Friday, October 29, 2010

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

Big Campaign Costs: Yard Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hendrix made several references to Sweat in her responses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Government Annex Renovation Stalls at Oconee County BOC Meeting

“Brilliant” Idea on Hold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oconee County to Get Local News Site as AOL Rolls Out

Friday News on Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

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

Nature of Change the Issue

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

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

Thomas says he does not have criticisms of the board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite these and other differences, the candidates have similarities.

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

Both have children in the Oconee County school system.

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

Thomas is 50. Strickland is 40.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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

Gets Praise from Officials for Hard Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Citizen Group Initiated Discussion on Policy for Oconee County Web Site

CACOCWS Launched

The self-appointed Citizen Advisory Committee on the Oconee County Web Site (CACOCWS) decided tonight to break into four subcommittees to gather information before meeting again to discuss web site policy options and content.

Dan Matthews will examine what the county Parks and Recreation Department has done to develop its site, linked to the county main site but quite different stylistically from it.

Matthews also will examine how the Planning Department is using the existing county site to provide information to the public about planning issues before those issues come before the Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners.

Tony Glenn will gather information on what the four incorporated areas of the county are doing with their web sites as well as how the Sheriff’s Office and the Board of Education use their sites.

Sarah Bell and I will attempt to gather information on the history of the county web site, the amount of money that is being invested in it, how it is managed, and what other kinds of resources the county has to support information technology.

Dan McDaniel will explore governmental web sites, with particular emphasis on those in Georgia, in an effort to find those that might serve as models for Oconee County. He also will help the committee develop ways to communicate internally and externally as it goes about its business.

The five of us met tonight for an hour at Jittery Joe’s in Watkinsville to outline issues we would like to explore and to develop ways to go about exploring them. We started our discussion at 7 p.m.

Two committee members, Oconee County Commissioner Margaret Hale and Kate McDaniel, could not attend because of last-minute changes in their schedules.

The committee is an outgrowth of an announcement I made at the Board of Commissioners meeting on May 4 that I was organizing a citizen committee to make policy recommendations for the county’s web site.

I asked the commissioners to join me, and Hale agreed. I also asked the chairpersons of the Democratic and Republican parties in the county to make nominations, and they did. I sought volunteers in a posting I made on this blog on Aug. 29. Finally, I asked the committee members to nominate a seventh member.

At the meeting tonight, we identified the following list of issues:

1. How might the county web site be used to make public announcements on issues of importance to citizens? What would the county need to do to maintain an archive of such announcements?

2. What is needed to make the site fully and easily searchable?

3. What types of public records might be made available through the web site?

4. What types of court records might be accessible?

5. What types of election and campaign records might be stored for electronic access?

6. Should there be a unified template for all county web sites, or should some of the departments develop sites that have their own style, characteristics and features?

7. What types of recreational information would be most helpful, how might it be organized, and how might the site link to other records on sports and recreational organizations in the county?

8. What kinds of opportunities might citizens be given to respond to or even contribute to the web site?

9. What policy should be created regarding government responsibility in providing information?

10. What kinds of links should be featured on the county cite? Should the site create an easy interface with sites of the four incorporated areas, the Board of Education, or the other elected officials in the county?

11. What can be done to provide for online applications for such things as building permits?

12. What needs to be done to provide the proper levels of security for the county site?

In launching the discussion, I said the committee needed to recognize that the county has very limited resources at present and that some recommendations might not be able to to be realized until county revenues recover.

The committee decided to create the subcommittees as a means of gathering information to further discussion of the issues on the list. The next meeting will be scheduled once the subcommittees have done their initial work.

The committee decided to encourage public participation in the discussion of these issues by creating a web site.

Information on access to that site will be provided here as soon as it is available.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Oconee Farmers Market Postpones Closing

A Tree-O of Four

The Oconee Farmers Market, originally scheduled to close this weekend after the Oconee Chamber Fall Festival, will remain open through the first part of November, depending on weather and what vendors have available, according to Debbie Beese, acting market manager.

Vendors will set up this weekend in the market’s usual space behind the Eagle Tavern, and they will be joined by vendors for the Chamber Fall Festival, now in its 37th year.

The Fall Festival will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Red Oak Tree-o, a local band that played at the market earlier this summer, will be appearing again this weekend.

At its Sept. 25 appearance (pictured), the Tree-O had four members.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Gilland, Guest, Huckaby Top Fundraisers Among Oconee County Candidates

Compere Form a No Show

Tammy Gilland raised and spent more than $13,000 in her unsuccessful attempt to unseat Margaret Hale in the July 20 Oconee County Republican primary, according to finance records filed by the Sept. 30 deadline in the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration office.

