber of Commerce and the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and that the location of the joint regional development office is negotiable.

The Oconee Athens-Clarke Regional Economic Development Task Force wrote on pages 8 and 9 of its May 21, 2008, report that it was proposing “merging the financial resources of the current economic development efforts of both counties...

“The merger of these bodies is an essential step to drive efficiencies, unify marketing efforts, re-engage at the state level, maximize individual skills, and provide a ‘one stop shop’ for state leaders and others interested in the region,” the report said.

“In order to develop a one-stop shop for business recruitment and development, the task force recommends that the new organization initially be physically co-located with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce. As the organization matures, the board would decide if a different location or additional locations are needed.”

The GOP forum was the third such face-off of the candidates, and Gilland and Hale seem to have grown more comfortable sharing the podium and the questions.

In response to questions, Gilland presented herself as more cosmopolitan.

Hale presented herself as more folksy.

They shared a few personal stories, and they dealt with one issue explicitly that involved family. Each woman has a son and a daughter, though Hale’s children are grown while Gilland’s are still in school.

Moderator Blake Giles, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, asked, “Can you be fair and objective to all county government departments if you have a close relative employed in a specific county department.”

Hale’s daughter works for the Sheriff, and Hale answered by saying that the sheriff is an elected official who is answerable to the public, not to the Board of Commissioners. “He is in charge of the sheriff’s department,” she said.

“If I had a child that was working with a county department,” Gilland said, “it would be very hard for me to separate my motherly feelings from my professional feelings. I think my head would be telling me to go in one direction but my heart might be leading me to go into another.”

“If I found myself in a position where a family member that wanted to seek a position with the county,” Gilland said. “I think I would simply ask them to look elsewhere.”


The full video of the GOP candidate forum is on the Oconee County Observations Channel of Vimeo.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Oconee County GOP Wants to Know if Republican Candidates are Conservative

And Vote Choice Too

Oconee Enterprise Editor Blake Giles–with Oconee County Republican Party Chairman Jay Hanley at his side–was very direct in his first question to each of the seven Republican candidates.

“Are you a Conservative Republican,” Giles asked, with considerable emphasis on the modifier of Republican. “Why or why not?” he continued. “And how will your degree of conservatism affect your decision making” in the job being sought?

Giles, who made it clear from the outset that he was acting in his capacity as a Republican and not in any role of a neutral journalist, warned that this was a question “We’re asking all of the candidates” at the Thursday night event sponsored by the Oconee County Republican Party and by the Oconee Regional Republican Women.

Incumbent Post 3 Board of Commissioners Candidate Margaret Hale was the first to field Giles’ question, and she answered that she had worked hard to “streamline” government in the county, cutback on the number of county employees and decrease taxes in her time on the commission.

Challenger Tammy Gilland said “I do have conservative values” and that she feels it is important to limit and control government. She also said she wants to reach out to people in the community and give citizens a chance to have input about government.

Mark Thomas, seeking Post 2 on the Board of Education, said “I have been committed to conservative views” and that those views would be of value on the board. He said the county was conservative, and “I’m glad to be a part of that heritage.”

Incumbent Post 2 commissioner Mack Guest said simply “Yes, I think I am a very conservative businessman as well as board member.”

“Of course I’m a conservative Republican,” said Hank Huckaby, running for the open District 113 Georgia House seat. “I didn’t know there were any other kind.” Huckaby said when he was state budget director under former Governor Zell Miller he demonstrated his fiscal conservatism.

Tommy Malcom, also seeking the House seat, said “I guess I’d have to say I am a life-long conservative Republican.” He cited Ronald Reagan as inspiration, saying the former president showed “me what the United States really meant” and the importance of “looking out for the rest of the world.”

Kirk Shook, the third Republican seeking the House slot, said he has helped conservative candidates get elected in the past. He said he got involved in the Republic Party “because I believe in certain principles” and he feels it is important “to have our values represented” in elected offices.

(In the video clip below I changed the order of the candidates’ responses because I did not have the camera focused on Giles when he asked the question of the BOC candidates, who were the first questioned at the forum.)

More than 90 people attended the nearly two-hour event on Thursday, held at the Watkinsville Community Center on VFW drive.

