Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko has issued a directive to county department heads telling them not to make statements to “the press” without clearing those statements in advance with him.
The directive, sent out by email to the department heads at 5:03 p.m. on April 3, followed a 3:49 p.m. email on that date to Public Works Director Emil Beshara telling him to “refrain from discussing” issues “in the paper.”
The two messages follow a back-and-forth exchange of email messages between Benko and Beshara on April 3.
That exchange was in response to an email sent to Benko at 12:30 p.m. on that date by Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis instructing Benko to talk with Beshara about “his recent comments in the local paper concerning transportation funding by the General Assembly.”
Chuck Williams, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from Oconee County, had sent Davis an email message a half hour earlier–at 12:03 p.m.--complaining about comments attributed to Beshara in the April 2 edition of The Oconee Enterprise.
Williams called the comments “unprofessional and accusatory.”
Beshara The Target
While the complaint by Williams to Davis on April 3 was the immediate impetus for the constraints placed on Beshara and the other department heads, a reading of the email exchange makes it clear that the county had tried to restrain Beshara earlier.
Davis wrote in his email message to Benko that “Emil has been publicly vocal regarding issues in the past and I know you have had discussions with him on these matters.
“If he is continuing with these types of comments,” Davis continued, “I would suggest he be given specific counseling regarding his public comments.”
Davis acknowledged that Beshara may have been misquoted in the Enterprise regarding the transportation funding by the General Assembly.
“Please let me know the results of your discussion with Emil,” Davis wrote.
I obtained the email messages through an open records request I filed with the county.
Daniells Bridge Road
In an article on the front page of the Enterprise on Feb. 12, Beshara was quoted as saying the proposed Daniells Bridge Road extension and flyover would not relieve congestion and was not being offered in response to a “transportation need.”
“Call it what it is,” Beshara was quoted as saying, “and that is an economic development project.”
Beshara said the project would cost $20 million, not the $4.8 million listed in planning documents.
Davis was a strong proponent of that project and had argued in his column in that same edition of the Enterprise that the flyover would relieve “traffic congestion.” He did not mention the benefit for landowners in the area seeking to develop their property once the flyover was built.
On April 7, the Board of Commissioners turned down the project framework agreements from the Georgia Department of Transportation for the flyover and widening of Daniells Bridge Road, over the objection of Davis.
The article in the Enterprise, by Editor Blake Giles, had given fodder to those opposing the Daniells Bridge Road extension and flyover.
Former Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton made specific reference to the Beshara article when he spoke before the Board of Commissioners at the April 7 hearing on those agreements.
His comments are in the video below.
April 2 Article
What had Williams irritated, according to his email to Davis, was a quote in another article on the county budget written by Giles in the “jump” or continuation of a front page story in the April 2 edition of the paper.
In the very last paragraph of the “jump” on page eight of the paper was a quote from Beshara about the transportation bill then under consideration by the General Assembly.
“They have failed to do the easiest and simplest, most honest thing they could do,” Beshara is quoted as saying about the General Assembly.
“The first three pennies of the sales tax they collect on fuel goes to transportation,” the quote continues. “The fourth penny goes to the general fund.
“So the motorist is already taxed at one-third more than he is getting out of it,” the quote continues. “If they would stop stealing the fourth penny and return it to transportation, that would go a long way.”
Williams, who lives in Oconee County and represents most of Oconee County and much of Clarke County in the Georgia House of Representatives, said in his email message to Davis on April 3 that Beshara’s “unprofessional and accusatory comments, including accusing the legislature of ‘stealing the fourth penny,’ are most disappointing.
“To be slandered by an unelected staff member, who is paid by MY tax dollars, is deeply offensive,” Williams continued in his email sent at 12:03 p.m. on April 3.
“I trust that he will be reprimanded and counseled on exhibiting professional behavior. If he was misquoted or if the reporting did not accurately reflect his comments, please let me know.”
Davis wrote back to Williams at 12:22 p.m. indicating that “I am requesting Jeff to discuss this matter immediately with Mr. Beshara and share with me if he was misquoted. I will follow up with you on the results of the issue.”
