Sunday, December 15, 2013

Oconee County Commissioners Hold Closed Meeting And Tour To Discuss Courthouse Facilities

Two Commissioners Absent

Oconee County voters are being asked to take the word of Superior Court Chief Judge David Sweat and his associates that there is a security problem at the Oconee County Courthouse that can be resolved only by construction of a new facility.

A publicly announced meeting of the Board of Commissioners and Judge Sweat on Wednesday morning was closed to citizens on the grounds the public cannot be privy to the discussion of security issues.

Commissioners John Daniell and Mark Saxon joined Commission Chairman Melvin Davis and Sweat on the hour-long tour, which was followed by a gathering in the Commission chambers.

The public was denied access to the first half of that meeting as well, again on the grounds that courthouse security was to be discussed.

Sweat And Company

Judge Sweat was joined in leading the tour by District Attorney Ken Mauldin, Probate Court Judge David Anglin, and Clerk of Courts Angela Elder-Johnson.

Commissioners Margaret Hale and Jim Luke did not attend either the tour or the discussion that followed, but Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko and County Clerk Jane Greathouse were part of the group.

Blake Giles, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, showed up near the beginning of the meeting but was told he could not take the tour.

Russ Page was the only citizen present, and he recorded the initial comments of Chairman Davis saying the tour was closed to the public. The video below, lasting just 39 seconds, contains Davis’ remarks.

Page waited in the Commission chamber until the group returned from the tour for a discussion but was told he had to leave the room until invited back. He recorded that second part of the meeting as well.

Tuesday Night Agenda

Judge Sweat is advocating that the county include funding for a new judicial facility on the ballot for the May 2014 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum on May 20.

The issue of the SPLOST referendum is not on the agenda of the BOC for its meeting on Tuesday night, but Benko told me last week he expects to forward to the Commission members tomorrow “consolidated SPLOST submissions” from county department heads and other officials.

The tour on Wednesday followed a discussion of Judge Sweat’s proposal at the BOC meeting on Dec. 3 at which Davis and Benko urged the four voting commissioners to fund another study of space needs and facilities of the county.

The other four commissioners balked and agreed instead to study the existing facilities themselves.

Meeting Announced Monday

Clerk Greathouse released the public announcement of Wednesday’s meeting at 6:24 p.m. on Monday.

The announcement said: “A meeting to tour the Oconee County Courthouse will be held on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 10:30 a.m. beginning in the Commission Meeting Chambers.”

The announcement made no mention of a plan to go into executive session, and it isn’t clear the state’s open meetings law would allow the Commission to go into executive session for this purpose.

The law requires the Commissioners to officially vote to go into and then vote to come back out of executive session, but no such vote was taken on Wednesday.

NOTE: Sheriff Scott Berry sent me a comment saying that the Commissioners were conducting a security plan of the courthouse and that such an activity and plan is exempt from the requirements of the open meetings and open records laws. The comment is below.

SPLOST Report Due

Due at the end of this month is the legally required report on SPLOST 2004 and 2009 spending through June 30, 2013.

I filed an open records request for that report on Monday and was told on Wednesday that it is not available.

I also was told it would not be available until it appears in the Enterprise, the county’s legal organ.

The latest issue it can appear in is on Dec. 26, and I asked on Wednesday to have the report no later than Dec. 19, which is when the final report has to be forwarded to the newspaper as advertising copy for the Dec. 26 issue.

I have not received a reply to that request.

Unspent Money From 2004

The report is important for it provides details about unspent funds in SPLOST 2004.

Voters in 2003 approved spending $4.6 million in SPLOST 2004 for “county facilities expansion and renovation,” but as of June 30, 2012, the county spent only $821,543 of that amount.

At a “visioning” session the BOC held in January, several Commissioners expressed concern about asking for more money with the existing money unspent.

The SPLOST report due at the end of the year will update those spending figures and tell as of June 30 of this year how much unspent money remains.

Farmington Meeting

At a town-hall meeting the BOC held in Farmington on October 15, former Commissioner Chuck Horton asked the five Commissioners to give their priorities for the upcoming SPLOST.

None of them mentioned the courthouse.

Davis is particularly notable because he has long been an advocate of a new courthouse.

But concerns of judges about security have been widely known to all of the Commissioners.

The Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning even held a public hearing on the issue in October of 2010.

