Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oconee County Farmers Market Board Anxious to Launch 2011 Season

First Street Available

The Board of Directors of Oconee County’s Farmers Market, ready to launch the 2011 season, chose a new president tonight, decided to meet with vendors next month, and agreed to move forward with an application for grant money to hire a full-time manager.

Last year’s market launched on May 8, and the Board is considering an even earlier start date for this year, if vendors indicate at the meeting in February that they will have things to sell in late April or early May.

Last year (below) the market, held on Saturdays, remained open until the end of October.

Russ Page, one of the original organizers of the Farmers Market, told the Board that Watkinsville has agreed to close First Street behind Eagle Tavern to allow new vendors to join the market.

The Board had discussed moving out of Watkinsville because the market has expanded and the space available behind the Tavern no longer is adequate.

The market launched in 2004 in the front yard of Eagle Tavern but moved to the rear of the Tavern in 2009 to allow for more vendors and because the county sodded the grass in front of the historic tavern.

Page was selected as president of the Board of Directors at the meeting tonight, replacing Karl Berg, who has decided to step away from his work on the Market. Cindy Norris was selected to be vice president, and Debbie Beese and Jamie Swedberg were selected again as treasurer and secretary, respectively.

Other members of the Board are Amy Shane, Tim Walker and I. The Board did not have an official vice president before the meeting tonight.

Beese told the Board , meeting at her house outside Watkinsville, that the organization has grown enough that “we need a full-time market manager.”

The group agreed to make an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for grant funds for that purpose. If successful, Oconee Farmers Market would hire someone for six or seven months to take on that task.

In the meantime, the Board members agreed to spread responsibilities of a manager among themselves.

The Board also agreed to move forward with new signage for the market and to explore various promotional and marketing strategies.

Included is the possibility of T-shirts and tote bags that would carry a marketing message for the market.

The Farmers Market is a nonprofit organization, and vendors pay 5 percent of their sales to support its work.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Finance Reports for Georgia House Candidates in 113th District List Spending But Don’t Identify Source of Negative Ad

Mystery of the Third Videographer?

The candidates seeking in 2010 to represent Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives spent a total of $93,244, according to campaign finance statements filed with the state Ethics Commission late last year and earlier this month.

That is $26,476 less than Bob Smith and Becky Vaughn spent in the 2006 campaign, the last time the 113th House District race was contested.

The vast majority of the money spent by the candidates was for advertising of one form or another.

The second largest expense was for campaign consultants.

The records provide only a broad overview of campaign spending in the 2010 campaign. They indicate that money went to a particular consultant or marketing firm, but they usually do not indicate what the consultant or marketing firm actually did for the candidate.

One thing they do not show is who was responsible for the most negative element of the 2010 campaign: the automated telephone calls and web site launched at the end of the July Republican primary attacking successful candidate Hank Huckaby.

The telephone calls and the web site contained grossly misleading information about a statement Huckaby had made in the June 3 candidate forum sponsored by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce.

Neither the telephone message nor the web site indicated who was responsible, and state law does not require such disclosure.

Among the three Republicans, Huckaby, Kirk Shook and Tommy Malcom, Huckaby spent the most in his campaign. The total figure, according to his Dec. 31, 2010, Campaign Contributions Disclosure Report, was $71,594. Huckaby filed that report on Jan. 7, 2011.

Shook spent $13,099, according to his final report, filed on Dec. 31, while and Malcom spent $8,551. Malcom filed his December report on Jan. 1, 2011.

All reports are available for review on the web site of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Committee, formerly known as the State Ethics Commission.

Huckaby and Malcom are from Oconee County, while Shook is from Crawford in Oglethorpe County.

Democratic candidate Suzy Compere, from Bostwick in Morgan County, did not file the required campaign financial statements for September, October and December.

In June, when Compere filed her sole statement, she indicated she had neither raised nor spent any money. She was required by law to include the $400 filing fee in her June campaign report but did not.

She also is required by law to file a statement for the three campaign periods she missed and can be fined for not doing so.

I removed from the total of $93,244 in spending in 2010 a $50,000 loan that Huckaby made to his campaign and repaid, as well as a $2,500 loan that Shook made to his campaign and then repaid and $500 that Malcolm made to his campaign and repaid.

If those figure are left in, the spending for the campaign was $146,244.

Malcom actually lent his campaign $6,819 and raised $1,732 in outside money. At the end of his campaign, he showed a balance of zero.

Shook lent his campaign $5,000 and raised $13,099. His final report shows no reserves.

Huckaby raised $81,745 independent of his loan to his campaign of $50,000. He ended the campaign with $10,151 in reserves.

