Saturday, May 02, 2015

Oconee County’s Two Weekly Papers Ignore Key Documents In Reporting On Bogart Library Defunding

More Than Spending Cut

Oconee County’s two weekly newspapers last week reported explanations for the lack of funding of the Bogart Library renovation and expansion in the state budget passed by the General Assembly last month that are at odds with the public record of the Georgia Public Library Service.

The Oconee Enterprise quoted Sen. Bill Cowsert as saying the Bogart Library project was not listed as a top priority by the Board of Regents, the budget of which includes the requests of the Georgia Public Library Service (GPLS).

200 South Burson Avenue

The GPLS documents show that the Bogart Library was listed number seven on a list of 10 projects designated for funding by the Board of Regents.

The Oconee Leader quoted Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis as saying he assumed the General Assembly “simply drew a line” on that list and the Bogart Library fell below the line.

In fact, the GPLS documents show that projects not even on the list of top 10 projects of GPLS were moved ahead of the Bogart Library project for funding.

State Librarian

Julie Walker, state librarian, sent me on April 8 a copy of the GPLS prioritized list of capital outlay projects and a list of all Board of Regents capital outlay projects.

I used those in my post on the decision not to fund the Bogart Library renovation and expansion on April 9.

The GPLS list of capital outlay projects shows the Athens Regional Library request of $1,755,750 for the Bogart Library as the seventh ranked project.

The Board of Regents list of capital outlay projects also shows the Bogart Library request, indicates that Gov. Nathan Deal did not include it in his budget, that the House included $875,000 it its budget for the Bogart Library, and that the Senate added another $875,000, bringing the total to $1,750,000.

That document also shows that the Senate and House Conference Committee eliminated all funding for the Bogart Library, though it left in place funding for six libraries, including three ranked lower than the Bogart Library on the GPLS list of capital outlay projects.

Reporters Ignore Walker

Neither Enterprise reporter Michael Prochaska nor Leader reporter Mary Ann Carroll mentioned State Librarian Walker in the reports, appearing in the April 23 and April 24 editions of the papers, respectively.

Prochaska did report that the GPLS listed the Bogart Library project as one of its top 10 projects, but then he followed that with the incorrect statement by Cowsert that the project was not in the Board of Regents budget.

Prochaska quoted Cowsert as saying the Bogart Library was a “casualty of number crunching” (Prochaska’s, not Cowsert’s, words) necessary to trim $20 million from the bond sales included in the state budget.

Carroll relied entirely on Davis for the quotes in her story, though Davis had nothing to do with the funding decision or the rankings of the libraries.

I have not seen any stories on the Bogart Library funding decision in the Athens Banner-Herald, which no longer has staff dedicated to covering Oconee County.

Quick Documents

Rep. Regina Quick, in whose district Bogart falls, sent me a copy of the House Senate Conference Committee report on the state budget on April 7.

It does show cuts in funding for the state General Obligation Debt Sinking Fund–or bond sales–from the budgets passed by the House and the Senate.

But none of the seven libraries that had been listed for funding by the governor, the House or the Senate–except for the Bogart Library–received any reduction by the Conference Committee.

Four of those six funded libraries received $2 million, meaning cutting them would have saved more money than cutting the $1,750,000 that had been allocated for the Bogart Library.

And three of those libraries funded at $2 million were rated lower than Bogart on the GPLS and Board of Regents budget requests.

Cowsert Key

Walker told me when I talked to her April 8 that she did not know why Bogart had been singled out for defunding.

Quick told me the same thing when I talked to her on April 7.

Rep. Chuck Williams, who represents all of Oconee County except for the precincts of Bogart, Malcom Bridge and Athens Academy, which are in Quick’s district, also said he didn’t have an explanation when I talked to him on April 8.

Sen. Cowsert is in a position to know the answer, since he was one of the three senators to join with the three House members on the Conference Committee.

He sent me an email on April 8 saying the funding for the Bogart Library was removed in conference by House Appropriates Committee Chairman Terry England.

Political Decision

Cowsert didn’t elaborate on why England decided to single out the Bogart Library for defunding or why Cowsert accepted the decision. Bogart falls in Cowsert’s district.

Readers of the stories in the two Oconee county weekly newspapers wouldn’t even have a sense of the political nature of the decision, which the papers framed entirely as a financial one.

Quick has been a political maverick within the Republican Party, running against and defeating incumbent Doug McKillip in the July Republican Party primary in 2012.

Cowsert and Williams also are Republicans.

Quick And GDOT

Quick also has been an outspoken critic of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Quick also did not support HB 170, the controversial Transportation Funding Act of 2015, either when passed by the House the first time or when passed by the House after it had cleared another conference committee.

A check of the voting records on HB 170 of the members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate from the districts in which the libraries were funded, however, indicates that England most likely was not retaliating against Quick for that vote alone.

SR 316 Exit To U.S. 78

I found the addresses of the six libraries with a web search and then used the Sunlight Foundation’s Find Your Legislator to identify the two members of the General Assembly representing each of those six libraries.

Votes Tallied

What that analysis showed is that Sen. William Ligon Jr., a Republican representing the funded Charlton County Public Library, voted twice against HB 170. His Republican counterpart in the House, John Corbett, voted twice for the bill.

Sen. Michael Rhett, a Democrat representing the funded East Marietta Branch Library, voted against the first version of HB 170 and for the second. His counterpart, Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican, voted for HB 170 twice.

