Thursday, April 23, 2015

Oconee County Administrative Officer Tells County Department Heads To Clear All Comments To The "Press" With Him First

Complaint By Williams

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.”

Emil Beshara

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.

Projects Rejected

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.

OCO: Horton And Beshara from Lee Becker on Vimeo

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 Complaint

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 Response

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.”

Word Choice

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.

Damage Control

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.”


Anonymous said...

When you are an employee who's funding is directly related to city, county, state or federal dollars it is in your best interest to keep your trap shut and to not express your personal feelings using your paid position. It's called common sense.

Anonymous said...

If you are a county employee, you have no right to say anything unless Melvin Davis agrees with it. That is the bottom line. Emil spoke truth, and he wasn't the only person to say that 1c the State already gets should go to transportation rather than the general fund. The real problem here is Melvin might not get his share from his friends that would get to develop property if the fly-over was approved.

Additionally, it seems Benko now says the reason for this new gag policy is because the press misquoted. Emil specifically said he was not misquoted and I applaud him for standing firm and being truthful. It is something Melvin Davis and crew might want to try sometime.

Anonymous said...

After reading the first comment above, I feel disgusted and physically ill. Emil Beshara may have said things that were inappropriate in the eyes of some...he IS protected under the 1st Amendment to speak his mind and publicly state his opinion. Whether or not it is something the employer takes issue with is a separate matter. This voter shares the same opinion so it's not like he's far off base. He illustrates he is paying attention to the issues that may negatively impact the public, as well as County matters. The anonymous comment above stating he should keep his "trap shut" is un-American. Beshara is a Georgia resident and he payes he's not entitled to his opinion? Thanks but no thanks I'd rather hear that criticism than some canned, political suck-up comment adoring more taxes. If he had praised transportation tax, then one would assume nothing would have caused Williams to be offended, and no email complaint would have been sent to Beshara's supervisors. Instead, an elected member of the Georgia House of Representatives emails the supervisors of an employee to enact revenge, because he said something he didn't like. We are all headed for dark times if an elected official gets bent out shape from being scrutinized, more so that Williams himself was not directly scrutinized and yet he felt it necessary to complain to Beshara's supervisors. To Representative Williams: get in touch with the public you are elected to represent, and you'll learn many feel the same way... or start drafting a whole new batch of emails crying to the supervisors who employ the critics.

Beanne said...

What would we do without Mr. Beshara. He is the only person that seems willing to say that the emperor has no clothes on. Common Chuck Williams - don't you have more important things to do than quibble about a word. Maybe you could explain why you needed to raise our taxes rather than take this simple step. Raising taxes might be an appropriate step, but you should focus on the issue, not on a citizen's wording.

Anonymous said...

Melvin and Jeff Benko have become paranoid! This is truly stranger than fiction stuff.

And Chuck Williams should not be a state rep. with such think skin.

This mess actually makes me happy. Melvin has "jumped the shark". I don't see him winning re-election. He has completely lost the public trust, and his own credibility.

Emil ends up looking like the only adult in the room, or at least the only person representing the best interests of Oconee residents.

Melvin and Benko can keep on catering to Chuck Williams, Jamie Boswell and Frank Bishop. Thank you Emil for standing up to the back door deal brokers.

Anonymous said...

Bashera's criticism of the General Assembly inst even the issue. Sounds like the real problem for Davis and Williams was that Bashera was publicly critical of the road project that Davis and Williams wanted. In response Davis clamps down on anyone with the county talking to the press. This is democracy?

Anonymous said...

Hahaha, I love "urination competitions"!

Xardox said...

While I am not a fan of Beshara, I can applaud his guts to voice an opinion. Unless I am mistaken, no one owns the truth, which can not be signed away in a contract.x

Anonymous said...

Although it is tangled in the back story of the local transportation issue, to me the heart of this story is the decision made by Rep Chuck Williams to complain to Davis.

"'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."

After being "slandered" and feeling "deeply" offended by a comment in the last paragraph of an article on page 8 of the Oconee Enterprise, he causes a chain reaction that wastes the time, blood, sweat, and tears of at least 3 county employees payed for by MY tax dollars on communication, "damage control," and the creation of new policies.

Sounds like Rep. Williams could benefit from a bit of coaching on how to thicken up his elected-official skin and count to 10 before hitting "send."

I will be sure to keep this post "anonymous" to keep from causing any more hullabaloo.

Goodness gracious.