In the past six months, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners has invested nearly two hours of public meetings to a controversy of its own creation about a program involving relatively small amounts of money and relatively few people.
The program has required the county to spend just a little more than a half million dollars, but it has received nearly $3 million in state and federal funds.
With that money, the county has protected 485 acres of productive farmland from future development in what federal officials have termed a model program and a “conservation success story.”
The program has been run by a group of citizen volunteers who have worked in partnership with farmers and agricultural experts as well as with an area land trust. There have been no visible signs of controversy.
More Discussion Tomorrow
Tomorrow night, the Commissioners are set to replace that citizen group and disrupt the successful procedures so they can appoint a committee of their own to do a small part of the work–ranking farms whose owners express an interest in the program.
To accommodate this disruption of procedures, the Commissioners have told federal officials they do not want a near-certain $175,000 in additional money and passed up the chance in the next 12 months to protect another farm.
The Commissioners already have decided on the standards the ranking committee should use.
These are the same standards the citizen committee has used and the standards set up by the federal government.
Davis Out Front
Although Commissioner John Daniell was first to voice his concerns about what he called the lack of transparency of existing program, Commissioner Chairman Melvin Davis has taken the lead in creation of the new committee.
It was Davis who first suggested such a committee at the Jan. 24 “visioning session” of the Commission, and it has been Davis who has pushed for its creation since.
He also has called and led two invitation-only meetings–one on April 18 and the other on May 22–to discuss the farmland protection program.
An open records request I filed on July 29 shows that the committee before the BOC tomorrow night for approval is largely of Davis’ making.
That meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the courthouse in Watkinsville.
Former County Agent To Chair
Davis proposed that Henry Hibbs be chair of the ranking committee and serve for a three-year term.
Hibbs is a retired county extension agent who was being paid $15,706 by the county as its share of his salary when he retired in 2011, according to Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko.
Davis retired from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service in 1993.
Hibbs is a member of the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection, the citizen group that developed and has run the county’s farmland protection program, but two members of the group told me Hibbs rarely attended meetings.
Farmer Proposed Too
Davis sent an email message to the four voting commissioners on June 28 saying that he and Commissioner Mark Saxon had agreed on Hibbs and Sam Mitchell for three year terms on the ranking committee.
Mitchell’s farm was protected by the program in 2006, and he joined the Partnership for Farmland Protection after that time.
Davis also suggested Mac Hayes, whom he identified as retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the unit within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP).
The federal funds Oconee County has received for farmland protection came from FRPP.
Kathy Hayes, executive assistant to Davis, wrote Davis earlier in the day on June 28 saying she was having trouble finding out much about Mac Hayes from her searches.
Davis proposed eight other individuals or types of individuals, including someone from the cattleman’s association and someone from the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning.
On July 25, Davis sent a note to the other four commissioners indicating that five persons had agreed to serve.
Included was Hayes, nominated by Commissioner Jim Luke for a three-year term. (Mitchell’s term was reduced to two years.)
Also included were Keith Odom from the catleman’s association, nominated by John Daniell for a one-year term, and Bob Isaac, nominated by Commissioner Margaret Hale for a two-year term.
Isaac is a member of the Land Use Committee and a retired associate dean of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Extension services are in the agriculture college.
Postponed Last Week
At the BOC meeting last week, Davis said he talked with all of the Commissioners to get their agreement on the slate.
None of the Commissioners was willing to voice the nominations, however, and Luke ultimately asked for a delay until tomorrow night in making the appointments.
The names of the five tapped individuals, all of whom, Davis told the Commissioners in an email message on July 25, had agreed to serve, were not made public.
Davis’s July 25 email, however, was available on the county web site last Monday morning.
Absent from the list was Russ Page, who has played a leadership role in setting up the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection and the county’s farmland protection program.
He asked the county to fund initial easement purchases–which preclude future development of the farmland–from the county’s general budget and proposed to the Commissioners that they include farmland protection under the successful 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax initiative.
|Page Before Commission 7/30/2013|
Page holds a doctorate from Rutgers University in reproductive physiology and did post-doctorate studies at West Virginia University in reproductive endocrinology.
He came to Georgia to join the animal science faculty at the University of Georgia and subsequently developed his own business in bovine reproduction based on his work on embryo transfer and semen collection and evaluation.