The GOP forum differed from the July 3 candidate forum sponsored by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and the citizen forum organized by Russ Page and me on June 10.

The earlier forums included Republican and Democratic candidates, including Republicans running unopposed. The GOP forum included only the Republican candidates for the contested seats in the July 20 Republican primary.

The first two forums were designed, at least implicitly, to help people make decisions about which ballot to ask for on July 20 and which candidates to support. Since there is no party registration in Georgia, voters can ask for the ballot of either party on primary election day.

My analysis of individual voting records that I purchased from the Secretary of State’s office shows that 14 percent of those who voted in the July 2008 Republican primary had cast a Democratic ballot in the February presidential primary.

The forum on Thursday night was designed for those who have already made up their mind to ask for the Republican ballot.

Another question Giles posed to candidates for the BOE and to those seeking the House seat underscored the narrower focus of the GOP event.

“Who are you supporting to be the next state school superintendent,” Giles asked BOE candidate Thomas.

“Truthfully, I haven’t followed that race very much to this point,” Thomas said. He added that he had been busy with his own campaign.

“I believe the governor appointed this week our new state school superintendent,” Guest said in his response to the question, “and I’m sure he is going to do a very good job.”

Governor Sonny Perdue announced the day before the forum that he would appoint Brad Bryant as State School Superintendent to fill the term of Superintendent Kathy Cox, who resigned to take another position. Bryant has said he will run for election in November as an independent.

The Democratic and Republican parties will select the party nominees in the July 20 primary and, if necessary, the August runoff.

“Who are you supporting for governor and why?” Giles asked the candidates for the House seat.

Shook was asked to respond first, and he said lots of people had been asking him that and he had been telling them whom not to vote for, rather than whom he supported. He said he believed Jeff Chapman “would do a great job.” He suggested people take a look at him. “He has some great conservative principles,” Shook added.

Huckaby was asked to respond next, and he said he had “mixed emotions about answering” since he believed “in the secrecy of the ballot. We all have a right to make our own decisions.” Despite that feelling, he named Nathan Deal and Eric Johnson as the two people he thought could lead the state best, but he said he would support the party nominee regardless of who it is.

Tommy Malcom said he was undecided and wanted to wait to see what the candidates said in the remainder of the campaign. “Whoever the next governor is,” he added, “if I’m given the opportunity to serve as state representative and to represent you, I want to be able to work with them.”

Neither party can control the candidates who file to run in a primary, but they can try to make sure any candidates who might deviate from party orthodoxy are exposed. The GOP forum on Thursday night was designed to do that.

In addition, neither party is able to keep any legally registered voter from asking for a primary ballot. What the parties can do is work to make sure the party faithful turn out to vote in large numbers, thereby offsetting the effect of those who, in another state, might be registered for neither party or even for the other party.

At the end of the Thursday night forum, Chairman Hanley asked for help with a planned voter drive designed to do just that.

As of the end of the day on Friday, according to Pat Hayes, elections director for the county, only 198 people had voted in the first two weeks of early voting.


The complete video of the GOP Candidate Forum is available on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo Channel. []

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Oconee County Commissioners Say Joint Athens-Clarke and Oconee Development Effort Off Table

Like It Like It Is

No one should have come away from the Oconee County Town Hall meeting on June 10 believing that the proposed economic development partnership between Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County is anything but dead, at least in the near term.

The first question–really a statement–at the meeting came from Tammy Gilland, who is running for Post 3 commissioner against incumbent Margaret Hale in the July 20 Republican primary.

Gilland said she favors regional economic development, but before she would support joining with Athens-Clarke County on such an initiative she wants three conditions to have been met.

She said the two counties will have to contribute equally to the partnership, Oconee County will have to wait to see who is elected mayor of Athens-Clarke County and to the commission in November, and the counties will have to give Matt Forshee, the new head of the Athens-Clarke Economic Development Foundation, a year or two to get settled in.

Gilland said she had talked with representatives of the chambers of commerce in both counties and they supported these three conditions. She said she wanted to know how the four commissioners present felt about her approach.

Commissioner John Daniell, who was chairing the meeting because Commission Chairman Melvin Davis was on vacation, said the purpose of the meeting was to talk about economic development in Oconee County not regionally, but he also said he favored a regional approach.

