Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton tried last night to get Commission Chairman Melvin Davis to engage in a conversation about a recent proposal before the Policy Council of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia that would have altered how counties change the powers of the chairman.
While Horton was speaking, Davis shuffled papers on his desk, looked down, and at one point even turned his back briefly on Horton, the other commissioners and the public.
Horton asked Davis to explain his role in creation of the ACCG document. Davis parried.
Davis is a member of the General Government Committee of ACCG, which presented the proposal to the Policy Council. He also is chairman of the Policy Council, though he left the room on Sept. 20 when the provision was discussed
The Policy Council pulled the provision from the 2010 County Platform document after that discussion.
Davis will assume the presidency of ACCG in late April or early May, at the annual conference of ACCG.
Horton had put the ACCG proposal on the agenda for last night’s meeting and began by saying he was surprised a couple of weeks ago when someone tipped him off to the proposed change. He said he and commissioners John Daniell, Margaret Hale and Jim Luke immediately registered their objections.
In August of 2009, the BOC passed an ordinance that changed the organizational chart for Oconee County. The new chart has Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Finance Director Jeff Benko reporting to the full five-member board, rather than only to the chairman, as had been true in the past.
Davis objected to the change, which passed with the support of the other four commission members.
Horton said he thinks the proposed ACCG policy, which would give the state legislature more control over changes in local government structure, is at odds with what was done locally.
“If you knew about this and had anything to do with it and didn’t notify us, I find that disturbing,” Horton said to Davis.
“If you want to make a comment, I would hope that you didn’t have anything to do with it,” Horton said. “But if you did, I wish you had told us. If you were supporting this or had anything to do with it, it does upset me.”
Davis busied himself with his paper shuffling until Horton stopped speaking.
“The only comment I would make,” Davis said, “is that, as you pointed out, the policy committee struck that from the policy platform and the president of ACCG is appointing, as I understand it, an ad hoc committee to review all sides of the discussion.”
Commissioner John Daniell said he thought the Policy Council did the right thing in striking the provision. The other two commissioners did not speak.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood said his interpretation of the proposed change is that it would not affect Oconee County under any circumstance.
The proposal was under the heading “Home Rule: Changing Duties of the Chairman” and followed another item in the document called “Districting: Home Rule.” Both are on page 14 of the document.
Haygood said he interpreted the provision as applying only to a Home Rule provision of the state constitution, though the document itself does not specify that, and both sections with the “Home Rule” title deal with general issues of local governance.
The “Changing Duties of the Chairman” provision said that the state legislature should pass legislation to stipulate that any changes to the duties of the chairman could not be made until a new chairman is elected, that one or more public hearings had to be held before the changes could take place, and that changes had to be approved by a vote of the citizenry that had been authorized by the state General Assembly.
Davis looked at Haygood and nodded in agreement as Haygood made his argument that the provision was more limited than Horton and Daniell stated.
Haygood said Oconee County last year had merely specified powers of the chairman and the Board that had not been specified in the past.
The whole exchange last night on the ACCG proposal took 8 minutes and 20 seconds and came late in the two-hour long meeting.
Earlier the commissioners gave a weak endorsement to an invitation from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission that Oconee join with NEGRC to create a Local Agriculture Protection Guide.
NEGRC is looking for a single county from the 12-county region to serve as the pilot community for the project. NEGRC will select the county based on “demonstrated need for farmland protection, support of elected officials, and availability of staff to work with NEGRC.”
County Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost lead a discussion of the request, which was supported strongly by local farm protection advocate Russ Page.
The Board expressed reservations about joining with NEGRC on the project out of fear it might lead to some restrictions on what the county does to promote development in the county in the future.
In the end, the vote was unanimous to make application, though Provost was told to come back to the Board if he felt any of the provisions were becoming onerous.
The Board also gave the first reading to an ethics ordinance and put it on the agenda for its next meeting, which is scheduled for Oct. 12.
I was the only person who offered public comment on the proposed ordinance.
I asked Haygood if a person filing an ethics complaint against a commissioner would have protection against being sued for libel or slander as a result of the action. This protection exists for a person filing a suit in court.
Haygood said it is his belief that the complainant would not have such protection. And journalists or citizens who wrote about the complaint also would not have the usual protection against libel that exists when they write about court documents and proceedings.
The BOC also reviewed and tentatively approved new bylaws for Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission. The bylaws specify that the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission will work with a county department to prepare a budget for presentation to the BOC.
Esther Porter, executive director of KOCBC, had asked earlier that the organization be allowed create its own budget request and bring it to the BOC. At present, KOCBC is housed in the Public Works Department.
The BOC put the bylaws on the consent agenda for the Oct. 12 meeting, meaning they will be approved without comment unless a commissioner asks that they be brought off the consent agenda for further discussion.
With considerable enthusiasm, the Board put on the consent agenda the alcohol license application of Trader Joe’s, to be located at 1850 Epps Bridge Parkway.
“Don’t run out of stock,” Horton told Philip Wofford, who represented Trading Joe’s at the meeting.
On the slander/libel issue, you might tell atty. Haygood to look up a case that started in Oconee County and went to the Georgia Court of Appeals -- Skoglund v. Durham, which has been cited several times in state and federal court.
Thank you for attending these meetings and reporting them to the public. I have shared this on my FB page in hope that many others in our wonderful county will become aware of what goes on in these meetings that the local paper does not report.
On the libel question, Mr. Haygood,indeed, might check the Skoglund case recognizing an absolute privilege for statements in a filing to the Real Estate Commission.
The state libel statute also provides a privilege for statemens "made in good faith as part of an act in furtherance
of the right of free speech or the right to petition government for a
redress of grievances. . . in connection with an issue of public interest or concern."
The first amendment protects criticism of the public acts of public officials.
One would hope a county commissioner would not be quick to sue a citizen who filed an ethics complaint, but if the commissioner sued to silence a critic, the critic might seek protection in the Georgia anti-SLAPP suit statute, SLAPP suits being strategic law suits against public participation.
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