Tuesday, August 31, 2010
The Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee got the blessing from the Board of Commissioners tonight to go ahead with its plans to show the public its PowerPoint presentation justifying its recommendation that the county build a separate judicial facility near the jail.
The presentation probably will be in October, but not at the regular meeting of the committee on Oct. 12, since that conflicts with a rescheduled meeting of the BOC.
In the meantime, the board is going forward with its plans to remodel the Government Annex on Greensboro highway on the south side of Watkinsville.
It voted tonight to spend up to an initial $2,990 to hire R.W. Allen, an Augusta company with offices in Athens, as construction manager at risk for the project.
In addition, the board decided that it will hold a public meeting on Sept. 21, probably at the Annex, to allow citizens to review options for the renovation of the facility, which currently houses the Utility Department, Public Works Department and the offices for the Fire Department.
At the Aug. 3 meeting, the BOC approved a contract of up to $74,500 with Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville for architectural services for the renovation.
Abouhamdan responded that he knew that only the BOC could decide on what the county should do regarding what the committee has been calling judicial and administrative facilities for the county.
The committee met for a year before it reached its recommendation in March that the county separate judicial facilities from the present courthouse and build a new judicial facility somewhere near the current jail on Experiment Station road.
It has spent the time since that decision working on a PowerPoint presentation to convince the public that it has made the right decision.
The BOC sent the issue of the future of the courthouse to the land use committee in March of 2009.
Board members tonight suggested that the committee might use the public hearing to get citizen feedback as well as make its case for its recommendation, though the committee has been clear as it discussed its presentation that the goal was to justify the decision it had reached.
“I think that is a great idea, personally to hold a public meeting, and get more public input,” Commissioner Margaret Hale told Abouhamdan.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Oconee County has only an informal set of procedures for deciding what goes on the county web site, with four people involved in the decision, according to County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, Theriault, Finance Director Jeff Benko and Clerk of Commission Gina Lindsey all can put something on the web, Theriault said.
Angela Helwig, administrative assistant to the BOC, is the “point person” who actually uploads the materials, Theriault added in that June 7 telephone conversation.
Over the last year, the Board of Commissioners has asserted its right to control the flow of information from county department heads to its members, but it has passed up chances to control the county web site.
Chairman Davis, in contrast, uses the web site to disseminate his view of county affairs via a column he posts there weekly, and he publicly has made other decisions unchallenged about what does and what does not go on the web site.
Davis’ column first appears in the weekly newspaper The Oconee Enterprise. He starts with a question and then provides his answer.
The Aug. 26 column, which leads the list today, deals with maintenance of vacant subdivisions. Davis asks: “What is the county doing to make sure the entrances, etc., are maintained?” He answers that the county is trying to guarantee that the required maintenance is done.
A week earlier, Davis posed this question: “I understand we only had a 20% turnout for the recent runoff election and a 29% turnout for the primary election. How much does it cost the county to hold an election?” Answer (shortened here): “The county budgets approximately $20,000 to conduct an election and a runoff costs the county approximately $10,000.”
Of course, the columns always represent Davis’ take on issues. On April 29, while the BOC was considering cutbacks to balance the budget without increasing the tax (millage) rate, he hinted that an increase in the millage rate might be worth considering.
“I do not believe this Board desires to raise the millage rate during these difficult economic times, even though over the past several years the county millage rate has dropped from 8.23 mils (should be mills) to 6.686 mils (mills). Therefore, at some point the Board of Commissioners will have to make some very tough decisions. Will some services and programs have to be reduced or eliminated? Will the costs of other services and programs have to be increased to meet revenue projections?”
Today, the county web site has the weekly columns by Davis back through January of 2009.
I told the BOC at its May 4 meeting that I felt the county needed a citizen committee to make suggestions on policy for the county’s site and that I would form such a committee. I invited all members of the commission and members of the county administration to join.
To date, Commissioner Margaret Hale has said she will be a member of the committee.
At the suggestion of Jay Hanley, chairman of the Oconee County Republican Party, I asked Kate McDaniel to join, and she has agreed. McDaniel is a frequent attender of BOC and other county meetings, is active in Republican Party affairs and has a blog called A Positive Vision for Oconee County.
At the suggestion of Jonathan Veit, chair of the Oconee County Democratic Committee, I asked Tony Glenn to be a member of the committee. He, too, agreed. Glenn is a resident of Farmington who has been active in community affairs there and has been involved with the county Democratic Party.
The Committee has not yet met. I am hoping this posting will generate some additional interest and that another person or two will join the committee.
I told the BOC at its May 4 meeting that at a time when the traditional media are struggling to find the resources to cover government, it is particularly important that citizens have the ability to obtain information on their own.
The reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald who is responsible for Oconee County, Erin France, also covers Madison and Oglethorpe counties. Before the cutbacks at the paper several years ago, the Oconee County reporter for the paper had only that assignment.
“The county web site is a powerful communicative tool for the county,” I said to the board, “but it is not owned by the elected officials of this county or those they appoint. It is owned by the citizens of the county.”
I proposed that the citizen committee develop policy on the timely provision of information to citizens and also address the right of citizens to comment on matters before the county.
My comments were made at the citizen comment section of the May 4 meeting and were in part because of the way Chairman Davis responded to a question I had posed at the April 20 meeting. (Davis is pictured at left from the April 20 meeting.)
At that meeting, I asked members of the commission about a story written by Banner-Herald reporter France on April 19, 2010, that quoted Davis saying the commission had been “pricing various lots around the courthouse and near the jail.”
I said I recognized that the board could have secret meetings–I should have said could meet in secret–to discuss property. I asked the commissioners to indicate nonetheless what they had been discussing.
Each of the members of the commission except Chairman Davis said she or he had not been discussing any purchases.
Chairman Davis said he would put a response to my question on the county web site.
On April 22, I found on the county web site an unsigned response to my question at the April 20 meeting.
