The next phase of discussion of the future of the Courthouse in Watkinsville and of the county’s need for additional space will take place behind closed doors.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis announced at the beginning of the BOC meeting last night the schedule for three executive sessions, on March 9, March 19 and March 26.
The BOC will meet publicly on each day and then adjourn into executive sessions that are closed to the public, Davis said.
The announcement is consistent with Davis’ position that the future of the Courthouse should be discussed in executive session with the focus on land acquisition, but Commissioner Jim Luke has been outspoken in the past in arguing for additional open meetings on the topic.
County Clerk Jane Greathouse sent out the official announcements of the three meetings at 5:05 a.m. this morning.
The first meeting will begin at 5 p.m. on March 9.
The second meeting will begin at 2 p.m. on March 19.
The third meeting will be at 2 p.m. on March 26.
All three meetings will be in the Grand Jury Room at the Courthouse.
The BOC must meet in public before voting to go into closed session. It must then meet again at the end of the closed session and adjourn in public.
The Commission must take any official action, such on purchase of a piece of property, in public.
It is required by law to release, once action is completed, records of the executive sessions, with the exception of details of the discussion about security issues.
The BOC has been dealing openly with the future of the Courthouse since at least 2009.
During that time, a number of options have been discussed, including:
*building a separate judicial facility near the jail;
*purchasing land to the rear of the existing Courthouse for expansion on site;
*purchasing the land that is referred to as the Dolvin property across the street from the courthouse, where the county already leases space;
*moving non-judicial office of the county to the government annex south of Watkinsville on SR 15;
*using land in Watkinsville adjacent to the current Board of Education facilities,
*and moving the non-judicial facilities outside of Watkinsville itself. Only the judicial facilities must be inside the county seat.
At the meeting of the BOC on Nov. 11, frustration with the slow pace the five commissioners were making on the future of the Courthouse came to the surface, with Commission John Daniell saying “every time we approach the subject, I run into a brick wall about it.”
Daniell proposed forming a subcommittee of four commissioners–minus Davis–to resolve the issue.
Davis responded by saying he should be included and that the BOC should go into executive session to discuss the appraisals of “various pieces of property the Board needs to review.”
Commissioner Jim Luke objected to the secrecy, saying that the public needed to be involved in the discussions.
None of the commissioners commented last night when Davis announced the executive sessions.
The BOC has had multiple meetings about the Courthouse and space since November, including a work session on Feb. 17 on just that topic. None of these had involved public comment.
Until last night, there was little evidence the Board was anywhere close to reaching a decision or was in a position to begin to consider the “land acquisition” that is the justification for the closed meetings.
What the Board was told at the work session on Feb. 17 was that the county can expect to be required to house a new Superior Court Judge, the judge’s secretary and a law clerk as soon as Jan 1, 2016.
Chief Superior Court Judge David Sweat told the BOC that he expects judicial functions to require all or almost all of the space in the existing Courthouse in the next 20 years, if the BOC decides against building a separate judicial facility.