The Oconee County Republican Party leadership sent messages to the Oconee County Board of Education Tuesday through four nonbinding questions it placed on the ballot.
In responding to those questions, voters using the Republican ballot said clearly that they, not Board members, should fill vacancies on the Board, and citizens more than 70 years old should receive a reduction in their school property taxes.
Even though the leadership asked them not to, more than four in 10 of the Republican voters said School Board elections should be nonpartisan, and possibly should be held by district, not at large.
Republican voters also on Tuesday confirmed Amy Parrish as their nominee for Post 2 on the Board of Education and put Ryan Hammock and Julie Mauck into a runoff on June 21 to be the party’s nominee for Post 3 on the School Board.
Parrish first joined the School Board by appointment rather than by election and joined her colleagues last year in an internal selection of a Board chair and replacement of a member without allowing members of the public to apply.
What action Parrish, Hammock or Mauck will propose to take on the sentiments voters expressed on Tuesday remains to be seen.
Two-thirds of Oconee County Republican Primary voters also sent the message to someone that Oconee County should request to be removed from the Western Judicial Circuit it now shares with Clarke County.
School Board Election Summary
Parrish ran unopposed for the Republican Party nomination for Post 2, and she received 100 percent of the votes cast.
Mauck was the top vote getter in the Post 3 race, with 41.7 percent of the votes, followed by Hammock with 38.3 percent and Elliott Rogers with 20.0 percent.
Because none of the three received a majority, Mauck and Hammock will meet again on June 21.
Voters who used a party ballot on May 24 can only use that same party’s ballot on June 21, though voters who used only the non-partisan judicial ballot or didn’t vote at all in the May 24 election are free to vote in the runoff on June 21 and to pick either party’s ballot.
Democrats didn’t nominate any candidates for local races, but Democrats have state races to decide, and both parties have to decide their party’s nominee for the open U.S. Congressional District 10.
The Republican Lieutenant Governor’s race is not yet settled and could require a runoff.
The legislature last year shortened the gap between the primaries and the runoff.
The legislature also shortened early voting to June 13 to 17, which does not include a Saturday.
In Oconee County, early voting will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Office of Elections and Registration, 10 Court Street, across from the Courthouse in downtown Watkinsville.
Two candidates have qualified to run as Independents for the Board of Education, Ryan Repetske for Post 2 against Parrish, and Melissa Eagling for Post 3 against either Hammock or Mauck.
So far they have not submitted the required petitions signed by 1,425 voters in the county to get their names on the ballot as Independents. They have until July 12 to do so.
The Oconee County Republican Party had scheduled a runoff debate for June 6, but the Facebook page for the party is now showing that event as cancelled.
First Local Ballot Question
The local parties are allowed to add questions to the Party Primary ballots, and the leadership of the Oconee County Republican Party added five items.
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These were near the bottom of the ballot and followed questions included by the state party organization.
The first local question asked if “Oconee County” should request “to be removed” from the Western Judicial Circuit, which consists of Oconee and Clarke counties.
Many in the party have expressed dissatisfaction with the election of Democrat Deborah Gonzalez as District Attorney in a special election in 2020, though no one ran as a Republican. Oconee County Republicans favored James Chafin, who ran without a party label.
Republican Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower, who represent Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives, last year asked the state Judicial Council to consider a boundary change for the Western Judicial Circuit.
The Judicial Council turned down the request, and it is unclear what action the party leadership was seeking–and by whom--through the ballot question.
More than nine in 10 of voters responding to the local Republican Party ballot question on how to fill vacancies on the Board of Education said those vacancies should be filled by a vote of citizens.
Board Chair Tom Odom, re-elected as Board Chair by voters in November of 2020, announced he was stepping down on Aug. 9 of 2021 for health reasons.
On Sept. 2, the Board moved then Post 3 Board Member Kim Argo to the position of Board Chair and appointed Wayne Bagley to fill Argo’s Post 3 position.