Since the unsigned response mentioned me by name and, in my view, gave a misleading rendition of the question I posed, I sent an email message to Chairman Davis, copied to Theriault, Clerk Lindsey and Jane Greathouse, Davis' assistant, at 10:31 p.m. on Sunday, April 25.
In that email message, I asked that a response I had attached to my email message be added to the county web site with an appropriate link on the home page indicating it was a response to the posting using my name.
At 10:32 p.m., I received a receipt indicating that Chairman Davis had opened my message. I received receipts from Theriault on 7:58 a.m. on April 26, from Ms. Lindsey at 9:32 a.m. that same day, and from Ms. Greathouse at 9:01 a.m. on April 28.
I did not receive any actual response from the chairman or from any of those to whom I copied my request.
At the May 4 meeting, I asked during the citizen comment section once again that my message be posted on the county web site, with a headline on the front page indicating that it has been posted as a reply to the earlier message.
No member of the commission responded to my comments, and to date my response has not been posted on the county web site, though the original message remains there.
At that same April 20 BOC meeting, Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood presented the Board of Commissioners an 11-page draft ethics ordinance that spelled out ethical standards and set up conditions for creation of a Board of Ethics to hear complaints about board members.
Haygood said he drafted the ordinance at the request of the board and that he forwarded it to members along with a Draft Model Ethics Ordinance for Counties prepared by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
He said he also sent to the board an analysis of ethics ordinances prepared by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.
As is usual, the citizens in attendance had no information on what Haygood was talking about. No copies of the ordinance or other materials he was discussing had been presented to the public in advance, and none were available at the meeting, either in written form or via a visual presentation.
After the discussion, County Administrative Officer Theriault said he would put the materials provided by Haygood on the web for the public to view, but Chairman Davis told him not to do so, saying he wanted to wait until after the commissioners had discussed it further.
None of the commissioners objected.
I obtained the documents via an open records request and placed them on the web as public files on April 22.
The ethics issue is on the agenda for discussion again at the BOC agenda-setting meeting on Tuesday.
Prior to the May 25 meeting of the BOC, the commissioners held the first of two required public hearings on the 2010-2011 budget.
Before the meeting, the final budget to be discussed had not been released to the public, and nothing was available at the door as the meeting began.
The hearing began with a PowerPoint presentation on the budget by Finance Director Benko, who summarized what he considered to be the key features of the budget. Among the things he left out was mention of an increase in the water and sewage rates that was included in the budget.
After the citizen comment on the budget, Chairman Davis announced the proposed budget and the proposed fee schedule that supported it would be placed on the county website the next day and would be available at the courthouse and the county library.
They remain available on the web site today.
At the July 27 meeting, I thanked the county for providing the PowerPoint and the single page summary of the budget, and I asked if the county could provide a full budget for the county that would include details at the departmental level. I also asked for a finalized budget for fiscal year 2009-2010, which ended on June 30.
I said these could be provided either on the web or as a hard copy for citizens to review and copy.
No one responded to my request.
I had asked Commissioner Hale after the June 17 forum sponsored by the Oconee County Republican Party and by the Oconee Regional Republican Women if she would give me a copy of the final budget for 2010-2011 so I could make a copy. She told me she only had budget requests, not the final department budget that the commission had approved.
During a break in the July 27 meeting, Commissioner John Daniell said he would obtain a copy of the budget for me.
He told me last week he had received the budget and would bring me his copy. He dropped it off at my house yesterday.
Included is the 2010-2011 budget, but not the 2009-2010 reconciled budget.
The detailed Utility Department budget, more than twice the size in terms of dollars allocated of any other departmental budget and more than the combined separate budgets for the jail and for law enforcement, was not included.
My plan is to scan the budgets I have and make them available to the public through this blog.
After I made my comments about formation of a citizen committee to develop policy for the county web site, Lisa Davol, then interim director and now deputy director of programs at the Parks and Recreation Department, told me she would be glad to discuss with the committee the departmental efforts to create a modern and clean web site.
The Park and Recreation website, which has its own look and structure, it linked to the main county web site.
The Planning Department, working within the structure of the existing county site, has taken steps on its own to provide information to the public in advance of Planning Commission and BOC meetings.
For example, the department has key documents for the upcoming BOC discussion of a rezone request by Courtney Elder already available online.
This is the strategy also being followed by the Oconee County Board of Education, though navigation of that site is quite difficult.
Anyone who is interested in helping citizens develop recommendations for the county on how to make the best use of its web site and on policy for the site should contact me at email@example.com.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
The headline that ran across the top of the page of the Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010, edition of the Athens Banner-Herald was clear enough.
Sewer line will help prevent job drain, it said.
PROJECT TO SERVE MAKER OF FISHING TACKLE, ST. MARY’S HOSPICE FACILITY, the subhead explained.
“A new sewer line will keep jobs in Bogart and encourage more commercial growth on Jennings Mill road, Oconee County officials say,” the lead, or first paragraph of the story, elaborated.
The problem is that neither the “maker of fishing tackle” nor the St. Mary’s facility is in Bogart, so the sewer line won’t keep jobs there.
The bigger problem is that, even when pushed by members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners at its July 27 meeting, the Oconee County officials most involved in the sewer line project said it would not have much of an effect on future development on Jennings Mill road.
There simply isn’t land in the immediate area that can be developed, and what is available can better be served by an existing sewer line, they said.
The $773,000 sewer line, the officials said, is to provide Oconee County sewage services to Zoom Bait, located at 1581 Jennings Mill road, and St. Mary’s Highland Hills Village and the accompanying St. Mary’s Center for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care and St. Mary’s Hospice House.
The St Mary’s facility is located at 1660 Jennings Mill road.
Zoom Bait currently is on a septic system. St. Mary’s is sending its sewage to Athens-Clarke County for treatment.
Where–and what–is Bogart?
Bogart is an incorporated city lying partly in Clarke County but mostly in Oconee County whose eastern border starts near the intersection of Fowler Mill road and the Atlanta highway several miles west of Georgia Square Mall.