Benko Follow Up
Benko responded to Davis at 2:52 p.m., saying that he would discuss the issue with Beshara.
“Based on the accuracy of OE reporters in recent past, I will defer stricter action till then, if warranted,” Benko wrote.
Benko forwarded Davis’ response to Williams to Beshara at 2:53 p.m.
Beshara said he had not seen the article, and Benko sent him another note telling him to look at the story about the budget on page eight of the front section of the Enterprise.
Beshara wrote back to Benko at 3:24 p.m., saying that Giles had asked him about the transportation bill after he had asked several questions about Beshara’s request for funding for his department in the upcoming budget year.
“As far as I can recall, the last paragraph of the article is an accurate account of my response,” Beshara said.
“My personal belief and the absolute fact is that the General Assembly intentionally chooses to redirect funds received from the sale of motor fuel and use it for purposes that are not related to transportation,” he continued.
“It is their prerogative to do so. If they choose to do so, they leave themselves open to questions from the taxpaying public.”
Beshara’s response was quite lengthy.
“Could I have used another word besides “stealing’?” Beshara said at one point in the email to Benko.
“Certainly. The General Assembly is redirecting, purloining, diverting, liberating, etc.”
“When a reporter calls you out of the blue and ask a series of questions about your budget and then switches to State legislative issues you don’t always have time to wordsmith perfectly on the fly,” he said in the email.
"The point gets across as it was spoken, but could have been put more delicately than it was to protect the sensibilities of the thin-skinned reader," Beshara wrote.
“If at any time you choose to direct me not to speak to the local press, I will happily comply,” Beshara wrote at the end of the response.
Benko To Davis
Benko forwarded Beshara’s responsee to Davis at 4:49 p.m. and added that he had discussed with Beshara “the situation and the facts pertaining to this matter.”
“We discussed the demands and expectations of public servants and appointed officials of the County as well,” Benko continued.
“Moving forward, I instructed Emil not make public statements directly to the press.
“I have instructed him to request from the press, the question in writing or by email, and he can prepare the response and go over with me prior to me responding to the press,” Benko said.
Benko copied his response to Davis to Beshara as well as to the four voting members of the Board of Commissioners.
Beshara wrote back at 4:58 p.m. saying “From this point forward I will maintain radio silence.”
Benko sent out his directive to all department heads telling them to go over all responses to the press with him before releasing them to the press at 5:03 p.m.
He responded to Beshara’s note of 4:58 p.m. at 5:10 p.m.: “Thanks and I am trying now for ‘damage control’! Appreciate support.”
“Good luck with damage control,” Beshara wrote in response, at 5:15 p.m.
Human Resources Policy
“Just remember the key point,” Beshara continued in that 5:15 p.m. email.
“There needs to be a policy in place in order for a violation to have occurred. If the HR policy does not prohibit a certain action it is implied that that action is acceptable.
“Absent any specific written or verbal direction from you there are no special or secret policies that apply to any specific employee,” Beshara wrote.
Benko responded at 5:38 p.m.
“Understand that is why I just put in writing, within my authority. I will ask the board to ‘institutionalize’ what action I just did,” Benko wrote.
Specifics Of Policy
Benko, in the county’s organizational chart, reports directly to the Board of Commissioners. All department heads excepting the finance director report to Benko. The finance director reports directly to the Board.
Benko’s email to the department heads is below, as written and punctuated in the email of 5:03 p.m. on April 3.
In the press over the past 6 months or so, statements have been printed that the Press agency made a mistake, miss-quote or factual inaccuracy occurred. Additionally, in some cases County staff, particularly at the Director level, have made statements to the press in “the heat of battle” that you probably would not make if you had more time; would have presented in a different perspective and different words. Moving forward, for the best of our organization, and presenting Oconee County in the best position, if you or your Department receive a request for a statement on County issues, request it in writing (email ok), staff it out, prepare the response, go over with me prior to me providing the response to the press.
Benko said he had discussed with the Board of Commissioners “the growing need for our organization to have a professional Public affairs Officer.”