Friday, December 30, 2011

Oconee County Voters Split on Transportation Tax Ballot Issue on Ballot in 2012

Survey Finds

While many Oconee County registered voters have not yet decided how they will vote on the Transportations Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that will be on the ballot next summer, those who have already decided are split on the issue.

Voters are much more concerned about economic issues, including unemployment and the collapse of the local housing market, than they are about traffic or transportation issues.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Oconee County Officials Did Not Want to Answer All Pinewood Estates South Questions

Pressure on Price

Oconee County Administrative Office Alan Theriault did not answer one question that was central to the concerns of Pinewood Estates South residents when the residents met with county officials at the Civic Center on Dec. 12.

Would the county close down the mobile home park on Jan. 13, when it proposed to cut off water and sewer services to the residents there, one resident asked.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Attorney Prepared to Brief Oconee County Commissioners on Enabling Legislation

To Tinker or Not

Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood has prepared a three-page “synthesis” of the county’s enabling legislation as a starting point for continued discussions Tuesday evening by the Board of Commissioners of changes in those documents.

Haygood boiled down legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly for the county since 1917. He broke his summary into 12 “sections” that establish a “board of commissioners of roads and revenues” for the county and specify how it operates.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Decision on Disposal of Land from Agricultural Research Center In Oconee County Still Pending

University Made Request

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has not made any decision yet on disposal of the land from the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center outside Watkinsville and isn’t likely to do so until after the first of the year, a spokesperson in the department told me on Monday.

The Campell Center is one of nine facilities around the country the Agricultural Research Service is closing completely, Sandy Miller Hayes, director of information for the ARS in Beltsville, Md., told me in phone conversation on Monday. Another will be closed in part.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Oconee County Legislators Identify Issues They Expect to Address in Upcoming Assembly Session

Redistricting Discussed

Immigration. Tax reform. A rewrite of the state’s open meetings and records laws. Problems of pill mills. Mortgage fraud. Reform of the state’s criminal justice system. An initiative to amend the U.S. Constitution.

These are some of the issues that Oconee County’s representatives to the Georgia General Assembly said they believe they will be dealing with when the body convenes on Jan. 9 in Atlanta.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Oconee County Officials Optimistic Settlement Near in Pinewood Estates Water and Sewer Dispute

BOC Meeting Planned

Oconee County officials told residents of Pinewood Estates South mobile home park tonight that the county is “cautiously optimistic” that it has reached a settlement with the owners of the park that will keep water flowing beyond the proposed Jan. 13, 2012, shutoff date.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Commissioners To Be Asked to Grant Variances to Settle Disagreement Over Oconee County Connector Access

Hearing a Formality

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners will hold its official public hearing tomorrow night on a variance request by the estate of Dave R. Knowlton for a piece of property in the busy intersection of Daniells Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector.

Citizens who are in favor of or opposed to the requested waiver or modification of requirements regarding buffers on the property will have a chance to speak.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Dispute Over Sewage Upgrades in Oconee County at Center of Pinewood Estates Mobile Home Controversy

Deadline for Cutoff Jan. 13

A sewage pump station tucked behind a shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway is playing a key role in a controversy that threatens to cut off water and sewage services to residents of Pinewood Estates South mobile home park in Oconee County.

The pump, or lift, station, doesn’t even serve the residents of the mobile home park, though it lies between the shopping center and the park.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Oconee County Commissioner Daniell Pushing for Changes in County’s Enabling Legislation

Dates Back to 1917

Oconee County Commissioner John Daniell plans to ask his colleagues tomorrow night to begin the process of changing the enabling legislation that defines the government structure in the county.

Daniell’s goals are limited.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Watkinsville Mayoral Race Boosted Turnout for Oconee County Education Tax, Precinct Analysis Shows

Bogart Not So

The mayoral race in Watkinsville produced a higher voter turnout for Oconee County’s Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum than would have been the case without it, an analysis of precinct votes for the Nov. 8 election indicates.

Overall, 10.1 percent of the county’s eligible voters cast a ballot on the education tax, putting the turnout just behind the 10.2 percent figure when the county voted on a general SPLOST issue in November of 2003. That year, as this, no other county-wide or state issues were on the ballot.

Monday, November 21, 2011

President Obama Signs Agriculture Bill That Lacks Funds for Watkinsville Research Station

Closing Date Not Released

Both Houses of Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed late last week an agriculture appropriations bill for the current fiscal year that presumes the closing of the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center outside Watkinsville.

A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture confirmed today that plans are underway for the closing of the Agricultural Research Service facility but refused to provide any details about when or how that will take place.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Oconee County Takes First Step Tomorrow In Effort to Turn Off Water and Sewer to Mobile Home Park

Jan. 13 Deadline

Oconee County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas said he is a bit concerned about a “show cause” hearing he is scheduled to conduct at 10 a.m. tomorrow in his office in the Government Annex on Greensboro Road in Watkinsville.

“There is a lot of interest in this,” he told me yesterday. He reminded me that his office isn’t very large.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Congressional Agreement on Agricultural Funding Makes Closure of Oconee County Research Facility Nearly Certain

University Likely To Get Land

A joint House-Senate Conference Committee last night agreed on an agricultural funding bill that makes closure of the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center outside Watkinsville nearly certain and provides for conveyance of its property to a land grant institution such as the University of Georgia.

The bill includes less money for the Agriculture Research Service, of which the Campbell Center is part, than President Barack Obama requested.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fate of Oconee County’s Campbell Conservation Research Center in Hands of Conference Committee

Kingston Key

A joint Congressional House-Senate Conference Committee is expected to report out early this week its version of the appropriations bill that funds Agricultural Research Service facilities such as the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center outside Watkinsville.

The bill is likely to seal the fate of the Center and determine the procedures for disposing of the property once ARS brings the operation at the Watkinsville research facility to a close.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Advanced Voting Turnout for Oconee County Education Tax Lower Than for Most Recent Tax Election

Bogart Will Have A Turman

Only 352 people, representing just 1.5 percent of those eligible, turned out during the 15 days of early voting that ended on Friday for the Oconee County Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax ballot issue.

In March of 2009, the last time Oconee County had a tax issue on the ballot, a slightly higher 1.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots during the 21 days of early voting, and, ultimately 6.6 percent of those eligible decided the issue.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Oconee County Board of Education Chairman Explains Board Strategy On Sales Tax Vote

Responds to Criticism

Oconee County schools are behind other schools in the area in terms of technology, and passage of the Nov. 8 Education Special Purchase Local Option Sales Tax would help correct that.

Athletics are important to the development of the child, and the proposed athletic facilities at North Oconee High School that are part of the tax proposal will help meet the needs of students there.

The Oconee County Board of Education needs to borrow money now against future revenue from the proposed tax because state money could be available for the projects if the school system can demonstrate it has money in hand.

These are some of the arguments advanced by David Weeks, chairman of the Oconee County Board of Education, in the final days before voters decide whether to renew the one cent on the dollar sales tax to support education.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Scheduled to Discuss Lease of Dolvin Property Rather Than Purchase

Nov. 30 Deadline

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to take up the Dolvin property again at its meeting tomorrow night, this time in the form of a possible renewal of its lease of the two buildings on the property that make up the Courthouse Annex in downtown Watkinsville.

That does not mean that the BOC will not decide to purchase the property or to enter into a lease/purchase agreement, as has been suggested in the past.

At this point, however, acquiring the property “does not appear to be a viable option for the Board,” County Attorney Daniel Haygood told me in a brief telephone conversation this afternoon.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Board of Commissioners Scheduled to Decide on Two Oconee County Downzone Requests

Small Dent in Inventory

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to review at its Nov. 1 meeting two requests for a downzone of property that would reduce the inventory of unbuilt residential lots in the county by 89.

The reduction is almost trivial given the estimated 2,300 lots in the county zoned and platted for residential development.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oconee County Commissioner Says Effort Underway To Get Citizen Back on Hard Labor Creek Board

As Non-Voting Alternate

Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke said on Friday that he has asked Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood to explore how to revise the intergovernmental agreement that creates the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board so that Oconee County can once again have a citizen representative.

“Daniel is researching it for me,” Luke said when I talked with him by telephone on Friday. Luke is chairman of the management board.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Small Number of Voters Likely to Decide on Big Spending Projects for Oconee County Schools

Bonds and Tax Linked

Only a relatively small percentage of Oconee County’s 22,765 registered voters is likely to decide whether the current sales tax of one cent on a dollar for educational projects, which expires at the end of 2012, will be extended through the end of 2017.

