Saturday, July 12, 2014

Georgia Department Of Transportation Too Busy To Enforce Sign Law At Oconee County Connector, Deputy Commissioner Says

Explanation For Boswell Signs

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis seems to have it about right.

The state does not have the time for, resources for or interest in enforcing its ban on signs in the right-of-ways for highways around the state, according to Georgia Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Todd Long.

“Why would we go after posting of a sign?” Long said. “We have more important matters.”

Long gave that explanation for why GDOT has not asked Boswell Properties, owned by Georgia Transportation Board District 10 Representative Jamie Boswell, to remove signs the county believes are in the state right-of-way at the southwest corner of SR 316 and the Oconee Connector.

SR 316 And Oconee Connector

Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko said that Davis told him the state wasn’t concerned about the signs.

Benko has used the state’s response as a justification for deciding not to enforce the county sign ordinance, which is independent of the state law and which says that signs must be erected 5 feet back from roadway right-of-ways.

Long vs. Others

Long’s description of state policy is at odds with what I was told by GDOT staff from Gainesville, Atlanta and Athens.

Karen Schafer, a technician in traffic operations at GDOT in Gainesville, told me on June 5 that “we do not allow signs in the right of way.”

Brian Asherbranner from the GDOT Outdoor Advertising Department in Atlanta told me on June 6 that “it is strictly against the law for anything to be in the state right of way.”

Brent Williams, a permit engineer in the Athens GDOT office, told me, also on June 6, that “if a sign is on the Department of Transportation right of way, it is against the law.”

All of them told me the state enforces the law.

Georgia Code

Asherbranner directed me to the state statute, which states that “It shall be unlawful for any person to erect, place, or maintain within the dedicated right of way of any public road any sign, signal, or other device.”

The law makes an exception for “bus shelters” and advertisements placed on them.

When I talked to Shafer, Asherbranner and Williams, I did not mention the Boswell signs. I only asked about the law and GDOT procedures.

I asked Long about the Boswell signs specifically.

Limited Resources Cited

Long told me when I talked with him by telephone on the afternoon of July 2 that GDOT was understaffed and could not enforce the state law even if it wanted to.

“We have a limited number of people,” he said.

He said GDOT was more concerned with “cracks in pavement” than signs in the right-of-ways.

“We would be wasting our time,” he said.

Path To Long Complex

Getting that answer from Long took some effort.

Williams from the Athens GDOT office directed me to Pat Minutello, district legal services coordinator in Gainesville, for further details on how GDOT enforced the sign prohibition.

I talked with Minutello by telephone on June 9 and told him I was interested in examining the record to determine how Boswell had been given permission to keep his signs in the state right of way at the intersection of SR 316 and the Oconee Connector.

Minutello told me he would treat my inquiry as an open records request and would get back to me on the outcome of that request.

On June 12, Minutello told me that two files “meet the description set forth in your request.”

He would not tell me what the files actually contained, and he told me I would have to come to Gainesville to answer that question.

Trip To Gainesville

I drove to Gainesville on July 1 and spent an hour going through two files, labeled “General Correspondence Oconee County” and “SR8/Oconee Connector.” The first was a little more than an inch thick. The second was about a half inch thick.

GDOT District Office

The first entry in the larger file was for March 26, 1980. The last entry was Aug. 20, 2013.

The first entry in the smaller file was from Jan. 17, 1997. The last entry was Oct. 17, 2012.

Neither file contained any reference to Boswell or his signs or to any question about signs whatsoever.

Directed To Long

After going through the files, I asked Minutello if he could direct me to someone who might be able to tell me why the Boswell signs were in the state right-of-way.

On July 2, I got an email message from Lynne S. Rhys, legal analyst, Division of Legal Services in the GDOT offices in Atlanta.

“Your best contact is Todd Long, who is familiar with your request for information,” she wrote.

I called Long the next afternoon and left a message when I was told he was in a meeting. He called me back a few hours later.

Surprise At Trip To Gainesville

Long expressed surprise I had been directed to the files in Gainesville.

Those files weren’t going to contain what I was looking for, he said.

I told him that they had not.

He then told me that GDOT was focused on issues such as cracks in the payment and did not have the resources to try to enforce the state’s restrictions on signs in highway right-of-ways.

I did tell him that his comments were not consistent with what I had been told by others I had spoken with.