The comparison of the $93,244 in spending in 2010 with the $119,720 spent by Smith and Vaughn in 2006 is not affected by the removal of the loans from the calculations. Neither Smith nor Vaughn lent money to their campaigns in 2006.

Smith, first elected to the House in 1998, retired after the 2010 session, resulting in the three-way primary contest in 2010.

Malcom spent $6,569 in various forms of advertising, including for yard signs, newspaper advertisements and direct mailing costs. These calculations come from the classification by Malcom himself of expenses of more than $100 per item.

State law requires candidates to list each expense of more than $100.

The advertising expenses made up 90 percent of the itemized expenses Malcom reported.

Malcom did not use a consultant.

Shook spent $8,628 on various forms of advertising, or 68 percent of his itemized expenses.

Shook spent $3,000 on consulting from Landmark Communications, a Duluth political consulting firm. In fact, Shook paid Landmark for much of his advertising, so the actual amount of money that Shook lists as spending with Landmark was $9,659, or 77 percent of his total itemized campaign spending.

Smith used Landmark as consultant in 2006 and 2008, according to his campaign finance reports for those years.

According to Huckaby’s campaign reports, he spent $49,438 on advertising, which amounted to 83 percent of his itemized spending.

Huckaby indicates he spent $10,600 on his consultant, The Brand, of Grayson, or 15 percent of his total itemized spending.

Huckaby also lists other campaign services companies, including The Stoneridge Group of Buford and Brasstown Strategies of Young Harris, on his itemized expenditure sheet.

Huckaby chose to respond to the attack telephone campaign, Hank Likes Taxes, with his own rebuttal, though the itemized expenses do not provide enough detail to indicate who provided the service or how much it cost.

The attack campaign used both a computerized autodialer and a computer-delivered pre-recorded message to accuse Huckaby of “liking taxes.” Such a call is referred to as a "robo call" on the grounds it resembles a telephone call by a robot.

The telephone call directed voters to a web site,, and that site mentioned Shook favorably by name. It said that Shook had challenged Huckaby on his record on abortion.

Shook and his campaign consultant, Gabriel Sterling, told me they did not have any responsibility for or advance knowledge of the robo calls or the creation of the web site.

Nothing in Shook’s campaign finance report gives any indication that he was connected to the call or the web site.

I was among those who received the automated telephone call. I was not at home, but my answering maching recorded the message at 4:59 p.m. on July 15, the last Thursday before the July 20 primary election.

The message said that Huckaby was not a conservative and played an audio clip of Huckaby saying “I won’t say that I will never raise taxes.”

I called Shook on his mobile phone while he was vacationing in Florida on July 28, and he said the first he knew of the robo call was on July 15, when the campaign was launched.

“I didn’t buy any robo calls,” he said. “I don’t like them anyway. I was as shocked as anybody else.”

He said he has no connection to the web site or the robo calls and did not have any idea who was responsible for them.

I talked by telephone in early August with Sterling, Shook’s campaign consultant, who is vice president of Landmark Communications.

Sterling said Landmark was not in any way connected with the robo call and he did not have any idea it was in the works until after it had been done.

“If we want to attack somebody, we just attack,” he said.

Stacey Kalberman, executive secretary of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, told me that there is nothing in Georgia law that requires identification of the source of advertisements, which would include the robo call and the web site.

The robo call used an audio clip from the June 3 Oconee County Chamber of Commerce campaign forum, and the web site used a video image from that same meeting.

Zoe Gattie, manager of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, told me that only two people were video recording the meeting.

One of them was Sarah Bell, an Oconee County citizen, who was using my video camera.

I compared the image on the web site with the image recorded by Bell with my camera. I had uploaded that image to my Vimeo site, so it could have been used by the creator of the robo call and the web site.

Examination of the two images shows that the web image from was shot from a slightly different angle than the image on the video recorded with my camera by Bell.

Gattie told me that she thought Oconee County Republican Party Chairman Jay Hanley would know who the other videographer was.

Hanley told me that Shook had arranged for someone to video record the Chamber forum.

I contacted Shook on Aug. 13, and he told me that Justin Melick of Kennesaw shot the video for him.

“Ours wasn’t very good,” Shook said. Shook said he wanted to use video from the Chamber forum on his own web site,

Shook said a third person also was video recording but that he never was able to find the third videographer.

Bell told me she also thought a third person was taking pictures, probably video, during at least some parts of the meeting.

Bell, who is active in the Oconee County Republican Party and knows Shook, said Shook never contacted her and asked to use her video.

Shook gave me a telephone number for Melick, and I spoke with him on Aug. 13.