View Directions to 1581 Jennings Mill Rd, Bogart, GA 30622 in a larger map
The bait manufacturer and the St. Mary’s facilities are on Jennings Mill road between SR Loop 10 and McNutt’s creek, which forms the Clarke/Oconee county border at that point.
Jennings Mill road intersects the Atlanta highway opposite Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant.
By car, it would be 4.7 miles from Zoom Bait to the Bogart city border. It would take, according to Google maps, about 10 minutes.
The Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s properties do have a Bogart Zip Code, as do large parts of western Athens.
Zip maps are a mishmash in the area. (The Zip Code for Bogart is 30622.)
Now to the second problem.
Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Utility Department Director Chris Thomas came to the BOC at that July 27 meeting to explain why they needed an additional $400,000 on top of the $186,711 the county had already committed and the $186,711 the state had committed to the County for the sewer line.
The state was using federal money for its commitment.
The pair explained that the original estimate of the cost of the project they had used was bad, and that they now thought they were likely to need another $400,000.
Several of the commissioners were pretty unhappy, and they wanted to believe that the sewer line was going to do something more than simply take sewage from the “maker of fishing tackle” and St. Mary’s.
They asked that question of Thomas, and 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.
Haygood stopped him and corrected 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 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.
In fact, a check of the tax records for the county shows that Zoom Bait sits on two pieces of property totally 16.1 acres and owned by William Edward Chambers Sr. and Faye S. Chambers.
Georgia Secretary of State records list William E. Chambers as CEO of Zoom Bait and William E. Chambers Jr. as CFO.
St. Mary’s Highland Hills Inc. sits on 66.6 acres.
These are the only two pieces of property along which the sewer line will run until near where it reaches the pump station behind Kohls. From there the sewage will be pumped to one or the other of the county’s two sewage treatment locations.
I posted my story, with this statement from Haygood and summary of the customers for the sewer line on Aug. 2.
Two days after the July 27 meeting The Oconee Enterprise had run a story on page 1 under a single column headline reporting that the sewer line was going to cost $400,000 more than projected and that the undeveloped land behind the big retailers on Epps Bridge Parkway would be served by a different sewer line.
Banner-Herald reporter Erin France, who was at the July 27 meeting and wrote the Aug. 17 story about the sewer line, seems have been more interested in the theoretical than the real.
She quoted County Finance Director Jeff Benko as saying that the sewer line will help protect existing jobs, but it also will prepare surrounding property for commercial development along Jennings Mill road.
She quoted Benko as saying specifically:
“That line will strategically open up a corridor that goes towards Epps Bridge parkway.”
That is exactly what Thomas said at the July 27 meeting is not the case.
I talked with Haygood the day the Banner-Herald story appeared and asked him a few additional questions.
He told me that Williams and Associates, a land planning firm with offices on Daniells Bridge road in Oconee County (but with an Athens Zip Code), had provided the $373,422 cost estimate for the project that the county used for its Georgia Department of Community Affairs grant application.
He also told me that no contract had been let for the project, and in response to my request he gave me a copy of the list of the six bids the county had received for the May 7 bid opening.
At the July 27 meeting, the “low responsive bid” was referred to as for $642,700, and Harrison & Harrison, Inc., of Athens, submitted a bid of $642,766, according to the list.
I also asked Haygood if the county had made any calculation of how much money the Utility Department would take in from sewage fees per month from Zoom Bait and St. Mary's once the line was built. He told me that Thomas had made just such an estimate.
Thomas told me later that day that he had calculated, based on current water usage, that Zoom Bait will pay about $300 per month and St. Mary’s about $160. Sewage fees are calculated on water use, and both customers currently get water from the county.
Thomas estimated that Zoom Bait’s figure could easily double to $600 per month if the firm expands, as he said it has said it will if it gets a sewer line. Thomas said that St. Mary’s could be paying more than at present as well when its new facilities are fully operational.
The Board of Commissioners approved the extra $400,000 for the new sewer line at its Aug. 3 meeting. (The minutes call it the “Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Line Project.”)
The BOC took the money for the $400,000 investment–as well as the $186,000 committed earlier--from Special Purposes Local Option Sales Tax revenues, not from the Utility Department budget.
This means that the financially strapped Utility Department will get the improvement that will generate the new sewer revenue without paying for those improvements from its budget.
The Aug. 17 story about the Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s sewer line was not the only one the Banner-Herald ran last week about sewer projects and development.
On Aug. 16, it ran a story on page 1 about a sewage project in Oglethorpe County, also written by reporter Erin France, under the single column headline: Sights set on sewer
The city of Crawford is building a new sewage plant to replace the two antiquated ones it now operates, and France quoted Crawford Mayor Jimmy Coile on the prospect:
“Hopefully, with this system, it will encourage more business to come into the area. That’s what Oglethorpe County needs right now.”
Sewage projects are complex, with someone getting rid of the sewage and someone receiving the effluent. They use different technologies with different effects. And they cost a lot of money.
The Aug. 16 story about the Oglethorpe project did not say where the treated sewage water will go once it is treated. Part of Oglethorpe County is in the Oconee River watershed, and part is in the Savannah River watershed.
I called the Crawford city office and was referred to Austin Rambin, project manager with Peoples and Quigley in Sandy Springs.
He told me that the effluent, which will be treated to close to reuse standards with a disk filter system, will discharge into Barrow Creek.
Barrow Creek flows to the Oconee River, meeting just upstream from where Oglethorpe, Greene and Oconee counties intersect.
The math is in the favor of the Crawford mayor’s assertions about the ability of the plant to meet future needs.
Rambin told me (and France also reported in the last paragraph of her story) that the plant will have the capacity to handle 250,000 gallons per day of sewage, and that the two old Crawford plants are handling only about 80,000 combined today.
Rambin said that 80,000 includes surface water that is entering the antiquated sewer lines.
To help finance the project, Crawford has agreed to sell sewage treatment to Lexington, which relies wholly on septics at present, according to Rambin.
Even with the Lexington sewage, Rambin said, the new Crawford plant will have plenty of unused capacity.