Hale raised and spent just less than $8,000.

Hale got 52 percent of the vote to Gilland’s 48 percent.

Mark Thomas raised just less than $6,500 in his successful race to become the Republican nominee for Post 2 on the Board of Education. Thomas spent all but $800 of the money he raised.

Mack Guest, the incumbent Post 2 BOE member, raised $6,800 and spent about $1,000 more than that in his unsuccessful attempt to be the Republican nominee.

Thomas got 71 percent of the vote to Guest’s 29 percent.

Carter Strickland, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for the BOE Post 2 position, spent a little more than $600, but he did not report raising any money.

In the race for the House District 113 seat in the Georgia General Assembly, Hank Huckaby raised more than $114,000 and spent just less than $64,000 in his successful campaign for the Republican nomination, according to records filed with the State Ethics Commission.

Kirk Shook raised nearly $16,000 and spent nearly all of it, and Tommy Malcom raised $9,000 and spent that amount. Both also were attempting to secure the Republican nomination to replace Bob Smith, who is retiring.

Huckaby is facing Democrat Suzy Compere on the Nov. 2 ballot. Compere reported in her June 30 filing that she had not raised or spent any money on her campaign.

The State Election Commissioner web site does not show a report for Compere for the Sept. 30 period, though the grace period for filing the report ended Thursday. Candidates filing before Oct. 14 will pay a $25 late fee, and candidates filing after that date will pay an additional $50 late fee.

Oconee lies entirely within the 113th District, which also includes parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties.

Huckaby received 51 percent of the votes in the July 20 primary to 30 percent for Malcom and 19 percent for Shook.

The Sept. 30 filings are cumulative, covering the entire first half of this year.

Most of the money raised and spent had been reported in the June 30 statements for the candidates for the Oconee County offices as well as for the candidates for the 113th House seat.

Huckaby was the only candidate who really added significantly to his totals in the three months after that filing. He picked up an additional $19,000.

The 2010 races saw considerably more spending than in those same races two years earlier.

In 2008, Hale had raised $6,300 and spent most of that by the Sept. 30 filing deadline. Her opponent in the Republican primary, Esther Porter, had raised $3,600 and spent all of it by Sept. 30.

In 2008, Guest had raised $3,400 and spent $4,600 by the Sept. 30 filing period. His opponent, Ryan House, had raised and spent $1,850.

Smith ran unopposed for the 113th House seat in 2008 in both the primary and the general election.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Trader Joe’s Opening in Oconee County in Storefront at Rear of The Markets at Epps Bridge

One Mystery Solved
Trader Joe’s is scheduled to open its first Georgia store outside the metro-Atlanta area on Oct. 29 in a 12,100 square-foot storefront in one of three buildings that make up the Markets at Epps Bridge, 1850 Epps Bridge parkway.

The grocery will be just west of Ashley Furniture in space that was designated for Harbor Freight Tools. Harbor Freight Tools now has moved a few doors further west to space that was occupied by Golden Dragon International Buffet, which has closed.

Traders Joe’s will be in Building C in the complex, which is behind Building A, which houses the Five Points Deli, and Building B, where NewBalance and Fox’s Pizza are located.

According to the application for sale of beer and wine that Trader Joe’s filed with Oconee County Clerk Gina Lindsey on Aug. 30, the sales area for the new store will occupy 9,352 square feet of the leased space, with storage taking up most of the rest.

The total square footage for Trader Joe’s at 12,110 compares with the 55,696 square feet occupied by the nearby Kroger grocery.
The diagram for the store submitted with the beer and wine application shows a store with four and a half shopping rows offset slightly and two separate produce rows.

According to the beer and wine license application, no one connected with the business has been convicted of a violation of any state, federal or local alcohol laws in the last 10 years.

When Phil Wofford came before the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 28 to answer any questions about his application for the license, it was something of a lovefest.

The commissioners said how happy they were to have Trader Joe’s coming to the county, and Wofford said how happy he was to be here.

“The reception has been wonderful,” Wofford said. “We feel loved.”

Wofford also said “if there is anything we can do for you, please let us know.”

The offer apparently only extended to Oconee County officials.

On Oct. 1, the day after the Athens Banner-Herald reported that the store would open on Oct. 29, I called Alison Mochizuki, listed in the Banner-Herald as the director of national public relations for Trader Joe’s and the source of the information in the story on the store’s opening date.

