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.
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.
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.