The plant–a relatively small one by area standards–has been built so that it can be expanded if needed, he added.
The Banner-Herald story didn’t contain much detail about financing.
Rambin said the city got a $4 million federal grant and a federal loan for $3.3 million. The agreement with Lexington to treat its sewage was part of the package presented to the federal government to demonstrate that Crawford can repay the loan, he said.
The story did expand on the sewage for development theme.
France wrote the following summary of her take of the situation:
“People in Oglethrope County have yearned for more commercial development–maybe a fast-food restaurant, or even a big-box store like Home Depot–when thinking about what a sewer system could mean for the county.”
She didn’t mention any yearning for a “maker of fishing tackle.”
That would be Bogart, or at least the Bogart Zip Code.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Nathan Deal carried all but one of the 13 Oconee County precincts in the Aug. 10 Republican primary runoff for governor, according to the official Statement of Vote Cast for the county.
Deal received 60.2 percent of the 4,024 votes cast in the Republican runoff in the county, and 50.2 percent statewide.
Of the Oconee County precincts, Karen Handel carried only the precinct of Farmington in the far south of the county, where she got 58, or 53.7 percent, of the 106 Republican votes cast.
She received 48.5 percent of the 270 votes in the City Hall precinct, her next best performance. Most of that precinct is in the city of Watkinsville.
A total of 4,142 Oconee county citizens voted on Aug. 10, and all but 118 (2.9 percent) of them chose to vote in the Republican primary.
In addition to the governor’s runoff, Republicans could cast a ballot to decide the party nominee for attorney general, commissioner of insurance and public service commissioner of eastern district 2.
Oconee County voters favored Sam Olens (55.8 percent) over Preston Smith for attorney general, Ralph Hudgens (66.6 percent) over Maria Sheffield, and Tim Echols (51.7 percent) over John Douglas. In all cases, Oconee County went with the state-wide winners.
Oconee County’s Democratic voters favored Georganna Sinkfield (56.8 percent) over Gail Buckner in the party’s sole runoff for secretary of state. Sinkfield won statewide.
Oconee County Republicans voted much like voters in neighboring counties in the Republican gubernatorial runoff.
In Barrow County, Deal got 62.5 percent of the vote. He got 58.3 percent in Clarke County and 60.0 percent in Oglethorpe. In Greene County, Deal got 57.2 percent of vote, while in Morgan County he got 53.5 percent and in Walton County he got 56.0.
Handel, of course, did best in her home county of Fulton, where she got 71.3 percent of the vote.
The turnout rate in Oconee County for the Aug. 10 runoff was 20.5 percent, compared with a turnout of 29.8 percent in the July 20 primary.
The county eliminated nearly 2,000 voters through the voting process, however, and only 20,239 voters were counted as properly registered for the runoff, compared with 22,225 in the July 20 primary.
In the Aug. 10 runoff, 4,024 Republican ballots were cast, while 5,804 Republican ballots were cast on July 20.
In the Aug. 10 runoff, only 118 Democratic ballots were cast, compared with the 824 Democratic ballots cast on July 20.
Of the 4,142 votes cast in the Aug. 10 primary, 86.0 percent were cast on election day. In the July 20 primary, 74.1 percent of the 6,628 ballots were cast on election day, with most of the remainder cast through early voting.
The Statement of Votes Cast for the elections reassigns the early and absentee mail ballots to precincts, making it possible to determine how the candidates did in the various precincts in the county. That report was released on Aug. 13.
In the July 20 primary in Oconee County, Deal had a higher percentage of the Republican votes for governor than did Handel. From the field of seven candidates, Deal got 33.6 percent of the Republic vote to 26.7 for Handel.
Handel beat Deal handily in the Farmington precinct, and had nearly the same percentage as Deal in the City Hall precinct. These were Handel’s strongest precincts in the August runoff.
Farmington was the Oconee County precinct with the highest percentage of voters asking for the Democratic ballot in the July 20 primary. Civic Center and City Hall were next highest, in that order.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee has changed its schedule for its next meeting on Sept. 14 and will begin discussions at that meeting of bike-friendly road signage rather than make a presentation to the public about its recommendation for a new county judicial facility.
Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan announced the schedule change at the end of the Aug. 10 meeting, during which the committee reviewed for the third straight meeting a PowerPoint presentation prepared by Oconee County Strategic and Long Range Planning Director Wayne Provost.
The presentation is designed to persuade the public that the committee reached the right decision back in March when it voted to recommend to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that it build a judicial facility separate from the current courthouse in downtown Watkinsville.
The new facility, according to the committee recommendation, should be near the current jail on Experiment Station road.
It took the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee a year to respond to a request from the BOC that it provide guidance on the courthouse issue, and the BOC has now gone forward with its own plan to remodel the Government Annex south of Watkinsville to accommodate county space needs.
At its Aug. 3 meeting, the BOC approved a $74,500 contract for architectural services and agreed to proceed with the hiring of a constructions manager for the project. Commissioner Jim Luke opposed the decision, which was approved 3-1.
At the July 13 meeting Abouhamdan scheduled the public presentation for the next meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee on Sept. 14, but he announced at the end of the Aug. 10 meeting that, according to the draft of the minutes, “the public meeting will be held at the will” of the BOC.
Abouhamdan told the committee members he will discuss the public hearing with the BOC at its agenda-setting meeting on Aug. 31.
(I was not able to attend the Aug. 10 meeting, but Russ Page did record sections of the meeting.)
The decision not to turn the Sept. 14 meeting into a public hearing freed Abouhamdan to move forward on the committee schedule discussion of a request from the Oconee County Cycling Organization that the county install Share The Road signs on roads used by cyclists throughout the county.
The cycling group has identified four key roads it want to be top priorities: 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.
Richard McSpadden, a member of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee and president of the Oconee County Cycling Organization, asked Abouhamdan to put the request on the agenda of the committee. (McSpadden is pictured above, left, at the July meeting with committee member Bill Tollner.)