Commissioner Jim Luke said he was confused by the question. “The proposal that was on the table for a while called for exactly that, an equal partnership financially between the two counties. That was what a lot of the objection I heard was.”

“I think it is pretty much a dead issue,” he added. “I don’t think there has been any discussion of it in several months.”

“I was not in favor and I’m not in favor of it now,” Commissioner Chuck Horton said. He said he didn’t see that the proposal would produce a positive outcome for Oconee County.

“In this proposal, we would lose our economic office,” Commissioner Hale said. “The proposal planned for us to close our door, form a new board and move to the chamber in Athens-Clarke County.” That, she said, was unacceptable.

Hale and Horton said they were open to discussion of collaboration of some sort with Athens-Clarke County in the future.

Only about 25 people were in attendance at the meeting, and several of those were county department heads and other employees.

Following Gilland's comment and the responses of the commissioners, no one spoke up in favor of the joint economic development plan. Kenneth Mann, chairman of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, and Chuck Williams, a member of the chamber’s board of directors, were in the audience.

Williams even was a member of the Oconee Athens-Clarke Regional Economic Development Task Force that released the report in May of 2008 calling for the joint development initiative for the two counties. He has spoken publicly in the past in favor of the proposal.

The two-hour-long meeting covered a variety of development issues, from the expressed need for additional industrial sites in the county, to the future of the big box retail outlets on Epps Bridge parkway, to the role of the state in helping the county land large industry, to the fairness of the county’s decision to concentrate development in the north and to protect the rural nature of the south.

All four of the commissioners advocated development, at least in the north, and said that the county should be aggressive in pursuing it.

This caused Franklin Shumake to offer a warning near the end of the meeting.

“The vast majority of the people who are here tonight are here to promote economic growth,” he said. “But my own observations in Oconee County are that 80 percent of the people in this county, 80 percent of the voters in this county, are not obsessed with economic growth.

“They came into this county because it is a good place to live. They came into this county because it has good schools. They came into this county because it is beautiful,” Shumake said.

Shumake, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce, told the commissioners to make sure they involve different types of people before they made decisions so they don’t hear only from those who want more development.

“Most of us like this place like it is,” he said.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pinestraw Operation Gets Extension Despite Oconee County Zoning Violation

Toilet to Go Too

Customers will have about two more weeks to purchase pine straw from the retail and wholesale operation at the intersection of Hog Moutain road and U.S. 441 after the Oconee County Code Enforcement office extended the deadline it had originally set to close down the operation.

On April 6 Code Enforcement Director Steve Hansford sent Tyler McClure a letter saying he had until today to either file for proper zoning for the property on which he is operating or close.

As of 5 p.m. today, according to Planning Director B.R. White, no one has filed a request to rezone the 1.7 acres on which McClure is selling pinestraw.

Matt Brock from the Code Enforcement office told me this afternoon that Code Enforcement agreed to the extension because McClure has no place to move his business until the end of the month. Brock said his office did not want to put anyone out of work.

He expects the operation to be moved by June 28, Brock said, though he does not know where it will go.

In the letter Hansford sent to McClure on April 6, Hansford said that he had made a mistake when he issued McClure a business license on Dec. 23, 2009.

“I believed that the whole property was zoned Business-B2,” Hansford wrote in his letter of April 6. “However, only a narrow strip across the front of the property is zoned B-2 and therefore, for you to operate a business at this location the whole piece of property will need to be rezoned.”

The Planning Office and Code Enforcement are both located in the Courthouse Annex across the street from the courthouse. The front offices of the two departments face each other on the first floor of the building.

All About Pinestraw has operated from the site, which has entrances and exits from both U.S. 441 and Hog Mountain road, from trailers and vehicles. It has been serviced by a portable toilet.

The Oconee Enterprise, under the headline “Pinestraw truck devoured by file,” reported in its May 13 edition that fire destroyed a truck on the site of the pine straw operation on May7.

The story reported quite a bit of detail about the fire, based on comments attributed to McClure, and mentioned that a “small trailer” served as an office for the operation.

