Oconee County, with 25.1 percent growth in population between 2000 and 2010–6.8 percentage points more than the state average–should have emerged in a stronger position from the just-completed redistricting for the Georgia General Assembly.
And neighboring Clarke County, with its 15.0 percent growth in population over the last 10 years–3.3 percentage points below the state average--should have emerged from redistricting with slightly decreased influence in the state legislature.
Chuck Williams voted himself a rather difficult assignment on Thursday when he joined the Republic majority in approving the redistricting plan for the House of Representatives.
Not only did he agree to take on the assignment of representing the president’s office at the University of Georgia should he seek reelection in 2012 and win, but he also agreed to represent the students living in the main and east campus dormitories and many faculty members and students living east of the campus.
Each of the five members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight expressed opposition to the proposed redistricting plan that is currently moving through the Georgia House of Representatives and that would split Oconee County into two House districts.
They also expressed resignation to the plan, indicating that they will just have to live with what they see as the almost certain outcome.
Oconee County’s four commissioners as well as the chairman run at large, rather than by district.
The same is true for the five members of the Oconee County Board of Education.
None of the county’s four cities has districts for their council members.
So when the Georgia General Assembly meets a week from tomorrow to begin its discussion of redistricting made necessary by the 2010 Census, the impact for Oconee County primarily will be felt through the county’s status in future Georgia House and Senate districts.
All Oconee County voters currently vote in the 46th Senate District, represented by Athens attorney Bill Cowsert, and the 113th House District, represented by newly elected Chuck Williams, Oconee County businessman.
But that has not always been the case.
As recently as in 2002, voters in the two most northwestern Oconee County precincts–Bogart and Dark Corner–were part of the 73rd House District with Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties, while the remainder of the county was in the 76th, with Clarke and Madison counties.
And voters in Farmington and Antioch, the two most southern Oconee County precincts, were in the 47th Senate District with parts of 15 other counties, while the rest of the county was in the 46th Senate District with Barrow, Clarke and Jackson counties.
In 2000, prior to the release of the Census of that year, all of Oconee County had been in the 91st House District with Morgan and Newton counties and in the 46th Senate District with Clarke and Barrow Counties.
The Democrats controlled the Assembly in 2001 and drew the new district lines for the state.
The Democratic redistricting subsequently was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court without comment.
The Supreme Court let stand a decision by a three-judge federal panel in favor of a Republican challenge that the new districts were purely political, designed to maximize Democratic representation.
The judicial panel produced the current configuration that puts all of Oconee County in the 113th House District with parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties, and all of Oconee County in the 46th Senate District with Clarke and Walton counties.
Now it seems possible–maybe even likely--that the 113th will change again, perhaps resulting in the division of the county between or even among districts.
Williams was asked his position on redistricting in the two candidate forums held before the June 21 first round of voting in the special election and in the sole candidate forum for him and Democrat Dan Matthews before the June 19 runoff.
Oconee County residents have made it clear they don’t want to be divided, Williams said repeatedly. The special election was called so Oconee County would be represented in the redistricting session.
But Williams said he could not “commit” that the county will not be divided.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis spoke at a legislative hearing on May 16 in Athens, saying he wanted Oconee County to remain whole after redistricting.
He said when the county had been represented by more than one person, those representatives did not always agreed, and that hurt the county.
“I want Oconee County to remain whole. I want it to remain intact,” he said.
But a number of Clarke County citizens who are part of the 113th also spoke at the hearing and made it clear they didn’t like the current configuration, which makes them a minor player in the 113th.
In the current 113th House District, 24.7 percent of registered voters are from Clarke County, compared with 59.7 percent from Oconee County, 9.8 percent from Oglethorpe and the remaining 5.8 percent from Morgan County.
The Clarke County voters are from Winterville, in the far eastern tip of the county, from two precincts in the very south of the county, and from another precinct and parts of a precinct in the far western part of the county.
The three Clarke County pieces of the 113th don’t even connect to each other.
Williams will be under some pressure to fix that problem.
And he also is likely to be under pressure to do something else–help neighbor Doug McKillip create a district that is more Republican.
McKillip was elected in the 115th House District in January of 2010 as a Democrat and switched to the Republican Party before the session began earlier this year. The 115th is entirely in Clarke County and is traditionally Democratic.
McKillip told me that he has no deal with House Speaker David Ralston to guarantee him a better district, but that doesn’t mean McKillip isn’t likely to try to create a more favorable district.
Getting Malcom Bridge or Athens Academy precincts from Oconee County, both heavily Republican and contiguous with McKillip’s current 115th District, would help.