Abouhamdan said at the July meeting when McSpadden made the request that he would not schedule the discussion until the committee was finished with the courthouse issue.
Abouhamdan told McSpadden that biking issues have been controversial with the committee in the past.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis made an unusual appearance at the Aug. 10 Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting, joining the committee at the table and engaging in the discussion.
Visitors usually sit at the rear or sides of the room for the hour-long meetings, which begin at 7 p.m. at the community center in Veterans Park.
According to the draft minutes, Davis told the committee that it will be 2014 before citizens can approve a new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that could include money for new courthouse facilities and that it would take several years of tax collections to have “seed money” for the project.
Planner Provost noted, however, that the roughly $4.2 million in unspent funds from the SPLOST voters approved in 2003 could be use to purchase land for a new judicial facility.
The committee has not devoted much time to discussion of what might be done with the $4.2 million in unspent funds and has devoted no time to discussion of properties, though it has recommended that the new judicial facility be close to the jail to facilitate safe transfer of prisoners.
In discussing the PowerPoint presentation the last three meetings, the committee has focused on ways to strengthen the argument for its recommendation, opting to add more pictures, including of facilities from Jackson and Barrow counties, which recently have built new courthouses.
At the urging of Chairman Abouhamdan, the committee reached a final decision at the August meeting on the background color for the presentation.
The committee voted for blue.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
In selecting its three finalists from among the 17 applicants for the open Post 5 position on the Oconee County Board of Education, the board chose three men with long ties to the community.
And the board rejected all three female applicants as well the only three who, in their applications, offered even mild criticism of the board and Oconee County schools.
The board also rejected the only applicant with a Ph.D., the only applicant with a medical degree and both candidates with law degrees.
The board also rejected the only applicant who had labeled himself a Democrat. That was when he ran unsuccessfully for the Post 5 slot less than two years ago.
Two of the three selected applicants have extensive business experience, while the third is a retired Oconee school teacher and administrator.
The four members of the board who made the decision include a businessman with experience in restaurant franchising, a businessman who operates a trucking company, a teacher and a staff member at the University of Georgia. All but the teacher are men.
Tom Breedlove, who resigned from the Post 5 slot in May, was a land planner who worked in development.
Breedlove and the other four board members were elected as Republicans.
These three finalists–Joseph Bagley, Michael Burnette and Glenn Townsend–will be interviewed by the board on at a meeting starting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 2. Board Chairman David Weeks told me in early July that he expected the board to makes it decision in late September or early October.
Seventeen Oconee County residents filled out an application form by the deadline on July 15.
The board released the names immediately, but it did not release the application forms. Those forms list name, educational and employment background, school and community activities, reasons for requesting appointment to the board, and length of residence in Oconee County.
Sixteen of the 17 appeared before the board on Aug. 2 and gave three-minute introductions of themselves. Applicant Alan Alexander, one of the two attorneys, could not attend, and Weeks read a statement from him. Most applicants summarized what they had put on the application form.
The board has put the application forms of the three selected applicants on the web for public review.
I requested and received the full set of applications. I summarized their responses in a spreadsheet.
The length of residence of the 17 applicants ranged from less than one year (Michael Brown, 9 months) to 33 years (selected applicant Burnette).
The applicant with the second longest tenure in the county was selected applicant Townsend with 26 years.
Among those selected, Bagley was a relative newcomer, with nine years of residence. But he attended high school in Commerce and did his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia.
Bagley is vice president of development for Lassiter Properties, Inc. According to his application, he currently directs the development of two major retail centers for Lassiter. Based in Morrow, southeast of Atlanta, Lassiter owns and operates timberlands in the U.S.
Burnette, according to his application, has been a store manager for more than 20 years with Tires Plus and has been area manager for the company for the last eight years.
Townsend, who served as an assistant principal in the Oconee County school system from 1992 to 2008, is now retired. Prior to moving to the Oconee system, Townsend was an administrator and teacher in the Clarke County school system.
Townsend began his teaching career in Commerce, following a short stint as graduate assistant football coach at the University of Georgia.
Bagley said he has two children currently in the Oconee County school system, while Burnette and Townsend did not indicate if they have children in the schools. Burnette’s application was one of the briefest, consisting of less than 11 lines of hand-written comments to the three open-ended questions.
“My background in accounting and 20 years in the business field will be instrumental with current economic times,” Burnette wrote.
Bagley also wrote that his experience in business would be an asset and said that he and his wife “are proud to tell folks that our sons are part of the Oconee County School System, and I believe that this system is well on its way to maintain the status as one of the best systems in the country.”
Townsend said he is “knowledgeable of many school policies + procedures, and am familiar with many of the policies and procedures of the Oconee System.” He added: “I am a ‘team’ person, and would love to be able to contribute to the current B.O.E. and its decision making.”
Only three of the applicants even hinted at criticism of the current board or system.
Kirk Dunham, a financial adviser, wrote: “While I believe that our school system in Oconee County is very good, I also believe that there is room for improvement in several areas.”
Dunham did not elaborate, but he did list communication, measurement of performance and development of personnel as areas he would like to focus on if he were appointed.
William Rakosnik, who said he was in upper management, was even more circumspect, saying he believed in “consensus building and a team approach to problem solving.” He added: “I do not believe that excellent schools and a reasonable tax rate are mutually exclusive goals and will work toward achieving both.”
Franklin Shumake said “We need school board members who will look, listen, and learn what our parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community citizens want in our schools.” He added that “we need to go beyond personal agenda items and focus on what is best for the students in our schools.”
Shumake, a retired Oconee County school administrator, said the county needs school board members who can communication with and coordinate with leadership groups in the community, such as the county commissioners, city leaders, and civic and business leaders.
Of the three female applicants, two did not list current work outside the home. Roslyn Beckstead has been a teacher in the past, and DeeDee Gaines has worked in the health and wellness field.
Cindy Chapman currently is working as an office manager.
Michael Brown was the second attorneys who did not make the short list. (Alexander was the first.)
