Monday, March 28, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Make Share the Road Signage Decision Via Email

A Meeting by “Virtual Means”

Oconee County will place Share the Road signs on Simonton Bridge, Barnett Shoals and Colham Ferry roads following a decision by the Board of Commissioners made last month through an email exchange.

The Board decided in that exchange to allow County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to handle a request by the Oconee County Cycling Organization that the signs be placed on the roads rather than take a formal vote on the request at a public meeting.

Theriault sent out his email message to the five commissioners at 6:19 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 4, asking them to “let me know your thoughts on how you wish to proceed” on the road signage.

Commissioner John Daniell wrote back a few minutes later saying “I don’t support the adding of the signage at this time. If I am the lone no, then feel free to move forward administratively.”

Beshara at Meeting March 8

Commissioner Jim Luke wrote back on the next afternoon, saying “I think our roadways are becoming cluttered with all the signs that we have installed.” If Public Works Director Emil Beshara did not object to the new signs, Luke said, “I say go ahead with a limited number.”

Chairman Melvin Davis sent Theriault an email message on the following Monday, saying “I am OK with the administrative approval of the signage installation” so long as the signs were paid for by the bikers.

Commissioner Margaret Hale wrote the next morning, Feb. 8, saying “I am good with administrative.”

The email correspondence, which I requested from the county in an open records request, does not contain any response from Commissioner Chuck Horton to Theriault’s Feb. 4 email.

Horton told me over the phone on Saturday that he “had a conversation with Alan face-to-face” and told Theriault the way he proposed to handle the signs was “OK with me.”

On Feb. 22, Theriault sent an email to Richard McSpadden, who had requested that the county put up the signs.

Theriault wrote that the BOC is “in agreement that handling this administratively is a far better course of action than the bureaucracy of a formal vote in a meeting.”

He told McSpadden the county was ready to go forward with installation of the signs.

Theriault sent an email message to the BOC members on Feb. 25 indicating that the county was working out the “final details” of installation of the signs.

Beshara told me in an email message he sent me March. 24 that he has ordered the signs for the road and some of them have come in. He is waiting on the remaining signs before he begins installation.

Beshara already has placed the signs on New High Shoals Road–the fourth road for which the Oconee County Cycling Organization requested the signs in a letter it sent to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis in July of 2010.

In that letter McSpadden, representing OCCO, said, at the suggestion of Davis and Horton, he was asking that his letter be sent to the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning for review and a recommendation “to the Board of Commissioners.”

That Committee began its review of the issue at its Sept. 14 meeting and returned to it at its meeting on Nov. 9.

At that meeting, the Committee voted unanimously “to recommend to the Board of Commissioners that the road signs be placed as requested, with OCCO paying for the signs,” according to the minutes of that meeting.

But the matter never made it to the BOC.

And when the Athens Banner-Herald wrote on March 1 that the signs would “sprout along Colham Ferry Road,” it didn’t explain how or when that decision was made.

Georgia’s Open and Public Meetings Law, last overhauled in 1999, doesn’t deal with the type of email exchange the BOC engaged in to reach a decision about the Share the Road signs.

It simply defines a meeting as “the gathering of a quorum of the members of the governing body.” All such meetings must be advertised in advance, open to the public, include an advance agenda and result in official minutes.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens’ proposed rewrite of that law, which is stuck in the Georgia House of Representatives at present, also did not address the issue.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia, however, in its review of the Georgia Open Meetings and Open Records Laws, states on page 7 that boards of commissioners cannot hold a meeting over the telephone.

The document cities a 2001 Georgia Court of Appeals case in which the court wrote on page 3 that, “In this digital age, we recognize that meetings may be held in ways that were not contemplated when the (Georgia Open Meetings) Act was initially drafted.”

The court further wrote that a meeting “within the definition of the Act may be conducted by written, telephonic, electronic, wireless or other virtual means.”

Since it is a meeting as covered by the Act, it would have to be publicized in advance, open to the public, have an agenda and result in minutes.

Oconee BOC Chairman Davis is the First Vice President of ACCG.