Robert Wyatt of 1090 Apalachee Trace in the Lane Creek subdivision in the west of the county, asked the first question at the Oconee County Election Forum on Thursday night, and he found discord among the three candidates for the open seat on the Board of Commissioners in their answers.
Wyatt noted that there has been disagreement on the Commission about the county’s organizational chart and wanted the three candidates to indicate where they stood on the issue.
Candidates Ben Bridges and Chuck Horton said they wanted a power-sharing arrangement consistent with the vote of the commissioners in 2009, while Marcus Wiedower said the unanimous decision of the four voting members had been “unilaterial” and has left the county “in confusing waters.”
Many of the questions that followed were critical of the Commission as a whole, focusing on decisions about Mars Hill Road, the Animal Control Board, spending on sewer projects, and other matters.
One questioner even accused the three members of the current Board of being a “rubber stamp” for initiatives of Chairman Melvin Davis.
About 100 people were in the audience at the Community Center in Veterans Park, where they also heard Oconee County School Superintendent Dr. Jason Branch explain the Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax on the November ballot.
They also listened as representatives of the grocery and restaurant industries talked about the advantage of the two Sunday Sales referenda on the ballot and to an opponent criticize the initiative on religious grounds.
Sarah Bell, Russ Page and I organized the Election Forum, and the format gave citizens the opportunity to ask their questions directly of the candidates and other presenters.
Wyatt was quick to seize the opportunity, asking his question just after the three candidates had introduced themselves to the audience.
Wyatt asked if the candidates for the open Post II position on the Commission favored a “strong chairman form of operation or one in which power is shared more equally among the five members of the Board.”
Horton said he voted for the change in the organizational chart in 2009 to put the county administrative officer in charge of day-to-day operations of the county and that the framework would have worked if “all the parties” had accepted the decision.
“That hasn’t occurred,” Horton said. Horton did not say this, but even at the time, Davis stated his opposition to the change.
Bridges said “for several years we have had an administrator, Melvin and commissioners.”
“I think we should all be in there together,” Bridges added. “One man shouldn’t have the final say on anything.”
Wiedower said it has been confusing having a Commission chairman and a county manager “and not knowing who to answer to.”
“There does need to be a conversation about having power that is equal across the board,” he acknowledged.
The full answers of the three are in the video clip below.
Horton and Bridges mistakenly referred to the administrative officer as administrative assistant in their comments. Wiedower incorrectly called the administrative officer the manager.
Mars Hill Road
Jeanne Barsanti of 1170 Oliver Bridge Road south of Watkinville wanted the candidates to explain their position on the median cut for landowner Doug Dickens on Mars Hill Road.
Bridges said taxpayers should not be paying for the median cut and that the county should stick to the existing plans.
Wiedower also didn’t want the county to pay for what he called “private development.”
“The DOT has spoken. It is over with,” Horton said. DOT stands for Georgia Department of Transportation.
The Commission, following the lead of Chairman Davis, agreed to fund part of the median cut, but the Georgia Department of Transportation has rejected the plans.
Davis as well as Commissioner Jim Luke and Commissioner Mark Saxon were in the audience last night but did not speak up.
Dan Magee, 1120 Loch Lomond Circle outside Watkinsville, said the “Commission now has kind of been a rubber stamp Commission.” He wanted to know “what are you guys going to do to not be a rubber stamp.”
“We have to sit down as a community and talk about the things we want,” Wiedower responded.
Bridges also focused on listening. “We’re going to listen. We’re going to make it right,” he said.
“You know, in all my years, I’ve been called a lot of things,” Horton said. “But rubber stamp is not one of them.”
The controversial proposal to run a sewer line down Calls Creek came up indirectly at the meeting, though no one asked the candidates directly to state their positions on the issue.
Jim McGarvey, 1170 Grace Lane, one of the organizers of Friends of Calls Creek, did ask about the small amount of time the Commission allocates to some of the decisions it makes, and he used the recent decision to spend $425,000 for right of way for a sewer line through Jennings Mill Country Club as an example.
Horton said there needs to be more discussion of sewer issues in the county and that he doesn’t know the answers to the sewer questions facing the county.
“Where are we going? What is the end result?” he asked.
Wiedower also said there should be more discussion and “we need a comprehensive plan that we can follow that has community input.”
“I want to look at a long term plan,” Bridges said. “What are we going to do three or four years from now?”
Wendy Jackson, 1050 Campbellton Place in Hickory Hill subdivision outside Watkinsville, said she was concerned that the money voters approved in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum for the Animal Shelter has not been forthcoming and asked if there should be a citizens oversight committee to make sure SPLOST funds are correctly spent.
Bridges said “if I am a commissioner I’m going to make sure every dime goes to where we told each and every one of you it is going to go.”
“I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be a good idea to have citizens being reported to” about the status of SPLOST projects, Horton said.
“If its been allocated, it needs to be spent in that fashion. Period.” Wiedower said.
Horton served on the Commission from 2004 to 2012. Bridges and Wiedower are seeking the unexpired term on the Commission as their first elective office.
The candidates will next meet in a forum being organized by the county’s two Rotary clubs for Oct. 13 at the University of North Georgia. Details are still being worked out.
Superintendent Branch told the audience that the Board of Education voted to put the tax question on the ballot a year ahead of when the current tax expires so it could understand voter preferences.
The system is growing dramatically, he said, and it needs new schools.
The money has to come either from increases in property taxes or from continuation of the sales tax, he said.
No one in the audience spoke against the tax.
Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, told the gathering that alcohol sales are a very important part of the revenue stream for restaurants.
The average restaurant only does 20 percent of its volume in alcohol sales, Bremer said. But that 20 percent is very profitable.
Alcohol “is a product that doesn’t spoil,” she said. “If I have too many heads of lettuce in my refrigerator and I don’t have a lot of customers coming in, I’m going to throw away a lot of lettuce. If I have a case of vodka on my shelf, the vodka is not going to go bad.”
Mike Olive, store manager for Publix in Winder, standing in for Dennis Curry, store manage for Publix in Butler’s Crossing, said “here in Watkinsville we disappoint many customers every Sunday.
“We have hundreds of transactions we are unable to complete because of the fact we are not able to sell beer and wine," Olive said.
No Identified Opposition
The November ballot will contain separate referenda for Sunday sales in restaurants and for Sunday sales in groceries and convenience stores.
Bell, Page and I tried to identify organizations or groups that wished to speak in opposition to the referenda, but we were unsuccessful.
Annette Sledge, 1091 Crooked Creek Road, has appeared before the Board of Commissioners to make her opposition known to the referenda on religious grounds, and she spoke up again at the Election Forum on Thursday night.
She pointed at Bremer and Olive and said “God will curse you” for selling alcohol on Sunday.
“My bible says he will curse those who go against Jesus Christ,” she said.
Several in the audience praised Ms. Sledge for speaking out.
The full video of the session is below.