When I got an answering machine, I left a message asking Mochizuki to call me. I also called the main switchboard and was told that Mochizuki is the public relations department for the company and that she was the only one who could answer any questions I had.

I found a press release from earlier this year online that listed Mochizuki’s email address, and I sent her an email as well, asking her to call me.

I next called the number in the alcohol license application given for Wofford and also left a message.

By Monday morning, I had heard nothing from Mochizuki or Wofford, so I started calling again , leaving repeated messages. I also sent another email to Mochizuki.

Finally, on Monday afternoon, Mochizuki called me back, but I was in a meeting and could not take the call. I returned that call and left several more messages that afternoon.

On Tuesday I started over with both Mochizuki and Wofford. Mochizuki called me back about noon yesterday.

Mochizuki confirmed the opening date, told me the opening time, and then asked me to tell her “again” which media organization I represented. I told her I was a citizen who did a blog, and she said I had to talk with Customer Service rather than her.

Mochizuki then asked that I not quote her by name. I told her I would not agree to that.

She confirmed that the Oconee County store will be the first for Trader Joe’s in Georgia and outside Atlanta, where the company operates six stores. She also told me that the normal business hours would be from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

I asked her if the store would be localized in any way, and she said there would be paintings at the front of the story that were local.

I next called Customer Service, and someone named Amy answered. She would not give her last name.

She told me she could not confirm the opening date of the store other than that it would be by the end of the year. She said the opening would be posted on the Trader Joe’s web site when it was finalized.

I asked her if the store would be any different from the ones in Atlanta, and she said the stores were decorated locally. To whom the store makes donations is determined locally, she said.

She said there would be no local product differentiation, though the stores do vary somewhat by region.

The Banner-Herald story said the store would be located at 1850 Epps Bridge parkway, which is the address for the Markets at Epps Bridge shopping center. The story didn’t mention the Markets at Epps Bridge by name or any of the nearby stores.

The story did mention that the store’s employees dress in Hawaiian shirts.

Wofford was wearing a green, white and black print shirt with a complex design when he appeared before the BOC.


I made a mistake in an earlier version of this report. I said that the Banner-Herald reported the opening date to be Sept. 29. It did not. The paper had the opening date right. I called Trader Joe's simply to confirm what the paper had reported. I apologize to Erin France of the paper, who was kind enough to point out the error to me.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Oconee County Board of Education Announces Wayne Bagley as New Member

One More to Come

The Oconee County Board of Education this evening officially selected Wayne Bagley from among three finalists to fill the Post 5 position on the Board left vacant when Tom Breedlove resigned on May 10 and moved out of state.

The announcement brings to an end a lengthy selection process that first saw the Board attempt to fill the vacancy from among the four announced candidates for other positions on the Board and then switch to an open competition that brought in 17 applicants.

The Board narrowed that list of 17 down to three finalists, Bagley, Michael Burnette and Glenn Townsend--on Aug. 9 and interviewed the three finalists on Sept. 2.

The official selection of Bagley this evening came after the Board voted to go into executive session at the end of its regular meeting, which started at 4:30 p.m. at the school system’s administrative offices at 34 School street in Watkinsville

Bagley and Burnette attended the meeting and stayed after the regular meeting ended at 5:30, though no official indication had been given that an announcement was to be made.

After about five minutes in executive session, the Board returned to the meeting room.

Board Chairman David Weeks asked for the agenda of the meeting to be modified so the Board could announce the selection of the Post 5 member.

Weeks then nominated Bagley, who was supported by the three other Board members.

Weeks told Bagley he didn’t know “whether to wish you good luck or to tell you to run for the hills right now. But you are on it. So congratulations to you.”

Superintendent John A. Jackson gave me a prepared press release as soon as the announcement was made, and the announcement was put onto the school system web site after the meeting.

“At the end of the day, Mr. Bagley represented the best of some attractive choices in filling this important position,” the news release quotes Weeks as saying. “We were thankful to have three strong finalists from an impressive field of applicants for the appointment.”

Bagley is vice president of development for Lassiter Properties, Inc. Based in Morrow, southeast of Atlanta, Lassiter owns and operates timberlands in the U.S.

Bagley holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree from West Georgia College.

Bagley will fill out the term of Breedlove, which runs through 2012.

At least one more new face will join the Board after the November elections. Mack Guest was defeated in the July Republican primary by Mark Thomas.

Thomas faces Democrat Carter Strickland on the November ballot.