McKillip has been prominent in Republican events since Hank Huckaby resigned the 113th seat in April to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia. Huckaby had been elected to that seat in 2010 after long-time House member Bob Smith stepped down.
Smith, as well as Huckaby, are from Oconee County.
One constraint that could affect any efforts to create a more Republican district for McKillip could be the 1965 Civil Right Act.
Section V of that act says that states that previously created procedures to limit voting by Blacks had to demonstrate that any changes in voting procedures were free of racial discrimination.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, in a Mississippi case, expanded the definition of discriminatory voting practices under the act to include anything that diluted the impact of the Black vote.
So changes in districts have to meet that stipulation.
Oconee County has very few African-American residents.
The 2010 Census data show that only 4.9 percent of the population is Black of African-American. On July 1, 2011, only 843 Blacks were registered in the county, making up 4.0 percent of the registered voters.
Blacks made up 8.4 percent of the registered voters in the 113th District on July 1, 2011.
In contrast, 17.1 percent of the registered voters in the 115th District, which McKillip represents, were Black.
The 114th, represented by Keith Heard, was 37.4 percent Black, in terms of voter registration.
Heard is an African-American, while McKillip is White.
Blacks make up only 4.1 percent of the Malcom Bridge and Athens Academy precincts, so adding them to McKillip’s district would dilute rather than increase Black representation.
In general, adding Republican voters to a district dilutes the African-American vote, which historically has been disproportionately Democratic.
Williams is likely to be a team player in the House of Representatives.
He touted his connections to the political establishment and the General Assembly during the campaign, and these connections showed up in his campaign financial statement.
An examination of the timing of these contributions shows that only Winder Rep. Terry England, who gave $2,500 to Williams, contributed before Williams won the June 21 first round of voting, where he had Democrat Dan Matthews and Republicans Alan Alexander and Sarah Bell as competitors. Matthews and Williams went into the runoff on July 19.
England contributed $1,000 on June 18 and $1,500 on June 23, according to Williams’ records.
I checked both Williams’ reports and those of the corresponding campaign committees and found them to be in agreement regarding timing of contributions with minor exceptions.
I could not find in the reports of the corresponding committees five of the contributions Williams recorded. Candidate not running for office had to file a report on June 30, while Williams’ report was through July 15.
Williams and Huckaby’s reports show that the former representative gave $500 to Williams in two equal installments, one before the June 21 election and one after.
Candidate Bell received contributions from the committees of three politicians before the June 21 election. These were $350 from James Mills of Gainesville, $250 from Sam Teasley of Marietta and $250 from Tim Echols of Winterville.
Alexander did not report receiving any funds from other politicians.
The candidates don’t have to file their final statements until the end of the year, and the contributions for Williams are almost certain to change.
It seems likely Williams will have a significant war chest to use should he decide to run for reelection in 2012. On July 15, he had $34,860 in unspent funds.
In addition to using these monies for himself, he also can give them to other candidates, such as those who contributed to his campaign.
In the aftermath of the July 19 election, both The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald attributed Matthews’ defeat in part to low turnout in Clarke County.
But Williams won in the 113th District by 1,252 votes, so Matthews would have had to more than double the 1,135 votes cast in Clarke County and gotten all of the extra votes to have gained the lead over Williams.
But Matthews got only 61.1 percent of the 1,135 votes counted in Clarke County, meaning he would have needed an even greater and very unlikely turnout rate to overcome Williams’ victory margin in Oconee County, where Williams got 70.0 percent of the vote.
The real issue was not turnout, but rather that Clarke County contributes only a quarter of the voters in the district.
Reflecting this gap, the focus of the campaign clearly was Oconee County.
All three of the major candidate forums held before the election were in the county, the first organized by Russ Page and me at the Oconee County Library, the second by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce at North Oconee High School, and the third by the Chamber at th Oconee County Civic Center.
Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe make up smaller parts of the district, so it is harder for citizens there to come together and less enticing for the candidates to go visit them.
Campaigns also rely heavily on advertising.
The campaign finance statements show that all candidates spent much more heavily in the Oconee newspapers than in the newspapers in any of the other counties.
Alexander bought ads in The Oconee Enterprise and on Cox Radio. Bell did exactly the same.
Matthews used those two media and bought ads in The Oconee Leader and with WXAG radio in Athens.
Williams ran ads in the Enterprise, the Leader, The Morgan Citizen, The Oglethorpe Echo, WDAK in Greensboro, Cox Radio and Bostwick Broadcasting in Monroe. He put more ads in the Leader and the Enterprise, however, than in the other newspapers.