Gregory Zengo was the only physician on the list of 17 applicants. His practice is in Watkinsville.
Zengo had asked to be appointed to the board back in 2007, when Post 2 became vacant because of a resignation. Guest was appointed instead.
Richard Clark, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Connecticut and is on the public service faculty at the University of Georgia, also had applied for that opening.
Clark then filed as a Democrat to run against Breedlove in November of 2008. Breedlove had defeated Kyle Martin in the Republican primary for the Post 5 opening and defeated Clark in the general election.
During the Aug. 2 presentation to the board, Clark urged the board to seek diversity in making its selection and even said he would understand if he were passed over for someone with expertise in elementary or secondary education.
The other applicants were Britt Beaver, a teacher and coach, Mark Capobianco, a business owner, Gary Davis, a financial adviser, and Stuart McGarity, a financial representative.
The board opened the applications up to the general public after abandoning an earlier attempt to fill the slot from among the four persons who had filed to run for the two seats being contested in this year’s election cycle.
Chairman Weeks made that proposal to the board on May 19, and members Mack Guest, Kim Argo and Mike Hunter quickly accepted it.
Guess and Argo were two of the four persons who had qualified to run. The others were Mark Thomas and Carter Strickland. Thomas filed to challenge Guest for the Post 2 position as a Republican, while Strickland filed to challenge the winner of that contest as a Democrat.
Argo has filed to run for reelection to Post 3 as a Republican and received no opposition from her party or from the Democratic Party.
Strickland alone asked to be appointed to the Post 5 position, but the board rejected his application on June 14 and decided to seek candidates from the general public.
Weeks said at the time that the public had registered its complaint with the restrictions the board had placed on applicants.
Thomas defeated Guest in the July 20 Republican primary. Thomas and Strickland will face off in the November general election.
Guest is the owner of Lad Trucking in Watkinsville. Argo is a Walton County teacher. Hunter is on the staff of the School of Forestry at the University of Georgia. Weeks owns six local restaurants, including three in Oconee county.
Thomas is a contractor, and Strickland owns a media content management service company.
Strickland had been critical of the current board and of Superintendent John Jackson in two candidate forums in June.
I met with Board Chairman Weeks on July and asked him if Strickland’s party or his criticism of Jackson had been factors in rejecting his candidacy.
Weeks said these things had not been factors and that the board was open to applicants with points of view different from those of current members.
Friday, August 13, 2010
For the second year in a row, the Oconee Democrats raised more than $1,000 for local charities through its Saturday Strolls series.
Participants in the 14 guided walks, held this year from May 1 through July 31 at Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville, contributed $1,130 to such charities as the Oconee County Cultural Arts Foundation and the state Botanical Garden in Clarke County, according to event organizer Pat Priest.
The stroll leaders designated a charity in advance, and each of those who joined the hour-long walk through the park donated $5.
Top draws were the May 1 stroll led by Brad Sanders, an expert on the Bartram Trail, and the May 8 walk led by Robert Wyatt, an adjunct professor of ecology at the University of Georgia.
Sanders talked about the exploration and writings of naturalist William Bartram, who traveled through Georgia and the south in the 18th century, while Wyatt helped participants learn how to identify trees and shrubs.
The Bartram Trail begins at the Georgia-North Carolina border in northeast Georgia, climbs to the top of Rabun Bald, descends into Warwoman Dell and then parallels the Chattooga River.
The Bartram trail walk raised $140 for the Bartram Trail Conference, while the walk led by Wyatt resulted in $135 for the Oconee Rivers Land Trust.
The stroll leaders led participants through Harris Shoals Park on Experiment Station road and used the natural and man-made features of the park to illustrate the talks. Strolls were nonpartisan and open to the public.
Strollers who joined artist Bob Clements and illustrator Bill Pierson on the July 3 stroll sat at the popular shoals of the creek and sketched after being given hints by Clements and Pierson on techniques.
Lawrence Stueck, an environmental sculptor and art teacher at Athens Academy, used the playground at the park, which he designed and helped build, to illustrate his talk about the role of play and playgrounds in child development and education.
In the summer of 2009, the first year of the program, Oconee Democrats raised more than $1,000 through a series of 13 walks that began at the courthouse in Watkinsville. The first of those strolls was on Aug. 8, and the last was on Oct. 31.
In 2009, walk leaders included Oconee County native and Georgia House member Bob Smith, then Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken and Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry.
In launching the 2010 series, Priest, a local radio producer and writer, called the strolls a “weekly, hour-long summer camp for adults and families.”
In addition to raising the money for charity, Priest said at the end of the series, “I hope we raised awareness about the natural world.”
The 2010 series included discussions of birds, mushrooms, lichens and mosses, invasive species, native plants, the Oconee watershed and snakes and turtles. One stroll focused on nature photography.
Pictures in the slide show above were contributed by Priest, Wyatt, Chuck Murphy and me. Murphy is a local photographer and photo instructor who led the July 19 stroll.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
There is a chance–though a slight one–that the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning will talk about bikes on county roadways when it meets on Tuesday night.
At its meeting on July 13, the committee voted to add a request from member Richard McSpadden that it discuss Share the Road signage as its next agenda item, once its finishes its ongoing discussion of the county courthouse.
At the meeting on Tuesday, the committee is scheduled to review for a third time a PowerPoint presentation prepared by County Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost that the committee wants to show to the public.
The purpose of the presentation to the public will be to convince the public that the committee’s recommendation that the county build a separate judicial facility near the current county jail on Experiment Station road is a good one.
After a year of deliberation, the committee selected that option back on March 9 and plans to send its recommendation to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners after it has had its chance to tell the public about the recommendation.
Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan said at the July 13 meeting that he wants to give that public presentation at the September meeting. Then he would be willing to address the bike signage issue, but not before.
Biking has not had a warm reception from the Land Use and Transportation Committee in the past, and Abouhamdan made that point to McSpadden when McSpadden made his request.
The committee even discussed at its January 2009 meeting the possibility of asking the Board of Commissioners to ban bikes from some county roadways. That was before McSpadden was a member of the committee.