Early voting began on Monday, and by late afternoon today only 21 had voted, according to Carole Amos in the Oconee County elections office.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Watkinsville Mayoral Candidates Differ More in Style than on Issues at Oconee County Forum

Disagree on Colors for Signs

Charles Ivie is a man of few words. Dan Matthews is a man of many.

At least that was the persona the two Watkinsville mayoral candidates demonstrated in the forum organized for them on Thursday night.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Trails in Oconee County’s Heritage Park Expected to Reopen in Early December

Bikers, Horses and Hikers Waiting

Reconstruction of stream beds and trails in Heritage Park is on schedule, according to Oconee County Parks and Recreation Director John Gentry, and he expects the park to be reopened as planned in early December.

The trails have been closed since early August, when the county began a $1 million mitigation project in the park to offset stream bed destruction that will result from construction of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Set to Decide on New Member for Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Board

And on Farmland Protection

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday is set to fill the vacancy on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board created back in early July when citizen member Hank Huckaby resigned to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

At its Sept. 27 agenda-setting meeting, the commissioners tentatively decided to replace Huckaby with Commissioner Chuck Horton, and the Board is scheduled to take final action on that decision at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Citizen Advisory Committee and Oconee County Public Works Director Come to Terms on Traffic Concerns

Revoted Priorities

Emil Beshara, Public Works director for Oconee County, started at the top of the list of road projects presented him by the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning.

The Committee had spent two full meetings identifying and then ranking in terms of importance the 23 roadway projects in the county that, according to Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan, “could use some improvements.”

The Committee said improvements to the intersection of Union Church and Hog Mountain roads was its top priority.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Funding for Agriculture Research Center in Oconee County More Precarious After Senate Committee Vote

Future Bleak

Funding for the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center on Government Station Road outside Watkinsville officially comes to an end on Sept. 30, and long-term prospects for the facility are bleak at best.

Congress has not agreed on an agricultural appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012, which starts on Oct. 1.

Monday, September 19, 2011

McKillip Said He Intervened to Lessen Negative Impact of Redistricting on Oconee County

Now Happy With Outcome.

Oconee County residents unhappy with the partition of the county in house redistricting last month should appreciate that it could have been a lot worse, Rep. Doug McKillip and Rep. Chuck Williams said Thursday night.

The “guys in the map office” wanted to split the county in half, McKillip told those who gathered at the Oconee County Republican meeting at the Civic Center in Watkinsville, but McKillip said he advised against it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Oconee County Planning Commission to Look at Downzone Request for Subdivison Along Apalachee River

Part of River Walk.

The Oconee County Planning Commission tomorrow night is scheduled to take up a request from the owner of a 422-acre tract along the Apalachee River south of Farmington who wants to downzone the property from a category that allows for development of five-acre housing plots to simple agriculture.

This is the third such downzone request in the county since the crash in the local housing market in 2008. Both of the other two also involved the conversion of land rezoned for residential development back to agriculture use.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Watkinsville Mayoral Race Has Impact Outside Boundaries of City

Small Circle.

People outside Oconee County--and maybe even some of those inside--might be forgiven for thinking Watkinsville is a bigger place than the circle with a one-mile radius that sits slightly off center in the county and is home to 2,832 residents.

The Athens Banner-Herald yesterday had a story from Oconee Veterans Park, which is three plus miles outside the city border of Watkinsville on Hog Mountain Road. As is typical for the paper, it used a dateline of Watkinsville for the story.

Dominicks, Taqueria La Parrilla and Your Pie restaurants in Market Center shopping center west of Butler’s Crossing, more than a mile from the city border, all list Watkinsville as their address. The same is true for the many shops in Butler’s Crossing itself, which is outside Watkinsville.

And St. Philothea Greek Orthodox at 3761 Mars Hill Road, almost at U.S. 78 and more than six miles from the Watkinsville city border, also has a Watkinsville address.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Oconee County Citizen Committee To Discuss Its List of Transportation Concerns Tuesday

Ranking 23

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning is scheduled to review its ranked list of 23 Roadway, Intersection and Transportation Concerns on Tuesday night before sending the list to county officials for possible action.

The Committee generated the list back in May, discussed it again in July, and is set to give it a final review, starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Oconee County Community Center at Oconee Veterans Park.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Oconee County Weekly Papers In Dispute Over Liquor Advertisements

Mixology Guide Taboo

The Oconee Enterprise, though a serious paper, thinks some of it's stories might appeal to children.

So the paper has a policy against running "liquor ads” in its pages.

And if the Enterprise could have its way, the unnamed other paper in town would adopt the same policy.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Thursday Meeting at Civic Center Offers Citizens Chance to Review T-SPLOST Project Plans

Some Still in Concept Stage

The Northeast Georgia Regional Transportation Roundtable will give Oconee County and other citizens a chance on Thursday night to preview the list of projects likely to be before voters next August as part of the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum.

Included are improvements to five different Oconee County roads: Mars Hill Road/Experiment Station Road, the Oconee Connector, Daniells Bridge Road, Simonton Bridge Road and Jimmy Daniell Road.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Oconee County, Despite Population Gain, Loses Influence in Georgia House, While Clarke County Gains

Playing with Census Blocks

Oconee County, with 25.1 percent growth in population between 2000 and 2010–6.8 percentage points more than the state average–should have emerged in a stronger position from the just-completed redistricting for the Georgia General Assembly.

And neighboring Clarke County, with its 15.0 percent growth in population over the last 10 years–3.3 percentage points below the state average--should have emerged from redistricting with slightly decreased influence in the state legislature.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Clarke County and Oconee County Will Compete for House Seat After Vote in Atlanta

Map Shows McKillip Jog

Chuck Williams voted himself a rather difficult assignment on Thursday when he joined the Republic majority in approving the redistricting plan for the House of Representatives.

Not only did he agree to take on the assignment of representing the president’s office at the University of Georgia should he seek reelection in 2012 and win, but he also agreed to represent the students living in the main and east campus dormitories and many faculty members and students living east of the campus.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Oconee County’s Williams Will Get More Difficult District to Defend in Reapportionment

An Even Split with Clarke

Chuck Williams, elected just last month in the heavily Republican 113th House District, will find himself in a somewhat more competitive district in 2012 should he decide to seek reelection.

He also will find it considerably more difficult logistically, and more expensive, to campaign in the district the House of Representatives is likely to hand him.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Voice Opposition to Redistricting Plan but Don’t Expect Changes

At Town Hall Meeting

Each of the five members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight expressed opposition to the proposed redistricting plan that is currently moving through the Georgia House of Representatives and that would split Oconee County into two House districts.

They also expressed resignation to the plan, indicating that they will just have to live with what they see as the almost certain outcome.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Proposed New Georgia House Districts Weaken Oconee County’s Role in Election Outcomes

McKillip Gets Protection

Oconee County voters as a bloc will have less influence in the Georgia House of Representatives if redistricting plans released on Friday are adopted.

Their influence in the Senate will remain largely unchanged.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Redistricting Session Will Affect Oconee County Primarily in Georgia House and Senate

Williams in Spotlight

Oconee County’s four commissioners as well as the chairman run at large, rather than by district.

The same is true for the five members of the Oconee County Board of Education.

None of the county’s four cities has districts for their council members.

So when the Georgia General Assembly meets a week from tomorrow to begin its discussion of redistricting made necessary by the 2010 Census, the impact for Oconee County primarily will be felt through the county’s status in future Georgia House and Senate districts.

All Oconee County voters currently vote in the 46th Senate District, represented by Athens attorney Bill Cowsert, and the 113th House District, represented by newly elected Chuck Williams, Oconee County businessman.

But that has not always been the case.

As recently as in 2002, voters in the two most northwestern Oconee County precincts–Bogart and Dark Corner–were part of the 73rd House District with Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties, while the remainder of the county was in the 76th, with Clarke and Madison counties.

And voters in Farmington and Antioch, the two most southern Oconee County precincts, were in the 47th Senate District with parts of 15 other counties, while the rest of the county was in the 46th Senate District with Barrow, Clarke and Jackson counties.

In 2000, prior to the release of the Census of that year, all of Oconee County had been in the 91st House District with Morgan and Newton counties and in the 46th Senate District with Clarke and Barrow Counties.

The Democrats controlled the Assembly in 2001 and drew the new district lines for the state.

The Democratic redistricting subsequently was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court without comment.

The Supreme Court let stand a decision by a three-judge federal panel in favor of a Republican challenge that the new districts were purely political, designed to maximize Democratic representation.

The judicial panel produced the current configuration that puts all of Oconee County in the 113th House District with parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties, and all of Oconee County in the 46th Senate District with Clarke and Walton counties.

