In the Candidate Forum on April 14, Oconee County Board of Commission candidates Sarah Bell and Penny Mills took the position of outsiders and critics.
In their opening comments, Bell said the county does not have a “Commission that listens well,” and Mills said the Commission “needs to be more proactive about transparency.”
The most telling moment came late in the session when a questioner accused the Board of spending too much time in executive session.
Saxon defended the behavior. Bell and Mills did not. Thomas did not respond.
Sheriff Scott Berry interjected himself into the discussion, incorrectly indicating that Mills was wrong in her comments about secrecy regarding a Commission vote on Courthouse security.
The candidates will be back before the public from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday at the North Oconee High School Auditorium on Hog Mountain Road. The Chamber of Commerce is organizing that event.
Bell and Saxon are competing for the Post 4 position on the Board of Commissioners, and, at the forum on April 14, Saxon gave no hint of any criticism of the behavior of the existing Board.
Oconee County “is the number one county in the state of Georgia,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to keep Oconee County at the top of that forefront.”
Bell, in her initial comments, said “I don’t think we have a Board of Commission that listens well.” She added that “My concerns are about the government of Oconee County.”
Mills and Thomas are competing for the open Post 1 position on the Board of Commissioners. Incumbent Jim Luke is retiring.
Mills said in her initial comments that “I do think the Board of Commissioners needs to be more proactive about transparency. I think there is a concern by citizens that they do not know enough about the decision-making process with the Board of Commissioners.”
Thomas in his introductory comments focused on his service on the Board of Equalization, Board of Education and the county’s Industrial Development Authority. He said he wants “to continue what we have” in the county.
The final question posed to the candidates underscored those differences of perspective.
David Jackson, 1050 Campbellton Place, in Hickory Hill subdivision, said the “question on everybody’s mind” is “about accountability and transparency of the Commission.”
He said the Board too often goes into executive sessions, which are not open to the public. He said he wanted each of the candidates to indicate if these meetings were “just hiding stuff from the community.”
Saxon chose to answer first, and he stated that the Board goes into executive session to discuss personnel, litigation and land acquisition, and he included in the “personnel” category the appointment of citizens to county advisory boards.
“Those three things have to remain behind closed doors,” he said.
The Georgia Open and Pubic Meetings Law states that the law does not apply to meetings dealing with the acquisition of real estate and meetings dealing with the appointment or hiring of “a public officer or employee.”
It does not require that those meetings be closed, only that they need not be open.
The law does say that it does not alter the attorney-client privilege, which would cover litigation.
The state’s Open Records Law says that “public disclosure shall not be required” for a variety of records, including “records, disclosure of which would compromise security against sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts and the nondisclosure of which is necessary for the protection of life, safety, or public property.”
The law lists security plans, plans for protection against terrorists or other attacks, documents related to the location of security devices, or other plans that could compromise security as the four types of documents exempted.
Bell responded to the question from Jackson by saying that she had been trying to get current information from Oconee County Finance Director Wes Geddings on the amount of money in the Fund Balance, or the reserve funds of the county, and in the 2004 and 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax accounts.
She said despite repeated attempts she had only gotten Geddings to release data up to June 30, 2015, for those accounts.
Saxon responded by saying he had given Bell the 2015 data as soon as she asked for it.
Bell said the 2015 data were not what she wanted.
Mills said she was concerned that the Board of Commissioners has voted at its April 5, 2016, meeting to award a contract for renovation and security upgrade to the Courthouse without even knowing the cost of the contract.
Saxon again chose to defend the action of the Board, saying it was a security matter.
“We don’t never get asked to vote on something if we don’t have all the current information,” he said, indicating that he knew more than was disclosed.
This brought Sheriff Scott Berry out of the audience, and he said that Mills was wrong and that “we didn’t vote on any contract.”
An edited video of the question and responses of the candidates and of Berry is in the video below. The full video of the section of the candidate forum is here.
At the BOC meeting on April 5, the video I recorded shows that BOC Chairman Melvin Davis introduced discussion of the Courthouse late in the meeting by saying the Board was to “discuss and consider the award of the contract for architectural planning services for renovation and security upgrades to the Courthouse.”
Finance Director Geddings then said the county had received bids and that it was the recommendation of a review committee, which included Sheriff Berry, that the contract be awarded to Precision Planning Inc., with offices in Monroe.
Commissioner Jim Luke said “this is the first I’ve seen of this” and noted that the “pricing element” had been left out of the documents he received.
Chairman Davis said that, if the Board approved, there would be discussions with Precision Planning on the final costs.
Commissioner Saxon then made the motion that Precision Planning “receive the award” for the project. Commissioner Luke seconded, and the motion passed.
Greathouse And Benko
I asked County Clerk Jane Greathouse in a telephone conversation on April 15 to indicate what the April 5 minutes indicated had taken place. She said that her draft minutes stated that the county awarded the contract to Precision Planning Inc.
County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, who did not attend the meeting, told me in an email message on April 19 that he had “reviewed the minutes of the meeting.”
Benko told me that “On motion by Commissioner Saxon and second by Commissioner Luke, the Board unanimously approved award of the contract to Precision Planning, Inc. for professional services for a security improvement plan and renovation of the Courthouse.”
Administrative Officer Benko said the contract with PPI is for “professional services dealing with an item that is confidential (Courthouse Security).”
Benko said that after a discussion with staff, including the Sheriff, there was agreement that “a cost proposal” for PPI services will be brought back to the Board of Commissioners for approval.”
Benko said that, at this point, “No funds have been approved.”
The record indicates that Mills was correct in her characterization of the action of the Board in awarding the contract on April 5 and that Barry was wrong in saying that no contract had been awarded.
Luke indicated he did not know the cost of the contract, as Mills correctly said in her comment.
Saxon’s statement that he knew the details of what he was voting on contrasts with the statements of Luke, Davis, Benko and Berry about the costs.
At no time during this discussion did Thomas respond to the question on executive sessions posed by Jackson.
The complete video of that section of the Board of Commissioners meeting on April 5 is below.