McSpadden, who said he sought appointment to the Land Use and Transportation Committee so he could represent biking interests, is president of the Oconee County Cycling Organization.
The organization is asking that the county install Share The Road signs on roads used by cyclists throughout the county and has identified four key roads it want to be the top priority.
These 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.
McSpadden gave the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee a letter from the cycling organization asking the committee to endorse the signage request and recommend to the Board of Commissioners that the signs be installed.
Abouhamdan’s response was quick, indicating that the issue was complex, that the committee had spent a lot of time on bike issues in the past and would need a lot of time to consider the request, and that the committee had its plate full with the courthouse issue.
He also pointed out that the committee meets for only an hour each month, so it can only handle so many issues. Even though it is rare for the committee to have much more than a majority of its 14 members attend a meeting, discussion often is lengthy.
Provost chimed in that the county Public Works Department needs to be involved in any such discussions.
Finally, McSpadden made a motion that the request from the Oconee County Cycling Organization be the next item on the agenda once the courthouse was out of the way. Courtney Gail seconded the motion, and the motion passed.
According to McSpadden’s letter, the group would like to have four signs, two on each side of the road, on each of the four roadways identified. Total cost was estimated at $720, and the letter said the group “is ready to partner with the county to fund and install the signage.”
According to the letter, the Oconee County Cycling Organization is a local, non-profit group “dedicated to increasing bicycling safety and improving bicycling infrastructure in Oconee County.”
The Land Use and Transportation Committee is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the community center in Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road.
Monday, August 02, 2010
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote tomorrow night to spend an additional $400,000 to build a sewer line to serve two future customers along McNutt Creek on the northern border of the county.
The board put the decision on tomorrow night’s consent agenda at its meeting on July 27. That means the board will vote without further discussion unless one member asks that the item be removed from the consent agenda.
The board will fund the sewage line largely from excess 2003 Special Purpose Local Option sales tax collections and interest on funds collected but not spent from the tax. The 2003 SPLOST is now expired and has been replaced by a 2009 SPLOST.
The total cost of the sewage line project is expected to be $773,000, and the county received a grant from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to cover $186,711 of that amount. To receive the Community Affairs grant, however, the county had to commit another $186,711.
The board earlier voted to take this amount from SPLOST funds, meaning surplus SPLOST funds will cover $587,000, or three-quarters, of the total cost.
When completed, the sewage line will provide service to Zoom Bait, a manufacturer of fishing lures, and St. Mary’s Highland Hills Retirement Village and its new adjoining Center for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care. Both Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s are on Jennings Mill road.
Zoom Bait now is on a septic system, while St. Mary’s sends its sewage to Athens-Clarke County for treatment.
The sewage line will be gravity fed and follow McNutt Creek to an existing sewage pump station near Kohl’s. From there, the effluent will be pumped either to the Land Application System treatment facility on Rocky Branch road or to the Calls Creek Sewage Plant in Watkinsville.
The county collected $631,000 beyond the projected $25 million from the 2003 SPLOST and also has earned and is earning money on unspent SPLOST dollars.
At the July 27 BOC meeting, finance director Jeff Benko said all of the projects listed in the ballot language for the 2003 SPLOST were fully funded, so the board can do what it wants with the roughly $700,000 he identified as excess revenues as long as the board stays within the broad confines of the SPLOST language.
That 2003 ballot initiative listed $6 million for water and sewage projects, $6 million for road, $5 million for recreation and cultural affairs, $4.6 million for county facilities, including the courthouse, $1.5 million for fire stations, $1.3 million for paying off debt on the jail, and $0.6 million for the emergency operations center.
At the February town hall meeting, a number of individuals urged the county to find some funds for preservation of the area around the Elder Mill Bridge, but the Board said it had no money for that purpose.
Even if 20 percent of the $700,000 had been set aside by the county for recreational and cultural affairs, it could have allocated $140,000 for Elder Mill or other park and recreation projects. The $5 million initial allocation was 20 percent of the $25 million total.
But the excess funds are probably much higher than the $700,000 figure Benko used on July 27.
In addition to the $631,266 more the county had taken in than it projected from the 2003 SPLOST, it had earned interest of $861,049 on the amount collected as of the end of January of 2010, I learned from an open records I filed earlier this year.
That means the county earlier this year was sitting on at least $1,492,315 in unspent and unallocated money from the 2003 SPLOST.
At the meeting on July 27, however, Benko said the excess funds were only $700,000.
The board made its decision on July 27 to go forward with spending most of that money without soliciting or taking comments from the citizens present. Nothing on the agenda suggested that the board would be discussing how to spend the SPLOST excess funds.
At the meeting, Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Utility Department Director Chris Thomas made the request to the board for allocating the additional money to the sewer line project.
Haygood told the Board that the initial estimates of the cost of the project had proven to be wrong.
When the county asked the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to fund the project in June of 2008, the estimated total costs were $373,422.
When the Department of Community Affairs awarded the grant in October of 2009, it said it would pay half that cost.
The county put the project out for bids earlier this year and got a low bid of $640,000. Additional engineering, administrative and easement costs will bring the total figure to $773,000.
When the new figure came in, the county asked the state if it would contribute more, and it declined, Haygood said.
Haygood told me after the meeting that Zoom Bait, which employs about 125 people, “had been approaching the county requesting sewer service for some time.”
When St. Mary’s added the Alzheimers and dementia facility this year, “the circumstances surrounding the grant appeared to be favorable to get state assistance with the project,” Haygood said, resulting in a June 18, 2009, grant application.
The money the county received is federal Housing and Urban Development funds passed through the state.
Zoom Bait, 1581 Jennings Mill road, sits just east of the existing Jennings Mill overpass of SR 10 and is hemmed in by SR Loop 10 and McNutt Creek. The plant has little room to expand its septic system, Haygood said when I talked to him by telephone on July 30.
Zoom Bait manufactures soft plastic fishing lures at the facilty, which has no sign at its entrance and only a small sign over the entrance door.
