The five Oconee County Board of Commissioners candidates participating in a virtual forum identified communication as the solution to the ongoing conflict between the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education.
Aaron Nowak, running as a Republican in the special election to fill vacant Post 3 on the Board of Commissioners, put all of the blame for the current problem on the Commissioners and said he would “communicate properly” with the School Board if elected.
Jacob Douylliez, running as a Democrat for the Post 3 seat, said he would use his skills as a Presbyterian minister to “facilitate communication” between the two Boards.
Amrey Harden, running as a Republican in the Post 3 special election, said the problem is “a communication issue that can be resolved” and “I want to be a part of that solution.”
Eric Gisler, the Democratic Party nominee for the Chair of the Board of Commissioners, said that “getting together and planning earlier on the process on some of these joints projects would really do a lot” to solve the problem.
Incumbent Chair John Daniell, the Republican Party nominee, said the two Boards have been talking, but the disagreement continues, and “That’s why I encouraged the Board of Education to sit down with the Board of Commissioners.”
What no one said, including Daniell, is that the Board of Education has said it does not want to meet with the Board of Commissioners in public and that state law prohibits private meetings of the two Boards.
What is needed, the Board of Education said back in May, is a “training session” facilitated by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. The Board of Education didn’t acknowledge that such a session almost certainly would have to be in public to meet state law.
The five candidates were responding in the forum to a question from a citizen who said the “clear public perception is that the BOE and BOC consistently squabble” and asked: “What would you do to change this?”
The candidates also responded to a variety of other questions from citizens in a nearly 90-minute long session that illustrated differences and similarities in their responses to citizen concerns.
Another forums--this one for legislative candidates--is scheduled for Oct. 19, and registration is HERE.
Structure Of Forum
The Board of Commissioners candidate forum began on Zoom at 8 p.m. on Monday with opening comments by the three Post 3 candidates and shifted to the two Board of Commissioner candidates at 8:45 p.m.
Each of the candidates made brief closing comments as the session came to an end.
I served as moderator of the session, which was co-hosted by my wife, Ann Hollifield, Karen Hilyard and Philip Ashford. Forty people were on the session at its height.
The four of us had hosted a similar forum for Board of Education candidates on Sept. 17.
For both forums, citizens submitted questions in advance and via the chat function of Zoom as the sessions progressed.
We will use the same format for the session on Oct. 19, which does require advance registration and is focused on Oconee County.
Here is the invitation:
You are invited to a Zoom meeting. When: Oct 19, 2020 08:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
Mokah Jasmine Johnson, House District 117, Jonathan Wallace, House District 119, Zachary Perry, Senate District 46, all Democrats have agreed to attend and accept questions from citizens.
Houston Gaines, House District 117, said his schedule is too busy to allow him to participate. Marcus Wiedower, House District 119, said he did not want to participate in the citizen candidate forum. Bill Cowsert, Senate District 46, has ignored all invitations to participate. All are incumbents and Republicans.
The forum remains open to Gaines, Wiedower, and Cowsert should they decide to join, even at the last minute.
Questions can be submitted in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post 3 Introductions, Questions 1 to 4
The three Board of Commissioners Post 3 candidates were given three minutes to introduce themselves at the forum on Monday. Order was determined by the role of a die, and Nowak went first, followed by Harden and then Douylliez.
Those introductory comments begin at 4:59 in the video below.
The first three questions are listed below, with very short summaries of responses. The name of the citizen who submitted the question is in the first parentheses, and the location in the video is in the second parentheses.
Question 1 (David Lawrence) (14:37 in video): “What is your stance regarding Oconee County seeking Georgia Second Amendment Status and why do you feel this way.”
Douylliez opposed the proposal, saying Second Amendment rights already are protected, Nowak said the time was not right for such a statement, and Harden said any group making a request is entitled to a fair hearing.
Question 2 (Jeff Hood) (17:19): “The portion of Cole Springs Road near North Oconee High School known as the ‘cut through road’, was recently closed by the Oconee County commissioners. What are your thoughts on the closure of this road and the proposed roundabout that would be constructed where Snows Mill Road and Rocky Branch Road meet at Highway 53?”
Harden spoke generally in favor of roundabouts, Douylliez was in favor in this particular case and of roundabouts generally, and Nowak criticized the BOC for “pushing” roundabouts on the School Board.
Question 3 (John Gentry) (22:50): “On February 6 of this year The Oconee Enterprise in its Our Opinion Column, its editorial page, promoted another private member only aquatics facility for Oconee County. With a population of an estimated 40,000 in Oconee County, we still do not have a public swimming pool/aquatics facility available for all citizens. The previous parks and recreation master plan survey in 2003 and subsequent unofficial surveys of park patrons rate public swimming polls/aquatics facilities as a top choice for needed facilities. Where do you stand on developing a public aquatics facility that could offer all citizens access to a lap and therapeutic pool, swimming lessons, outdoor playscape aquatics as contemplated for Oconee Veterans Park and also provide local high school swim teams a facility for training and hosting interscholastic events in the county?”