The story never mentioned that the rather unconventional operation was on land zoned for agricultural and residential use, though I had reported on that fact on April 17.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Oconee County Board of Education Changes Course on Plans to Fill Vacancy

Thanks, but No Thanks

The Oconee County Board of Education, having invited Carter Strickland to apply for a vacancy on the board less than a month ago, passed him over tonight and decided instead to open up the process to other applicants.

Board Chairman David Weeks tonight proposed the change in procedures for filling the Post 5 position vacated when Tom Breedlove resigned on May 10, saying that he had gotten a lot of feedback indicating that the board was interfering with the election.

Strickland is running as a Democrat for Post 2 on the BOE and is unopposed in the July 20 primary.

At the called meeting on May 19, Weeks proposed that the four qualified candidates for Post 2 and Post 3 be invited to apply rather than open up the position to everyone in the community.

The other three board members accepted the proposal. That included Mack Guest, incumbent Post 2 commissioner and a Republican candidate for that position in the July 20 primary, and Kim Argo, incumbent Post 3 commissioner and a candidate for that position in the July 20 Republican primary.

Argo and Guest subsequently declined to apply for the Post 5 vacancy, as did Mark Thomas, who has qualified to run against Guest in the Republican primary.

Strickland alone said he would be willing to drop out of the race and accept the vacant slot.

Argo has no one running against her in the primary and, unless someone qualifies to run as an independent, will have no opposition in November.

Guest now has to get through the Republican primary and, if successful, in November get past Strickland and any independent who might qualify.

Strickland has been critical of the board, indicating dissatisfaction with it motivated him to launch his candidacy.

At the candidate forum organized by Russ Page and me last week, Strickland accused the board of “ineffective leadership” but said that characterization applied only to “some members of the board.”

Weeks said that the procedures the board put into place last month were chosen because of “extenuating circumstances” resulting from the fact the election was underway.

He said, however, that he had heard from people in the community who said the selection procedure actually “was hindering the election process.”

Weeks tonight thanked Struckland for applying, “But at this point, I think--I feel-- that we need to let the election process play out.”

In other action, the Board approved a $53.5 million budget without discussion. The budget had not been released to the public at the time of the meeting, which began at 5 p.m. at the school central offices in Watkinsville.

The board also agreed that the four members present would not accept the $1,800 each is entitled to as compensation for serving on the board this fiscal year.

The new board member or members will have to decide on compensation separately.

The board will accept applications for the Post 5 position from June 15 to July 15, interview applicants in early August, interview finalists in early September and make a decision in late September or early October, according to Weeks’ proposal, which was accepted unanimously.

Weeks said the board wants candidates to be concerned about the entire system, not just parts, to be team players, to be unafraid of controversy, to understand that the superintendent actually runs the schools, not the board, and to be willing to stay in communication with the other board members.

Guest, who was not able to attend the candidate forum last week, today sent me a copy of a statement he said he had asked board member Mike Hunter to read at the forum.

When I asked citizens present at the end of the half-hour session for BOE candidates if they wanted to ask another question or hear Hunter’s summary of the statement, no one asked to hear the statement.

In the statement Guest sent to me today, he said he was in Colorado at a business meeting with one of his largest clients at the time of the forum. Guest is the founder of LAD Logistics, which has warehouses, a logistics center and offices in Watkinsville.

He said that “Despite what some would have you believe, we are clearly on the right track.” He cited upgrades to technology, infrastructure, classrooms and athletic facilities in the system as examples.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Oconee County Board of Education Candidates Give Cautious Answers to Tough Questions

Monday Meeting Maybe

Board of Education candidates stepped carefully around a series of pointed questions from citizens at the Oconee County candidate forum last week, which might not be surprising given that two of the three candidates present as well as two others in the audience are engaged in discussions about an open position on the board.

The Board of Education is scheduled to take up that vacancy at its regular meeting, scheduled to start at 5 p.m. Monday night at the central office board room on School street in Watkinsville.

Incumbent Post 3 BOE member Kim Argo, who participated in the forum, could be voting at that meeting Monday on whether to appoint Carter Strickland, another of the forum participants, to the open slot on the Board. Board member Mike Hunter and Board Chairman David Weeks were in the audience.

Citizens asked about the recent replacement of top school administrators, whether the board was cutting administration adequately given the cuts to teaching, and what the board in the future will do to make sure schools are sited properly.

The language used by the citizens was direct.