Morgan and Oglethorpe counties and, to a lesser extent, Clarke County voters were simply given less attention because there were fewer of them.
That is what could happen to Oconee County voters if the county is split as a result of the redistricting agreement the two houses of the legislature come up with in the special session that starts a week from tomorrow.
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night killed the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Line project, but it only postponed a decision on the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I, which follows the same route along McNutt Creek from Jennings Mill Road to Kohl’s on Epps Bridge Parkway.
Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s was always a misnomer for the sewer line. That name was used by the county in its application for federal funds for the project.
The county argued that the 12-inch sewer line would serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s, two businesses on Jennings Mill Road at the McNutt Creek line with Clarke County.
The county pitched the project as one that helped employers of persons making low and moderate incomes.
The federal grant competition, administered by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, was tilted toward projects that served such employers.
Both these businesses needed the sewer line to continue to operate successfully in the county, according to the application.
In fact, the sewer line should have been named the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project, for the primary beneficiary of the project was a 114-acre tract behind Kohl’s that is owned by the Gordy family.
The county minimized the value of the sewer line for future development projects so as to focus on the low and moderate income employees of Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.
With its 4-0 vote last night, commissioners John Daniell, Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke instructed County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to tell the Department of Community Affairs to keep the $186,711 grant it had awarded the county in October of 2009.
Over the objections of BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who does not get to vote unless there is a tie, the four decided to postpone a decision on the 18-inch McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I.
Davis asked County Clerk Gina Davis to register his objection in the record. He said he didn’t want to return the money, and he felt the project would spur development in the county as well as help Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.
The commissioners argued that the sewer line wasn’t needed by St. Mary’s, which sends its sewage to Clarke County for treatment under a contract signed by the two counties.
And they said that Zoom Bait, which relies on septics, has been less than vocal in asking for county sewers.
Finally, they said providing sewer service to the Gordy tract was not a top priority at this time.
The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project morphed into the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I project only at the BOC meeting last week, though it had been moving in that direction for several months.
At the July 26 meeting, Jimmy Parker, a consultant to the county, presented the Board with a wastewater strategic plan that called for building a gravity sewer backbone in the McNutt Creek and Barber Creek basins.
The McNutt Creek part of the project calls for a gravity fed sewer line from Bogart to Epps Bridge Parkway at McNutt Creek.
From there, the sewage would be pumped either to the Calls Creek sewage plant in Watkinsville or to the Rocky Branch land application treatment site on Rocky Branch Road in the western part of the county.
But Parker, with County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas, had listed the $780,000 sewer line as a lower priority than spending $562,000 for upgrading a section of the Lampkin Branch Sewer line under Government Station Road and $1.5 million for an upgrade to the Calls Creek plant itself.
It seemed last night for a few minutes as if the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project was going to die a very quiet death.
Horton made a motion to return the money and postpone action on the morphed project, and Hale seconded.
After Mike McCleary, chairman of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of the project–the only person from the audience to address the Board–Davis asked for comment from the commissioners.
No one said a word.
Then Davis began a 4-and-a-half-minute presentation of his own, reading from comments he had prepared.
That spurred Luke, then Hale, then Horton, and then Daniell to respond.
They didn’t like Davis’ characterizations of their positions, and they didn’t like the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy project.
They also pointed out the new project was not the top project even of Parker and Thomas.
It would not have been unusual at a BOC meeting for the commissioners to vote without discussion.
The pointed and unanimous disagreement with Davis is rare and informative. It is shown in its entirety in the video clip above. The whole discussion lasted just short of 14 minutes.
Davis has always been the driving force behind the project, though the commissioners did vote to go forward with the application to DCA, to add money to the project when the DCA grant came in at half the estimated cost, and to add even more money to the project when bids came in at twice the expected amount.
The turning point was the revelation late last year that the project was going to be of more value to the Gordy property than to Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.
At the July 26 meeting, Davis had asked Theriault and County Finance Director Jeff Benko to find money to fund all three of the top projects on the Parker and Thomas list.
Theriault told the Board at the start of the discussion last night the county could find the money for all three. He didn’t explain that to the citizens in the audience.
At the end of the meeting, I asked Theriault and Benko for details.
They said the county can take the money for the Lampkin Branch upgrade from 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues and the money for the McNutt Creek Sewer Connector Phase I from unspent monies from the 2004 SPLOST.
The county already has the money for the Calls Creek upgrade on hand from sewer capacity fees paid by developers for future sewage capacity.
With the loss of the grant and federal funds, they said, the county now is $186,711 short of covering those expenses.