Now it seems possible–maybe even likely--that the 113th will change again, perhaps resulting in the division of the county between or even among districts.

Williams was asked his position on redistricting in the two candidate forums held before the June 21 first round of voting in the special election and in the sole candidate forum for him and Democrat Dan Matthews before the June 19 runoff.

Oconee County residents have made it clear they don’t want to be divided, Williams said repeatedly. The special election was called so Oconee County would be represented in the redistricting session.

But Williams said he could not “commit” that the county will not be divided.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis spoke at a legislative hearing on May 16 in Athens, saying he wanted Oconee County to remain whole after redistricting.

He said when the county had been represented by more than one person, those representatives did not always agreed, and that hurt the county.

“I want Oconee County to remain whole. I want it to remain intact,” he said.

But a number of Clarke County citizens who are part of the 113th also spoke at the hearing and made it clear they didn’t like the current configuration, which makes them a minor player in the 113th.

In the current 113th House District, 24.7 percent of registered voters are from Clarke County, compared with 59.7 percent from Oconee County, 9.8 percent from Oglethorpe and the remaining 5.8 percent from Morgan County.

The Clarke County voters are from Winterville, in the far eastern tip of the county, from two precincts in the very south of the county, and from another precinct and parts of a precinct in the far western part of the county.

The three Clarke County pieces of the 113th don’t even connect to each other.

Williams will be under some pressure to fix that problem.

And he also is likely to be under pressure to do something else–help neighbor Doug McKillip create a district that is more Republican.

McKillip was elected in the 115th House District in January of 2010 as a Democrat and switched to the Republican Party before the session began earlier this year. The 115th is entirely in Clarke County and is traditionally Democratic.

McKillip told me that he has no deal with House Speaker David Ralston to guarantee him a better district, but that doesn’t mean McKillip isn’t likely to try to create a more favorable district.

Getting Malcom Bridge or Athens Academy precincts from Oconee County, both heavily Republican and contiguous with McKillip’s current 115th District, would help.

McKillip has been prominent in Republican events since Hank Huckaby resigned the 113th seat in April to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia. Huckaby had been elected to that seat in 2010 after long-time House member Bob Smith stepped down.

Smith, as well as Huckaby, are from Oconee County.

One constraint that could affect any efforts to create a more Republican district for McKillip could be the 1965 Civil Right Act.

Section V of that act says that states that previously created procedures to limit voting by Blacks had to demonstrate that any changes in voting procedures were free of racial discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, in a Mississippi case, expanded the definition of discriminatory voting practices under the act to include anything that diluted the impact of the Black vote.

So changes in districts have to meet that stipulation.

Oconee County has very few African-American residents.

The 2010 Census data show that only 4.9 percent of the population is Black of African-American. On July 1, 2011, only 843 Blacks were registered in the county, making up 4.0 percent of the registered voters.

Blacks made up 8.4 percent of the registered voters in the 113th District on July 1, 2011.

In contrast, 17.1 percent of the registered voters in the 115th District, which McKillip represents, were Black.

The 114th, represented by Keith Heard, was 37.4 percent Black, in terms of voter registration.

Heard is an African-American, while McKillip is White.

Blacks make up only 4.1 percent of the Malcom Bridge and Athens Academy precincts, so adding them to McKillip’s district would dilute rather than increase Black representation.

In general, adding Republican voters to a district dilutes the African-American vote, which historically has been disproportionately Democratic.

Williams is likely to be a team player in the House of Representatives.

He touted his connections to the political establishment and the General Assembly during the campaign, and these connections showed up in his campaign financial statement.

According to his June 13 and July 15 campaign finance statements, Williams got $23,850, or 43.0 percent of his campaign funds, from the campaign funds of other politicians, including $2,500 from House Speaker Ralston.

An examination of the timing of these contributions shows that only Winder Rep. Terry England, who gave $2,500 to Williams, contributed before Williams won the June 21 first round of voting, where he had Democrat Dan Matthews and Republicans Alan Alexander and Sarah Bell as competitors. Matthews and Williams went into the runoff on July 19.

England contributed $1,000 on June 18 and $1,500 on June 23, according to Williams’ records.

I checked both Williams’ reports and those of the corresponding campaign committees and found them to be in agreement regarding timing of contributions with minor exceptions.

I could not find in the reports of the corresponding committees five of the contributions Williams recorded. Candidate not running for office had to file a report on June 30, while Williams’ report was through July 15.

Williams and Huckaby’s reports show that the former representative gave $500 to Williams in two equal installments, one before the June 21 election and one after.

Candidate Bell received contributions from the committees of three politicians before the June 21 election. These were $350 from James Mills of Gainesville, $250 from Sam Teasley of Marietta and $250 from Tim Echols of Winterville.

Alexander did not report receiving any funds from other politicians.

The candidates don’t have to file their final statements until the end of the year, and the contributions for Williams are almost certain to change.

It seems likely Williams will have a significant war chest to use should he decide to run for reelection in 2012. On July 15, he had $34,860 in unspent funds.

In addition to using these monies for himself, he also can give them to other candidates, such as those who contributed to his campaign.

In the aftermath of the July 19 election, both The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald attributed Matthews’ defeat in part to low turnout in Clarke County.

In fact, turnout was only 12.8 percent in Clarke County compared with 15.9 percent in Oconee County.

But Williams won in the 113th District by 1,252 votes, so Matthews would have had to more than double the 1,135 votes cast in Clarke County and gotten all of the extra votes to have gained the lead over Williams.

But Matthews got only 61.1 percent of the 1,135 votes counted in Clarke County, meaning he would have needed an even greater and very unlikely turnout rate to overcome Williams’ victory margin in Oconee County, where Williams got 70.0 percent of the vote.

The real issue was not turnout, but rather that Clarke County contributes only a quarter of the voters in the district.

Reflecting this gap, the focus of the campaign clearly was Oconee County.

All three of the major candidate forums held before the election were in the county, the first organized by Russ Page and me at the Oconee County Library, the second by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce at North Oconee High School, and the third by the Chamber at th Oconee County Civic Center.

Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe make up smaller parts of the district, so it is harder for citizens there to come together and less enticing for the candidates to go visit them.

Campaigns also rely heavily on advertising.

The campaign finance statements show that all candidates spent much more heavily in the Oconee newspapers than in the newspapers in any of the other counties.

Alexander bought ads in The Oconee Enterprise and on Cox Radio. Bell did exactly the same.

Matthews used those two media and bought ads in The Oconee Leader and with WXAG radio in Athens.

Williams ran ads in the Enterprise, the Leader, The Morgan Citizen, The Oglethorpe Echo, WDAK in Greensboro, Cox Radio and Bostwick Broadcasting in Monroe. He put more ads in the Leader and the Enterprise, however, than in the other newspapers.

Morgan and Oglethorpe counties and, to a lesser extent, Clarke County voters were simply given less attention because there were fewer of them.

That is what could happen to Oconee County voters if the county is split as a result of the redistricting agreement the two houses of the legislature come up with in the special session that starts a week from tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Kill One Sewer Project But Keep Another Alive

Only a Name

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night killed the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Line project, but it only postponed a decision on the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I, which follows the same route along McNutt Creek from Jennings Mill Road to Kohl’s on Epps Bridge Parkway.

Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s was always a misnomer for the sewer line. That name was used by the county in its application for federal funds for the project.

The county argued that the 12-inch sewer line would serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s, two businesses on Jennings Mill Road at the McNutt Creek line with Clarke County.

The county pitched the project as one that helped employers of persons making low and moderate incomes.

The federal grant competition, administered by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, was tilted toward projects that served such employers.

Both these businesses needed the sewer line to continue to operate successfully in the county, according to the application.

In fact, the sewer line should have been named the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project, for the primary beneficiary of the project was a 114-acre tract behind Kohl’s that is owned by the Gordy family.

The county minimized the value of the sewer line for future development projects so as to focus on the low and moderate income employees of Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

With its 4-0 vote last night, commissioners John Daniell, Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke instructed County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to tell the Department of Community Affairs to keep the $186,711 grant it had awarded the county in October of 2009.

Over the objections of BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who does not get to vote unless there is a tie, the four decided to postpone a decision on the 18-inch McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I.

Zoom Bait/St. Mary's Sewer Line Discussion from Lee Becker on Vimeo.

Davis asked County Clerk Gina Davis to register his objection in the record. He said he didn’t want to return the money, and he felt the project would spur development in the county as well as help Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

The commissioners argued that the sewer line wasn’t needed by St. Mary’s, which sends its sewage to Clarke County for treatment under a contract signed by the two counties.

And they said that Zoom Bait, which relies on septics, has been less than vocal in asking for county sewers.

