Sunday, March 03, 2019

Oconee County To Consider Shifting Economic Development To Chamber Of Commerce, Bypassing Open Meetings And Records Laws

***Memorandum Up For Review***

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night will consider transferring the county’s economic development activities to the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce.

The action comes in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding that would convey $100,000 annually to the Chamber and give it responsibility for providing economic development services for the county, including attracting and recruiting new businesses and industries.

The intent of the agreement, according to Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell and County Administrator Justin Kirouac, is to circumvent the state’s open records and open meetings laws.

The Chamber staff, unlike county staff, would not be subject to the state open records laws, and a Chamber-appointed oversight body, an Economic Development Council, would not meet in public, Daniell said.

Citizens would get first notice of the county’s economic development activities, according to Daniell, when the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority is asked to act on requests for project funding or tax abatements.

The Commissioners on Tuesday night also will consider a request for a variance that would allow the developer of a shopping center at the intersection of Mars Hill Road and SR 316 to reduce the buffer with an adjoining property to increase the density of the development.

The Commission also will consider a request for a modification of rezones for a business on an undeveloped lot on Mars Hill Road just north of Butler’s Crossing. The request is being made because access to the property was changed by the recently completed widening of Mars Hill Road.

Position Not Filled

In the past, the county has had an economic development director, but Kirouac recommended that the position not be filled when J.R. Charles stepped down from the position in May of last year.

Daniell, 2/26/2019

Instead, Kirouac proposed that the county contract with the Chamber of Commerce for the services that had been provided by Charles and his predecessors.

“This partnership would allow the utilization of Chamber expertise in the business community to serve as the lead role in Requests for Information (RFI) and building relationships with key site selectors,” Kirouac said in a memorandum he provided the commissioners on Feb. 19 with the accompanying Memorandum of Understanding.

Oversight of the economic development activities would occur through the creation of an Economic Development Council under the Chamber of Commerce that would consist of representatives from the Board of Commissioners, the Industrial Development Authority, and the Chamber of Commerce, Kirouac wrote.

Representatives from the county’s four cities and from the Board of Education would be ex-officio members of the Council.

Under the current plan, the Economic Development Council would meet in secret, and the work of the Chamber on behalf of the county would be in secret.

Agenda-Setting Meeting Carry Over

Though County Administrator Kirouac had advised the Commission on his proposal in the past, he offered a concrete Memorandum of Understanding for consideration at the Commission’s agenda-setting meeting last Tuesday.

Commissioner Chuck Horton, whose daughter, Courtney Bernardi, is Chamber president, recused himself from discussion.

Daniell said, without Horton’s presence, the item could not go on the consent agenda for the meeting on Tuesday.

As a consequence, the public should have a chance to comment on the Memorandum of Understanding on Tuesday night.

The item is the second-to-last item on the agenda.

Access Questioned

Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, asked Daniell at the meeting on Feb. 26 if the meetings of the Economic Development Council would be open and what would the Chamber do with the $100,000 the county gave it.

Kirouac started to answer, but Daniell cut him off, and said “We can get with you afterwards to answer those questions. This is really open for comment at this time, but we’ll get with you on that.”

I was out of town and did not attend the agenda-setting meeting.

I followed up with an email message on Feb. 28 to Daniell, Kirouac and County Attorney Daniell Haygood.

“So that there is no ambiguity, I think the MOU should state that the county expects the Chamber, under the terms of this agreement, to follow the state's open records and open meetings laws,” I wrote.

I suggested that the MOU state that “the EDC will conduct all its business in the open consistent with the state's open meetings law and the Chamber, in fulfilling the obligations set out in the MOU, will follow the state's open records laws.”

Daniell’s Response

Daniell wrote me back on March 2.

“Our model is similar to Jackson County and Hall County,” Daniell wrote.

“Under those models the EDC is not an open meeting entity. The same will be true in our case.

“The EDC has no power to bind the county. All recommendations from the EDC will need action by the IDA and/or the BOC.

