Sarah Bell on Monday morning refiled her complaint against Oconee County Commission Chairman Melvin Davis charging violations of the county’s ethics ordinance.
Bell contends Davis violated several provisions of the code when the county spent, at Davis' initiative, nearly $10,000 for design work for the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road with Mars Hill Road itself.
Bell initially filed her complaint on Sept. 23, but Oconee County Special Master James Warnes returned the complaint in a letter dated Oct. 1 on the grounds the complaint had been filed without a required affidavit and with the wrong office.
Bell refiled the complaint with County Clerk Jane Greathouse at 11:30 a.m. on Monday and attached a sworn affidavit in support of her complaint.
Bell also attached copies of eight email exchanges involving Davis and other county officials.
Bell said in her complaint that Davis “worked behind the scenes, using county employees and county money” to get Old Mars Hill Road reconnected to Mars Hill Road as a “favor for a friend.”
These actions, she said, violate three provisions of the Ethics Ordinance for the Oconee County Board of Commissioners:
●No county commissioner shall knowingly withhold any information that would impair the proper decision making of any of the county’s boards, agencies, authorities, or departments.
●County commissioners, as policy-makers, shall refrain from unduly interfering in the daily administrative affairs of department supervisors. Commissioners shall not give directions or make suggestions to the department supervisors or other employees on an individual basis. All directions should be made in accordance with the County Organizational Policy.
●No county commissioner shall grant or receive any special consideration, treatment or advantage for themselves or any other citizen beyond that which is generally available to other citizens in the same or similar circumstances.
According to the Ethics Ordinance, County Clerk Greathouse is to accept the complaint, to pass it to County Attorney Daniel Haygood, and to notify the person named in the complaint.
Haygood’s assignment, as specified in the ordinance, is to make sure the complaint involves a commissioner and, if it does, to forward the complaint to the special master.
Warnes, appointed by the BOC as the special master after the ordinance was passed in 2010, is to determine if the complaint meets the technical requirements of the ordinance. He rejected Bell’s Sept. 23 complaint on those grounds.
The ordinance states that if the special master “determines that material facts for which a remedy can be given exist,” the master is to forward a copy of the complaint to a Board of Ethics for further consideration.
The ordinance allows the commissioner against whom the complaint was filed 30 days to reply or to seek an extension from the Board of Ethics.
Board Of Ethics
The Board of Ethics consists of five members and one alternate and is appointed by Warnes, Oconee County Probate Court Judge David Anglin, and Oconee County Magistrate Judge Eric Norris, after soliciting applications and recommendations from the citizens of Oconee County.
To be eligible for appointment to the Board of Ethics, a person has to reside in the county and be registered to vote.
A member of the Board of Ethics cannot be or have been within the last three months an employee or official of the county or any of its municipalities.
The member also cannot be a spouse, parent, child or sibling of a county employee or official.
The member also cannot be an employee of any political party and cannot hold an elected or appointed office and not be a candidate for or have held an elected office of the United States, Georgia, or the county in the last three months.
The Board of Ethics is to hold public hearings in which all parties would have the opportunity to be heard, to summon witnesses, and to present evidence.
According to the ordinance, persons alleged to have violated the ordinance have the right to be represented by counsel at their own expense.
In the event no ethical violation is found by the Board of Ethics, reasonable attorney fees shall be reimbursed by the county.
County commissioners are subject to any one or combination of the following penalties and actions for a violation of the ordinance:
●Written warning, censure, or reprimand;
●Repayment to the county of any unjust enrichment;
●Requested resignation, and
●Referral to the proper criminal authorities if criminal prosecution is warranted.
Bell also accuses Davis of violating the requirement in the ethics code that commissioners:
●Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to county above loyalty to persons, party, or county government department.
●Never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not.
●Engage in no business with the government, either directly or indirectly, that is inconsistent with the conscientious performance of governmental duties.
●Uphold these principles, ever conscious that public office is a public trust.
●Never engage in other conduct which is unbecoming to a member or which constitutes a breach of public trust.
I obtained Bell’s complaint and accompanying documents via an open records request I filed with County Clerk Greathouse.
Bell included an email message from Aug. 25 in which County Public Works Director Emil Beshara told Commissioner Jim Luke that Davis had asked him “as early as September of last year” to contact the Georgia Department of Transportation about amending its plans for Old Mars Hill Road.
She also included an email message Beshara sent me on Aug. 17 saying “Chairman Davis requested that I pursue the plan change.”
In addition, Bell included an email message that Davis sent to Beshara on March 31 saying that another citizen “will be calling you to set up a meeting” to discuss another change to Mars Hill Road.
Bell told Greathouse in her letter of complaint that she obtained the email via an open records request.
On Aug. 20, Davis wrote to Commissioner Luke and the other commissioners saying “We do not have a design” for the Old Mars Hill Road connection.
Beshara wrote to Luke an hour later saying “the design is complete and has been reviewed by GDOT. They are just waiting on us to agree to fund the changes before issuing final approval.”
Beshara had sent County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko an email on Aug. 3 saying that “GDOT is on the cusp of approving this project modification,” according to the documents Bell filed with Greathouse. Beshara and other county department heads report to Benko.
Benko wrote back to Beshara saying “will discuss with Melvin in the morning.”
The Board of Commissioner rejected Davis’ push for the modification to the road plans at its meeting on Sept. 29. These changes would have cost the county $130,000 on top of the nearly $10,000 in design work already spent without BOC approval.
Lack Of Coverage
None of the local media has written about Bell’s complaint of the ethics violation.
The Oconee Enterprise has ignored the story, as has The Oconee Leader.
The Enterprise has a long tradition of giving Davis very favorable coverage in its pages, and the Leader’s coverage also is very deferential.
Bell ran against Davis in the Republican primary in 2008 and came within 100 votes of unseating him.