Sunday, October 25, 2015

Oconee County Chairman Davis Distancing Himself From Decision To Spend $10,000 On Design Work For Old Mars Hill Road

Blames Others

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis has taken steps to distance himself from the county’s decision to spend nearly $10,000 for design work to reconnect Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road proper.

That is true even though Davis has been exonerated of any wrongdoing for his involvement in the proposal under the county’s ethics ordinance and although the email correspondence indicates Davis initiated the discussion more than a year ago and has been involved from that point forward.

Davis told the four voting commissioners in an email message on Aug. 20 that the county did not have a design in place, despite the fact that County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko told Davis he would talk to him on Aug. 4 about the design modification.

Davis restated his position that he was out of the loop on that design last week in comments published in The Oconee Enterprise, and he added a new assertion.

Davis stated categorically that he did not authorize the spending of the $9,991.60 for the design modification, saying “It was authorized by others.”

Confirmation Of Quotes

I sent Davis email messages on Thursday and Friday asking him if he had been misquoted in the Oct. 22 edition of the Enterprise. I used two different sending email addresses to make sure the message got through.

Davis, who carries a mobile phone with him and makes frequent use of it for county correspondence, did not acknowledge receipt of the email or reply.

From Oconee Enterprise Oct. 22, 2015
Click To Enlarge

The Enterprise story, which also is in the nonsubscriber section of the paper’s website, contains this direct quote, meaning it is supposed to represent the exact words that Davis used:

“I had no idea that a design had been done. What I expected was that we would have a discussion. Is this something that we need? And then there would be additional meetings, including a public forum.”

Consent Agenda

Davis largely controls the agendas for Board of Commissioners meetings.

He sent out a notice to the commissioners at 9:21 a.m. on Aug. 20 telling them that “a potential connection of Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road at the median cut across from the entrance to Barber Creek Estates” will be discussed at the Aug. 25 BOC meeting.

When County Clerk Jane Greathouse released that agenda at 3:01 p.m. on Aug. 21, it contained discussion of the “Mars Hill Road Improvement Project” to include the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road.

But Greathouse also released a second agenda, for the Sept. 1 meeting, that included approval of the modification at a cost not to exceed $115,000.

That inclusion on the consent agenda means that the expectation was that the change in design would be approved tentatively at the Aug. 25 meeting, not at some point in the future after a public hearing, as Davis told the Enterprise.

Aug. 3 Email

The $115,000 cost included in the Sept. 1 agenda was based on the design that Davis told commissioners on Aug. 20 did not exist.

Davis, Left, with Aycock, Center
Sept. 22, 2015 

Public Works Director Emil Beshara had told Administrative Officer Benko in an email message at 2:43 p.m. on Aug. 3 that “GDOT is on the cusp of approving the project modification” for the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road. He said the cost would be $115,000.

Benko responded back at 4:22 saying “will discuss with Melvin in the moring.”

Beshara apologized a few minutes later (4:29 p.m.) for the “short notice” and said “I just met with GDOT about this today.” Beshara earlier in the year had reported that GDOT was not interested in making the change.

Benko To Davis

Benko sent an email to Davis at 4:31 p.m. on Aug. 3 and forwarded Beshara’s correspondence. Benko told Davis “we can discuss in the morning.”

The Beshara correspondence sent to Davis included the $115,000 cost figure and the words “project modification” and “original plans.”

Davis responded back to Benko at 4:42 p.m. saying “Good. We have only been talking about this possibility for a long time.”

Benko responded at 4:43 p.m.: “Understood.”

I obtained all of these messages via a series of open records requests.

Blaming Others

In the Enterprise article Davis did not name the “others” who he said made the decision to spend the nearly $10,000 for the design modifications.

The email correspondence I received in my open records requests indicates that Davis, Benko, Beshara, people working for Moreland Altobelli, which has responsibility for the roadway design, people working for Beshara, and people at GDOT were involved in the discussions.

Moreland Altobelli and GDOT personnel could not have authorized the $10,000 expenditure, since it was of county funds.

So that leaves only Benko, to whom Beshara reports, and Beshara himself.

Benko was out of the office last week after undergoing emergency surgery the week before.

I did not attempt to contact him.

Beshara Response

I asked Beshara in an email message late on Thursday morning who authorized him to approach Moreland Altobelli to modify the design for Mars Hill Road to reconnect Old Mars Hill Road.

Here is his response:

“I was asked by Melvin to pursue getting this road built by GDOT as part of the Mars Hill project. In order for GDOT to either approve or deny the request, a proposed design change had to be prepared for their consideration. I took the Chairman’s repeated questioning over a several month period (both directly of me and of/through Jeff) as direction to pursue a plan change with GDOT to have the work included in Mars Hill Phase I.”

I asked Beshara if he assumed it would cost money to get the plans modified.

He said he expected it to cost $15,000, “based on past experience on this project.” The price came in at just under $10,000.

I asked if there was “any limit on how much you were authorized to spend?”

“The cost of complying with the Chairman’s request was not something I was asked to consider,” Beshara said.

Added Comments

Beshara added the following comments to his response to me.