Finally, they said providing sewer service to the Gordy tract was not a top priority at this time.

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project morphed into the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I project only at the BOC meeting last week, though it had been moving in that direction for several months.

At the July 26 meeting, Jimmy Parker, a consultant to the county, presented the Board with a wastewater strategic plan that called for building a gravity sewer backbone in the McNutt Creek and Barber Creek basins.

The McNutt Creek part of the project calls for a gravity fed sewer line from Bogart to Epps Bridge Parkway at McNutt Creek.

From there, the sewage would be pumped either to the Calls Creek sewage plant in Watkinsville or to the Rocky Branch land application treatment site on Rocky Branch Road in the western part of the county.

But Parker, with County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas, had listed the $780,000 sewer line as a lower priority than spending $562,000 for upgrading a section of the Lampkin Branch Sewer line under Government Station Road and $1.5 million for an upgrade to the Calls Creek plant itself.

It seemed last night for a few minutes as if the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project was going to die a very quiet death.

Horton made a motion to return the money and postpone action on the morphed project, and Hale seconded.

After Mike McCleary, chairman of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of the project–the only person from the audience to address the Board–Davis asked for comment from the commissioners.

No one said a word.

Then Davis began a 4-and-a-half-minute presentation of his own, reading from comments he had prepared.

That spurred Luke, then Hale, then Horton, and then Daniell to respond.

They didn’t like Davis’ characterizations of their positions, and they didn’t like the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project.

They also pointed out the new project was not the top project even of Parker and Thomas.

It would not have been unusual at a BOC meeting for the commissioners to vote without discussion.

The pointed and unanimous disagreement with Davis is rare and informative. It is shown in its entirety in the video clip above. The whole discussion lasted just short of 14 minutes.

Davis has always been the driving force behind the project, though the commissioners did vote to go forward with the application to DCA, to add money to the project when the DCA grant came in at half the estimated cost, and to add even more money to the project when bids came in at twice the expected amount.

The turning point was the revelation late last year that the project was going to be of more value to the Gordy property than to Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

At the July 26 meeting, Davis had asked Theriault and County Finance Director Jeff Benko to find money to fund all three of the top projects on the Parker and Thomas list.

Theriault told the Board at the start of the discussion last night the county could find the money for all three. He didn’t explain that to the citizens in the audience.

At the end of the meeting, I asked Theriault and Benko for details.

They said the county can take the money for the Lampkin Branch upgrade from 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues and the money for the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I from unspent monies from the 2004 SPLOST.

The county already has the money for the Calls Creek upgrade on hand from sewer capacity fees paid by developers for future sewage capacity.

With the loss of the grant and federal funds, they said, the county now is $186,711 short of covering those expenses.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Heritage Park Trails To Be Closed for Mitigation Work for Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Project

Horse Droppings An Issue

Hikers, bikers and horseback riders will be barred from using the trails at Heritage Park in the south of the county beginning on Monday as the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board begins a $1 million stream restoration and preservation project at the park.

All trails in the park will be closed until construction work is completed, which will be in late November, if all goes to schedule.

Construction teams will put up plastic mesh fencing around all trail heads, John Gentry, director of parks and recreation for Oconee County, told me on Thursday, in an effort to keep people from using the wooded part of the park during the construction.

Hikers To Be Crossed Out Too

Gentry said the county considered partial closing of the trails but decided it was a “safety issue” and needed to keep people away from the heavy equipment and construction sites.

The pavilion and public space at the front of the park, on U.S. 441 south of Farmington, will remain open during the construction, Gentry said.

The Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department web site contained an announcement of the closing of the trails this past week, but I saw no signs at the park this morning announcing the closing.

Oconee County is contributing 28.8 percent of the funding for the Hard Labor Creek reservoir project, which amounts to just less than $300,000 of the total cost of $1,031,792 for the work at Heritage park.

The money comes from a $19.5 million bond the county sold in March of 2008.

Walton County is responsible for the remaining 71.2 percent of costs.

The stream restoration and preservation project is one of three connected with the HLC reservoir construction on land owned by Oconee County.

The HLC board has completed a $526,747 project at the county’s Rocky Branch Land Application System sewage treatment facility on Rocky Branch Road and a $476,371 project at Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road.

A fourth project in Oconee County is on 47 acres of land owned by the Walton County Water and Sewage Authority on the Apalachee River west of Lake Oconee Road and south of U.S. 78.

That project, to restore wetlands, cost $230,545 and is now complete.

The reservoir is to be created by a dam on Hard Labor Creek in southeastern Walton County and, when built, will flood and permanently destroy the creek, many of its tributaries and the wetlands surrounding these streams.

Naturally flowing streams and wetlands contribute to water purification and reuse.

For that reason, the federal government, which has jurisdiction over streams and wetlands in the U.S., requires, as part of the permitting process, that damage done to wetlands and streams must be mitigated by restoration of other streams and wetlands, usually in the same watershed.

The streams to be restored in Heritage Park are tributaries of the Apalachee River, which is a tributary of the Oconee River. Hard Labor Creek also is a tributary of the Apalachee River.

The streams on the LAS site and in Veterans Park are tributaries of Barber Creek, which feeds into McNutt Creek, the Middle Oconee River and then the Oconee River. The Apalachee also feeds into the Oconee River.

In total, Walton and Oconee counties are spending about $9 million to mitigate damages that will be done to streams and wetlands when they are flooded for the Hard Labor Creek reservoir.

As part of the restoration and preservation process for the streams in Heritage Park, the HLC management board and the county will put covenants on the land around the streams restricting future use.

Bikers and hikers still will be allowed to ford the streams in Heritage Park, but horses will not. As a result, all horse trail crossings will have to be bridged.

The goal is to keep horse droppings out of the creek, Gentry told me.

Those same covenants also are to be placed on the streams at the LAS site, but citizens do not have access to that facility.

The streams restored at Veterans Park are north of the developed area. They must remain protected in their current state in any future development of the park. (See slide show in column at right.)

Jimmy Parker, representing the management board, told the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on May 25, 2010, that the management board was going ahead with mitigation projects even though it does not have the money to actually build the reservoir.

All construction work on the reservoir is on hold because Walton and Oconee counties cannot afford to issue more bonds, given the current lack of demand for the water the reservoir will produce.

Parker, who works for PPI Inc. of Lawrenceville and serves as a consultant to the county as well as to the HLC management board, reminded the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night that the county will need to come up with $8.6 million as its share of the costs for dam construction.

Funds from the bonds already sold are being used largely to purchase the land that will be inundated by the reservoir and for the planning process, including for permitting and mitigation.

In a letter sent to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal in March, the Hard Labor Creek management board asked for $32 million in state money to build the dam.

The Georgia General Assembly earlier this year approved Gov. Deal’s request for $300 million in funding for reservoir projects in the wake of the ruling in July of 2009 by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson that Atlanta cannot continue to draw its drinking water from Lake Lanier.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling on June 28, and it is uncertain what impact the Appeals Court's decision will have on state funding for projects such as Hard Labor Creek.

The importance of state help with Hard Labor Creek construction was underscored by comments Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis made to a joint subcommittee of the state Water Supply Task Force on May 26 in Gainesville.

Those comments were reported on by The Gainesville Times on the day of the meeting and by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an article about the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir on June 5, but they did not receive attention in the media locally.

Davis, who is not a member of the reservoir management board but was a strong proponent of Oconee County’s joining Walton County on the project, gave a particularly negative forecast of the financial problems facing the county because of the reservoir.

A summary of those comments is available on the web site of the Water Supply Task Force.

Davis was an invited speaker before a Technology Subcommittee/Finance Subcommittee joint meeting of the Water Supply Task Force at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville.

According to the summary, Chairman Davis told the subcommittees that Oconee County has funded its participation in the project with Walton County through utility system revenue bonds, but “the county is now at its maximum capacity.”

“Commissioner Davis stressed that poor economic conditions have impacted local revenue projections and thus limited local government borrowing capacity,” according to the summary.

Without any water to sell from a reservoir, the counties have no way to pay off the $59 million in debt they already have assumed other than by increasing water and sewer rates on existing customers or taking the funds from general revenues of the counties.

Oconee County has increased water rates for the last three years. A new rate increase went into effect on July 1 of this year.

In the fiscal year that started on July 1, of every dollar paid by county water customers to the county, 12.5 cents will go to the Hard Labor Creek debt repayment.

In fact, until 2015, the county is only paying the interest on the $19.5 million the county has borrowed for the project. After that point, it is scheduled to start paying principal as well.

When the loan is repaid in 2038, the county will have paid $38.4 million in principal and interest.