Other Work Needed
Page told me he was never asked to serve on the ranking committee.
Page told the BOC last week he didn’t want to serve on the ranking committee since he felt it was being asked to do a small part of the work needed to keep the program running. Without that other work, he said, the program would die.
Davis told Page that he expected Page would do that other work even if we were not on the ranking committee.
Nancy Stangle, emerita director of the Athens Land Trust, told me that Page has been instrumental in initiating and keeping the farmland protection program alive. The Land Trust has worked with the county and the Partnership on the program and holds the easements for the farms the county has protected.
Stangle joined with Karen Holbrooks from NCRS at the April 23 BOC meeting in explaining how open the process of evaluation of farms had been and how successful Oconee County had been in the past.
Holbrooks said Oconee County was the most successful county in the state and was nearly guaranteed of funding from the current federal budget if it would only indicate it wanted to put forward another farm.
The county, she said, is the only one in the state active in nominating farms at present.
The view of Stangle and Holbrooks contrasts with the one expressed by Commissioner Daniell at the meeting last week, who said the new process will “come up with hopefully a better product.”
No Critic Stepped Forward
Although the BOC has discussed its farmland protection program at its meetings on April 23, May 7, June 4 and again last week, and each time the item has been advertised on the agenda, no one has come forward to complain about the procedures in the past or call for a change in them.
And the charge that the procedures in the past have been less than transparent have been accompanied by the two invitation-only meetings and the creation of a slate of candidates for the screening committee through a less-than-open process at odds with the standard procedure of advertising for membership on citizen committees.
In addition, the decision by the Board not to seek federal funds was not made in an open meeting or announced in an open meeting. It also isn't clear how the decision was communicated to NCRS or by whom.
I asked specifically for correspondence between Davis and/or Benko and Holbrooks in my open records request, and I was given none.
Made By Inaction
At the April 23 meeting, Holbrooks told the BOC members that the federal funding cycle was irregular, that she had received money for the program only in January, and that she needed a quick decision if the county wanted to nominate a farm for fiscal year 2013 funding.
That fiscal year expires on Sept. 30.
Holbrooks told me on July 24 that the county had “opted not to put forward a farm” this year.
I chose not to ask for elaboration, thinking I could find out how she learned of that decision independently.
Since the open records request did not produce that answer, I asked Holbrooks in a telephone conversation this afternoon to tell me who told her that the county was passing up the $175,000 in federal money she said was available.
She told me she learned of the decision through “subsequent meetings” but would not elaborate.
“The decision was made by inaction,” she said.
Holbrooks said her goal was to work with the county again in the future. “I just want to have a farm to protect,” she said.
Federal Funds Sought
The county has been aggressive in seeking other federal funding.
Earlier this year, the county sought $85,000 in federal funds to complete a walking trail in Veterans park. The county was unsuccessful, and it will use SPLOST funds for the same purpose.
The county also aggressively sought $187,000 in federal funds to build a sewer line along McNutt Creek.
The BOC ultimately turned down the money when the identified beneficiaries of the sewer project showed little interest in the project.
Although the Board of Commissioners voted to include farmland protection in the 2009 SPLOST, which runs through the end of 2015, Commissioners have been confused in recent meetings about what the ballot language was.
It lists Farmland Protection separate from Recreational, Historic and Scenic Facilities, though the Commissioners have merged the two in their discussions.
Commissioner Hale even asked Holbrooks at the April 23 meeting how the county was going to fund farmland protection once the $500,000 for the project in the current SPLOST is collected.
Holbrooks deferred, and only at the last meeting the BOC adopted a schedule for discussion of what to include in the next SPLOST initiative.
Farmland protection certainly could be a part of that package.
The Commissioners have said they want a higher level of involvement in the farmland program in the future, though Hale, in particular, has said BOC members had that opportunity in the past and did not act on it.
At no point during the public discussions of the farmland protection program have any of the Commissioners asked that they have a chance to meet with members of the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection to learn more about the process.
Last October, Page and representative of the Athens Land Trust, presented the BOC with several options for a farm to protect. The farms all met the federal standards, Page said, and it was a matter of picking among them.
The Commissioners could not agree on which of the farms was the better choice.
Ultimately, Page and his colleagues came up a single farm to nominate. On that choice, the Board agreed.