Oconee County administrators, to accommodate Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, intentionally mislabeled $15,000 in expenses in giving a public presentation in June of a bill for added design work for Mars Hill Road.
Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc. billed the county $10,000 for requested design work to reconnect Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road and $5,000 for design work on a median break requested by businessman Doug Dickens.
Commissioner Jim Luke prodded Public Works Director Emil Beshara at that June 28 meeting to link correctly the $10,000 in the invoice to the Old Mars Hill project, but he let stand the reference to the Humane Society for that $5,000 in the invoice.
The $15,000, which the county paid, was wasted money, as the commissioners had rejected back in September of last year Davis’ unauthorized attempt to reconnect old and new Mars Hill roads, and the state last week turned down the county’s request for the change in the design for the median cut.
The Commission, with Luke’s support, spent another $5,000 with Moreland Altobelli on July 5 to try to make the case for that median cut design change for Dickens, bringing the total wasted amount for these changes requested of Moreland Altobelli to $20,000.
The pressure from Davis to mislabel the expenses is documented in email exchanges I received through multiple open records requests.
On Feb. 8 of this year, Moreland Altobelli submitted an invoice to the county listing 98 hours of work for “Road Way design Old Mars Hill/Hollow Lane Intersection” and 48 hours for “Dickens Intersection design.” A slightly revised version was sent out on Feb. 19, with those same entries.
Hollow Creek Lane intersects with Old Mars Hill Road, and Old Mars Hill Road was called Hollow Creek Lane in the past.
The Old Mars Hill Road invoice item listed 18 hours of work by a “senior roadway engineer” and 80 hours of work by a “roadway engineer,” while the Dickens median break work involved 8 hours of work by the “senior roadway engineer” and 40 hours of work by the “roadway engineer.”
According to the invoice, senior roadway engineers are billed at $120 per hour, while roadway engineers are billed at $98 per hour, resulting in a bill of exactly $10,000 for the Old Mars Hill Road work and $4,880 for the Dickens median.
When Davis refused to put payment of the invoice from Moreland Altobelli on the agenda of the Board of Commissioners for approval, the county requested that Moreland Altobelli modify the invoice.
Moreland Altobelli submitted a second invoice on June 2.
Missing in this invoice is any reference to Old Mars Hill Road and to Dickens.
Instead, the 146 hours for those projects are tucked into another item for design of a wall at Publix.
The 98 hours for the Old Mars Hill Road revision and the 48 hours for the Dickens revision are simply listed as “Miscellaneous R/W Revisions (146).”
That invoice is what the Board of Commissioners approved at its meeting on June 28.
Beshara And Benko Correspondence
The email I received as a result of my open records requests explains the changes made in the invoices.
Beshara sent Benko an email message on Feb. 16, after he received the initial invoice from Moreland Altobelli, explaining the document and listing the 98 hours for the “proposed tie-in for Old Mars Hill Road” and the 48 hours for the “Doug Dickens Median break.”
On March 28, Beshara revised that note, eliminating the reference to Old Mars Hill Road.
On March 29, Benko thanked Beshara for that change, and asked him also to remove the reference to Dickens.
On April 19, Benko sent the revised note to Davis, saying “Emil reworked Charge Order per your request.”
Still No Action
Beshara wrote to Jeff Joyner at Moreland Altobelli on March 29 apologizing for not getting the invoice cleared.
“The Chairman still has not put the Charge Order #12 on the agenda, and I cannot predict when he will choose to do so,” Beshara wrote. Davis controls which items go on the agenda for BOC meetings.
On May 3, Beshara asked Benko if there had been “any word” on getting the invoice on the agenda of the Board of Commissioners so it could be approved and paid.
Benko wrote back that day saying “He will not forward as long as it has old Mars hill tie in to Mars hill and dickens work” on the statement.
Benko received the June 2 invoice as an attachment to an email message from Danielle Tapley at Moreland Altobelli.
“As discussed, attached is the supplemental request,” Tapley wrote to Benko.
Benko had sent the original change order invoice to the Commissioners on March 7, so Luke knew on June 28 when he questioned Beshara that the $10,000 was for the Old Mars Hill Road redesign work that Davis had ordered without Commission approval.
Davis had proposed the change, claiming it was to accommodate a request from a landowner who wanted to develop his property. The commissioners rejected the plan when the vast majority of citizens in the area protested.
Dickens Was Different
At that June 28 meeting, Luke made no attempt to tell the public that the reference to the Humane Society also was misleading.
|Mars Hill Road 8/20/2016|
Humane Society Parking Lot
In Distance On Right
In fact, neither Beshara nor Benko would identify Dickens as the one requesting the change in design for the median when I asked after that meeting.
“I have not been specifically authorized to discuss” the matter, Beshara told me.