That group recommended to the BOC that the county build a new judicial facility near the current jail on Experiment Station road and renovate the current courthouse for administrative functions.

Judge Jumped Gun

County department heads and leaders were supposed to submit their requests for SPLOST projects to County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko by Dec. 1.

Judge Sweat, however, didn’t wait, making a PowerPoint presentation before the Commissioners on Nov. 26.

Sweat’s presentation appeared without any advance discussion in a recent BOC meeting of the courthouse and SPLOST.

Individual voting Commission members can put items on the agenda, but they rarely do so. Chairman Davis mostly controls that agenda.

Public Involvement In January

Citizens will not have a chance to get involved in planning for the SPLOST vote until January.

Clerk Greathouse on Monday sent out announcements for meetings open to the public for a discussion of SPLOST on Jan. 13 and Feb. 10 at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road.

Both meetings are to start at 6 p.m.

The BOC is scheduled to discuss the possible projects at its meeting on Feb. 25 and vote on projects to be included in the referendum on March 4.

The plan is to put the issue before the voters on May 20.

If voters approve, the 1 percent sales tax will be extended, probably for another six years.


Lee Becker said...

Sheriff Scott Berry submitted this comment to me via email. I attach it here with his approval.

I am posting this in response to your December 15, 2013 editorial Oconee County Commissioners Hold Closed Meeting And Tour To Discuss Courthouse Facilities
The editorial is incomplete when it comes to the factual basis for closing the meeting to the general public. You may recall that during Judge Sweat’s presentation on November 26, 2013, that the members of the Board of Commissioners and the public that attended that meeting were reminded that Georgia law requires that a survey be conducted every four years of the security plan for the courthouse. That security plan must be, by law, prepared by the Sheriff and presented to the Chief Judge for approval and the county commissioners for funding.

For legal reference I will refer you to OCGA 15-16-10 (10) and 15-16-10 (b). The history behind the legislation is rather straightforward. Following the murderous rampage of Brian Nichols at the Fulton County Courthouse some years ago, the legislature amended the law ordering the security surveys of each and every courthouse in Georgia.

Implementation of the new law led to a minimal State stipend of funding to the Georgia Sheriff’s Association to come up with minimum standards for courthouse security throughout the state, in much the same way the GSA provides standards for each of the 145 or so jails across the state. The Association of County Commissioners and the Georgia Sheriffs Association, in conjunction with the U.S. Marshal’s Office and the National Sheriff’s Association developed over time a lengthy set of standards that are used to evaluate the security plan and physical plant of each courthouse.

Simply put, the Oconee County Courthouse has previously failed to meet standards and continues to fail to meet standards based on the architecture and design of the existing building. The current building will never meet standards, it wasn’t built, designed, or intended to meet these standards. In fact, our courthouse meets less than 50% of the applicable standards for safety and security of the employees, witnesses, jurors, visitors and parties that have business to conduct inside the courthouse.

You will note that under OCGA 15-16-10 (10) there is specific and direct language exempting the security plan from the Open Records Act and Meeting statutes OCGA 50-14-3. That includes specially exemption from discussions surrounding the security plan I think the Chairman was legally bound to keep the general public and media away from the discussions surrounding the security plan. I know you also will make note of the fact that the penalty for violating the law in this regard can be contempt of court as well as removal from office.

I hope you find this information helpful in fleshing out your editorial on this issue as far as the factual basis for conducting the survey and the legality of closing the meeting to the public.

Sheriff Scott Berry

Oconee County Georgia

Xardox said...

Lawyering up is probably going to work in pushing through public expenditures without transparency and due process.
"National security."
"Public safety."
"Special circumstances."
After all, it's for our own good.

Anonymous said...

25 million for a new courthouse is insane. Melvin Davis and Scott Berry: You two will never be re-elected if you continue down this path. Seriously, your ego's are clouding your judgement and common sense.

Anonymous said...

$20 or $25 million for a courthouse in a county our size is simply insane. Sorry, David Sweat, Melvin Davis and Scott Berry; nothing about this passes the proverbial "smell test".

Anonymous said...

It is hard to believe Oconee voters would approve of such a large expenditure for something that appears to be a solution looking for a problem. The courthouse is the people's building. Making it into a fortress makes it the Judge and Government's building. If there were an imperative need or a demonstrated history of problems, things might be different. Just because one Superior Court Judge is nervous is not a reason to spend $25 million. Perhaps he should find a job where he feels safer.