Melick said he had the video. “I did it as a favor for Kirk,” he said.

He said the video was recorded in high definition and that it was long and in a format that made it difficult to share. He said he would convert it for me and let me know when it was available.

He also gave me an email address.

I tried to reach him repeatedly by phone and by email for the next several weeks. He never took the calls or answered the email.

On Aug. 30 I used my wife’s cell phone to call, and Melick answered. He said he was still working on the video.

“I had to try to figure out a way to get the format where we can somehow get the size that we can work with,” he said. “I’m not having any luck. It is so huge. It might be another few days before I can come up with something.”

Melick confirmed that the email address he gave me was correct and that he had been receiving my voice and email messages.

I sent him another email message the following day and he confirmed receipt by email.

I sent Melick another email message on Sept. 19. I have never heard any more from him.

I searched for Melick on the web using the email address he gave me and found a Facebook page on which a Justin Melick lists his “affiliation” as with Justin Melick Film Productions.

The Melick Facebook page links to two YouTube videos, one listed as being shot on Dec. 22 of 2010 and the other with a date of Feb. 3, 2010. The second is called a Justin Melick film.

An analysis of the video of the June 3 candidate forum shows the gross simplification and distortion that the robo call and web site presented.

WGAU newsman Tim Bryant moderated the Chamber Forum on June 3 and asked the question that became the springboard for the Hank Likes Taxes attack.

At the session, Bryant said he was having trouble reading the question, which he said was written by someone with handwriting worse than his own.

The question was presented as from the audience, which contained supporters of the candidates as well as their staffs.

Bryant asked: “Have you signed a pledge not to raise taxes?”

Shook got the question first, and he said he had signed the no tax pledge.

Democrat Compere was second, and she said she had not signed the pledge.

Malcom, next up, also said he had not signed the pledge but he was opposed to tax increases.

Huckaby was next, and he said that in a recession “We’re not going to raise taxes. That would be counterproductive.”

But Huckaby added:

“I won’t say that I would never raise taxes because there might be a situation in which, to make the system fairer, more equitable for every people, for all our people, you might raise one tax but lower other taxes.”

Incumbent Sen. Bill Cowsert, running unopposed but also on the platform at the Chamber forum, followed Huckaby and said he would not sign the pledge. He agreed with Huckaby that it might be necessary to make tax adjustments that some would characterize as a tax increase.

The full video of the exchange is available on my Vimeo site.

The robo call included none of the nuance of Huckaby’s answer, saying only that Huckaby “won’t promise that he won’t raise your taxes.”

The full audio message, recorded from my answering machine, is here.

The hanklikestaxes web site was even harder hitting.

It began with the headline “Hank Likes Taxes” and followed with two subheads: “Democrat Insider/Bureaucrat, Running as a Republican to Win Office” and “In the House District 113 Republican Primary there is a big difference between the candidates.”

Beneath these was this short video clip:

The web site contained an image of Rich Whitt’s book, “Behind the Hedges,” which is critical of University of Georgia President Michael Adams. The web site said Huckaby was a “key player” in “corruption at the University of Georgia.”

The site claimed that Huckaby had supported Democratic candidates financially through his career, citing and as sources.

Those sources show that Huckaby did support Democrats, but he also has made contributions to Republican Congressman Paul Broun’s campaign since 2008, and the Hank Likes Taxes web site did not mention that.

The site also had links to four stories from, the web site of the Athens Banner-Herald. The tease to the stories asserted that Huckaby favored raising property taxes, favored a stormwater fee for Clarke County, and was “under an ethical cloud” because of a bonus paid to University of Georgia President Adams.

The web site was active as late as Aug. 11, and I was able to download the video clip on that date. I had talked with Melick about the video on Aug. 13.

I checked the site again on Aug. 21, and it was no longer active.

I have tried to find the web site in various web archives since without success.

I also have tried to determine who bought and registered the web site.

The site was registered through LuckyRegister on July 7, 2010, with an expiration date July 7, 2011.

The registration was last updated on July 15, 2010. It was registered at Domains By Proxy, Inc., a company at 15111 N. Hayden Road, Suite 160, Scottsdale, Ariz.

It is not possible to learn who purchased or owns the domain name.

Shook’s campaign web site,, was registered by a company in Toronto.

Whoever built the web site had to invest quite a bit of time to find the information on Huckaby, create the links, edit and upload the video and build the remainder of the copy.

Purchasing the domain name and hosting a web site, however, would not be expensive.

Rates for the purchase of domain names vary, but the web site this weekend offered to sell me for $12.99 per year. GoDaddy informed me that is not available.