“While the EDC meetings are not open, all decisions will still be made in open meetings by IDA and/or the BOC.”

Georgia Press Association

Prochaska contacted the Georgia Press Association and forwarded to me the reply of attorney David Hudson.

“If the payment from the county reaches 1/3 of the revenue of the Chamber, it makes the Chamber an agency under the Sunshine laws," Hudson wrote Prochaska on Feb. 28.

“Also, if the Chamber undertakes an activity or function on behalf of a public agency, that makes the Chamber, or at least that part of the Chamber, subject to the open records laws.

“Also, if this new committee is carrying out a function that has been delegated to it by a public agency, it, too, is subject to the open government laws.”

Kirouac, in an email message to Prochaska on Feb. 28, wrote:

“We’re aware of the 1/3 revenue provision. We do not intend to exceed the percentage.

“I believe the portion of the law deals with committees of the public agency that has delegated a function. In this case, it is a committee of the Chamber, not the public agency.”

Prochaska also said in an email message to me Feb. 28 that Kirouac said he expects that some of the $100,000 would go to salaries.

State Laws

The state updated its open meetings and open records laws in 2012.

Kirouac With County Clerk Kathy Hayes, 2/26/2019

The open meetings law defines an agency, which is covered by the law, as “Every department, agency, board, bureau, office, commission, authority, or similar body of each such county, municipal corporation, or other political subdivision of the state.”

Under the Memorandum of Understanding, the Economic Development Council is to be appointed by the Chamber under terms specified precisely in the Memorandum of Understanding with the county.

The Council will include the chairman of the Board of Commissioners and one additional commissioner, one member of the Industrial Development Authority, and the Chairman and one additional Board member from the Chamber.

The state law also defines an agency as “Any nonprofit organization to which there is a direct allocation of tax funds made by the governing body of any agency as defined in this paragraph which constitutes more than 33 1/3 percent of the funds from all sources of such organization.”

The Chamber is a nonprofit, and its budget is not public, so there is no way for outsiders to know what percentage of its budget the $100,000 from the county will be.

The state’s open meetings law also defines an agency to include “any association, corporation, or other similar organization that has a membership or ownership body composed primarily of counties, municipal corporations, or school districts of this state, their officers, or any combination thereof and derives more than 33 1/3 percent of its general operating budget from payments from such political subdivisions.”

Exemptions Allowed

If the Economic Development Council is an agency as defined by the open meetings and open records laws, it would have to announce its meetings, publish an agenda in advance, and meet in public.

The Council could go into executive (closed) session for land acquisition, personnel matters, and to discuss legal issues.

If the Economic Development Council is an agency, the activities of the Chamber under the control of the Memorandum of Understanding would be subject to the state’s open records law.

That law, however, allows for exemptions that applied to county employees when the county had an economic development department.

The law specifically exempts “Real estate appraisals, engineering or feasibility estimates, or other records made for or by the state or a local agency relative to the acquisition of real property until such time as the property has been acquired or the proposed transaction has been terminated or abandoned.”

The law also exempts “pending, rejected, or deferred sealed bids or sealed proposals and detailed cost estimates related thereto until such time as the final award of the contract is made, the project is terminated or abandoned, or the agency in possession of the records takes a public vote regarding the sealed bid or sealed proposal, whichever comes first.”

Shopping Center Variance

On Feb. 5, the Board of Commissioners approved a rezone request by Scott Boswell that would allow him build a 19-lot commercial subdivision at Mars Hill Road and SR 316 in the northwest of the county.

Boswell cannot build his shopping center as shown on his concept plan, however, unless the Board of Commissioners grants him a variance from the regulations of the county’s Unified Development Code.

A 50-foot buffer is required for commercial property adjacent to the neighboring property to the east of the site. That property, which contains a single home, is zoned for agriculture.

Boswell is proposing “to maintain a 15-foot natural buffer and install a 6-foot opaque privacy fence along the east property line.”

