Melvin Davis wasn’t at the work session of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Friday, but he had impact on the discussion nonetheless.
The meeting began with a review of the ethics ordinance for commissioners, which has been used only once–in a complaint filed against Davis.
The next topic was an ordinance passed by the commissioners in 2009 to reassert the power of the Commission as a whole versus the power of the Chair. Davis opposed the ordinance when it was passed and fought it until he retired on Dec. 31 of last year.
The group talked about the change in the culture already underway at the Courthouse, about the need to limit the number of executive sessions, and about the need to increase coordination between the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education.
Davis was never mentioned in the discussion, but the contrast with the operation of the county under Davis’ leadership and the anticipated operation of the county under new Chair John Daniell was ever present.
“Executive sessions, held frequently, breed distrust,” County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the group. “No question about it. And that’s not good.”
The Board held executive sessions routinely at the end of the twice-monthly Commission meetings under Davis.
County Attorney Haygood told the commissioners that some of the items in the ethics ordinance are not really provable, but others are, and commissioners need to be aware of them.
|Daniell, Facing Camera,|
Wilkes And Thomas
Haygood said a “big” item on the list is: “Don’t take official action in which you have a direct or indirect monetary interest.”
In late 2015, Sarah Bell, 1201 Arrowhead Road, east of Butler’s Crossing, filed an ethics complaint against Davis saying he violated at least eight sections of the county’s ethics code.
Bell contended that Davis used “taxpayer money to pay an employee and to prepare and purchase plans” for the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road proper “as a special favor for one citizen.”
Special Master James Warnes dismissed the complaint saying it did “not set forth material facts for which remedy can be given.” He did not conduct any independent investigation of the complaint.
Daniell told the Board he was happy with the 2009 ordinance passed by the Commission, with his support.
That ordinance changed the organizational chart so that department heads report to the county administrative officer, who then reports directly to all members of the Board of Commissioners equally.
Previously, department heads reported to the Chair of the Board of Commissioners.
Commission members said at the time they were often kept in the dark by Davis about issues in the county.
Daniell said Friday that he wants to change the title of the County Administrative Officer to County Administrator, consistent with what other counties do, and make some other minor changes to the ordinance that would obligate the Chair to consult with the other commissioners.
Responses Of Commissioners
The county’s organizational chart had been a point of contention in the May Republican Primary, when Mark Thomas defeated Penny Mills in the race to replace Jim Luke as Post 1 Commissioner, and when Mark Saxon defended his Post 4 spot against Sarah Bell.
It also was an issue in the special election on Nov. 8 when Chuck Horton defeated Ben Bridges and Marcus Wiedower to fill out Daniell’s Post 2 position on the Commission.
Commissioner Horton Friday spoke up strongly in favor of the ordinance.
Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes, who had run for his Post 3 spot in 2014 in opposition to the change in the ordinance, said on Friday he agreed with Horton.
Saxon, who in the campaign in May did not voice criticism of the operation of the Commission, said on Friday that there had been problems.
“The last four years, we can’t say its been smooth,” he said. “Let’s just face a fact. It’s not been smooth. I wasn’t there before the ordinance got changed. But I was there after the change. Something did not work.”
He said the ordinance was “easily understandable,” so that was not the problem. “I just don’t see why this can’t work.”
Thomas was cautious in his comments, but he did say “We’re here together to work together. As a unit, we’re much stronger, as opposed to individuals.”
During the discussion of the 2009 ordinance, Horton praised Daniell, saying that, “in just the first six days, I see a difference,” Horton said.
He said the fact that the Commission was discussing the ordinance was an indication of the change.
“I can tell you that this is the fourth day of the Chairman’s tenure,” Administrative Officer Benko said. “And I have seen in the first three days every commissioner in his office, talking. And I think that’s important.”
He said that he and Daniell seek each other out and brief each other on what happened during the day.
“That has been a complete change,” Benko said.
Horton was the one who brought up the discussion of executive sessions.
|Horton, Haygood And Saxon|
“I don’t want to go into executive session unless we’ve got to,” Horton said. “I don’t like finding out about executive sessions the night of the meeting.”
County Attorney Haygood said “one of the most uncomfortable moments I ever have is in an executive session when a chairman–you know there is only one chairman–looks at you and says, ‘Tell the Board about X.’ And you get surprised blank looks from everybody on the Board.
“That isn’t how it ought to be,” he said. “You are exactly right on that,” Haygood said, turning to Horton.
Benko said there have been times when neither he nor Haygood knew whether Davis–he didn’t mention his name–planned to go into executive session. “That’s tough,” Benko said.
Coordination With BOE
Commissioner Thomas, who called for closer coordination between the Board of Commissioners and the county Board of Education in his campaign for Post 1, raised the issue at the meeting on Friday.
“I’d like to see us communicating more,” Thomas said. He said he was particularly sensitive to this, having just finished up a term on the Board of Education.
Thomas said the BOC needs to be talking with the members of the Board of Education about the major projects underway and planning together for the future of the county.
Attorney Haygood said he could remember only one joint meeting of the two Boards in 20 years, and that was in 2005.
No one disagreed with Thomas’ suggestion.
Daniell said there would be more communication with the public in the future about spending of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue.
Saxon and Horton said the county needs to move more quickly to spend money that had been set aside in the SPLOST projects.
Daniell said that Commission had been unable to agree on how to spend SPLOST funds in the past so projects “just kind of stalled out.”
He said this was an opportunity for the Board to come together and decide how to spend the money available.
The county has had money in SPLOST that could have been used to provide some relief for the space needs of the county, but the Commission has not been able to agree on what to do.
County Administrative Officer Benko said the Board has known of the problems it faces for many years..
“We as a collective group did not, I believe, respond as quickly as we should,” he said.
Thomas emphasized the importance of bringing the staff into the discussion.
I was not able to attend the meeting on Friday, held at the Community Center in Veterans Park.
Penny Mills and Sarah Bell did attend and produced the video below.
The meeting runs just more than 2 hours and 10 minutes and does not include a brief break that the commissioners took more than half way through the meeting.
Top county staff attended the meeting and provided input during the meeting in response to questions posted of them.
The Commission has another work session scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday at Veterans Park, followed with a Town Hall meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m., also at the Community Center in Veterans park.