Sunday, April 20, 2014

Oconee County Revised Its Farmland Protection Program To Improve Transparency And Then Held Seven Meetings Without Giving Public Notice

Now Waiting On Federal Funding

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners began its overhaul of its farmland protection program 15 months ago, it did so, County Attorney Daniell Haygood said at the time, to make the process more transparent and to make sure the county was following state open records and open meetings laws.

Since that time, the Board assembled two different committees, one of which replaced a citizen committee that had been screening farms for the county’s program.

Those two county-appointed committees have met a total of seven different times, all without the public notice that would seem to be required by the state’s open meetings law.

During this time, the county also has passed up the chance to receive $175,000 in federal funds to protect a farm, though no decision to do that was made in an open meeting and no one has been able or willing to indicate how the decision was made.

At present, the county program is on hold, waiting on a decision by the federal government to release money to protect a farm selected by the county’s newly appointed screening committee. That screening committee held five meetings, all without prior announcement.

The farm that was selected by the county’s screening committee is one that the citizen committee it replaced also had identified as appropriate for protection. Had the county accepted the invitation of the federal agency to apply for the funding, that farm already could be in the process of being protected.

Visioning Session

When the Board of Commissioners met for what it called a “visioning” session on Jan. 24, 2013, farmland protection was one of the items for discussion on its agenda.

After BOC Chairman Melvin Davis raised the issue, Commissioners John Daniell and Margaret Hale both spoke, criticizing the process in place at that time for selecting farms.

Both said they did not know enough about how the citizen group, the Partnership for Farmland Protection, ran the program and were unhappy because the Commissioners did not control the schedule of requests.

County Attorney Haygood summarized--at two different times in the discussion--the concerns he was hearing, as the video below indicates.

Haygood said the issue was transparency and compliance with the state laws requiring that meetings be open to the public, which means they can be held only after proper public notice, and requiring that records be available to the public.

Davis Took Control

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis followed the comments of Daniell and Hale by saying he wanted the Board to appoint its own committee to review farms, rather than continue to rely on the screening by the existing citizen group, the Partnership for Farmland Protection.

The new committee, Davis said, would then bring the farms to the BOC for funding.

At its regular meeting on March 5, the BOC moved forward on that idea, authorizing Davis and Commissioner Mark Saxon to develop guidelines for the structure of such a screening committee as well as propose policies and goals for it.

The BOC did not create a committee to assist with this task, but Davis did.

At 9 a.m. on April 18, Davis assembled a group–he has referred to it as a committee in subsequent BOC meetings--in the government annex building in Watkinsville to help with that task.

State Open Meetings Law

No public notice of that meeting was ever made, though state law is explicit in saying that public meetings can be held only after public notice of at least 24 hours.

The law states that this requirements applies to all “agencies” of government, including “every department, agency, board, bureau, office, commission, authority, or similar body of each such county, municipal corporation, or other political subdivision of the state.”

Since the committee was doing work for the BOC, it would seem to fall under this law, just as other citizen committees appointed by the BOC do. Those committee meet only after posting notice.

At the BOC meeting on April 23, Davis read into the minutes (video below) the people who had attended that meeting, though no formal minutes of the meeting appear to have been taken. It included himself and Commissioner Saxon and 10 other people.

He also made it clear that the committee was assisting the BOC in developing its policy for farmland protection.

Need For Second Meeting

Davis also announced at the April 23 meeting that he would call a second meeting, though he did not specify date or location. (See video below.)

Davis said the group would help the BOC set up criteria for selecting farms, discuss how to create a screening committee and even identify people who might serve on that screening committee.

Davis did not refer to this group as a committee at this point, but he made it clear it would be developing policy recommendations for the BOC.

Second Meeting

No public notice was ever given for that meeting, which took place on May 22, again in the Government Annex building in Watkinsville.

The committee reviewed a set of procedures that would be used in ranking farms.

In the end, the committee recommended that the criteria set forth by the federal government and being used by the citizen group, the Partnership for Farmland Protection, be used by the county as well.

On June 4, at the regular meeting of the BOC, Davis and Saxon, made a report to that effect to the full BOC, as the video below shows.

Again on July 30, Davis reported to the full Commission on the work done by the “committee,” which he said “had met on two occasions.” The video below contains his report.

Through an open records search, I obtained minutes of that committee meeting taken by Thomas Verner, a staff member at the local office of the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

In addition to Davis and Saxon, nine persons attended, according to those minutes.

Screening Committee Appointed

At its Aug. 6 meeting, the Commissioners appointed five persons to a screening committee.

Though each commissioner officially was naming a committee member, documents I obtained through open records requests indicate that Davis actually assembled the group, following discussions by the committee that had met on April 18 and May 22.

The county did not solicit citizen applications for the screening committee, as is the usual procedure for appointment of citizens to committees.

The BOC appointed Henry Hibbs as chair of the screening committee. Hibbs is a retired county extension agent.

One Public Meeting

The county held a publicly advertised meeting on farmland protection on Oct. 17, with only Hibbs from the screening committee attending.

The meeting was for farmers, but, because the screening committee members did not know the procedures required to get a farm ready for submission for federal funding, BOC Chairman Davis invited Russ Page and Laura Hall, both from the Partnership for Farmland Protection, to make presentations. (See note at end of this post.)

Page is a long-time advocate of farmland protection in the county, and Hall is conservation director at the Athens Land Trust, which has partnered with the county over the years on the farmland protection program.