Luke did acknowledge the median design change was to accommodate Dickens at the next BOC meeting on June 5, and he said the county had promised Dickens it would both get the design change approved and pay the $23,000 in additional costs needed to makes the changes called for in the design.
Humane Society Asked
Dicken had told the county he would not pay the $23,000, according to an email message sent from Beshara to Benko and County Attorney Daniel Haygood on March 14.
He already had agreed to pay $32,000 toward the project–which he had initiated and was for his benefit–and donated some right of way requested to accommodate the design changes.
Because Dickens would not pay the $23,000, Beshara contacted Jane Stewart, executive director of the Athens Area Humane Society and asked her if the Human Society would pay the $23,000. That was on March 28.
On April 7, Stewart wrote back to Beshara and said they the Human Society would not pay for the changes, which, as Beshara had indicated in his correspondence with her, had been requested by Dickens but would have been “an apparent convenience for your customers.”
Benko had told Beshara in an email message on March 29 that Davis had asked Beshara to make sure Dickens knew the contact with the Humane Society had been made.
Humane Society Loss
The Human Society operates an adoption center and spay and neuter clinic on 1.4 acres at 1871 Mars Hill Road. The center and clinic sit across Mars Hill Road from the 102 acres owned by Dickens.
Dickens’ land is undeveloped, though he has said he plans to divide the land into 275 residential lots and also have 28,000 square feet of retail space and 42,000 square feet of office space, according to an email message Beshara sent to Moreland Altobelli. The land is currently zoned for agriculture.
Dickens received $32,000 from the state in compensation for the 0.312 acres he lost to permanent easements and the 0.501 acres in construction easements for the widening of Mars Hill Road.
This was 171.2 percent more than the initial assessment of the property’s worth.
The Humane Society received $88,000 for the 0.142 acres of land it lost, which included part of its parking lot and signage, and the 0.176 acres needed for construction easements.
That was 26.7 percent above assessed value.
On April 6, the day before Stewart from the Humane Society told Beshara her group would not pay the $23,000 for the construction of the full median cut, Beshara had told her to ignore his request.
“Heard back from GDOT yesterday,” he said to her in an email message. “They are now unwilling to allow the full median break as part of their project.”
Beshara had written to Benko on April 5, saying that GDOT has rejected the plan, forwarding an email from Harold Mull, a construction engineer at GDOT, to that effect.
That rejection was no surprise to Beshara.
Beshara had written to M.J. Sheehan of Moreland Altobelli in Nov. 19, 2015, saying he “met with Mr. Dickens a couple of weeks ago and he exploded when he found out he wasn’t getting a full break.”
“The best I can tell is that I dropped the ball on making sure the full break was included in the project,” Beshara wrote. “I was told that it wouldn’t be included so many times I just assumed it wouldn’t be.”
That assumption was confirmed again in the correspondence from Mull on April 5 of 2016.
Yet Davis requested again on June 27 that Beshara “pursue getting GDOT to reconsider the full median break” for Dickens, according to an email Beshara sent to Benko.
The Board of Commissioners followed suit on July 5, voting to spend the additional $5,000 to try to convince GDOT to change its mind. Beshara warned before the vote that GDOT might well reject the request, as it had in the past.
Beshara learned on Wednesday of last week that GDOT had held firm and the design change would not be approved. The county had wasted the $5,000 spent making the request.
The email messages I received from the open records requests contained a number of responses showing tension between Davis and Beshara and between Davis and Benko over the invoices and the repeated efforts to accommodate Dickens.
Beshara reports to Benko in the official chain of command, and Benko reports to the full Board of Commissioners.
On June 22, Davis sent Dickens an email inviting Dickens to join him in a meeting in Davis’ office on June 27. Davis told Dickens that GDOT representatives, Benko, and Beshara would be at the meeting as well.
“Do you know who requested this meeting,” Benko asked Beshara in an email later in the day.
“Obviously the emperor of the universe did,” Beshara responded.
“I like the way I am not even asked if I am available,” Beshara said in another email.
“Me too,” Benko responded.
The video below is from the June 28, 2016, Board of Commissioners meeting.
Beshara is explaining the invoice or change order from Moreland Altobelli, which contains bills for both the current phase of Mars Hill Road widening and the future phase from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 bypass.
Davis directs attention toward that Phase II work, but Luke asks several times about the Phase I work.
At the end of the video clip, Beshara tells Luke that $15,000 is for the Old Mars Hill Road design work and “consideration of a full break at the Humane Society.”
No one mentions Dickens.
In the end, the Board gave tentative approval to payment of the change order by putting it on the consent agenda for action at the next meeting. At that meeting, it was approved with the addition of $5,000 to try to make the case for the Dickens median cut.