GoDaddy offered unlimited bandwidth and storage for the web site at $14.99 per month.

Anyone with political contacts could find someone to create and launch a robo call.

Jeremy Brand, who served as a campaign consultant to Huckaby and worked with him on the response to the robo call attack, told me that the rate for robo calls of about 30 seconds in length is usually about 5 cents per completed call.

Huckaby said in his rebuttal robo call that an automated call had been made to voters “lying about me and my record.” Huckaby said the call came “from one of my opponents who didn’t have the courage to put their name on it.”

In the message Huckaby asked voters to call him if they had any questions and gave his number. He told me he got only one or two calls as a result.

The audio recording of that rebuttal is here.

Huckaby got 50.9 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, or just enough to avoid a run-off. Malcom got 30.2 percent and Shook got 18.9 percent.

The race was tightest in Oconee, which falls entirely in the 113th, and where Huckaby got 46.8 percent to 34.3 percent for Malcom and 18.8 percent for Shook. Huckaby and Malcom live in Oconee County, while Shook is from Oglethorpe County.

Huckaby got 58.8 percent of the vote in Oglethorpe County, 58.1 percent in Morgan County and 66.8 percent in Clarke County.

The fall campaign was uneventful. Compere never mounted a visible campaign.

Huckaby got 72.5 percent of the vote overall, carrying Oconee with 80.0 percent, Morgan with 76.2 percent, Oglethorpe with 72.3 percent, and Clarke with 52.1 percent.

Smith defeated Vaughn, who did mount a campaign, back in 2006 with 61.1 percent of the vote.

Candidates are required to list campaign contributions of more than $100 on the finance reports.

Huckaby, a former administrator at the University of Georgia, received contributions from many at the university, including from President Adams, Provost Jere Morehead and former Provost Arnett Mace.

Most of the money Huckaby raised came in early, giving him the resources he needed to launch his advertising campaigns.

Shook’s largest contribution of $2,000 was from American Federation for Children, Georgia Division. According to the organization’s web site, it is an advocacy group for school choice.

Malcom’s campaign was largely self-financed.

Both Shook and Malcom are teachers.

The Hank Likes Taxes robo call and web site stood out in the 2010 campaigns, but there were other oddities.

Superior Court Judge David Sweat, running for re-election in a nonpartisan campaign, sent out an endorsement by Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry. Sweat used the post office box of the county jail for the return address of the endorsement letter.

According to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, even storing campaign signs in a government office or placing fliers on a government desk is a violation of the state’s ethics law.

Sherilyn Streicker, the deputy executive secretary of what was then the State Ethics Committee, told me in October that, in her view, the use of the return address alone did not constitute a contribution to a campaign.

Pamela Hendrix who was challenging Sweat, also took the unusual tactic of focusing on Sweat’s religion.

She did this first in a story by Mike Sprayberry, a reporter for The Oconee Leader. Sprayberry quoted her in an article on Oct. 14 as saying “people need to be aware of their judge’s backgrounds. I’m a member of Ashford Memorial Methodist and my opponent attends Universal Unitarian Fellowship and there’s a difference.”

She repeated that line in response to a question from me about what differentiates her from Sweat. She said “I attend Ashford Memorial Methodist Church; he attends the Universal Unitarian Fellowship.”

Neither of them accused the other of liking taxes.

And there was no mystery of the third videographer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oconee County Recreational Affairs Committee Considers Future of Central Schoolhouse

Heat and Light Needed

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs spent an hour tonight without heat, electricity, and, of course, plumbing at the Central Schoolhouse in Heritage Park discussing what to do with the building.

“You all brought this up as a potential agenda item at our October meeting,” County Parks and Recreation Director John Gentry told the Committee. “I suggested no better place to start our discussions than actually at the facility.”

Members of the committee used flashlights to look around before considering the building’s future.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved a concept plan for the Heritage Park History Village at its Dec. 7 meeting, with the schoolhouse as the centerpiece. But it did not address questions about the uses to be made of the buildings.

The two-story schoolhouse contains a stage and theater seats on the second floor as well as one large classroom with smaller rooms on the first.

The Committee meeting was held in the larger classroom, illuminated by gas lanterns.

Gentry said the major issue the Committee needs to resolve is the uses to be made of the schoolhouse once the historical village is built out around it.

“Is it more museum oriented, where it is more static display?” Gentry asked. “Come to visit, walk through and leave. Or is it an active facility?”

The Committee didn’t resolve that question, preferring instead to come back to it at a future meeting. What it did do was review a list of renovation requirements for the building.