The responses from the candidates were guarded.

Citizen Robert Wyatt said that “To the outsider, there seems to have been a lot of turmoil and turnover in the Oconee County school system in the past two years,” which is the time when the current Board of Education has held power.

Wyatt gave as evidence “the flap over increased compensation for board members, the land purchase and new superintendents and principals.”

“What do you see as the cause,” Wyatt asked, “and how would you go about fixing it?”

Argo, incumbent Post 3 BOE member, said the administrative turnover had been normal. She acknowledged that “there has been some turmoil,” but she said it also was normal for five members to have some disagreement. She said she had learned from the experience.

Carter Strickland said he thought the problem was that there was not enough disagreement. “They vote as a bloc. There doesn’t seem to be any discussion on issues that I can tell.”

“Some of the things that have been done brought me to a boil,” Strickland said, “and that is why I’m here.”

Strickland said the problem has been “ineffective leadership by the board–not by all members of the board--but by some members of the board.”

Thomas “said people moving and changing jobs” was to be expected. He said, however, he would commit himself to “open communication with the teachers, the administrators, the students and the parents and have everybody part of this process.”

If there is turmoil, Thomas said, the solutions will be much easier if all of these people are involved.

Post 5 BOE member Tom Breedlove resigned on May 10, and, at a specially called meeting on May 19, BOE members Weeks, Argo and Hunter, along with incumbent Post 2 member Mack Guest, decided to invite the four candidates who have filed for Democratic and Republican primaries on July 20 to apply for the Post 5 position Breedlove vacated.

So Guest and Argo were inviting themselves to apply, along with Strickland and Thomas.

Thomas, who had filed to run against Guest in the Republican primary, and Guest himself, subsequently declined.

Guest, who said in advance he could not attend the forum, which Russ Page and I organized, because he had to be out of town on business, was not at the session on Wednesday.

Argo, who is unopposed in the Republican primary and, unless someone files as an independent, in the general election in November as well, also declined to apply for the open spot.

Strickland, running unopposed as a Democrat in the July 20 primary, said he was interested.

Strickland told me on June 7–two days before the candidate forum–that his reason for applying was quite simple.

He said he is a Democrat in a heavily Republican county, yet he really wants to be on the board. He said he’d take the appointment if it is offered to him.

Pam Hendrix, another citizen who asked a question at the forum, also was pretty sharp in her criticism of the board, which has announced teacher furloughs as part of its Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The board is scheduled to vote on Monday night on that budget as well as deal with the Breedlove vacancy.

“I’m kind of tired of hearing we need to cut teachers,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like anyone ever considers cutting administration costs.”

Thomas said administrative operations need to be evaluated. Argo said she favored cutting administrative costs rather than spending for the classroom. Strickland said there should be “no sacred cows” when it comes to cost cutting.

Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank, said “there have been allegations in the past that previous school boards have made siting decisions on schools” without considering the total costs to county tax payers.

He wanted to know if the school board candidats would give consideration to existing county infrastructure and costs to taxpayers rather than simple academic goals when it considered future school locations.

All three said county infrastructure should dictate where future schools go.


The video of the full meeting is on my Vimeo site.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Candidates Discuss Views of Teamwork at Candidate Forum

Infighting and Involvement

Melvin Davis’ name will not be on the ballot for the Republican primary in Oconee County on July 20, but comments at the candidate forum on Wednesday night indicate he is very much a part of the election.

And Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis’ presence in the election is likely to increase if former Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Russell Lee runs as an independent against incumbent John Daniell in the Post 2 Board of Commissioners race in November.

I spoke with Lee by telephone today and asked him if he intended to file as an independent in the June 28 to July 2 window set by state law.

“I prefer not to say” was his response.

The Board of Commissioners voted 4-0 in August to redraw the organizational chart for the county to give all five members equal supervisory responsibility over the county’s administrative officer and budget director.

Davis, who previously alone had supervisory power over these two top administrators, strongly objected to the change. Because the chairman of the Board of Commissioners votes only in the case of a tie, Davis did not cast an official vote on the ordinance redrawing the organizational chart.

Margaret Hale, who, with Daniell, pushed hard for the change, is being challenged by Tammy Gilland for the Post 3 slot, who, with Lee, has a strong Chamber of Commerce base.