“I first learned of Melvin talking to Mr. Aycock about this project in September of 2014 (9/4/14). As early as December of 2014 Melvin was asking about a design change to connect Old Mars Hill (12/15/14). In February 2015 he again asked where I was with getting a plan change implemented (2/13/15). I asked MAAI to proceed with the design change proposal in March 2015 after Melvin again asked about where I was with getting GDOT to include this in their project (3/31/15).

“The above is directly from e-mails contained in your Open Records request on this subject (dates of e-mails are in parentheses). There were also several phone calls and meetings with Melvin about this subject where he asked me the status of GDOT including this work in their project.”

BOC Inaction

The Board of Commissioners did not approve the change in the road design at its meeting on Aug. 25.

It did hold a public hearing on Sept. 22, and the audience was overwhelmingly opposed to the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road.

In fact, only Perry Aycock indicated support. Aycock owns four pieces of property along Old Mars Hill Road.

At its meeting on Sept. 29, the commissioners let the proposal die without taking any action.

Ethics Complaint

On Sept. 23, citizen Sarah Bell filed a complaint against BOC Chairman Davis, contending he violated the county ethics code by “using taxpayer money to pay an employee and to prepare and purchase plans” for the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road proper “as a special favor for one citizen.”

That complaint was rejected on technical grounds, but Bell, 1201 Arrowhead Road east of Butler's Crossing, refiled it on Oct. 12.

On Oct. 16, Special Master James Warnes dismissed the refiled complaint, saying it “does not set forth material facts for which remedy can be given.”

“This report should terminate this matter,” Warnes wrote.

Warnes And BOC

Warnes was first appointed special master to handle initial screening of ethics complaints shortly after the Board of Commissioners adopted that code in 2009. Bell's is the first complaint filed under the 2009 ordinance.

The term of the special master is for two years, and Warnes has been reappointed for successive terms since that initial appointed. His current terms expires on Dec. 31, 2016.

Warnes is a partner in Timmons, Warnes and Mercer, a law firm with offices in downtown Athens.

Much of Warnes’ practice is in real estate law, and he last appeared before the BOC in that capacity in January of this year representing Samuel Border in a zoning issue in the south of the county. The BOC granted Border his request.

Warnes also appeared before the BOC in 2013 representing CAAT Holdings, which was seeking a change in zoning for restrictions for Pebble Creek subdivision south of Watkinsville. Warnes ultimately filed suit against the county over that zoning issue, though the case subsequently was settled.

Timeline Of Story

I have updated the timeline for the Old Mars Hill Road story.

It can be downloaded from here.


Anonymous said...

Maybe we need a new Special Master who will check out the evidence before declaring that "it does not set forth material facts for which remedy can be given". Sure does look like the facts are there if your email requests are accurate. Maybe there needs to be a new filing with this article and all of the emails and phone conversations included.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Anonymous. I seriously doubt that the Special Master took the time to investigate as thoroughly as Lee Becker has done. Still thankful that Mr. Becker takes the time and effort to keep us informed.

Beanne said...

Mr. Davis is nervous. He is going to try to pin this on someone else. Unfortunately, the Oconee Enterprise lets him get away with whatever he wants to say. Mr. Warnes clearly has a conflict of interest himself since he interacts with the BOC as part of his legal business. His review was a joke. Maybe this is why the BOC reappoints him each time. The ethics procedure is incredibly weak. Yes, I agree. Thank you, Lee

Anonymous said...

Smells of graft amongst an elected official

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Lee Becker, for your continued efforts in apprising us of Davis' deplorable scheming.
So, nobody considered cost to comply with Melvin's request? Isn't there a minimum amount for which the county has to have group authorization, the entire BOC for instance, before spending willy-nilly?
Warnes' report clearly shows he gave no serious thought to nor investigation of the Ethics Complaint facts. What we need is an employment breach dispute attorney. How much is Warnes paid for this "special master appointment"?
It looks like Beshara is trying to be transparent. Will be good to learn from Benko, too.
The Oconee Enterprise gave insight into the "consent" timeline and quoted what Melvin said. Blame Melvin. He dug himself a deeper hole.
This entire situation is disgusting at many levels!

Anonymous said...

"Much of Warnes’ practice is in real estate law, and he last appeared before the BOC in that capacity in January of this year representing Samuel Border in a zoning issue in the south of the county. The BOC granted Border his request"

Shouldn't the "Special Master" be someone who doesn't do business with the county or have to appear before county commissioners in business transactions/legal matters???

There has to be someone truly independent around, whether a retired judge, UGA law professor, etc. who doesn't have a vested interest.

And this is just me, but I'll bet my house that Melvin had a hand in drafting his quick defense by the so-called "Special Master"!!??

Anonymous said...

Hope Beshara's not left holding the bag or Benko. If they had not complied with Davis' request would their jobs have been in jeopardy? From the delegation of duties chart it looks like Benko should be making the decisions, not Davis. Maybe this needs to be brought up at the next commission meeting.

Xardox said...

"Shouldn't the "Special Master" be someone who doesn't do business with the county or have to appear before county commissioners in business transactions/legal matters???"
Sure. But this is Melvin Davis in Oconee County.
Mr. Davis probably is remembering when the whole place was run by Democrats. A few folks would attend the meetings; no e-mails, smart phones, video cameras; newspaper the same typically Democrat rag.
Yes, it was that bad. The old days were not always good enough to return.