If Judge Magnuson’s ruling had been upheld, water customers in metro-Atlanta would have been glad to have paid Walton and Oconee counties for their water. The Appeals Court decision overturning Magnuson is under appeal.

Davis expressed reservations at the May 26 meeting about state direct investment in and ownership of reservoirs such as HLC.

“Ownership may one day result in an unanticipated diversion of water, which could inhibit local economic growth,” he is quoted as saying.

Davis told the subcommittee that Oconee and Walton counties are “evaluating all available mechanisms” to get funding for the HLC project, according to the report.

The two counties even have considered a public-private partnership for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir and may further consider that mechanism in the future, Davis said, according to the report.

Gov. Deal directed the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to convene the Water Supply Task Force to advise GEFA on water issues. One of the Task Forces assignments is to identify reservoir sites in the state.

A dam will produce a lake, which, according to the HLC web site, will enhance the quality of life of local residents, who “will gain a valuable recreational asset.”

Parker reminded the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night, however, that Oconee County will have to find another $22.4 million as its share of costs of construction of a water treatment plant and transmission facilities to get water from the reservoir to county water lines.

The Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board has seven members, four from Walton County and three from Oconee.

Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke and Finance Director Jeff Benko are on the board, with Luke currently serving as board chairman.

Hank Huckaby, formerly the Oconee County representative in the Georgia House and now chancellor of the University System of Georgia, is the citizen representative.

Huckaby has told me on two occasions he plans to resign from the board, but the web site today still lists him as a member.

Huckaby was a strong proponent of the HLC project, and Chuck Williams, elected on July 19 in a special election to replace Huckaby, has said he will be as well.

I asked County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Gentry last week for access to the construction plans for the mitigation project at Heritage Park. Gentry was able to obtain an electronic set on Thursday from Precision Planning Inc. and give it to me.

I have selected out one of the maps and labeled it to provide a general overview of the trails and the work that will be done.

Gentry told me on Thursday that some bike and horse trails will have to be relocated out of the protected area around the streams once the streams are restored and designated for preservation.

Mike Riter, an expert on trails, will assist in that process, Gentry said.

Riter’s company, Trail Design Specialists of Snellville, provided the detailed maps of the bridges for the horse trails in the construction documents Gentry provided me.

Blount Construction Company Inc. of Marietta is the contractor for the Heritage Park project.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Controversial Sewer Project Back on Oconee County Commission Agenda

Can Last “Kicked” in March

The proposed Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project, which the Oconee County Board of Commissioners refused to approve in March, is back on the agenda for tomorrow night’s session.

The official agenda, released by County Clerk Gina Lindsey on Friday afternoon, lists the sixth item as a “Presentation of Water and Sewer Strategic Plan” by County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas and Jimmy Parker, who serves as a consultant to the county.

But County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told me in an email exchange this morning that the presentation will be followed by a discussion of the proposed sewer project.

Thomas, 1/29/2011

“The completion of the Waste Water discussion and your questions will be the segue into the discussion and decision on whether or not to move forward on the Zoom Bait/St. Mary's sewer line,” Theriault wrote to commissioners on Friday in an email message he shared with me this morning.

“This thing has been kicked down the road for quite some time, and we really need a definitive resolution (go or no-go), as there is still a pending grant sitting out there,” Theriault’s email to the commissioners said. “If you decide to go...we will re-bid the construction project...if you decide no-go...we notify DCA that the grant will be forfeited and declined.”

Theriault was referring to a $186,711 grant the county received nearly two years ago from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to cover part of the costs of the project.

The proposal is for a gravity-fed sewer line from Zoom Bait manufacturing plant and the St. Mary’s facility, both on Jennings Mill Road at McNutt Creek, to behind the Kohl’s store on Epps Bridge Parkway.

The sewer line would cross a piece of property owned by the Gordy family, but the value of the sewer line to that property was not discussed in the early deliberations about the project.

Total project cost has been estimated at approximately $800,000, or more than double the original projection.

On March 1, the BOC voted unanimously not to take any action on the proposed Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project. The commissioners did not rule out moving forward with the project at some point in the future, but they did not set any firm date to reconsider the sewer line.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who did not vote, spoke in favor of the project.

Work on the project would have to be completed by Oct. 5 of this year under conditions of the DCA grant unless the county were given an extension.

Theriault reminded the commissioners in his message on Friday that they had requested “prior to budget discussions” earlier this year a presentation of a water and sewer strategic plan.

Central to the discussions of the sewer line was an agreement between Oconee and Clarke counties for treatment of sewage from Oconee County by Clarke County. At present, St. Mary’s sewage is being treated in Clarke County under the agreement. Zoom Bait is on a septic system.

At several times during the discussion, commissioners had asked Thomas for precise figures on how much sewage Clarke County was handling for Oconee County and on how much of the agreed-upon treatment capacity of 25,000 gallons per day remained available. Thomas said he believed the county had used up all of its capacity.

In early February, I asked the county for a copy of the agreement between Clarke and Oconee counties spelling out the terms of the sewage treatment arrangements.

Theriault told me at that time that the county was trying to determine the status of the agreement and find a copy of the contract.

On May 18, Thomas told me that the county, through a series of meetings involving County Attorney Daniel Haygood and Clarke County officials, had identified the last contract between the two counties. Thomas provided me a copy of that contract at that time.

That contract had been agreed to on May 29 of 2003.

Thomas told me on May 18 that he and those involved in the discussion believe the contract expired in May of 2008.

“Everyone proceeded as if a contract is still in place,” Haygood told me in a telephone conversation this morning. “But really there hasn’t been anything happen since 2008 that made us ask what had happened if it expired,” he added.

Haygood said both Clarke and Oconee commissioners will have to approve a new agreement, but one issue is the matter of unused capacity.

Haygood said there is ambiguity in Oconee County records regarding how much capacity the county actually has allocated to potential future users.

Thomas wrote me in an email on May 18 that “The consensus of the individuals at the meeting was that of the original 25,000 gpd available, Oconee County had only used approximately 14,690 gpd.

“Based on our interpretation of the contracts, the 10,310 gpd remaining reverted back to ACC,” he wrote. ACC refers to Athens-Clarke County.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Oconee County’s Williams Raised More than $55,000 in Successful Race for Georgia House

Spent At Least $8 Per Vote

Chuck Williams, who last week won the runoff election for the open seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, proved to be a magnet for campaign funds in the weeks following the June 21 special election.

Williams, who will represent Oconee County and parts of three neighboring counties when the General Assembly meets next month, raised $41,046 during the four weeks between June 13, when he filed his first campaign finance statement, and July 15, when he filed his last statement.

Williams had raised $20,288 in the weeks before the June 13 statement, bringing his total for the campaign to $61,334.

That June figure included $5,908 that Williams lent himself for the campaign.

If the loan figure is removed from the total, the $55,426 Williams raised during the 10 weeks between his declaration of intent to accept campaign contributions on May 6 and July 15 compares with the $81,745 that Hank Huckaby raised during the longer period of roughly eight months from his April 21, 2010, filing of his declaration of intent to accept contributions and the end of that year.

Williams at candidate forum 6/30/2011

It also compares with the $90,360 that Bob Smith reported raising in nine months from March 31 of 2006 to the end of that year.

Huckaby and Smith raised about $10,000 per month, while Williams raised more than twice that amount.

Williams, Huckaby and Smith faced Democratic opposition in their elections, though Smith’s opponent in 2006, Becky Vaughn, was better known and better financed than the opposition faced by Williams or Huckaby.

In the just completed election, Williams got considerable help from people outside the four counties he will serve and particularly from elected officials. The district includes all of Oconee County and parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties.

Williams got $23,850 from the campaign funds of other politicians, including $2,500 from House Speaker David Ralston, $2,500 from Rep. Terry England of Winder, $1,000 from Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County, $500 from Huckaby, and $150 from Rep. Doug McKillip in Clarke County.

People, companies and organizations from outside the four counties that contribute voters to the 113 House District contributed $36,550 to Williams’ campaign, or 65.9 percent of the total funds he raised.

That included most of the political campaign committees, but also Rayonier Operating Company from Jacksonville and General Electric from Ft. Myers, Fla, each of which contributed $500.

Dan Matthews, Williams’ opponent last week, had raised $4,411, including a loan he made to his campaign of $100, according to his finance statement of July 13.

Suzy Compere did not report raising any campaign funds in her 2010 campaign against Huckaby.

Vaughn, who ran against Smith in 2006, reported raising $32,311 in her campaign in 2006.

Huckaby was elected to fill Smith’s spot in November of 2010 after Smith announced his retirement.