Gilland accused the current board of “infighting” and said her experience in communication and mediation would help create a “more team-oriented environment” so the board could be more productive.

Hale responded that four of the five commissioners were happy with the changes the board made and that the result was more “transparent” government.

Daniell said the changes mean that “information flows more freely” and that the board is much more involved in decisions than in the past. “It has been a totally different atmosphere,” he said.

If Gilland were to defeat Hale in the primary and Lee were to defeat Daniell in the general election in November, the balance of power in the commission could shift back toward Davis.

Keith Bradberry qualified to run against Daniell in the July 20 primary but withdrew for health reasons a few days after filing.

Approximately 80 people turned out at the candidate forum, which Russ Page and I organized on behalf of Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth and the Friends of Barber Creek, respectively.

The forum was broken into three, 30-minute sections. The first was for Board of Commissioners candidates.

In addition to BOC candidates Daniell, Gilland and Hall, the forum was attended by Carter Strickland and Mark Thomas, seeking Post 2 on the Oconee County Board of Education, and Kim Argo, seeking re-election to BOE Post 3. Thomas and Argo are running as Republicans, while Strickland is running as a Democrat.

Incumbent Post 2 BOE member Mack Guest told me in advance he would not be able to attend the forum because of a business commitment and indicated he would send a representative to answer questions. I learned at the beginning of the meeting that he chose instead to ask BOE member Mike Hunter to read a statement he had written.

At the end of the half hour period devoted to the Board of Education, which I was moderating, I asked audience members if they wanted to hear from Guest or ask an additional question. I did not hear anyone ask to hear from Guest, so I recognized another questioner.

Suzy Compere, Hank Huckaby, Tommy Malcom and Kirk Shook, all seeking to be elected as state representative from the 113th District, also attended and answered questions from the audience. Compere is running as a Democrat, and the other three candidates will compete in the July 20 Republican primary.

Voting for the July 20 primary actually began on Monday, and Pat Hayes, Oconee County Director of Elections, told me at 4:30 today that 129 persons voted this week. The office closed at 5 p.m.

As of June 1, the county had 22,203 voters registered, according to Hayes. Since this is the first time the county has had an election in which only two of the five commissioners and two of the five members of the BOE stood for election, it is hard to know what to expect in terms of turnout.

The county moved to staggered terms with the November 2008 election, when Daniell, Hale, Guest and Argo were elected for two-year terms.

If Lee or anyone else wishes to qualify to run as an independent, they must turn in a nomination petition signed by 5 percent of those who were registered in November of 2008, Hayes said. That means the candidate must have 1,020 petitions signed by certified registered voters.

Once the petition were submitted, Hayes, her staff and the Board of Elections and Registration would undertake the certifications process.

Voters have until June 21 to register to vote in the July 20 primary.

The video of the candidate forum is available for viewing at my Vimeo site.

I will summarize some of the comments from the other two sections of the forum in another posting.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Citizen Committee Moves Forward With Public Hearing on Oconee County Courthouse

Concerned about Rear-Ends Too

The Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee tonight decided to go forward with a plan to hold a public hearing in late July or early August on its recommendation that the county build a separate judicial facility near the courthouse.

County Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost showed the committee a first draft of a presentation that he proposed he give to citizens who turn out at the future public meeting.

The committee took no note of the action of the Board of Commissioners, who on May 25 decided to move county offices now in the leased Courthouse Annex across the street from the current courthouse in downtown Watkinsville to the Government Annex on SR15 on the south side of the city.

Commissioner John Daniell told me after that meeting that he wanted to see what kinds of renovations could be done to the Government Annex to accommodate administrative needs of the county before he made any decision about future space needs for either administrative or judicial activities of the county.

Maybe all county administrative offices could be moved to the Government Annex location and the current courthouse could be dedicated to court functions, he said.

The BOC decided to toss out the previously approved plans to redesign the space now used by the Public Works Department in the Government Annex and instead to redesign the entire facility to accommodate Code Enforcement and the Planning Department as well as other smaller departments now in the Courthouse Annex.

The two buildings that make up the Courthouse Annex are referred to as the Dolvin property in deference to previous owners.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told the commissioners on May 25 that he expected construction at the Government Annex to start in January of 2011.

