The two candidates running as outsiders in the Oconee County Board of Commissioners contest have made transparency and openness in government a key issue.
At the last Board of Commissioners meeting on May 3, Commission Chairman Melvin Davis gave them the perfect illustration of the problem they are addressing.
Davis told Barb Carroll that references to a poultry plant were just an “example” and that nothing concrete has come before the county.
That clearly is incorrect, as Oconee County Utility Department Director Wayne Haynie told the county's Industrial Development Authority in April, with Davis present, that the county was in discussions with a poultry concern.
Haynie said the same thing to the Board of Commissioners on several occasions, starting as early as Jan. 26.
Davis’ misstatement to Carroll was blatant.
Carroll said she had read that sewer capacity had been sold to a chicken processing facility, and Davis responded by saying that nothing had come before the county’s planning staff or the Board of Commissioners regarding a poultry facility.
Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes chimed in to support Davis.
Were such a facility to require a zoning change, as is likely, it would come to the Planning Department and then the Board of Commissioners as the last step in the approval process. Davis was correct in saying that has not happened.
Davis then went on to say a poultry facility was just an “example” of a type of industry that could come to the county.
The video below shows the exchange.
More Than “Example.”
Davis’ statement that the poultry facility was just an example is clearly incorrect.
On Jan. 26, Utility Department Director Wayne Haynie briefed the Board of Commissioners on demand for sewage capacity in the county.
As the video below shows, Haynie said explicitly “We get a lot of requests for new sewer capacity, and just some examples are right here.” He referred to a slide in his PowerPoint presentation.
The slide listed “poultry interest” as well as a brewery as possible future users of sewer capacity.
Haynie called the items on the list “economic development type things” and said “our economic development manager is out luring industry to come to our county.”
At the meeting of the Industrial Development Authority on April 11, Haynie referred to a “poultry concern” as one of two “customers” the county has been talking with about future sewer needs, as the video below shows.
The county’s Economic Development Director, J.R. Charles, was sitting opposite Haynie at the table, and Haynie referenced their collaboration regarding the poultry business and the brewery.
Davis, a member of the Industrial Development Authority, attended that meeting.
The exact status of discussions about the poultry plant and the brewery isn’t known and isn’t knowable to the public because the Commission meets so frequently in executive session, where the commissioners can talk about and do talk about land acquisition.
What conversations might have been held in executive session are only revealed to the public if a court were to force the minutes to be opened.
At the Candidate Forum on April 14 both Penny Mills and Sarah Bell raised concerns about how the Commission conducts its business and about transparency and openness in Oconee County government.
They raised these concerns again at the Candidate Forum on April 25.
At that second forum, Oconee County Commissioner Mark Saxon, running against Bell for reelection to Commission Post 4, said transparency was not a problem, providing the campaign one of its most prominent issues.
Mark Thomas, running with Mills for Post 1, has neither joined Mills and Bell in their criticism of a lack of openness and transparency nor defended the Commission.
Mills and Thomas are seeking to be elected to Post 1 on the Commission. Incumbent Jim Luke is retiring.
Request For Balances
At the April 14 Candidate Forum, Bell used as an example of the lack of transparency a problem she was experiencing in obtaining financial information from the county.
Wes Geddings, county finance director, had given a Fiscal Report to the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 26, covering the first half of fiscal year 2016-2017, but he had not included the amount in the county’s Fund Balance (reserve account), or in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax accounts for 2004 and 2009.
At the BOC meeting on March 1, Bell asked the commissioners to provide her with those figures, and Chairman Davis told her to contact Geddings and that Geddings would give her the information.
Bell sent an email to Geddings at 10:49 p.m. on March 1 asking for the information.
At 5:03 p.m. on March 7, Geddings sent Bell the balances in each of the three accounts as of June 30, 2015.
Bell responded to Geddings an hour later saying he had not provided what she requested, but Geddings did not respond.
On March 11, Bell filed an open records request for the same information.
On March 14, Geddings again provided the data for June 30, 2015.
On April 8, Bell filed a complaint with Attorney General Samuel Olens.
Attorney General’s Response
On April 19, Jennifer Colangelo, assistant attorney general, wrote to County Attorney Daniel Haygood, telling him either to provide Bell with the information she requested or explain to Colangelo why the county had not done that.
On April 25, Geddings gave Bell the information she requested, but he also told her that the data were not audited and that cash flow is cyclical.
Colangelo from the Attorney General’s Office told Haygood that Geddings did not have the right to determine which information was most “accurate” or “useful” and that, if the records exist, the state’s Open Records Act “requires that they be provided.”
After Bell told the story of her attempts to get the account balances at the April 14 Candidate Forum, Commissioner Saxon, seated to her left, took the microphone and contradicted the story.
He said he had gone to Geddings the night of the meeting, gotten the information she wanted, and given it to her immediately.
Bell told me that what Saxon gave her that night was the account balances for June 30, 2015.
Not An Exception
Those of us who have asked for information from the county know Bell’s experience is not unique.
On April, following the series of public hearings on the budget, I asked, via an open records request, for a spreadsheet listing the budget requests broken down by department or county office.