Harden said the master plan needs to be updated with strong citizen input, Nowak called the proposal a “great idea,” and Douylliez said this would improve the quality of life in the community but he was concerned with how it would be financed.
Question 4 (Dan Magee) (29:21): “We all know that BOE and BOC members, Board of Commissioners and Board of Education members, know each other socially and are personally friendly, however the overwhelming and clear public perception is that the BOE and BOC consistently squabble. What would you do as commissioners to change this? How could the Malcom Bridge Road issue and the Park and Recs issue have been handled differently?”
Responses To Magee
“The situation between the BOC and the BOE, I think, is a tragedy,” Nowak said. “It is difficult to see two of the most important Boards in our community squabbling.
“It was nice to see in a similar forum for the Board of Education that Mr. Burgess, I believe was his name, said that it was coming down, that the tension was coming down, that they are starting to work together better, but still anybody who is paying attention has noticed that it is quite a quarrel,” Nowak continued. (Tim Burgess is incumbent Post 4 BOE member who is seeking re-election.)
“And so I think it comes back to the Board of Commissioners kind of shooting from the hip on decisions,” Nowak said.” They made a decision that their own transportation study didn’t support about roundabouts and when the Board of Education called them out on it, got their own third party study done, from what I’ve seen, they haven’t had a solid response to that.”
“I am willing to go in front of the other Board and communicate properly with them and say, this is why we need to do this” Nowak said. “It’s not just me and my opinion. It’s not just me and what I think is going to happen in the future. I have experts right here.”
“One of my roles as a Presbyterian minister is to facilitate communication and help find that common ground when there is disagreement,” Douylliez said.
“I think that one way to fight this perception would be to have some public conversation between the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education, maybe even in a format like this, where it is a little more relaxed but to really give both sides the opportunity to lay out where they stand, and I don’t know that that’s been allowed to happen,” Douylliez said.
“We need to remember that the Board of Education’s primary purpose is to educate our children,” Harden said. “The Board of Commissioners’ purpose is pretty much everything else in the county.
“Even though these two Boards have separate focuses, both still answer to the taxpayers of this community,” Harden continued. “It sound like a communication issue that can be resolved. We need to come together and do it and find a solution to these differences.
“Both Boards have a responsibility to do what’s in the best interest of all of the citizens, and I want to be a part of that solution if I’m elected as your next commissioner,” Harden said.
Post 3 Responses To Questions 5 And 6
Question 5 (Pam Davis) (34:01): “Do you feel the BOC should be nonpartisan? If yes or no, please offer an explanation.”
Nowak said he is content to have it remain partisan. Harden said the same.
Douylliez said he didn’t think the commission races should be partisan.
Question 6 (Dan Magee)(38:36): “There have been only four female county commissioners and no persons of color in the 145-year history of Oconee County. What do you offer in terms of diverse opinions and background, and what differentiates you from the current Commission makeup of four Caucasian males of middle and senior ages?”
Douylliez said he brings an outsider’s perspective, called on women and persons of color to run, and said he would add diversity through appointments to advisory boards.
Harden said there have been strong female Commission members in the past and that females have “run and presented themselves to the community, and those were fair elections” that they did not win.
Harden called himself an “independent thinker” who would bring diverse ideas to the Board.
Nowak said he would not have run if a woman or minority had stepped forward and that he would bring a younger perspective to the Commission.
Chair Introductions, Question 1
Daniell and then Gisler introduced themselves to the forum starting at 45:01 in the video below.
Question 1 (Dan Magee) (51:20): “We all know that Board of Commissioners and Board of Education members know each other socially and are personally friendly, however the overwhelming and clear public perception is that the BOE and BOC consistently squabble. What would you do to change this?”
“I’ve heard people from both Boards that there’s not really much of a squabble there. It’s just that they have different goals. Each Board does have its own separate goals,” Gisler said. “But I think anyone that’s been paying attention knows that that’s not exactly true.
“For me I think it’s that a lot of these people have been in these positions for a long time and they are set in their ways,” Gisler said. “And I’d also say that a lot of it I think has to do with the way the current Board is run, Board of Commissioners is run.
“Because I do get the sense that they make decisions to do things without getting buy-in from the Board of Education in these areas where the two Boards really co-own facilities or whatever,” Gisler said. “So I think by working a little bit more with the Board of Education earlier in the process in the planning stages, a lot of these headaches could be avoided.”
“As far as Malcom Bridge Road, we’ve been talking about it for two years,” Daniell said. “We brought the Board of Education in on that conversation as soon as the project came up for a rezone.”
Daniell said the issue of the upgrade to the Civic Center “was discussed back in 2014 when the Board of Education staff came down and sat down with Civic Center staff in order to determine what items were going to be on the SPLOST for 2015.”
“We placed the Board of Education in advisory committees, including the IDA (Industrial Development Authority), the Economic Development Task Force,” Daniell said. “I’ve been to meetings personally to offer explanations and have conversations with the Board of Education.