The special election was called by Gov. Nathan Deal on April 29 after Huckaby announced his resignation to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

In the time between May 6 and the first campaign finance report on June 13, the largest contributions Williams received were for $1,000.

He had received that amount from four sources: Calvin Thomas Griffith, founder of Golden Pantry who lives outside Watkinsville; Benson’s Inc., of Bogart; ForestPAC of the Georgia Forestry Association, and the Georgia Bankers Association Political Action Committee.

Larry Benson, bakery and hotel owner, served as campaign treasurer for Williams.

Williams is a tree farmer and a member of the Georgia Forestry Association and was appointed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue to the Georgia Forestry Commission's Board of Directors

He also was founder of North Georgia Bank, which failed earlier this year, and chairman of the Georgia Bankers Association.

Williams actually filed two campaign statements on July 15. The first was filed that morning and was an amendment to the June 13 filing. It listed the same amount raised as the June 13 report.

I referenced that report in a blog I filed late in the afternoon of July 15.

But at 4:56 p.m. on that date, according to the electronic records at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, Williams filed a second report, listing the additional contributions of $41,046.

This filing listed four contributions of $2,000 each, two of $1,500, and 11 of $1,000.

All of the $2,000 contributions were from campaign funds of politicians. These were the Larry O’Neal Campaign Fund of Warner Robins, the Committee to Elect R.M. Channell of Greensboro, the Ralston for Representative Committee of Blue Ridge, and of Friends of Jan Jones of Alpharetta.

Ralston is House Speaker. O’Neal, Channel and Jones are members of the House.

Ralston for Representative Committee also made a contribution of $500, for a total of $2,500.

Huckaby for State House, former representative Huckaby’s campaign committee, made two contributions of $250 each.

England made two contributions, one for $1,500 and another for $1,000.

Williams received a total of 32 contributions from committees of politicians, all of them after he had defeated fellow Republicans Alan Alexander and Sarah Bell in the June 21 first round of voting.

Williams received 77, or 49.7 percent, of his 155 contributions from outside the four counties that contribute voters to the 113th District.

I classified contributions based on ZIP code. ZIP codes not registered for Clarke, Morgan, Oconee or Oglethorpe counties were considered to be outside the district.

In the second July 15 report, Williams indicated he had spent $26,474 on the campaign and had the remaining $34,860 in reserve. Almost all of the spending was for signs and other advertising.

Matthews, in his July 13 report, indicated that he had spent $2,805 and had $1,605 in reserve. His spending also was mostly for signs and advertising.

Based on these amounts, Williams spent $8.41 for each of the 3,149 votes he received in the crucial runoff on July 19, and Matthews spent $1.48 for each of his 1,897.

Both candidates will have to file reports at the end of this year indicating how much additional money they received and their final spending figures.

They also will have to explain if they have paid themselves back for the loans they made to their campaigns.

Almost certainly, Williams will have funds remaining for his future political ambitions or to help other candidates with theirs.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Democrat Matthews Ran Stronger in Runoff for Georgia House Seat Than in First Round of Voting

Turnout High in Clarke

Democrat Dan Matthews, in his unsuccessful bid yesterday to represent Oconee County and the rest of the 113th District in the Georgia General Assembly, outperformed his June 21 record by nearly 11 percentage points.

His 37.6 percent of the vote was only a bit lower than the 38.9 percent that Democrat Becky Vaughn achieved against incumbent Republican Bob Smith in 2006 and 10 points ahead of what Democrat Suzy Compere did against Republican Hank Huckaby in November of 2010.

Compere, who did almost no campaigning, got 27.5 percent of the vote. Matthews got 26.7 percent of the vote in June.

Matthews at June 30 Forum

Matthews made his stronger showing yesterday while running against a single Republican who made party a central issue rather than against three Republicans fighting among themselves.

Republican Chuck Williams won handily, with 62.4 percent of the vote, and it is hard to imagine what circumstances might have brought about a Democratic victory in a district with a strong Republican voting history.

Matthews’ gain during the second phase of the campaign suggests, however, that at least some people were paying attention to the campaign and not merely selecting the name on the touch screen based on party labels.

Voter turnout was higher in all four counties in yesterday’s runoff than it was in the June 21 first round of the special election, but the gains were greater in Clarke County than in Oconee.

Oconee County contributed a smaller percentage (67.1) to the votes yesterday than it did on June 21 (68.9).

Matthews actually did better yesterday in Oconee County and worse in Clarke County in a two-way race with Williams than he did in June. Sarah Bell and Alan Alexander, both Republicans, were on the ballot in June.

In June, Matthews got 28.4 percent of the votes cast for either him or Williams in Oconee County. Yesterday, Matthews got 30.0 percent of the vote in Oconee County.

As was true in the June 21 election, Matthews ran best in the City Hall precinct of Watkinsville. Matthews lives in Watkinsville, but in the Annex precinct. Williams ran best in both elections in his home precinct of Antioch, in the southern part of the county.

In June, Matthews got 77.5 percent of the votes cast for either him or Williams in Clarke County. Yesterday, Matthews got 61.1 percent of the vote in Clarke County.

Matthews got 28.0 percent of the vote in Morgan County yesterday and 41.2 percent of the vote in Oglethorpe.

All of Oconee County is in the 113th District, while only parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties fall in the district.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Candidates in Oconee County’s Georgia House District 113th Race Differ on Issues and in Style

And in Likely Longevity

It seems almost certain that only a small percentage of the 35,750 eligible voters will cast ballots in the July 19 runoff election for the open seat in Georgia House District 113.

Of those who do vote, most are likely to use party to help them pick between the two candidates.

That suggests that Republican Chuck Williams will be representing Oconee County and parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties in Atlanta at the special session next month.

No doubt at least some, perhaps small, number of voters will not use party labels to decide between Williams and Democrat Dan Matthews and will rely instead on what the candidates have said and done during the campaign.

These voters will have much to ponder.

In the three campaign forums and in interviews the two candidates have given during the campaign, neither has followed traditional ideological lines.

The two have agreed on many issues and differed on others.

And the two candidates have shown they are different in style and background.

Williams has said in an interview he did with 1340 WGAU radio newsman Tim Bryant on May 4, when he was the only declared candidate, that he would not pledge not to raise taxes if elected. Bryant had not even asked him about such a pledge.

“I am intending to avoid during this campaign and after I take office falling into that trap of making unequivocal statements, signing pledges or what not, for no new taxes, because I do subscribe to the Republican theory of minimal government, minimal taxes, but the fact is this state and any governmental entity has got to have adequate revenue to function,” Williams said.

Matthews did take such a pledge on taxes, saying in his closing comments at the candidate forum on June 30 that he “will say no” to raising taxes and fees.

On the social issue of abortion, the two candidates have taken very similar stands.

Both said they are pro-life, but both also said they would not restrict a woman’s choice.

“I don’t think abortion should be used as birth control,” Matthews said at the June 30 forum. But he said he would not tell women what to do on the issue.

“I also have a problem with telling women what to do,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, I’m pro-life. I believe that abortion is something that is not good, is not proper.”

Matthews says he would have voted against House Bill 87, which critics and supporters alike say takes a strong stand against illegal immigration. He said it is hurting businesses in Georgia, particularly agriculture.

Williams said he would have supported it “reluctantly.” At the June 30 forum, however, he gave a nuanced answer about his support.

“We all want fruits and vegetables on the store shelves when we go. When we stay at a hotel, we want our rooms cleaned, but yet we bemoan the fact that illegal immigrants are putting a big burden on our health care system, on our criminal justice system, and on our schools.”

Both said they are supportive of Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, which Oconee County wants to build with Walton County and for which the two counties are seeking state support.

Matthews said finding funding to finance the Georgia Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission was not a priority.

“I am not going to commit to do that because I don’t think we have the money to do that,” he said at the June 30 forum.

Williams said he would support finding funding for the Commission.

“We’ve just got to find a way to do it,” Williams said.

Williams also wants stronger, not less, government involvement in banking regulation, and said as a legislator he would work to strengthen the State Department of Banking and Finance.

“In times of adversity, banks need a strong regulator,” he said in his May 4 interview with Bryant.

In the June 8 candidate forum, Matthews said “I wouldn’t want the government in the state of Georgia telling people and telling banks how to do their business.”

Williams reminded Matthews and the audience that the state of Georgia already does regulate banks.

Williams has described himself, at least by inference, as a “social moderate and fiscal conservative.”

Matthews has described himself as a “libertarian Democrat.”

Matthews and Williams have had to deal with their histories during the campaign.

Williams has spent much time explaining his role as founder and president of North Georgia Bank, which failed in February.

He was asked about the issue at all three candidate forums.