I asked for the spreadsheet sent to the commissioners, since last year I had gotten such a sheet from then Commissioner John Daniell.
On April 25, I got a message back from Jane Greathouse, county clerk and open records officer, saying that “It has been determined that Oconee County does not possess documents responsive” to my request for a spreadsheet sent to the commissioners.
I wrote back to Greathouse on April 27 that “Somewhere Wes has made a listing of these requests with a sum. Unless he is still working with a hand calculator, he has a record of his list and sum. I have to assume he has this in a spreadsheet. This is what I want.”
A couple of hours later Greathouse provided me with Geddings’ detailed, two-page spreadsheet listing more than $5 million in unfunded requests, broken down by department and with a description of the nature of each request. That represented a part, but not all, of what I had requested.
Saxon told me at the BOC meeting on May 3 that he, too, had asked Geddings for a spreadsheet summarizing the full amount of the departmental budget submissions.
Saxon said Geddings never responded to his request.
Other departments in the county are much more forthcoming with information than is the Finance Department.
The Planning Department puts detailed information online prior to rezone hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners and makes files available for easy review.
Another office that is extraordinarily forthcoming with information is the Board of Elections and Registration, located across Court Street from the Courthouse.
That office did make me file an open records request for the financial disclosure information candidates submitted as part of the qualification for the May 24 primaries.
Pat Hayes, chair of the Board of Elections and Registration, told me she was being careful to follow state law on disclosure of these documents.
The office subsequently made available all of the campaign finance documents without my filing any open records request.
Closer To Davis
It seems the closer the office is to that of Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis, the more difficult it is get information from it. The Finance Department is just down the hall from the Commission office.
Davis is particularly tight-fisted with information.
Many years ago, following a conversation I had with him about an issue that had been before the Board of Commissioners, Davis made me fill out an open records to get a copy of minutes of a Board of Commissioners meeting.
And open requests I file for information from his office always come back with a bigger fee for the searches than requests filed with other offices.
B.R. White, head of the Planning Department, told me his policy on easy access to documents is based on the idea that easy access saves the government money.
It takes more time to deal with open records requests than it does simply to make the documents readily available, he said.
The way in which appointments are made to citizen advisory boards offers another example of the issue of transparency and openness.
These decisions are made in executive session, though there is no law that requires that and it is even questionable whether these appointments fall under the allowance of the law, given that the appointees are not county employees.
The commissioners also have agreed that decisions on these appointments should be unanimous, though that is not required by any law.
Davis, who does not vote in regular meetings of the Commission unless there is a tie, wields a lot of power in these meetings, I have been told by several commissioners.
The commissioners ratify the secret decisions in open sessions without giving the citizens any idea why the choices were made.
Saxon On Appointments
Saxon was questioned about the procedures for citizen appointments at the Candidate Forum on April 14 and defended them, saying the commissioners worked hard to make good appointments.
He was responding to a question about a recent appointment to the Animal Control Advisory Board. The commissioners passed over citizens who have been active in support of the county’s Animal Shelter.
One of the persons appointed, who said he wanted the job because he was going into semi-retirement and had time on his hands, lives near Davis.
Another appointment was an incumbent who has been critical of the Shelter in the past.
Saxon said in his response that any applicant known to a commissioner has an advantage in the deliberations.
The way the county handled problems at the sewer plant last spring also illustrated the problem of openness.
Davis announced unexpectedly at the May 26 Board of Commissioners meeting that there had been an “issue” at the county’s Calls Creek plant and that the county had addressed it. The Commissioners sat by silently.
It became known later that the “issue” was a quite significant mismanagement of both of the county’s sewerage treatment facilities that resulted in the resignation of the operator of the plant and later of the Utility Department director himself.
After that announcement on May 26, the county made a special arrangement with The Oconee Enterprise to manage release of information on the problem.
To this day, there never has been an open discussion of the problem, although the evidence is that, possibly for as long as a year, the county was pumping untreated or partially treated sewer water into Calls Creek during the evening hours.
Mills has focused most of her criticisms on the way citizens are treated by the Commission.
During the citizen comment section at the beginning of Commission meetings, Commissioner Luke frequently busies himself reading documents rather than looking at the speakers.
Chairman Davis often will shuffle papers, look down, and avoid eye contact with the speaker–unless the speaker is a friend or someone Davis wants to speak.
At the April 24 Board of Commissioners meeting, Bell decided to make public the financial information she had gotten from Geddings following her complaint to the Attorney General’s Office.
I was out of town and did not record the session, but Bell did.
The camera focuses on Davis and Luke, and they could not have been less attentive.
At the end of Bell’s comments, Davis looked up and repeated the assertion made by Geddings that the data Bell released were not helpful because of fluctuation.
Commissioners Saxon and Wilkes cannot be seen on the video, but they generally do look at citizens while they speak. The same was true of former Commissioner John Daniell, running unopposed to replace the retiring Davis as Commission chair.
The full video of that meeting on April 24 is HERE, and the full video of the BOC meeting on May 3 is HERE.
Full video of the 4/26 BOC meeting is HERE.