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.

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