Williams presided over the failure of a bank he started and helped in the transition to a new bank owner. He walked away with, by his own admission to Tim Bryant in an interview on July 6, at least a million dollars in loss.

Despite these setbacks, Williams had enough confidence in himself to come out of retirement as a tree farmer and say that his experiences with the bank qualified him to represent the county and rest of the district in Atlanta and help the state of Georgia manage its financial crisis.

“I learned lessons that I will take to Atlanta and I will use as we try to help Georgia work through similar problems,” Williams said at the June 30 candidate forum at the Civic Center.

Banks that fail usually make bad loans, that is, loans to people who cannot repay them. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sold most of the North Georgia loans to BankSouth, but the FDIC expects to share in losses from them.

Williams said at that forum that North Georgia’s loan portfolio was “weighted toward residential and development construction money.” When the local residential market collapsed, so did his bank.

Williams reminded the audience his bank was making loans in a period in which lenders were promoting “innovative mortgage products.”

Williams said as the CEO of North Georgia bank “I obviously accept responsibility for everything that occurred at our bank.” But he said he wanted that to include ”not only the problems but the good things we did,” such as supporting local charities.

Matthews has had to distance himself from his history as a partisan, liberal blogger

At the June 30 candidate forum, Bryant, who served as moderator, asked Matthews if he had any second thoughts about a blog he had written at the time former Congressman Charles Norwood was dying of cancer.

Matthews said he could not remember the blog.

The message in the blog isn’t very clear, but it certainly is possible to read it as insensitive to Norwood, as the questioner in the audience at the forum did.

Bryant returned to the blog when he interviewed Matthews on July 5, and at this time Matthews was more contrite.

He said he had gone back and reread the blog.

“In five years, I’ve changed. In five years, my father passed away and died,” Matthews said.

“Yes, what I said in 2005 and wrote in my blog was inartful,” he added.”It was probably poorly written, and I’m sorry if I scorched the ears of anyone.”

Williams is the ultimate insider, and he has emphasized that in the forums.

He has served on local and state governmental boards and has ties to former Gov. Sonny Perdue and current Gov. Nathan Deal. He is the darling of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, in which he has been active.

Ed Perkins, active in the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, is his campaign chairman, according to records he filed with the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Committee.

Larry Benson, president of Benson Bakery of Bogart and local hotel owner, is his campaign treasurer.

Dan Matthews’ most prominent role has been as chairman of the Oconee County Democratic Party, a decidedly low-key activity in the strongly Republican county.

His filing papers list only himself.

In an amended campaign finance statement filed on Wednesday, Matthews reporting raising only $4,411, including a loan of $100 he made to his campaign. He had $1,605 on hand to spend.

Williams reported in an amended statement he filed this morning that he had raised $20,228, including a loan of $5,908 he made to himself. He had $12,885 on hand to spend.

Matthews is an office manager working with two attorneys in Athens.

During the campaign, Matthews has discussed his personal life openly. He has said repeatedly he is a single father, and he brings his son with him to political events.

Williams has been reserved, saying little about his personal life.

Matthews wore a suit to all three candidate forums, but he didn’t look very comfortable in the suit. He never has had the tie pulled tight.

Williams dressed for each in banker dark blue suits and jackets.

Williams speaks slowly in a clear, southern drawn. He weighs his words, showing little sign of emotion. He hedges on many of the issues, saying he needs time to gather more information and think about them.

Matthews speaks loudly in an accent that reflects his Iowa roots. His sentences meander and are often hard to follow. He appears to feel compelled to have a stance on every issue.

The closing statements the two candidates gave at the June 30 candidate forum illustrate those stylistic differences.

Williams has said that an advantage to electing him is that he will be effective, given his connections.

Matthews says he will listen to different points of view. In a written response to a question from Oconee Patch, he said he would use his expertise in social media to make himself an effective communicator with his constituents.

No Democratic candidate has done well in the 113th District as currently configured. Democrat Becky Vaughn got 38.9 percent of the vote in her race against incumbent Bob Smith in 2006, and Suzy Compere got 27.5 percent of the vote in the November 2010 race against Hank Huckaby.

Huckaby entered the race when Smith announced he would not seek reelection and then resigned in April to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

Matthews got 26.7 percent of the votes in the June 21 first round of the special election. He was running against Republicans Williams, Alan Alexander and Sarah Bell. Williams got 38.8 percent.

But only 3,923, or 11.0 percent, of the active voters turned out. That figure was 12.7 percent in Oconee County.

As of the end of the day today, 1,005 voters cast ballots in early voting in Oconee County, according to Carole Amos from the election office. That compares with the 775 who voted in early voting for the June 21 election.

Early voting ended at 5 p.m. today.

Oconee County voters make up 59.7 percent of the 35,750 registered voters in the 113th district.

The early voting figures suggests turnout in the runoff could be higher than in the June 21 election. It also is possible that simply a larger number of persons used early voting in the middle of the summer.

To be successful, Matthews needs to energize his base but also reach out to those who are willing to consider voting for someone who is not running as a Republican.

His seeming attack on Norris has not helped, but he also said he did not agree with 10th District Congressman Paul Broun in the second debate and made an unsolicited criticism of the Republican Party in his interview on July 5 with Tim Bryant.

“I think there are a lot of problems with the economy,” he said. “It seems to me the Georgia Republican Party has kind of become the party of uncertainty in the state of Georgia in the way that business has been done.”

Williams can afford to be more partisan, as he needs to make sure people who normally vote Republican go to the polls.

With Bell, who positioned herself as the most conservative candidate in the June 21 first round, out of the race, Williams does need to make sure that the conservative base is motivated to come to the polls on Tuesday.

If Williams were to be elected and wants to stay in the job, he probably would be very difficult to defeat next time around. As part of the majority, he could help create a district, using his southern Oconee County base, that would almost guarantee that.

Williams has hedged on whether he would support a change in the district that would see Oconee County split between districts. The legislature will take up redistricting when it meets next month.

In the July 6 interview with Bryant, Williams said simply “Everything is up for discussion at this point.”

Matthews, as a Democrat, probably would find it difficult to hold his position in 2012.

As a member of the minority party, he would have little influence on how the districts will be drawn.

Matthews could easily be put into a district with someone likely to defeat him when he comes up for reelection.


Readers caught two typos, which I corrected in this version. I also made an error in the number of early voters in Oconee County in the June 21 election and have corrected that. I thank the readers for pointing out the typos and apologize for the errors.


Almost all of what I have written above comes from three sources:

*The three candidate forums. Video from each is at the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

*The four interviews 1340 WGAU radio journalist Tim Bryant did on these dates:

May 4 with Williams

May 19 with Matthews

July 5 with Matthews

July 6 with Williams

All are available in the archives of 1340 WGAU.

*Written comments the two candidates gave to Oconee Patch in response to submitted questions.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Continues Discussion of Courthouse Annex Purchase

Topic of Executive Session

Negotiations between Oconee County and the owners of the land and two buildings housing the Courthouse Annex are progressing, and County Attorney Daniel Haygood said last night he expects the issue to come before the public and the Board of Commissioners relatively soon.

The commissioners went into a 15-minute executive session after its regular open meeting last night.

Haygood told me at the end of the session that he had briefed the commissioners in the executive session on his negotiations with the owners of the property.

The land and two buildings are owned by 22 North Main LLC. The property is located at 22 N. Main St. across from the courthouse.

Ray B. Burruss Jr. of Athens is listed as the agent in the county tax records. According to those records, the current owner acquired the property from Elizabeth Dolvin in 2005. The property is commonly referred to as the “Dolvin property.”

Haygood said the purchase price remains $1 million, and that the offer for continued lease of the land is likely to be at a slightly lower rate than the current lease rate.

According to Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the county, the current lease requires the county to pay $6,942.60 per month, or $83,311.20 per year, for the two buildings.

Haygood and Theriault said that all discussions about purchase of the property have been handled by Haygood.

I asked Theriault on July 1 for a copy of written correspondence regarding the offer from the courthouse annex property owners.

Theriault told me at the beginning of last night’s regular meeting that the only written documents he had discovered on the matter are covered by attorney-client privilege and cannot be released without approval of Haygood.

Haygood said after the meeting and executive session he is “getting close” to being able to release details of the negotiations.

The Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee reviewed the possible purchase of the courthouse annex property at its June 14 meeting. Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan reported on that review to the BOC on June 28.

The Committee voted to recommend that the Board go forward with the purchase.

After Abouhamdan made his report, however, no member of the BOC spoke, and no indication was given of the timetable for a decision.

Theriault told me on July 1 that he did not know when the BOC would take up the matter again.