These include a structural review, a review of the electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning requirements, painting and repair of the inside, and exterior renovation, including provisions for handicap access.

Even before the Committee turned its attention to the schoolhouse, it confronted another major issue before it.

The county is being offered a mule barn. As Gentry said, that is not part of the concept plan for the History Village.

Committee Chairman Mike Streetman said such barns were common in the county and could be considered an appropriate part of the village.

The issue is how to finance movement of the building and others to Heritage Park and then how to finance their upkeep.

Central Schoolhouse was moved to Heritage Park in the very southern part of the county from Colham Ferry Road in 2004, Gentry said. Much of the next year was spent building a foundation, putting on a new roof, replacing the windows, and doing minimal preservation to the exterior.

Gentry said that work was completed in 2005, and the building has sat largely untouched from then until now. It is open to the public only sporadically, making tonight’s meeting a rare opportunity to see the insides of the nearly 100-year-old structure.

The question is how to find funds to move forward with the renovation and with the further development of the village itself, he said.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Big Gap Exists Between Stated and Real Purpose of Oconee County Sewer Project

Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy Project

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer project that Oconee County presented to the state, the federal government and the public is a limited, $383,055 undertaking to provide sewer services to two established businesses in the county with low-to-moderate income employees.

The actual project is a $851,639 infrastructure investment designed to provide sewer services to Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Health Care System as well to the owners of a 114-acre parcel the county wants to develop as part of its Epps Bridge Parkway commercial complex.

At its Feb. 8 meeting, the Board of Commissioners is scheduled to consider a proposal by representatives of that 114-acre parcel that the owners give the county easements to build the sewer line on their property, but only if the county agrees to reserve 50,000 gallons of sewage treatment capacity for the property for five year.

The representatives also want the county to pay $1,000 in expenses associated with the negotiated settlement.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis pushed the proposal at the Board’s Jan. 4 meeting, but the other four members of the BOC bulked, saying they had been kept in the dark about the true nature of the project and about the negotiations with the representatives of the 114-acre tract.

News about the value of the project for the owners of the 114-acre parcel first leaked out at the Nov. 2 meeting of the BOC.

What has not been clear until now is the extent to which the county had worked to mask the true nature of the sewer line project in the state and federal grant application.

I filed an open records request with the county on Nov. 15, asking for copies of the grant application the county had made when it sought state and federal support for the project and for related documentation and correspondence.

The application to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for federal Housing and Urban Development block grant funds, approved by the BOC unanimously on May 26, 2009, is clear in its description of the project.

The county said it was seeking $373,422 in federal funds to provide sewage service to Zoom Bait Company and St. Mary’s Health Care System Highland Hills Village on Jennings Mill Road.

The county said that it expected the total cost of the project to be $383,055, or $9,633 more than it was requesting from the state, and that it would pay that difference from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds

The county told the state it needed the federal money to keep Zoom Bait from leaving the county and to help St. Mary’s operate within its “financial means.”

The county said Zoom and St. Mary’s together provide jobs for 99 low or moderate income employees and will hire an additional seven low-to-moderate income employees once the sewer service is in place.

The application said Zoom Bait, which manufactures “artificial fishing lures for sportsmen,” has 127 employees, and “78.6 percent of these employees are low-to-moderate income individuals.”

It said St. Mary’s “has committed to work toward hiring 51 percent of their future employees meeting the low-to-moderate income criteria” of the federal government. The St. Mary’s facility includes residential units, a Center for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care and a hospice house.

Specifically, St. Mary’s anticipates hiring 12 employees, according to the application, with wages ranging from $7.25 per hour for one housekeeper to more than $20 per hour for one licensed practical nurse. The average anticipated wage will be $11.72 per hour, according to the application.

The focus on low and moderate income jobs was advantageous for the federal Economic Development and Employment Incentive Program, from which the county was seeking funding.

The county said in its application that without the federal funding, the “project will not be completed” because Oconee County is using its existing resources for expansion of its Calls Creek sewage treatment plant and for construction of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County.

The application contains a map showing the location of the proposed gravity-flow sewer line and the properties it crosses. It also contains another map showing the contour of the land.

By putting the two maps together, it is possible to see that the proposed line stays just out of the flood plane for McNutt Creek, which forms the border between Clarke and Oconee counties in that area.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis sent a letter to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs on Aug. 5, 2009, reaffirming that the project was for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s alone.

Only two properties in the area other than those of Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s are not served by existing sewer lines, Davis wrote.

The two exceptions, which the sewer line actually crosses, are owned by the city of Athens and by the Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family, shown as Varsity Realty, Inc., on the map submitted with the application.

