The Oconee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night voted 3 to 0 to approve a modified Memorandum of Understanding contracting with the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce for economic development services formerly provided by county staff.
In introducing a series of changes to the original Memorandum, Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said he was responding to criticism of the original document.
Rather than stipulate that the Economic Development Council follow the state’s open meetings and open records laws, the new document eliminates the oversight body entirely and increases the reporting to the Board of Commissioners by the Chamber from semi-annually to quarterly.
The approved MOU leaves unspecified how the state’s open records and open meetings laws apply to the work of the Chamber covered by the contract.
In other action on Tuesday night the Board approved a variance request allowing Scott Boswell to decrease the buffer on the eastern side of the shopping center he is developing at Mars Hill Road and SR 316 from the normally required 50 feet to 15 feet for two lots at the front of the center and 25 feet for five lots at the rear.
Boswell wanted a 10-foot buffer for all seven lots.
Opening Of Discussion
Commissioner Chuck Horton, whose daughter, Courtney Bernardi, is president of the Chamber of Commerce, recused himself as soon as Daniell began the discussion of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Chamber near the end of Tuesday night’s meeting.
Daniell then read from a statement, saying that the report that “the purpose of this agreement is to circumvent state law is misleading at best.
“This agreement models organizations we found to be most successful,” he continued. “Those models did have the Economic Development Council meet outside of open meetings.
“The EDC also has no power or decision making ability,” Daniell continued.
“This Board of Commissioners has been and will continue to be open and accessible and accountable.
“However in an effort to balance effectiveness with openness we made some proposed changes to the agreement.”
County Administrator Justin Kirouac then said that the decision to contract with the Chamber was the result of discussion over the last year about how to move from “an in-house model of economic development” to “a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce.”
Kirouac said the outcome was what he called “in essence, a professional services contract” to provide a service the county could do itself. In the past, the county had a staff economic development director.
“The purpose of the MOU was certainly not to circumvent state law,” Kirouac said. “We will always follow state law, local law, federal law. And certainly not even by intent do we wish to go around it.”
Kirouac then went through the revised memorandum, reading, line by line, the changes that he and Daniell were proposing be made.
Most of those changes related to the Economic Development Council.
The original document created an Economic Development Council “for the purposes of overseeing Chamber Staff economic development efforts.”
The Council was to be made up of the chair of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners and one additional commissioner, one member of the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority, the chair of the Chamber and one additional Chamber Board member.
Kirouac recommended that this section and all subsequent references to the Economic Development Council be struck from the document.
Daniell allowed for citizen reaction once Kirouac completed his review of the changes.
I was the first of the four who spoke, and I thanked the Board for making changes but asked that the Board not take action until citizens had had a chance to review the document.
Kirouac had said during his presentation that the edited version had been put on the county web site, but he acknowledged in an email message today (Wednesday) that the edited document had not been placed there before the meeting. The original version was on the web site.
Kirouac ended his review of the document by saying "Anything that is subject to open meetings open records laws will be disclosed under open meeting open record law. That statement was lifted off Hall County and, I believe, their version of it."
I understood him to be saying that this was a new statement added to the agreement, and I offered another amendment that I thought might or might not be needed, based on the inclusion of this new statement.
No statement on open meetings and open records was added to the document, Kirouac told me after the meeting.
Sarah Bell, 1201 Arrowhead Road, questioned giving $100,000 to the Chamber, which is unelected.
“Do we know what we get for our $100,000?” Bell asked.
Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, said eliminating the Economic Development Council “is a good thing” and thanked the Board for the changes.
Ann Hollifield, 1050 Scott Terrace, an emeritus professor at the University of Georgia (and my wife), asked the Board to make the agreement “in full compliance with state open records law.”
“Everyone who studies democracy knows, open records are the foundation of democracy,” Hollifield said.
“I think this Board of Commissioners has gone to extreme lengths to not only comply with the law but to go beyond what the state law requires,” Daniell said when the citizens finished speaking.
“We’re all accessible to everyone in the audience and every citizen. We host meetings every quarter where citizens come and ask us questions about anything they want to.
“We are accessible to the press. All the papers have our cell phone numbers,” Daniell said.
“We’ve released every document that has even been requested of us and even some document you all don’t even care about we put up on the web site so its there.”
Daniell said the agreement will save the county $20,000 over the costs of hiring an economic development director in-house.
Daniell said final control on all recommendations from the Chamber will come before the Board of Commissioners for final action.
“I think we responded to all of the questions that were brought up and have cleared up anything that may have led anybody to believe this was some type of attempt to shut out the public,” Daniell said.
“It’s hard to take having that type of label placed on us after what we’ve tried to accomplish here,” he said.
Commissioners Mark Saxon, Mark Thomas and William “Bubber” Wilkes, after a brief discussion, voted to approve the memorandum as edited by Kirouac.
I asked Kirouac following the meeting to clarify the applicability of the state’s open records law to the work of the Chamber. He referred me to County Attorney Daniel Haygood.
Haygood sent me the email message below today.
“My opinion is that the Chamber is not subject to Open Records requests unless:
“1. the County makes an allocation of tax funds to the Chamber which exceeds 1/3 of their revenues from all sources. It is my understanding that the Chamber will not fall under this provision; or
“2. the materials in question have been prepared and maintained or received by the County or on its behalf by the Chamber. This would not include internal materials generated by the Chamber or materials exchanged between the Chamber and a non-county person or entity until a county official receives those documents or in cases where materials are delivered to the Chamber on behalf of the County.”
Haygood copied Bernardi on the message to give her a chance to reply.
As of this time, she has not added any different interpretation of the law.
Special Exception Variance Request
The Board of Commissioners was expected Tuesday to act on a rezone request from Stan and Regina Chasteen, owners of Carpets Unlimited, to modify two rezones of five acres they own on Mars Hill Road between Woodlands Road and Rankin Road.
Action was postponed at the request of the Chasteens until April 2.
Boswell told the Commissioners that he had spoken with the owner of the property to the east of the shopping center he is developing at the intersection of Mars Hill Road an SR 316.
According to Boswell, Jeffery Lee Satterfield, 4671 Mars Hill Road, said he would be satisfied with a 10 foot buffer. Initially, Boswell had requested a 15-foot buffer along the entire length of his border with Satterfield, rather than the 50 foot buffer required by the county’s code.
Boswell said his goal was “to maximize the potential” of his development.
“I’ve already run the sewer lines and spent real good money to get to this point and need that property, need the 10-foot variance to maximize the potential,” Boswell said in response to a question from Commissioner Thomas.
The Board approved the variance for the buffers recommended by the planning staff rather than the 10-foot buffer Boswell requested.
The video below is of the March 5 meeting of the Board of Commissioners.
Discussion of the Memorandum of Understanding begins at 30:30 in the video.
Discussion of the special exception variance request by Boswell begins at 6:40 in the video.