This was done without seeking any input from the public or allowing for applications by anyone other than Bagley. Argo, who would have been up for re-election this year, will not have to run for re-election until 2024.
Legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1964 allows the Oconee County Board of Education to fill vacancies on the Board by procedures it sets for itself.
Both Parrish and Bagley were first appointed to the Board and then elected to full terms.
The General Assembly would have to change that legislation, and that would happen only with the support of Gaines, Wiedower and Sen. Bill Cowsert, or whomever is elected in November to represent Oconee County in the General Assembly.
Hammock and Mauck are competing for the seat held by Bagley, who is stepping down at the end of the year.
Third Local Question
Nearly nine in 10 of those answering the Republican Ballot question on a tax break for persons more than 70 years of age wanted to grant that break.
The question asked specifically about school taxes, which make up 71.2 percent of the property taxes most voters in the county pay.
Local governments are authorized to provide for such tax exemptions, and Oconee County already provides exemptions beyond what the state provides.
In Oconee County, each person who is 65 years old or older is granted an exemption of $15,000 on a homestead owned and occupied by that person if the person’s net income, together with the income of a spouse sharing the residence, does not exceed $15,000 per year.
In addition, each person who is 65 years old or older can be granted an exemption from all county and school taxes on that person’s primary residence if the person’s gross household income does not exceed $46,027 for the preceding year.
The state grants an increased homestead exemption for homeowners 62 years old and older when the net income of the applicant and spouse does not exceed $10,000 for the preceding year. A portion of Social Security income and certain retirement income are excluded from the calculation of the income.
The Board of Education would have to agree to the tax reduction requested by the Republican Party Ballot question.
Partisan Elections, District Elections
The Oconee County Republican Party asked for and was given access to the ballot questions submitted by the Oconee County Democratic Party.
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One of these questions asked voters if they wanted to make local Board of Education and Board of Commissioner races nonpartisan.
The other asked if the voters wanted to have local candidates run in districts, rather than at large. The question was ambiguous as to whether it covered the Board of Education, but it clearly covered the Board of Commissioners.
The Oconee County Republican Party leadership decided to use the two Democratic Questions, to label them as from the Democrats, and to ask their voters to vote down both proposals.
“The future success and identity of Oconee County hang in the balance as a small minority is attempting to sneak dubious and non-representative policies into our beloved community,” Adam Hammond, a member of the Oconee County Republican Party Executive Board, wrote in a column in The Oconee Enterprise.
Hammond urged voters to vote No on the ballot questions.
Republican voters on Tuesday took a less dim view of the options, with 44.9 percent approving of non-partisan elections and 43.3 percent approving of districting.
Democratic voters overwhelming approved of both proposals, with 89.3 percent voting in favor of non-partisan races, and 72.5 percent voting in favor of districts.
Meaning Of Questions
If the responses of the Democrats and Republicans are combined, 50.2 percent of those responding to the two ballots approve of non-partisan elections, and 46.8 percent approve of districting.
Which means the issue is split among those responding.
Turnout on Tuesday was a high, with 12,212 of the county’s 29,155 active registered voters casting a ballot. That is only 41.9 percent.
The number of persons who responded to the ballot questions dropped, with only 9,951 Republicans responding to the question on the Western Judicial Circuit and 11,529 members of both parties responding to the question on non-partisan elections and 11,301 responding to the question on districts.
So at best one could say that less than a quarter of the county’s registered voters are known to have stated preferences for non-partisan elections and districting.
It seems unlikely many Democrats would have approved of moving out of the Western Judicial Circuit, but it is hard to know how those persons who were not partisan enough to vote in either primary feel about that issue.
In short, it is difficult to know how to extrapolate the responses from the ballot questions to those who didn’t choose vote or who didn't get a chance to answer them.
The nonbinding questions, in addition, are just that, and it is possible nothing will come of the responses to any of them.