This is the tale of three work sessions of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.
It is a short tale with only three chapters.
And it has a simple lesson:
Not all citizens and citizen comments are equal in the eyes of the members of the Commission.
The tale begins with a brief prologue.
Working sessions are when the commissioners leave the Commission Chamber in the Courthouse in Watkinsville and move across the hall to the Grand Jury Room.
The Commission Chamber is configured so the public can see what the commissioners are doing.
The table is shaped like a horseshoe, open to the public. It has microphones at the table and a camera in the ceiling for video recording.
In the Grand Jury Room, the commissioners sit around a table shaped like a rectangle.
Some have their backs to the audience. There are no microphones, and there is no installed video camera.
In the Commission Chamber, Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, who runs Commission meetings, sits at the center of the table and faces the public.
In the Grand Jury Room, Davis sits at one head of the table, where he is not even visible to some of the audience and where he it hard for everyone in the audience to hear him.
He could sit at the other head of the table, where he would be more visible and audible to the audience. He doesn’t.
It is 10 a.m. on Jan. 8, when the commissioners, minus Commissioner Jim Luke, assemble in the Grand Jury Room.
Chairman Davis, at the head of the table most distant from the public, tells the commissioners they should first talk about a new road the county wants to build for a big new shopping center for the county.
Then they should talk about a proposed Overlay District.
The Overlay District is for another important road in the county, called Mars Hill Road, along which many people live.
Lo and behold, after a special consultant on overlay districts tells the commissioners his version of what is going on with the Overlay District proposal, Chairman Davis turns to the audience and says:
There are five other people in the audience, but when the land owner, the land owner’s son, and and the land planner are finished speaking with the commissioners and with the special consultant on overlay districts some 30 minutes later, Chairman Davis does not invite the other five to talk.
Instead, Chairman Davis asks the person in charge of the county’s Unified Development Code to talk about changes he wants to make in that important document.
When the Unified Development Code expert finishes, Chairman Davis turns back to the commissioners and says:
And that is how Chapter 1 ends.
It is 2 p.m. on Jan. 14, and the four commissioners, again minus Commissioner Jim Luke, are assembled once more in the Grand Jury Room.
Chairman Davis, at the head of the table most distant from the public, tells the commissioners that today they are to hear from the man in the county who is in charge of water and sewers.
The man in charge of water and sewers says he wants to build a tall new water tower and to make the sewer plant bigger. He wants the county to have plenty of water and plenty of sewers in the future.
Water and sewers are important, and 13 people are in the audience, but Chairman Davis seems not to notice them
When the man in charge of water and sewers finishes his comments, Chairman Davis says this to his fellow commissioners:
And that is how Chapter 2 ends.
It is 2 p.m. on Jan. 22, and it is very cold outside, at least for this part of the country.
The commissioners are once again assembled in the Grand Jury Room, this time to talk about the county’s roads. All five commissioners are here today.
Chairman Davis says it is important to know how the county prepares for snow and ice, so he asks the county’s expert on roads to start the meeting by talking about that topic.
The expert on roads then talks to the commissioners about all the county’s roads, including the one the county is planning to build for the big new shopping center planned for the county.
Nine people have come to hear about roads, since most people use them very often. More people use them in this county than use the county’s water and sewers.
When the expert on roads finishes, Chairman Davis looks at his fellow commissioners and says:
It is hard to hear, but the expert on roads actually has this suggestion for Chairman Davis regarding comments from those nine people:
And this is how Chairman Davis responds:
And that is how Chapter 3 ends.
When Chairman Davis allowed the land owner, the land owner’s son, and the land planner to speak, it was a kind of courtesy.
The law of the state in which this county is located only says that the commissioners must meet in open–most of the time.
It does not require the commissioners to give people in the audience a chance to speak.
As this story shows, the commissioners let some people speak. But they don’t let others speak.
When the commissioners really want to hide from the public, the law of the state in which this county is located allows them to go into what is called an executive session.
The commissioners must promise that in these important executive sessions they will talk only about a small number of things, like personnel matters, litigation and land acquisition.
The commissioners like these secret meeting so much that they have them very often.
At the end of the session on Jan. 8, Chairman Davis said this to his fellow commissioners:
And at the end of the session on Jan. 14, Chairman Davis said this to his fellow commissioners:
At the end of the session on Jan. 22, Chairman Davis told the commissioners they should just go home.
It was very cold outside that day, at least for this part of the country.