Page explained to the eight farmers present at the meeting that most of the money for farmland protection in the county comes from the federal government. That money is supplemented by county funds, which have been set aside in the 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

The referendum for that tax, approved by citizens, designated $500,000 for farmland protection through the end of 2015. Just less than $200,000 has been spent so far.

The Athens Land Trust actually holds the easements on the land. The easement prevents the farmer from developing the land in the future.

December 17 Report

The next time the public was informed about the activities of the screening committee was on Dec. 17, when Hibbs reported to the BOC that his group had met and top-ranked a farm owned by Carole Ludwig, 1510 Old Farmington Road, in the south of the county.

In the video below, Hibbs gives an overview of the meetings leading up to the selection.

In a written report to the BOC, Hibbs specified that his group had met on Nov. 21, Dec. 2, Dec. 3, Dec. 4 and again on Dec. 10.

No public notice had been given of any of those meetings.

List Of Scores

Hibbs also gave the BOC a report on Dec. 17 listing the scores each of the six farms had been given across the criteria used by the screening committee.

I asked for the report and detailed rankings in an email message to County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko early on Dec. 19.

Benko told me he had given his copy to Blake Giles from The Oconee Enterprise but that he would ask County Clerk Jane Greathouse to get a copy for me.

When I did not hear from Greathouse, I stopped in the BOC office in the courthouse on the afternoon of Dec. 20 and asked her for access to the report.

After a delay, she came out and gave me a copy, but she said Chairman Davis had asked her to tell me that the report had not yet gone to the Athens Land Trust and that was the reason for delaying its release to the public.

Request For Notices

On Jan. 6 of this year, I sent an email message to Greathouse and County Attorney Haygood telling them I had not seen any notices posted for the meetings of the committee assembled by Davis on April 18 and May 22 or for the meetings of the ranking committee chaired by Hibbs.

I asked if they had been posted and I had simply missed them. (The Enterprise reported in its Dec. 19 issue that it had not received any notices of the meetings by the screening committee other than the one on Oct. 17.)

On Jan. 14, I received a reply from Greathouse, telling me that Benko had tried to contact Hibbs to learn the answer to my question. She told me Hibbs was out of town and would be back the next day.

“We will update you once Henry is able to discuss the matter with Jeff,” she wrote.

I have never heard anything more on the matter.

State Attorney General

I talked on Jan. 15 with Sheila Guider, a paralegal in the Open Government Mediation Program at the office of Attorney General Sam Olens, and described the work of the committee Davis appointed to study and develop policy for its farmland protection program and of the screening committee.

She told me she could offer only general advice based on what I had described, but she said she believed these committees would be subject to the state’s open meeting requirements, including the stipulation for advance notice of meetings.

She said citizens can file a complaint in Oconee County Superior Court claiming violation of the Open Meetings Law.

The law states that “Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $1,000.”

As an alternative, Geiter said, a citizen can file a complaint with the Open Government Mediation Program, asking attorneys in that program to investigate the complaint and find a resolution.

Federal Funding Bypassed

At the April 23 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, Sharon Holbrooks, conservation easement specialist with the Athens office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told the Commissioners that money–probably about $175,000–would be available to the county for farmland protection if it applied quickly.

When the county did not apply for the funding, Holbrooks sent that money back to the federal government.

BOC Chairman Davis has said that he did not make that decision, though he was involved in discussions with Holbrooks, including at the meeting on April 18 and May 22, both of which Holbrooks attended. Davis said he did not know who made the decision.

Commissioners Daniell and Saxon also have said explicitly they don’t know who made that decision or how it was made. Saxon also was in the April 18 and May 22 meetings. Daniell was not.

What is clear is that the decision not to put a farm forward last summer was not made in a public meeting.

Federal Funding Pending

When Hibbs made his report to the BOC on Dec. 17, Chairman Davis said that Athens Land Trust would begin discussions with the land owners and that the top-ranked farm might not be the one the Trust brought back to the BOC for funding.

I spoke with Athens Land Trust attorney Hall on Wednesday and asked her for an update on those discussions.

She told me that she had visited the Ludwig farm, top-ranked by the committee, with Hibbs, and that everything was moving along as planned.

She said she knew the Ludwig farm, since it had been one of the farms under consideration by the Partnership for Farmland Protection, of which she is a member, last year, when the county decided not to seek federal funding.

Hall told me at present she is waiting on word from Holbrooks from the Natural Resources Conservation Service on the availability of federal funds in Georgia this year for farmland protection.

To follow up, I sent an email message to Holbrooks on Wednesday and called her office on Thursday and Friday, leaving voice mail messages both times. I have not yet heard back from her.


Note: An earlier version of this post said that Hibbs invited Page and Hall to give the presentation at the Oct. 17 meeting. Shortly after I posted the story, Page sent me a copy of email correspondence between himself and BOC Chairman Davis showing that Davis had asked Page to make the presentation.

Page said this was the kind of presentation he and Hall had made in the past as the Partnership for Farmland Protection solicited applications from farmers.


Anonymous said...

Once again, thank you for your diligent work in keeping the citizens of Oconee County informed. It appears that Mark Saxon has become the trusted right-hand man of Melvin Davis.

Beanne said...

This is very sad. We had a great group and now we have some well intentioned people who don't know what they are doing and commissioners who are totally out of touch. Thanks for pestering them.