A 50-foot buffer would decrease the buildable area of the lots adjoining the property by an average of 19 percent of the total proposed lot area, according to the rezone narrative.

The proposed 15-foot natural buffer will only decrease the buildable area by an average of 5 percent of the total proposed lot area, the narrative states.

Carpet Store

Stan and Regina Chasteen, owners of Carpets Unlimited, are asking the Commission to modify two rezones from 2000 of five acres they own on Mars Hill Road between Woodlands Road and Rankin Road.

Site Maps From Rezone Narrative (Click To Enlarge)

The couple wants to build an office condominium complex at the rear of the property and construct a commercial building at the front.

Part of that commercial building would be used for a carpet store, the couple told the Planning Commission at its Feb. 18 meeting.

The rear of the property already is zoned for the condominium complex, but the new plans would reduce the number of buildings from seven to five,.

The front of the property already is zoned for commercial use, but the new proposal is to increase the square footage of that building from 5,500 square feet to 11,000 square feet.

Mars Hill Road is now 12 to 16 feet higher than at the time of the original rezone in 2000, according to the narrative for the rezone, necessitating changes in the entrance to the property and, as a consequence, in the placement of the retail building on the lot.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of the rezones.


The video below is of the Feb. 18, 2019, meeting of the Oconee County Planning Commission.

The rezone of the Chasteen property takes up almost all of the meeting.


Anonymous said...

That crumpling sound you hear is governmental transparency being wadded up and thrown away. Every time I hear something like this I wonder "What are they hiding from us?"

Mike Horsman said...

Trying to understand how shifting economic development to the Chamber of Commerce will be fit Oconee County citizens......what am I missing? Thanks Lee for all your hard work.

David Hall said...

While it seems to make sense to hand over economic planning to the Chamber of Commerce, it's discouraging to see the BOC advocate for more secrecy in its business dealings. Daniell, in his email reply, stated “While the EDC meetings are not open, all decisions will still be made in open meetings by IDA and/or the BOC.” Does he seriously think that those decisions will entail public input? I think not and it seems that's the real 'intent' of the BOC. If it wanted, the BOC could require open meetings be at least offered to the very citizens that pay for the BOC because county business, including education, should be transparent. Leaders often forget just who the government is here for. Why the push for secrecy from the public, Chairman Daniell? This is very disappointing

Anonymous said...

John Daniell will go down as the most corrupt Chair in the area of free speech, cutting out the press’ presence at meetings, transparency, employees rights, openness to the public and fair use of tax payers dollars.

Attend meeting.

Lee Becker said...

I just deleted a comment submitted that was very critical of Daniell and others on the Commission. I did not like the personal nature of the criticism, but that was not why I deleted it. The comment also made a statement about someone not on the Commission that I thought was legally actionable. I cannot edit comments that are submitted. I do not know who submits them. I have to publish them in their entirety or not.

Anonymous said...

I respect your ethical journalism.
It does appear that this is the lastest in the passing of government “documents “ to curb openness to the public. In doing so, these questionable actions are leading to a lot of folks in the county. It is not a pleasant thought.

Is a disease of corruption spreading in our county government all nicely presented as an ordinance or such? Where are the commissioners in all this?

Maybe some straight talk on what’s going on is needed, if spoken in a civil manner.

Zippity said...

The main reason for this is to avoid open records? This is very disconcerting and a terrible reason. There are no other reasons?? I am disappointed in John Daniel. I thought he started out well. Guess he's already forgotten what it means to be an ordinary citizen and is finding the power of the Chair of the BOC to be enticing. This seems to happen to our Commission leaders. They start out well and then fall prey to "we understand best what is best for the county and we don't need to include the rest of you".

Anonymous said...

The BOC has some public education to do to help the public understand the benefits of this arrangement.
Will Mr. Horton have to recuse himself from future votes on the EDC recommendations? I know him as a good and honest man that cares about our county. His vote is important. Just asking to better understand.
I am open minded on the matter. Please educate us on the "cost / benefit"
of this proposal.

Thank you all for your service to our community.