St. Mary’s, 1660 Jennings Mill road, had an agreement with Athens-Clarke County to treat the sewage from its retirement home, Haygood said. When it added the Alzheimers and dementia facility this year, Athens-Clarke agreed to take the additional sewage as well, but only on a temporary basis.
Haygood said the Oconee sewage line is simply a way of helping a manufacturer and a health care facility that have been in the county a long time. The county doesn’t want either one to leave, he said.
At the July 27 meeting, Haygood and Thomas were asked if there were any other likely customers who might use the sewage line once it is completed in the Spring of 2011. Haygood and Thomas said the existing line behind Kohl's will handle new developments.
Haygood confirmed to me in the telephone call that the line really is for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.
At the BOC meeting, Haygood was asked if he or Thomas had approached Zoom Bait or St. Mary’s and asked them if they would pay for the sewage line. Haygood and Thomas said they had not.
Haygood said in our telephone conversation that he would do that only if instructed to do so by the board.
Haygood said the new estimate is a high-end figure and is based on the assumption the construction will hit rock nearly the entire distance it will run. He said he is optimistic the project will come in under the estimate.
“I hate it, but we don’t have much choice, do we?” Commissioner Jim Luke said before agreeing to put the additional funding on tomorrow night’s consent agenda.
Sunday, August 01, 2010
Only 33 voters had cast a ballot by the end of the day on Friday, the second day of early voting in Oconee County for the Aug. 10 Democratic and Republican party primary runoffs.
The counties were given leeway on when they started the early voting, based on their ability to get the ballots organized, and 13 voters had cast their ballots on the first day on Thursday.
Early voting continues through this week at the office of the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration, next to the courthouse.
Republican voters have a lot more reason to turn out for the runoff than do Democrats.
The Republican runoff ballot is headed by the contest for the nomination of the candidate for governor between Nathan Deal from Gainesville and Karen Handel of Alpharetta.
Republican voters also have the chance to pick between Sam Olens of Marietta and Preston Smith of Rome for attorney general, Ralph Hudgens of Hull and Maria Sheffield of Atlanta for commissioner of insurance, and John Douglas of Social Circle and Tim Echols of Athens for public service commissioner.
Democrats only have the contest between Gail Buckner of Jonesboro and Gorganna Sinkfield of Atlanta for secretary of state.
Voters who did not cast a ballot in the July 20 primary can vote in the runoff and can ask for either ballot. Those who voted on July 20 must pick the same party ballot for the runoff.
Real Clear Politics lists only one poll of Georgia voters–by Rasmussen–from after the July 20 primary, and that shows Handel beating Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roy Barnes by 1 percent and Deal beating Barnes by 6 percent.
That difference gives Democrats and Republicans who sat out the July 20 primary as well as those Republicans who voted, a reason to register their preferences.
With no local elections on the Oconee County ballot, however, turnout is likely to be light.
In 2008, with a runoff in the Oconee County Republican coroner contest and for U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary, 13.5 percent of the county's voters participated in the August voting.
According to the official Statement of Votes Cast for Oconee County completed on July 26, Oconee County had 22,225 registered voters on election day on July 20.
Fran Crowell from the Oconee County Board of Elections told me before the election that 2,111 of those were designated as inactive, meaning they had not voted in recent elections but could not be stricken from the rolls.
Of those registered voters, 6,628 cast a ballot on July 20. That’s 29.8 percent of the registered voters or 32.7 percent of the active voters.
The 29.8 percent figure falls between the 24.4 percent turnout figure for 2006 and the 36.4 percent turnout figure for the July primary in 2008.
Oconee County went to staggered terms for election of members of the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education this year, and the increase in turnout suggests the local elections helped boost participation.
Of the 6,628 voters, 5,804 (87.6 percent) asked for the Republican ballot and 824 (12.4 percent) asked for the Democratic ballot.
In July of 2006, only 65.5 percent of the 4,145 votes cast were in the Republican primary.
It seems likely the local Republican races, and the lack of any primary competition locally for Democratic candidate Carter Strickland for the Board of Education Post 2 position and for Suzy Compere for the Georgia State House 113th seat, increased the participation in the Republican primary.
In 2008, the Democratic Party did not have any local candidates running in the July primary.
For that primary, 90.1 percent of the 6,975 ballots cast in Oconee County were in the Republican primary.
Turnout was relatively consistent across the county’s 13 precincts. It was highest at 33.6 percent at Annex, in the center-east of the county, and lowest in Bishop, at 24.8 percent, in the center-west. These figures are with the absentee and early votes reallocated to precinct.
This reallocation was done for the Statement of Votes Cast for Oconee County but not for the initial returns released by the Board of Elections and Registration.
Voters can and do skip races, but the local race for the 113th House Seat in the Georgia General Assembly got votes from 5,582 of the 5,804 Republican voters.
In the county's 13 precincts, Hank Huckaby got 46.8 percent of the vote, compared with 34.3 percent for Tommy Malcom and 18.8 percent for Kirk Shook.
The 113th District is made up of 25 precincts, and with the Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe county precincts included, Huckaby got 50.9 percent of the vote, avoiding the Aug. 10 runoff.
The 5,582 votes cast for the 113th race were more than the 5,570 cast in the Republican governor’s race or the 5,413 in the secretary of state contest.
The race between Mack Guest and Mark Thomas for Post 2 on the Oconee County Board of Education got 5,463 voters and the Post 3 Board of Commissioners race between Margaret Hale and Tammy Gilland had 5,431 votes cast.
Hale got 51.8 percent of the vote to Gilland’s 48.2 percent.
Thomas got 70.6 percent of the vote and Guest got 29.4.
Gilland carried three precincts, Bishop (61.0 percent), Malcom Bridge (55.8 percent) and Athens Academy (51.7).
Guest didn’t carry any precinct, but he ran strongest in his home precinct of Athens Academy (45.9 percent) and did worst in Antioch (16.9), where Thomas’ parents operate Hot Thomas Barbecue.