I did not tell him that B.R. White, director of the Oconee County Code Enforcement Office, told me his office worked with Asherbranner on sign issues and that Asherbranner told me he had worked with the county recently on removal of a sign from the SR 316 right-of-way.

That sign involved Upchurch Realty.

Boswell’s Pay

Long asked me if I knew how much Boswell was being paid to serve on the Georgia Transportation Board.

I told him that I knew Boswell was paid only per diem expenses.

The Transportation Board meets monthly, usually in Atlanta, and the law allows for expenses for “each day of actual attendance at meetings of the board and the committee meetings” as well as “for each day actually spent in studying the transportation needs of the state or attending other functions as a representative of the board, not to exceed 60 days in any calendar year.”

Given the costs of hotels in Atlanta and the state’s low reimbursement rate, Long said, Boswell probably was losing money by serving on the Board.

Quick And Williams On Boswell’s Appointment

Boswell was selected in February of 2013 for a five-year term on the Transportation Board in a secret ballot by legislators whose districts fall wholly or partially in the 10th Congressional District.

Rep. Regina Quick and Rep. Chuck Williams, who represent Oconee County, told me earlier this year they didn’t know who nominated Boswell.

Neither said they knew much about the process or how someone gets nominated. Quick said she would find out and get back to me, but I’ve not heard anything more from her.

Both Quick and Williams said they supported Boswell, and Williams even said he campaigned on behalf of Boswell.

Cowsert On Boswell’s Appointment

Sen. Bill Cowsert, who also represents Oconee County, told me in a telephone conversation on June 17 that incumbent Transportation Board member Bobby Parham from Milledgeville originally said he did not want to continue on the Board and then changed his mind.

By that time, “Jamie had gotten into the race and was making the rounds, talking to people,” Cowsert said.

Cowsert said he didn’t remember who made the nomination, but Cowsert said he “was ecstatic to have someone from our part of the district” on the Board.

Qualifications Of Board Members

The state law lists only one qualification for the Board members. He or she must be “a resident of the Congressional district which he or she represents.” Board districts are the same as the Congressional districts.

The state law does not say how anyone goes about nominating himself or herself for the Board.

Cowsert said most Board members are former legislators, as Parham was, and the only requirement is that a legislator make the nomination.

Cowsert said the Transportation Board is important to the legislators as a way of having some indirect impact on GDOT decisions.

Boswell Bio

Boswell’s biographical sketch, complete with a downloadable picture, appears on the Transportation Board web site.

According to that sketch, Boswell is president and owner of the Boswell Group, which includes a commercial real estate company, an insurance agency and an appraisal company. The company is located at 788 Prince Avenue in Athens.

Boswell, according to the sketch, is a former Athens Area Association of Realtors president, former Georgia CCIM (Certified Commercial Investment Member) chapter president, former Athens Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors member, and Oconee County Economic Development Authority member.

This last listing appears to be an error, as Oconee County does not have an Economic Development Authority.

A native of Greensboro, Boswell earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Georgia, according to the web site.

Background On Signs

Oconee County granted permits in August of last year to Boswell Properties for signs on two undeveloped pieces of land at the busy intersection of SR 316 and the Oconee Connector.

When Boswell Properties installed the signs, the county informed Boswell that the signs in the southwest corner were in the right of way of the state and the signs in the southeast corner did not appear to meet the county’s 5-foot-setback requirement.

Boswell did not move the signs, and the county decided not to enforce its ordinance. County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko said that decision was the result of Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis telling Benko that the state was not concerned about the signs.

KW Commercial has now taken over the listing for the property on the southeast corner of the SR 316 and Oconee Connector intersection and erected signs in what appears to be the same location as was used by Boswell.

The county now is trying to get Andy Homeyer of KW Commercial to move those signs.


Beanne said...

Mr. Boswell probably does not care about "losing money" by serving. The special treatment he gets is worth it I'm sure. Thanks for doing all this to get close to the truth - a lot of effort on your part.

Anonymous said...

Agree 100% with what Beanne said.

Xardox said...

Oh, and it depends a lot on what the sign says.

Anonymous said...

It is not about how much Jimmy gets paid, it is about how much influence and the connections he accumulates that eventually leads to "the big bucks". The connected, government class and the elite class are our new masters. The rest of us are fined or go to jail (unless we are one of the temporary useful idiots). The elites, they are "too busy" to enforce the law on each other. I bet I could post a sign that they could find all kinds of time to address. Welcome to the Amerika.