The four Oconee County Commissioners were a picture of harmony on Sunday afternoon after they participated in the Oath of Office Ceremony at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
Incoming Commission Chair John Daniell joined new commissioners Chuck Horton and Mark Thomas as well as re-elected Commissioner Mark Saxon in a photo after the ceremony. All were wearing smiles.
Starting Tuesday night, the Commission, now up to full strength with Horton filling immediately the unexpired term of Daniell, will start to plan for the county’s next rendition of its land use plan or comprehensive plan as well as address an immediate issue regarding security at the Courthouse.
That meeting, likely the last of the year and the final one for retiring Commission Chairman Melvin Davis as well as retiring Commissioner Jim Luke, will start at 7 p.m. at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
Oath Of Office
Just at 100 people turned out on Sunday for a brief reception followed by the Oath of Office Ceremony, held in Courtroom No. 1 on the third floor of the Courthouse.
|Thomas, Daniell, Horton And Saxon 12/18/2016|
County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko presided, and Davis sat quietly in the last bench of the courtroom, far from the usual limelight.
Superior Court Chief Judge David Sweat was joined by Superior Court Judges H. Patrick Haggard, Lawton Stephens and Eric Norris in administering the oaths.
Probate Judge David Anglin, after swearing to the oath administered by Judge Sweat, administered the oath to Mark Saxon and Coroner Ed Carson.
In addition to Anglin, Carson, Daniell, Horton, Saxon, and Thomas, Sheriff Scott Berry, Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle, Clerk of Superior Court Angela Elder-Johnson, Chief Magistrate Judge Richard Connelly, Associate Magistrate Judge Samuel Barth, and Juvenile Judge Amanda Trimble accepted the oath of office.
All county elected office holders are Republicans.
The ceremony was followed by a series of group photos.
The video of that Oath of Office Ceremony is embedded at the bottom of this post.
Challenges On Horizon
The Board of Commissioners rather soon after the first of the year will have to confront a long list of issues, including decisions on how to address the lack sewer capacity, what to do about the Courthouse and its inadequate space, and how to manage residential growth and its impact on the schools.
The group almost immediately will have to decide what to do about a controversial request to approve a solar energy farm on Dials Mill Road at McNutt Creek Road and what to do about a transportation study pushed by Chairman Davis.
The goal of that study was to move forward plans for a flyover of Daniells Bridge Road to connect to the stub of the Oconee Connector at Home Depot.
The group also will have to decide what to do about the Animal Shelter, which staff maintain is inadequate and even unsafe because of frequent flooding.
Parks and Recreation Director John Gentry is asking for more staff to continue county programming or a clear decision that his department should cut back on services for its users.
Budget hearings for Fiscal Year 2018, which sets the priority for spending in the county, start early in the year.
Tensions Among Them
How much tensions among the commissioners will affect their ability to solve these and other problems is unknown.
Horton challenged and unseated Wilkes back in 2004 and then worked in 2009 with Daniell, Luke, and Commissioner Margaret Hale to weaken the power of Chairman Davis. Their argument was that they were strengthening the Commission as a counterbalance to Davis.
Daniell had challenged Davis unsuccessfully in 2004, and Horton left the Commission in 2012 to run against Davis. Davis won both of those races handily.
Wilkes, running as a supporter of Davis, got back on the Commission in 2014 by unseating Margaret Hale.
When Davis announced his plans to retire at the end of last year, Daniell stepped down from his Commission seat to run for the Chair position. No one came forward to challenge him.
Luke also announced his intent to retire, and Thomas defeated Penny Mills in the Republican Primary in May and was elected without opposition on Nov. 8 to replace Luke.
Saxon ran for reelection and defeated challenger Sarah Bell in that same May primary. He also ran unopposed on Nov. 8.
Ben Bridges, Horton and Marcus Wiedower declared for Daniell's open seat, to be filled in a special election on Nov. 8 and ultimately in a runoff on Dec. 6.
Daniell, Saxon and Thomas officially were neutral in that runoff race to fill the remaining two years of Daniell’s term.
Davis and Wilkes supported Wiedower with signs on their property, and, by numerous accounts, with active campaigning.
Luke supported Horton and contributed to his campaign financially.
Then a vote by Luke, Saxon and Wilkes brought the split in the Commission out in the open.
Hard Labor Creek
In executive session on Oct. 25, with Davis participating, Saxon and Wilkes agreed not to reappoint Horton to his citizen slot to the Hard Labor Creek Regional Reservoir Management Board.
The decision went against the tradition of allowing citizens to continue serving on such appointments as long as they express a desire to do so and was an affront to Horton as the campaign wound down.
Luke objected, and on Nov. 1 the Board put off a final decision until Nov. 29.
With the runoff days off, Saxon and Wilkes voted on Nov. 29 to replace Horton on the Management Board with Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Green Industry Association,
Luke voted against the decision.
Ran As Supporters
Of necessity, Saxon ran as a supporter of the Commission in the May Republican Primary. He most often had supported Davis during his four years in office and had not established himself as a critic of the status quo.
Thomas, though not an incumbent, avoided making critical statements about the status quo as well.
In contrast, Bell and Mills were particularly critical of the Commission for the way it handled citizen input, saying the group lacked transparency and wasn’t open to different points of view.
A precinct analysis showed that both Mills and Bell outperformed their overall vote totals of 27.7 percent and 27.6 percent respectively in the urbanized precincts of Annex, Athens Academy, Civic Center and City Hall, which includes much of Watkinsville.
Horton As Critic
Horton also ran as a critic of the Commission, taking strong stands against the proposal to run a sewer line down Calls Creek as part of the county’s expansion plans for its Calls Creek sewage treatment plant and against the Daniells Bridge Road flyover.
Bridges ran a campaign focused mostly on his love of Oconee County and his family’s long commitment to the community.
Wiedower tried to thread the needle, accepting the support of developers, particularly those aligned with Davis, while saying he would be a new voice sensitive to citizen concerns about rapid growth.
Horton’s strength ultimately was in the urbanized areas of the county most affected by that growth.
Most of the issues facing the county are ones associated with development.
Thomas, who works in the construction business, has been cautious about residential growth because of its impact on the schools. He stepped down from the Board of Education to run for the BOC slot.
Wilkes has been pro-growth his entire career, but what role he will play with Davis off the Commission will have to be seen.
Saxon also has links to the development community, but he did vote against the rezone request for the auto dealerships on SR 316 earlier this year and recused himself from the controversial rezone of land for two fast food restaurants in Butler’s Crossing opposite the school complex.
Saxon has not explained the reason for that decision to remove himself from that vote.
The biggest question is Daniell, who is a strong proponent of land rights and has often supported development.
What he does in his leadership role as Chair likely will make a big difference in how the county addresses the many challenges before it.
The interview I did with Daniell this summer gives some indication of where he would like to lead the county.
He spoke out for more transparency and increased citizen involvement in government operations.
The video of that interview is at the top of the right-hand column of this page.
The video of the Oath of Office Ceremony is below.