The 14-acre parcel owned by Athens was used in the past as an oxidation pond for sewage treatment for the Kingwood subdivision, according to the application documents. Davis said in his letter that there are “no known development plans” for the parcel.

Davis also wrote that there are “no known development plans submitted to the county” for the 114-acre Gordy property.

The state approved the Oconee County request for the sewer line for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s on Oct. 5, 2009, but it said it would provide only half the requested money, or $186,711.

The BOC agreed to go ahead with the project on Nov. 24, 2009.

The construction was expected to cost $315,555, based on the preliminary engineering report by Williams & Associates, an Oconee County land planning firm.

In May of 2010, the construction bids came back, and the lowest bid that met the specifications were $327,212 higher than the $315,555 that Williams & Associates had estimated, bringing the total project cost to $710,267.

Davis wrote to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs on May 19, asking it to increase its award from $186,711 to $500,000.

He restated that the project would provide needed sewer services for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s, resulting in the retention of 127 jobs at Zoom Bait. He also said St. Mary’s would create 12 new full-time positions.

Davis made no mention of the Gordy property.

“With the revelation of the issues associated with the errors in the preliminary engineering report,” Davis wrote, “Oconee County is facing a commitment level of $522,556.22.”

Davis asked the state to increase its funding level to $500,000.

“Commensurately, Oconee County will increase its level of participation in this project to $210,267.22,” Davis wrote.

On June 28, Brian Williamson from the Department of Community Affairs said it would not change the grant because the department’s “management protocols and precedent with regards to similarly positioned grant recipients would prohibit such an increase.”

The BOC agreed at its Aug. 3 meeting to cover the full costs of the project, taking the additional money from SPLOST funds.

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s project was on the BOC agenda on Nov. 2 over the objections of Chairman Davis, who argued that the Board had already approved the project.

At that meeting, Davis urged the Board to approve rebidding the project, since the bids received in May of 2010 had expired.

The other four members of the Board objected, however, because St. Mary’s, the Gordy Family and the city of Athens were asking the county to pay for easements to run the proposed sewer line across their property.

At the Jan. 4 meeting, Oconee County Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Utility Department Director Chris Thomas reported on their efforts to get the property owners to donate those easements, but the four commissioners were focused on other things.

Commissioner Chuck Horton told Haygood and Thomas “There has been a lack of disclosure” about the true nature of the project.

“I need to know who was meeting and who stands to benefit from a piece of property. I don’t know how much clearer I can make it,” Horton said.

Luke said he agreed with Horton.

“I am embarrassed that I voted for a project I knew so little about in the beginning,” he started.

He added that he had asked specifically at the July 27 meeting if others besides Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s would benefit from the project “and one of the two of you told me no.”

Luke, Horton and Commissioner Margaret Hale all asked Thomas that question at the July 27 meeting.

“This project is specifically designed for those two businesses,” Thomas said, referring to Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s. He said no other customers had been identified.

Thomas also said the properties behind Walmart and Kohl’s, which is where the Gordy property lies, would be served by an existing sewer line. He made no mention of any possible value of the new line to the Gordy property.

Only after the Nov. 2 meeting did Haygood release to me a map showing that the Gordy property lies lower than the existing sewer line, making the proposed new sewer line more suitable.

County Utility Department Director Thomas also reported at that meeting on discussions he and Davis had on July 7 with Atlanta developer Frank Bishop.

According to Thomas, Bishop has an option on the Gordy property.

At the Jan. 4 meeting, Luke said he now has heard that “there have been meetings between representatives of the Gordy property and long before I knew about this project.”

Luke said he wasn’t sure Haygood and Thomas are to blame. “You are staff and you do what you are told,” he said.

“This thing just has not been carried out in a professional manner,” Luke said.

Commissioner John Daniell told Haygood and Thomas “you are seeing a huge change in culture” in the county and the BOC wants more information. “Hopefully everybody is learning that things are different.”

He said staff needs to learn to throw “everything out into the open.”

Commissioner Hale said her big concern was the special deal for the Gordy property owners. The county normally does not reserve sewage capacity for more than a year.

Davis sidestepped the criticism of the four commissioners by recalling the number of times the Board already approved elements of the project.

“It is a worthwhile commercial development project,” he said, “something that would be good for Oconee County long term.”

“Funding is available to handle this without being a budget breaker,” he added.

Horton told Davis he feels he should have been informed about the discussions with Bishop about easements on the Gordy project.

“If the Board is to make a decision about a project, and there is no information that would really affect that I’m confused...” he said.

Hale challenged Davis.

“Who makes the decision (about) what I need to be able to vote?” She asked. “I’m just saying, everything wasn’t disclosed.”