“I have gotten no indication one way or the other on what happens next,” he said.

Haygood asked for the executive session last night.

The Board began exploring possible purchase of the property during budget discussions this year as a way of saving the county money.

The county has unspent money in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds that it could use for purchase of the property, and, by owning the property, the county could save the cost of the lease.

Two citizens, Pam Hendrix and Mike Power, spoke strongly against that purchase at the June 28 meeting. Hendrix was a candidate for Superior Court Judge in the November election. Power is a local businessman and property owner.

Several members of the LUTPC had expressed concerns about citizen reaction to the purchase at the June 14 meeting, but Abouhamdan did not raise those concerns in his report to the commissioners.

“Even though we’ve got these SPLOST funds available to us that we can basically write a check, how easy is this going to be to explain to John Q. Taxpayer that we are spending $1 million while everybody else in the county is cutting budgets?” Shane Carson asked.

Abouhamdan also misstated the size of the property and the assessed value in his presentation to the Board of Commissioners.

The property is approximately 0.6 acre, according to records county Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost gave to the land use committee.

County Chief Appraiser Allen Skinner told the committee at the beginning of the June 14 Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting, which Abouhamdan chaired, the assessed value of the property. It also is listed on the tax records as $662,491.

Abouhamdan also misstated the vote at the June 14 meeting.

“We had 14 members and we had a unanimous vote,” he told the commissioners.

The minutes of the meeting indicate that only nine members were present.

The BOC must make any decision about purchase of the property in an open meeting. It could take such a vote in an open meeting at the end of an executive session, but the Board usually puts these matters on the agenda of regular meetings.

The BOC is scheduled to meet in an agenda setting session on July 26. The next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 2.

Agendas usually are released to the public a few days before the meetings.


The full video of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting of June 14 is available on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Oconee County’s Campbell Center Gets New Leadership While It Awaits Final Decision on Future

Focus Remains on Land

The J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center on Experiment Station Road outside Watkinsville begins the week under new leadership.

Dwight Fisher took early retirement on Saturday, ending his two-year term as research leader and his 14 years as a scientist at the 1,100-acre federal Agriculture Research Service (ARS) site.

Deborah Brennan, area director for ARS based at the Richard B. Russell Agricultural Research Center on College Station Road in Athens, will assume the position of acting research leader on Tuesday.

Dwight Fisher, 6/30/2011

Fisher is the first of the six research scientists and 19 technical support staff at the Campbell Center to leave as the Center approaches the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30 and its near-certain closing.

Under conditions of the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, passed by the House on June 16, funding for the Center would end with the current fiscal year and the farmland in Oconee County would be made available to the University of Georgia for continued agricultural research purposes. The bill is now before the Senate.

The University has expressed an interest in taking over the property.

President Barack Obama had not included the $2.9 million for the Campbell Center in the budget he submitted to Congress for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

The Agriculture Appropriations Bill approved by the House cut $7 billion from Obama’s request. The remaining $125.5 billion in funding includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under which ARS falls.

The Agriculture Appropriations Bill passed the House by a vote of 217-203, with all Democrats and 19 Republicans voting against it. Paul Broun, representing Oconee County in Congress, was one of the Republican who voted against the bill.

Rep. Brown had called for even deeper cuts in agriculture funding.

On May 27 the University of Georgia officially posted notice that it was seeking bidders for its 522-acre Plant Sciences Farm on Hog Mountain Road across from North Oconee High School.

Two bids were received by the June 27 deadline, for $11,440,000 from Townley Family Partnership LLP and $522,000 from Richard H. Garrett Jr.

Townley Family Partnership lists its address as 4601 Hog Mountain Road, while Garrett lists his address as 1050 Planter’s Trail, Bogart.

Tony and Elizabeth Townley own the land east of and abutting the Plant Sciences Farm that is listed in the county tax records with the 4601 Hog Mountain Road address.

Tony Townley is one of the founders of Zaxby’s and currently its chief financial officer.

J.H. Dorsey, director of real estate and space management at the University of Georgia, told me on Friday that the university, consistent with state law, would not release the actual bids until a decision by the university had been made. He said he expected that decision to be made later this month.

Fisher said when I talked to him on Thursday afternoon that he had not known until February that the Campbell Center had been targeted for elimination. Fisher said he advised those under him of the likelihood the Campbell Center would be closed at that time.

All staff will be offered alternative assignments if the Center does close, Fisher said, but the assignments can be almost anywhere in the country.

Fisher, 57, was among those offered early retirement, and he opted to accept it.

Fisher said he had to decide whether to stay on at the Center to see it through the almost certain closing or turn to other things immediately.

“The executive branch says close it. The House (of Representatives) says close it. The idea that the Senate will disagree is really slim,” Fisher said. “For me it is time to go write papers.”

He said he will use the time to work with collaborators writing up results of the research he has completed at the Campbell Center.

An expert in grazing systems and forage utilization, Fisher earned his doctorate in 1985 in crop science and biomath at North Carolina State University. He lives in Athens.

Fisher came to the Campbell Center in July of 1997.

The Campbell Center consists of four separate tracts of land, and Fisher took me on a tour of all of them except the South Unit when we met on Thursday.

Our first stop, given my expressed interest in the topic, was a 6-acre plot of land on Hog Mountain Road across from the University of Georgia Horticulture Farm. This is part of the North Unit.


The plot, Fisher said, is designated P1, and is internationally famous. It has not been plowed since 1974, and, through a “double crop-no till” practice, the scientists at the Campbell Center have turned what was depleted red soil to fertile black land.

People come from all over the world to see the plot, according to Fisher.

“If they are interested in sustainable agriculture and conservation tillage, they will stop to see it,” he said.

The Campbell Center was started on Jan. 1, 1937, to conduct research and develop procedures to deal with soil erosion, which plagued the area, state and region.

One of the great values of the Campbell Center is that it has detailed research records going back to that time on many of the fields on the farms, according to Fisher.

The Center’s land also is dotted with research infrastructure, such as sampling wells, flumes with water flow measuring devices, refrigerators for storing water samples and solar panels to power these devices.

Fisher said there is no way to really assess the value of these facilities and resources.

The Center’s 500 head of cattle technically already are owned by the University of Georgia.

“Everybody here is focused on taking care of the land until they hand it to somebody else,” he said.

Fisher said on Thursday that he will miss “the land and the people” once he has walked away from the Center.

“We have some close relations here. It is almost like a family.”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Georgia House District 113 Candidates Respond to Questions on Banks, Blogs and Oconee County Land Purchases

More Questions Than Time

About 60 people listened for an hour tonight as candidates Dan Matthews and Chuck Williams, seeking to represent Oconee County and parts of three neighboring counties in the Georgia House of Representatives, answered questions on a variety of issues tossed at them by moderator Tim Bryant.

Most of the questions had been covered in previous meetings of the two candidates, but a few were new and some had slightly different angles.

Williams, former president of North Georgia Bank, which failed earlier this year, said in response to the first question posed to him by Bryant that he “accepted responsibility for everything that occurred at the bank.”

But he said the bank failed because it was tied to the local residential building industry, and other banks in similar communities also failed.

Matthews responded that Oconee State Bank, in the same market, had not failed and that North Georgia Bank had been warned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation of problems before the failure.

Matthews was asked to defend comments he has made on his political blog, where, according to the questioner, he often “is an outspoken critic” of those who don’t share his view.

The questioner said Matthews “crossed the line” in writing about the late Congressman Charles Norwood.

Matthews said he didn’t remember the comment but would look for it on his blog. Williams said he had a lot of respect for Norwood.

Williams was asked to explain the circumstances surrounding sale of family property in Watkinsville to the Oconee County Board of Education.

Williams said it was a simple transaction that involved no special favors. Matthews congratulated Williams on the profit he had made on the sale.

Matthews and Williams are the survivors of the June 21 special election called to replace Hank Huckaby, who resigned as representative to assume the position of chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

The two were the top voters getters in the field of four candidates in that race. Since no candidate got a majority of the votes cast, voters are being asked to return to the polls to select between them.

Matthews is running as a Democrat, while Williams is running as a Republican.

The district, made up of all of Oconee County and parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties, has a record of electing Republican candidates.

The forum tonight was sponsored by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce.

Bryant, a newsman for 1340 WGAU and FM 103.7, was asked by the Chamber to select from questions posed in advance from the audience and to him via email prior to the program.

Bryant began the session saying he had more questions than the candidates would have time to answer in the one hour allowed for the event.

The forum was broadcast live of WGAU and FM 103.7.

The full video of the forum is below:

Candidate Forum June 30, 2011 from Lee Becker on Vimeo.