At the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting tonight Provost offered a rough estimate of between $20 and 22 million as the cost of acquiring property for and building a judicial facility and renovating the existing courthouse for administrative offices.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee voted on March 9 to recommend to the BOC that the county build a separate judicial facility near the courthouse to accommodate the future needs of the county.

Provost said tonight he thinks it is a good time to acquire property and suggested that the county might use some of the estimated $4.2 million in unspent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue for that purpose.

The BOC has decided to use an undetermined amount of that money for the renovation of the Government Annex.

Provost said he would revise the presentation he gave tonight taking into consideration comments made by committee members. They asked that he include pictures, more details about possible funding and a time line for the construction of the judicial facility.

The plan now is for Provost to bring that revision back to the committee at its July 13 meeting, which was nearly canceled. By a vote of 4 to 3, the committee turned down a motion that it not meet in July because of the difficulty of getting a quorum during the summer vacation period.

The committee canceled its May meeting because it could not get the required eight of 14 members to agree to attend.

At the July 13 meeting the committee is scheduled to decide the details of its public hearing. Committee chairman Abe Abouhamdan said he hoped that at least some of the commissioners would attend.

Following the discussion of the courthouse, Bob Isaac, a member of the committee, said that he was concerned about the likelihood of traffic accidents at the QuikTrip gas station and convenience story set to open later this month at the intersection of Daniells Bridge road and the Oconee Connector.

“We’re getting ready to have a nightmare,” Isaac said. The entrance to the gas station off the Oconee Connector from the turn lane to Daniells Bridge road is unsafe, he said. “You’re going to have rear ends. You are going to have collisions.”

Abouhamdam said the intersection was under the control of the Georgia Department of Transportation, not the county, and the county couldn’t do much about it. Provost said improvements could be made when the Oconee Connector was widened, but he said that could be as late as 2020.

Committee member Shane Carson said he thought the problem was going to be particularly bad about 5:30 in the evening when a driver decides “I need a drink on the way home” and turns suddenly into QuikTrip to pick up some beer or wine.

The Board of Commissioners granted QuikTrip its alcohol license at its meeting on June 1.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Approves FY 2011 Budget After Hearing

Darn Those Set-up Fees

On July 1, it will cost $50 to get a plumbing permit for a residential property here in Oconee County. It costs $40 now, if you happen to want or need one.

It will cost a resident of the county $90 per hour to rent the theater in the Civic Center on Hog Mountain road. Now it costs $80 for those who happen to need a theater.

It will cost $175 to rent the Heritage Park Pavilion main arena for an event set-up. At present, those people determined to set up their event at the Heritage Park Pavilion can do so for free.

It will cost $20 per person for a county swimming meet held under the auspices of the county. At present, there is no fee paid the county to be a part of such a swimming event.

If, come July, you are careless and lose you membership card for the fitness program at Veterans Park, you’ll have to pay $5 for a replacement. You get a replacement free now.

And if, starting on July 1, you want to purchase 2,000 gallons of water from the county because during the next 30 days you think you might want a drink, because you feel you’ll almost certainly need a shower, because you think your clothes are likely to need washing, or because your toilet already is calling out for a flush, you’ll pay $20.75.

At present, you pay $16.50.

None of these changes raised an eyebrow tonight at the Board of Commissioners meeting, which passed the proposed departmental fees–including the 25.8 percent increase in water rates--unanimously as part of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. (Commissioner John Daniell--on vacation--was absent.)

County Finance Director Jeff Benko made no mention of the water fee increase when he discussed the Enterprise Fund budget, which is the budget for the Utility Department and which is in balance only because of the water rate increase and a parallel hefty increase in sewage fees.

He also didn’t mention the $5 charge for the membership card replacement. That money will end up in the general fund budget.

None of the commissioners mentioned the increase in water and sewer rates, which will affect the county’s 8,700 water customers and 1,200 sewage customers, when the matter came up for discussion.

No citizen spoke about plumbing, park set-up fees, lost membership cards–or water and sewer fees--when given a chance as part of the public hearing.

Because everyone was so quiet, the whole discussion and vote took only 4 minutes and 23 seconds.

As Benko said, he was glad the budget process had come to an end.

With hardly a whimper.