The specific proposal on the table calls for the county to accept easements from Zoom Bait, St. Mary’s and the Gordy property that would allow the county to put the sewer line on their property without paying for those easements.

The value of the easements was put at $600 in the case of Zoom Bait, $19,640 from St. Mary’s, and $84,910 for the Gordy Property. The county would have to pay the Gordy representatives $1,000.

These figures bring the total cost of the project to $851,639, up from the estimated $773,000 back in July, but the cost to the county would be $559,799, since the easements would be granted without cost (except for the $1,000) and the county is hoping it still hoping to obtain the $186,711 from the state.

Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told the Board that he anticipated generating $967,660 in capacity and other fees from Zoom Bait, St. Mary’s and Gordy’s in the future, so, to his way of thinking, the county actually would be making more than $400,000 from the project.

Nothing was said in the discussion about the easement on the property owned by the city of Athens.

The BOC voted to table the proposal until its Feb. 8 meeting so it can give additional thought to the issue. It also instructed the staff to revisit the easement issue and particularly the offer to reserve sewage capacity for the Gordy property.

The project already is far behind schedule.

According to conditions put forward with the award of the $186,711 by the state, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s have only until Oct. 5 of this year “to retain and create and document the new jobs” resulting from completion of the sewage project.

Haygood told the Board he thought it possible to get an extension.

While application for the federal funds the county submitted to the state didn’t mention the value of the sewer line to the Gordy property, it did contain a section on citizen input to the decision-making process.

The county advertised in The Oconee Enterprise on May 7, 2009, that it would hold a public hearing about its plans to apply for the grant.

The headline on the 4-inch by 5-inch textual advertisement was simply “Public Hearing Notice.” The meeting was held on May 14, 2009.

Only two persons’ names appear on the sign-in sheet included in the application. Those names were Melvin Davis and Rusty Haygood.

The county dutifully included with the application the minutes of that meeting, which began at 6 p.m. in the Commissioner’s Chamber of the courthouse. Haygood took and signed the minutes.

The minutes begin by noting that Haygood “welcomed those in attendance.”

That would be Davis, whose office is just down the hall from Davis’ in the courthouse and to whom Haygood reports.

Haygood then explained that the county was proposing to build a sewer line “to begin at Zoom Bait, cross Jennings Mill Road, travel across St. Mary’s property, and terminate near Kohl’s department store.”

He also reported that the county intended to seek a grant “to assist low-to-moderate income persons working within Oconee County.”

After his presentation, according to the minutes, Haygood “opened the floor for questions or comments from the public.”

“Davis questioned about the time line for the grant application,” Haygood wrote.

Haygood reported that he told Davis the county anticipated making the application before June 1, 2009.


I was not able to attend the meeting on Jan. 4. Russ Page, a citizen who did attend, shot video for me. I have edited the video to include only the one-hour discussion of the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line and have uploaded it to the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Oconee County Voters See Economy, Lack of Jobs and Housing Market as Most Important Problems

Growth Also an Issue

While Oconee County voters are concerned about the local economy, unemployment and the weak housing market, about one in 10 also is concerned, even in the economic downturn, with what these voters see as rapid and unchecked growth with its adverse effects on the quality of their lives.

Some see a connection between the unwanted growth and the decline in the value of their homes and blame county policies for both.

While it is clear that not all voters are opposed to development, the opinions of a significant number of citizens are at odds with the strongly pro-development policy articulated by members of the county’s Industrial Development Authority and the Board of Commissioners.

This is the conclusion I reached from analysis of responses of 149 registered voters to a scientific survey conducted by my students late last year.

Economic issues, including the collapse of the local housing market and unemployment, top the list of problems that Oconee County voters think the county is facing.

Voters also are concerned about problems they see in the county’s schools.

The voters identified these concerns in response to a question on the scientific survey of registered voters conducted in the two weeks before the November election. The question asked the voters to identify in their own words “the most important problem facing Oconee County today.”

The survey was conducted by graduate students in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The course, which I taught, was designed to teach students how to use social science methods to measure public opinion and how to analyze and interpret the data.

The students interviewed voters whose names had been selected from the Oconee County voter registration list I purchased from the Georgia Secretary of State office for use by the class.

Comparisons of the characteristics of those interviewed with the overall voter list shows that the sample was representative of all registered voters on several key characteristics. The sample of 149 does include fewer young voters than the overall voter list.

Most of the questions on the survey dealt with national political issues, but the students included the most important problem question to localize the survey for Oconee County.

I classified the responses to the open-ended question posed to the voters to get a sense of voter concerns. The actual responses and my classification of them is on the site for this blog.