Rep. Dustin Hightower and Sen. Mike Dugan both supported HB 170 in two votes. They represented the funded Villa Rica Library. Both are Republicans.

Rep. John Pezold and Sen. Joshua McKoon, both Republicans, both voted twice against HB 170. They represent the Harris County Public Library, which was funded.

Rep. Mike Dudgeon voted twice against HB 170, while Sen. Michael Williams voted twice for it. Both are Republicans, and both represent the funded Sharon Forks Public Library in Forsyth County.

Rep. Barry Fleming, a Republican, voted twice against the transportation bill, while Sen. Jesse Stone, also a Republican, was excused in the first vote and voted no in the second vote on HB 170. They represent the Harlem Public Library, funded in the state budget.

Quick Records Request

Quick also filed a 51-item open records request with GDOT on March 17–after the March 5 vote on HB 170–asking for a variety of documents, including some specific to Oconee County and some outside the county.

One of those open records requests focused on Rep. England from the Appropriations Committee, asking for “Any and all emails, memos and other correspondence by and between Chairman Terry England and any GDOT personnel from May 2014 through the date of production.” The latter reference seems to be to March 17, 2015.

She also wanted “Total estimated detailed cost for projects surrounding the 14 new points of access for the proposed Cobb Braves project.” That refers to the move of the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County.

Quick told me in late March she had had little success in obtaining the documents.

Caterpillar Request

One document Quick did receive, and which she forwarded to me on March 30, dealt with $93,402 in GDOT funding for intersection improvement at the U.S. 78 and SR 316 west-bound off ramp.

Quick and Williams spoke with Caterpillar Plant Manager Todd Henry on Dec. 8, 2014, according to email correspondence Quick sent me.

Henry asked if GDOT “could consider configuring that exit ramp into two lanes, so that traffic turning right onto 78, toward Cat/Orkin Drive, could proceed without being held up by stacked traffic turning left onto 78,” Williams wrote to Brent Cook at GDOT.

Williams copied Quick, Oconee BOC Chairman Davis, area representative to the State Transportation Board Jamie Boswell, and Sen. Cowsert.

Cook's Reply

GDOT District Engineer Cook wrote back to Williams, again, copying Quick, Boswell, Davis and Cowsert, on Dec. 8, saying “consider it done.”

“The work is expected to be completed by April 30, 2015,” Cook wrote.

Quick told me in a telephone conversation that her frustration is that the project has been so slow to be completed.

I drove the route today and the work still has not been done, as the video below shows.

OCO: Exiting SR 316 at US 78 from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Library Board Meeting

The Oconee County Library Board of Trustees met on April 13 in the Bogart Library, after the April 6 passage of HB 76, the state budget bill that included the defunding of the Bogart Library.

Board Chairman Robert Wyatt reported at that meeting that there had been “speculation” that Rep. England had removed the funding for the Bogart Library in “retaliation” for Quick’s vote on HB 170, according to the draft minutes of that meeting, which Wyatt shared with me on Wednesday.

The minutes indicate that not everyone at the meeting accepted that interpretation.

The Library Board has been pushing aggressively for renovation of the 3,700 square-foot current facility and addition of 5,000 square feet of additional space at the Bogart Library for more than a year.

Oconee County has pledged $955,750 as the local match for the requested $1,755,750 in state funds.

State Librarian Walker said she expects the GPLS will make the request again next year.

Enterprise Response

I sent a letter to the editor of the Enterprise on April 25 requesting that it inform its readers that the funding for the Bogart Library was included in the budget of the Board of Regents.

It has not yet used that letter.

The paper did run an editorial it its edition of last week saying that it would be “heavy-handed” for the county to restrict “access to staff and department heads.”

That seems to be in response to an email message sent out by county Administrative Officer Jeff Benko to department heads on April 3 telling them they should clear all comments to the media with him.

I posted a story on that memo on April 23.

The Enterprise did not write any story about that memo, making it unlikely that most of its readers will understand the meaning of the editorial.


Mike Horsman said...

Great reporting Lee! This is just another in an endless list of examples that illustrate why, due to imperfections inherent in the human animal, the only way to limit corruption, dirty dealings and waste in government is to minimize the size of government itself.
As the size of government goes down, the amount of accountability goes up.
The larger the government, the smaller the citizen.

Michael Prochaska said...

I would like to note the following to your story. The Oconee Enterprise asked Bill Cowsert, Regina Quick, Chuck Williams and State Librarian Walker about any link between Quick's vote on HB 170 and the funding for the Bogart Library. Based on their response, we determined that it was a non sequitur, at least based on the fact that we knew, and did not include information about that legislation in the story.

Bill Cowsert maintains that the Bogart library was not originally included in the first iteration of the budget. As you pointed out, we did, in fact, state that it was in the top 10 priorities by the state library board.

As for the editorial, Administrative Officer Jeff Benko rescinded the gag order. It was temporary, we learned. We made the decision to address broader First-Amendment concerns, rather than to tailor the editorial to one particular issue.

Anonymous said...

We wouldn't know much of anything about what is going on behind the scenes in government locally if we didn't have you to be determined on our behalf. Thank you !!!! Don't ever stop trying to keep us informed, as well as giving any ideas you might have about how we can proceed after we've been informed.

Anonymous said...

When can we start sending you birth and marriage announcements?

This blog is the official county organ, right?