Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko said he was the one who authorized the spending of nearly $10,000 in design costs to allow for a reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road with Mars Hill Road proper.
Benko said he was responding to a request from Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis “to get a firm estimate “ of the costs for reconnecting Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road.
In hindsight, Benko said, he should not have made that assumption and should have communicated directly with the four voting commissioners before going forward with the design work and expenditure.
Benko also said he briefed Davis on the design and its costs on Aug. 4, which is 16 days before Davis sent Commissioner Jim Luke an email saying the county did not have a design for the roadway.
Benko’s version of how decisions were made to spend the $9,991.60 for the design costs are consistent with the email record as well as with the comments of county Public Works Director Emil Beshara, but they are at odds with Davis’ version.
Davis responded to an email question from Commissioner Luke on Aug. 20 about the design for the reconnection of Old Mars Hill with this note: “Will see if Emil can provide a sketch. We do not have a design.” Davis copied the other three voting commissioners as well.
In the Oct. 22 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, Davis went even further, saying that, “To my knowledge, none of us knew that a design had taken place...From that standpoint, there was little knowledge.”
The Enterprise quoted Davis as saying the item was put on the Aug. 25 agenda to begin discussion.
That assertion is at odds with the fact that County Clerk Jane Greathouse already had released an agenda for the meeting on Sept. 1, and it included approval of the redesign and costs.
Benko confirmed that the BOC agendas are set by Davis.
The BOC ultimately turned down the project on Sept. 29.
In the Oct. 22 edition of the Enterprise, Davis also said that he did not authorize the spending of the nearly $10,000 for the redesign of Mars Hill Road to accommodate the connection of Old Mars Hill Road.
“It was authorized by others,” Davis is quoted as saying.
I sent Davis two separate email message from separate email accounts asking him to indicate if the quotes in the Enterprise were correct, but he did not respond.
Davis routinely carries his smart phone with him. He pulled it out to respond to a notification he received during last week’s BOC meeting.
Email To Beshara And Benko
I sent an email message to Public Works Director Beshara on the morning of Oct. 22 asking him to respond to the assertion by Davis as reported in the Enterprise that “others” authorized the request for a design change for Mars Hill Road, which is being widened from SR 316 to Hog Mountain Road.
Beshara said he was asked by Davis to make the change. Beshara said he received that request directly from Davis and through Benko.
I did not send a request for clarification to Benko, who was recovering from emergency surgery.
I did write him on Oct. 25, asking if he was up to responding.
At the BOC meeting last Tuesday, we agreed to meet in his office on Friday to talk.
Responding To Chairman
Benko said on Friday morning that Davis initiated the request for the design change and that, consistent with his (Benko’s) usual procedures, he did pass it on to Beshara, who reports to Benko in the county’s organization chart.
“When any commissioner asks for information, including the chairman, my job is to get staff to provide as much information as they need to make an informed decision,” Benko said.
Benko said that all involved knew that reconnecting Old Mars Hill Road would involve a design change.
“GDOT does not work off the back of a paper bag, does not work with a concept,” Benko said.
Since the county has a contract with Moreland Altobelli for design work of the roadway, Benko said, Beshara went to that engineering and design firm to get plans for the change that Davis was requesting.
Benko said he did not ask Davis if other commissioners also were interested in the design change.
“Now, what I assumed, what I determined when that task was asked of me by Melvin, that Melvin had talked to the Board,” Benko said. “I assumed that, because the intent was to bring it up on a future agenda.”
Benko said he only learned later from Commissioner Luke and Commissioner John Daniell that they, at least, did not know of proposed redesign of the roadway.
“Moving forward we will improve communication,” Benko said. “That will not occur again. I will make sure that I will get that information out.”
Gaps In Email Record
The email record shows clearly that Davis initiated the discussion of the change in the design of Mars Hill Road to reconnect Old Mars Hill Road and that he was persistent in asking Benko to move on the project.
The record also shows that Benko had gotten details on the project cost and design from Beshara on Aug. 3 and that he sent those materials to Davis. He also told Davis they would meet the next morning to go over the message from Beshara.
There is no record of that meeting in the email I received through a series of open records requests, but Benko said it took place.
“He will refute that,” Benko said of Davis. “But it is his word against mine.”
Benko said that Aug. 4 meeting isn’t so important, because Davis knew what was involved when he made the initial request for the design change.
“He calls GDOT all the time,” Benko said. “He knows GDOT will not approve a tie-in of this magnitude without a design. You’ve got to have it. They don’t work on anything but that.”
“So when he asked me to get the information, that was what he was asking for,” Benko said. “So I turned right around, assuming that he had concurrence that this was going to be a topic on the agenda and the Board knew about it.”
“The chairman makes the agenda,” Benko said. Other Board members have the power to add items, but they rarely do so.
Benko said he meets with the chairman in order to be able to prepare the staff to address the agenda items.
“If he doesn’t want something on there, it comes off,” Benko said.