Sunday, October 23, 2011

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

As Non-Voting Alternate

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

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

Luke said he has asked Haygood what needs to be done to change the language in the intergovernmental agreement that allows Oconee County to appoint a citizen to serve as a full management board member but not as an alternate.

Luke said that Haygood has indicated that he believes the Walton County Board of Commissioners, the Walton County Water and Sewerage Authority and the Oconee County Board of Commissioners will have to “sign off” on the change.

Luke said that while he had not talked with officials in Walton County about the modification, he did not anticipate they would object.

Oconee and Walton county are partners in the reservoir project, which would be built in the southeastern part of Walton County on Hard Labor Creek, a tributary to the Apalachee River, which flows between the two counties. Construction of the reservoir is on hold because of a lack of funding and of demand for the water.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, at Luke’s urging, on Oct. 11 replaced citizen representative Hank Huckaby, who resigned July 6, with Commissioner Chuck Horton. Horton has been serving as an alternate to Luke on the management board.

The BOC also appointed county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to replace Horton as Luke’s alternate. Utility Department Director Chris Thomas, who has been Huckaby’s alternate, will serve as Horton’s alternate.

In addition, the BOC extended the terms of all Oconee County representatives to the seven-member HLC management board to Dec. 31, 2013.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko will continue as the third voting delegate from Oconee County, but the BOC did not appoint an alternate for him. Theriault has been serving as Benko’s alternate.

The intergovernmental agreement approved by the BOC on Sept. 4, 2007, said that at least one of the voting members must be a member of the BOC and that the alternates must be either members of the Board of Commissioners or employees of the county.

Luke, who made the motion to appoint Horton and to extend the terms of the other representatives, also asked that no alternate to Benko be appointed until he could explore the possibility of appointing a citizen in that role.

Luke said the appointment of Horton as a voting delegate was necessary because “We are at a critical time with that project, critical financially, and critically politically.”

Luke said the management board needed someone “fully up to speed.” Because Horton has been attending meetings as his alternate, he was the appropriate candidate, Luke said.

In appointing Horton to replace Huckaby, who resigned when he became chancellor of the University System of Georgia, and reappointing Benko, the BOC eliminated the possibility of appointing a citizen as a voting member of the management board, as Huckaby had been.

Luke said this was not a problem.

“Everybody who goes takes part in the process, not necessarily at-the-table discussions but certainly befores and the afters,” he said at the Oct. 11 meeting.

Since the citizen would be serving as an alternate, Luke said, the immediate appointment is not “critical.” He said the BOC should explore the possibility of modifying the intergovernmental agreement.

As he had at the Sept. 27 BOC meeting, Commission Chairman Melvin Davis spoke in favor of replacing Huckaby with another citizen, though he said he would support whatever the other four commissioners ultimately decided. Davis votes only in the case of a tie vote among the other four commissioners.

Davis said appointment of a citizen is helpful because “The citizen can see the magnitude of the project of this nature. It gives the public the knowledge that it is not just staff and elected officials making a decision that affects taxpayers.”

Davis said Oconee County is “fortunate” to have experts who could contribute to the discussion and the county should take advantage of that expertise.

Horton said Davis’ position confused him. He said that Davis had opposed appointing a citizen to the management board back in October of 2007.

“I don’t think that is the case,” Davis said in response.

Horton asked Davis if he wanted Horton to read an email message he had from the time “basically appointing yourself” to the management board.

Davis said it wasn’t necessary for Horton to read the email.

Horton said that he (Horton) had been the advocate for Huckaby.

When Huckaby resigned, Horton said, Davis called him (Horton) and asked him if he wanted to replace Huckaby on the reservoir board and then also talked with a citizen about the same possibility.

Horton said he had not been campaigning for the position but was willing to serve if the other members of the Commission wanted him to do so.

Horton made the email exchange with Davis from 2007 available to me.

In an undated message, Davis wrote “I suggest we name Jim and I along with John Hatcher as the Oconee Representatives.”

Hatcher was the Utility Department Director at that time.

Horton responded in a message dated Oct. 1, 2007, saying “I think this is a good time to reach out to someone other than another BOC member so that we don’t stack the deck with government officials. It would be best to solicit applications from the community for the third slot.”

Davis responded that same day, according to the email Horton gave me, saying “After the first round of appointments future boards will have the option of appointing members who are not elected officials. I am not opposed to members of the public serving in this capacity, but I do not think it is the right timing to make the appointment initially.”

The BOC did not solicit citizens to serve on the management board when it appointed Huckaby, then in retirement from the University of Georgia.

Luke told me in a telephone conversation I had with him on Oct. 15 that it is his desire that the BOC advertise for citizens who are interested in serving as the alternate to Benko if it is successful in changing the intergovernmental agreement.

Two citizens spoke at the meeting on Oct. 11 asking the BOC to appoint a citizen rather than Horton as a voting member of the management board.

Sarah Bell, who has announced she plans to run for BOC chair next year, was one of those. I was the other.

Horton also has announced his intention to run for chair of the Board of Commissioners.

Davis has not indicated if he plans to seek reelection.

The full video recording of the section of the Oct. 11 BOC meeting dealing with the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board appointment is on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

The clips used above were taken from that video. The clips from Davis and Horton came before the clips from Luke in the original.

Members of the HLC Board serve without compensation for their service, though they can seek reimbursement for expenses. Horton and Luke have told me they have never submitted requests for reimbursement.

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