Sunday, October 09, 2011

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

And on Farmland Protection

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

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

The proposed action Tuesday night would set aside, at least in the short term, the outcome of a revision to the intergovernmental agreement between Oconee and Walton counties approved at the request of the commissioners as part of the final agreement on the reservoir project on Sept. 4, 2007.

The BOC had considered several options before it appointed Oconee County’s three members on the seven-member management board back in October of 2007.

A draft of the intergovernmental agreement between Oconee and Walton counties dated Aug. 9, 2007, had specified that the three members appointed by the BOC had to be members of the Board of Commissioners or county employees. The commissioners asked that that provision be rewritten.

The agreement approved by the BOC on Sept. 4, 2007, specified that “at least one of the appointees must be a member of such Board of Commissioners,” making it possible to appoint citizen members.

The official term of appointment is two years, but Huckaby is the first of the three Oconee County members replaced since the management board’s first appointment in 2007.

Commissioner Jim Luke has served as an Oconee County representative to the management board since his appointment at that Oct. 30, 2007, meeting, as has Oconee County Finance Director Jeff Benko.

Walton and Oconee counties each appoint alternates for each of their respective members of the management board. The intergovernmental agreement stipulates that the alternates selected must either be members of the boards of commissioners or employees of the appointing county.

Commissioner Margaret Hale initially was appointed as an alternate to Luke, County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault was appointed as an alternate to Benko, and then Utility Department Director Gary Dodd was appointed as an alternate to Huckaby.

Horton, who, with Hale was a critic of the Hard Labor Creek project, has replaced Hale as an alternate. Chris Thomas, current Utility Department Director, replaced Dodd upon his retirement. Theriault remains the alternate for Benko.

The decision to join Walton County on the reservoir project was approved by a 3-2 vote of the BOC at that September 2007 meeting. Hale and Horton voted no.

Commissioner Jim Luke was joined by then Commissioner Don Norris in supporting the county’s decision to partner with Walton County. Chairman Davis broke the tie in favor of the agreement.

Construction on the Hard Labor Creek reservoir is on hold because the two counties do not have enough money to move forward on the project and do not have customers for the water it will hold.

Walton and Oconee counties have asked the state to provide money to build the dam. In the meantime, they are going forward with land acquisition and with mitigation work.

At the agenda-setting meeting on Sept. 27, Davis said he thought there were advantages to having a citizen on the management board but was willing to go along with the other BOC members if they wanted to appoint Horton as Huckaby’s replacement.

Davis said at least one citizen had expressed an interest in replacing Huckaby but did not name that person.

Luke argued that Horton “is up to speed,” having attending most of the meetings, and “we need somebody who has been there already.” Luke continued: “I think bringing somebody in that hadn’t been on the board for a while would not be good as a voting member at this point.”

Horton reminded the public he has been a critic and did not support the project. “I represent people who do have concerns,” he said.

Daniell said he supported the decision to appoint Horton. Hale did not state her position.

Also on the agenda on Tuesday night is consideration of expenditure of farmland protection funds and acceptance of a conservation easement for property selected for preservation.

Russ Page, who is a member of Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection, told me yesterday the Partnership is prepared to present to the BOC a farm for protection.

The owner of the farm, whom Page did not identify, has agreed to sell an easement to the farm that specifies that he will never develop the farm. The owner can still farm the land.

The farmer contributes to the easement by selling it at 25 percent less than its full value. The county, using funds from the current Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, would contribute another 25 percent. The federal government contributes 50 percent of the easement value.

This would be the seventh farm in the county protected from development through this program, Page said.

At the agenda-setting meeting on Sept. 27, Davis said he didn’t remember fully the circumstances surrounding Huckaby’s appointment to the Hard Labor Creek management board but didn’t think the BOC had advertised for a citizen member, as it usually does when before it appoints citizens to committees.

Huckaby told me in a telephone conversation I had with him today that he was called by Davis and asked if he would serve on the management board.

Huckaby said he didn't "know who was championing having a citizen rather than a member of the Commission” on the management board. He said he has known Horton for a long time and “I think he put my name forward.”

“Melvin said the Board had asked him to call me to see if I’d be interested in doing it,” Huckaby said. “At least that is how I remember it.”

The decision of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir Management Board to go forward with the project in light of the downturn in the economy and the lack of need for water at least in the short term could be an issue in the 2012 BOC elections.

Horton has announced that he will run for the chairmanship. Davis, who has been a strong proponent of the project, has not said if he will seek reelection.

Horton’s position as a voting member of the management board could limit his criticism of the project during the campaign.

Sarah Bell, who came within 100 votes of Davis in 2008, has said she will run again.

Huckaby, who lives in Oconee County, was named chancellor of the University System of Georgia in May of this year. He had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2010 from the 113th District, which includes Oconee County.

County Administrative Officer Theriault told me in an email message on Friday that Huckaby’s resignation “was verbal from Mr. Huckaby to the Chairman (Davis) and was acknowledged via an email.” He sent me a copy of that email from Davis, dated July 6.

In that email, Davis said he had talked with Huckaby earlier in the day. He copied the message to all the members of the BOC.

“Oconee County citizens as well as the Board of Commissioners also appreciates what you have specifically done as a member of the Hard Labor Creek Management Board,” Davis wrote. “Your service has meant much to the success of the partnership with Walton County.”

Huckaby worked to help the two counties find state funding for the reservoir project. No decision has been made yet on the county’s request for state funds.

The meeting tomorrow starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Page, of the farmland protection project, shot the video for me of the Sept. 27 BOC meeting that is included above with this report.


Xardox said...

Is membership in HLCRMB a paid spot?

Lee Becker said...

Here is what the intergovernmental agreement says:

(d) Members of the Management Board shall serve without compensation but may be reimbursed by the Authority for their actual expenses properly incurred in the performance of their duties.

As Commissioner Luke notes in the video, Oconee County has been sending three staff members, and now will be sending four staff members, to these meetings. The meetings are usually during the day when these staff members otherwise would be working.