“So really, the only thing to me that’s left to do is to have five members from the Board of Education sit down with five members of the Board of Commissioners in an open meeting and let’s just have the conversation.”
In such a setting, Daniell said, everyone “hears the exact same thing at the same time and everybody gets to talk about their viewpoints and talking about what’s being presented.
“And I do think Oconee County deserves better,” Daniell said. “That’s why I encouraged the Board of Education to sit down with the Board of Commissioners.”
Questions 2 Through 8, Closing Comments
Question 2 (David Lawrence) (55:43): “What is your stance regarding Oconee County seeking Georgia Second Amendment Status and why do you feel this way.”
Gisler opposed it, saying it gives the sheriff the authority not to enforce laws. Daniell said as written he does not support the request.
Question 3 (Jeff Hood) (58:00): “Jeff Hood asked about the Cole Springs Road closure and the closure of the cut through road, he calls it. And he put a note down saying he’d really like to have you talk a little bit about your feelings about roundabouts generally.”
Daniell said the closing is temporary. He also said the Georgia Department of Transportation is promoting roundabouts.
Gisler said he is a fan of roundabouts. He did not offer an opinion on the road closing.
Question 4 (John Gentry) (1:01:15): “The Enterprise has written about this. The previous parks and recreation master plan in 2003 and subsequent unofficial surveys of patrons rate public swimming polls/aquatics facilities as a top choice among needed facilities. Where do you stand on developing a public aquatics facility that could offer all citizens access to a lap and therapeutic pool, swimming lessons, outdoor playscape aquatics as has been contemplated for Oconee Veterans Park and also provide local high school swim teams a facility for training and hosting interscholastic events in the county?”
Gisler said “I think it is a great idea.”
Daniell said the county has limited resources. He also said the county will consider a new master plan for the parks.
Question 5 (Pam Davis) (1:04:16): “Do you feel the Board of Commissioners should be nonpartisan? If yes or no, why.”
Daniell said he would keep the election partisan. Gisler said he would prefer it be nonpartisan.
Question 6 (Dan Magee) (1:05:38): “Hundreds, if not more, slaves were sold on the Oconee Courthouse steps. This history is not acknowledged. What would you do to acknowledge this piece of county history along with other instances of race-related history in Oconee. And I’m going to add recognition of the lynching at Old Jail.”
Gisler said history needs to be remembered. Daniell said the county is talking about a recognition of the lynching and the county is “trying to find the right method of delivery for that.”
Question 7 (Pam Davis) (1:07:47): “There is a lack of affordable housing in Oconee. It seems to many, that is an attempt to keep Oconee White and affluent. But there are 900 children living in poverty in the county. How do you plan to meet the needs of children in the county who don’t have food and basic necessities?”
Daniell said the county financially supports the Oconee Area Resources Council and Area Churches Serving Together.
Gisler the county should look for ways through zoning and permitting to encourage construction of more affordable housing.
Question 8 (John Gentry) (1:10:16): “The National Recreation and Parks Association defines parks and recreation planning as a comprehensive process that provides guidance and policy direction to all government decision makers. What is your stance on this planning effort for allowing citizens input into the future parks and recreation programs and facilities? If elected, will you support the immediate funding and development of a comprehensive county parks and recreation master plan?”
Gisler said he favored a new master plan. Daniell said the county should focus on the existing master plan first but he is not opposed to a new master plan.
Closing comments began at 1:12:47 in the video, with the Chair candidates speaking first and then the three candidates for Post 3.
Lee and team, thank you for conducting this forum – you all did a great job.
I wanted to further address the first comment in this article regarding the BOC / BOE conflict where you state that I “put all the blame for the current problem on the Commissioners.” This statement is correct, but very blunt, so let me elaborate. I think every member of the BOC is doing the best they can and are good intentioned. However, from what the available information tells us, they did not do their homework and generate a basis for their decision (i.e., traffic studies, 3rd party analysis, transportation study, etc...). Therefore, when the BOE rightfully dug their heals in and elicited a 3rd party report that conflicted with the BOC’s plan, the BOC did not have a response. This whole situation could have been avoided with the proper research and communication by the BOC, which is why I believe the blame falls on them.
Thanks Dr. Becker for hosting the forum. For the record, an aquatics facility is in the master plan for Veterans Park. It is planned between the Senior Center and the Tennis Courts. This facility could be funded by a GO Bond if the citizens approve and if properly managed should generate enough revenue to fund the operations. This should be the choice of the citizens.
Comprehensive Master Planning is more than just for a specific park and more tan a few people sitting around a table brainstorming. It is a county wide plan that takes the municipalities parks plans and citizen input into what types or parks, programs and activities we would like to see in a future parks and recreation system. Again, this gives citizens a voice into what they prefer. It also helps a community understand what it will cost to construct and operate and provides citizens and opportunity to voice favorable or not in a future parks and recreation system.
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