The weakness of the local housing market was the top economic issue, with more than one in 10 of the voters giving that response to the question.

One voter listed the “real estate market and the impact of the developments that were started and basically stopped because of the economy” as the most important problem.

Another said the problem is “the Board of Commission's leadership that leads to the downfall of housing.”

About one in 10 of the voters listed growth as the most important problem.

“It's the expansion, the rapid rise of this county,” one respondent said. “They're stripping the land and building cookie-cutter houses, forgetting about the lifelong residents of this county.”

“Too many ball fields, not enough cotton fields,” another said simply.

At a joint meeting of the Industrial Development Authority and the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 13, members pitched ideas to the members of the Board of Commissioners about what steps should be taken to promote development in the county.

While Board members did not embrace any of the ideas specifically, none said that development should be slowed.

At a town hall meeting in June on development, all BOC members present took strong pro-development stances, despite the observation from at least one of the citizens present that many people in the county were opposed to further development.

In what might be seen as an example of a pro-development response, one voter said the most important problem facing the county is that “People are out of work.”

“The lack of jobs,” another voter said simply in response to the interviewer-posed question about the most important problem.

The problems voters see with the schools are quite varied, ranging from issues of finance to drug and alcohol use.

One voter said “not enough money (is) spent on education” in the county, while another said “the school system (is) using money in the wrong way.” The voter mentioned “sports” as an example of misuse of limited funds.

Another voter said the most important problem facing the county is “alcohol and drug abuse” among teenagers at the schools.

Thirteen of the voters said they could not identify a problem facing the county, and 10 said the county did not have any problems.

Four people said the most important problem in Oconee County is the people.

“We still have a quite a few people in Oconee County who are prejudiced,” one voter said.

Another said people are not open-minded in Oconee County. A third said there is a “fear of new ideas in the county.”

I classified the following response to the most important problem question as a concern about zoning.

Property rights” are the most important problem, the voter said. “When you own the property, certain rights come with that. We try to infringe what other people do with their property.”

The voter continued: “If we don't like it, we can move somewhere else. You should be able to use what is yours. Biggest problem with UGA/university system is that those people show up and fight everything that is proposed.”

The students conducted the interviews from Oct. 20 to Nov. 1. They completed 135 of the interviews by telephone, with the remainder conducted in person or online.

Voter registration lists contain names, addresses, and some personal characteristics of voters as a means of preventing voter fraud.

The lists do not contain telephone numbers. The students were able to find telephone numbers in online directories for about three-quarters of those selected for the survey.

The students drew an initial sample of 825 persons from the 22,538 registered voters in the county on Sept. 20, but they actually only tried to contact 620 of those persons.

The students were able to complete an interview with about one in four of those they contacted. The completion rate is high in comparison with what is usually achieved in polls today.

The sample error for the survey is 8 percent, meaning that the odds are 19 to 1 that the true response for the whole population of 22,538 Oconee County voters, had they been interviewed, would have fallen within plus or minus 8 percentage points of the percent calculated from the sample.

In fact, the sample of 149 voters closely matched the population of 22,538 registered voters in the county in terms of gender, race and precinct of registration. The sample contained more voters in the 51 plus age group and fewer in the 18 to 30 age group than does the total list of registered voters.

Young persons generally are harder to reach in surveys because they are more likely to be away from home studying and working and more heavily rely on mobile phones.

While the survey was of registered voters only, most persons 18 years old and older in Oconee County are registered to vote. Based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the county has a voter-age population of about 23,925, indicating that about 95 percent of those 18 years old or older in Oconee County are registered.

While it was easy to classify many of the responses to the question on the most important problem facing Oconee County, some responses were idiosyncratic.

One voter said the most important problem facing Oconee County was lack of media covering Oconee County and a resultant lack of an “informed citizenry.”

The survey also contained a question asking the respondents to name their “source of news about what is happening here in Oconee County.”

Eleven of the 149 respondents said they didn’t follow Oconee County news, and three said they didn’t know what source they used, suggesting they didn’t follow the news much either.

Many voters listed more than one source.

Overall, 23 percent of the respondents mentioned The Oconee Enterprise as their source, 21 percent mentioned the Athens Banner-Herald and its online edition, and 17 percent listed The Oconee Leader.

Seventeen percent of respondents said they got their Oconee County news from “the newspaper” or the “local paper” without mentioning a paper by name.

Some respondents indicated the most important source of Oconee County news for them was the television stations in Atlanta, which almost never cover news in the county.

One voter answered simply that his “wife” was the source he relied on most for news about the county.