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.”