Sunday, March 10, 2024

Oconee County School Board, State Legislators, Have Plans To File Legislation, But What That Legislation Will Do Is A Secret

***Legal Advertisement The Only Hint***

The Oconee County Board of Education and the county’s two House members in the Georgia General Assembly have a secret they have worked hard to keep.

The Board met with the legislators in an unpublicized meeting last fall before the current legislative session began, using a legal loophole in the state’s Open Meetings Act allowing them to do that.

They offered a hint of what the secret is when they published, as required by law, a small legal advertisement at the bottom of page B6 of the March 7, 2024, edition of The Oconee Enterprise.

The advertisement said, in its entirety, that “Notice is given that there will be introduced at the 2024 regular session of the General Assembly of Georgia a bill to reconstitute the Board of Education of Oconee County; and for other purposes.”

That bill, a form of what is called local legislation, has to be introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives, and neither Rep. Houston Gaines nor Rep. Marcus Wiedower, who represent Oconee County, has been willing to say what that legislation is.

Board of Education Chair Kim Argo also will not tell what is up, and Board Member Tim Burgess, who is the legislative liaison for the Board, has not responded to a request for information about the bill.

Only eight days remain in the 2024 legislative session, so the regular meeting of Board of Education on Monday would seem to be when the Board would take official, public action on legislation it is requesting that Gaines and Wiedower introduce.

The agenda for Monday’s meeting, released on Friday, however, makes no mention of any type of Board action involving legislation–maintaining the secret at least until the Board meets at 6 p.m. on Monday (tomorrow) at school offices in Watkinsville.

December Meeting

The existence of the meeting between the Oconee County Board of Education and the legislators, probably in December, is only known because of an email Rep. Gaines sent out to constituents on Dec. 23 of last year.

Gaines reported that “Over the last two weeks” he had visited “with a number of local groups to preview the upcoming legislative session.”

He next wrote that “We also visited with a number of local governments and school systems--including the Jackson County commissioners, Clarke County and Oconee County school boards, and the City of Auburn council.”

He didn’t say who “We” is in those meetings, but he and Rep. Wiedower, who both represent parts of Oconee and Clarke counties, often meet in tandem.

Part of Jackson County is in Gaines’ 120th House District, but not in Wiedower’s 121st. Auburn is in Barrow County, parts of which fall in Gaines’ district but not in Wiedower’s. Auburn itself is not part of Gaines’s district.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act, written and passed by the General Assembly, exempts from the Act a “meeting with officials of the legislative or executive branches of the state or federal government at state or federal offices and at which no official action is to be taken by the members.”

So whatever meeting Gaines was referring to, if the School Board and the legislators followed the law, should have been “at state or federal offices,” however that is defined.

The law states that such a meeting can be held without following the requirements of the Open Meetings Act that require notification and open access, and the Oconee County Board of Education has held such closed meetings with legislators in the past.

The law does not require that the meetings be held in private, however, or that they be held “at state or federal offices.”

Legal Advertisement

The legal advertisement announcing the legislation under consideration appears at the bottom of page B6 of the March 7 edition of the Enterprise, in the “Legals” section of the paper.

Legal Advertisement March 7, 2024

The advertisement, set in agate, is the very last item in column four on the six-column page, under the section “Public Notice.”


The full text that follows is: “Notice is given that there will be introduced at the 2024 regular session of the General Assembly of Georgia a bill to reconstitute the Board of Education of Oconee County; and for other purposes.”

Requests For Information

I sent an email message to Wiedower and Gaines at 2:52 p.m. on March 7, after the advertisement appeared in the Enterprise, and attached a copy of that advertisement.

“Would you please send me a copy of the legislation that you plan to introduce and also tell me when you will introduce it?” I asked.

Neither Wiedower nor Gaines has responded. (Wiedower is my representative in the General Assembly.)

At 5:10 p.m. on March 8, I sent an email to Kim Argo, Chair of the Oconee County Board of Education, and again included a copy of the legal advertisement that appeared in the Enterprise.

“Can you tell me what is being proposed?” I asked.

Argo wrote back at 9:09 a.m. on March 9.

“Mr. Burgess serves as the Board’s liaison to the legislative delegation, so please direct any questions to him,” she wrote.

At 9:49 a.m. on March 9 I wrote to Burgess, again including the advertisement.

“As you can see from the thread below, Kim has directed me to you for an answer to my question,” I wrote.

“I'll repeat it so you don't have to work through the thread,” my note continued.

“Thursday's Oconee Enterprise contained this legal ad. Can you tell me what is being proposed?” I wrote.

Burgess has not responded.

Possible Content

At present, the only things that is known about the legislation to be introduced in included in that small advertisement: it is “to reconstitute” the Board and is “for other purposes.”

Legal Advertisement March 7, 2024

In the past, there has been discussion about making the Board nonpartisan and about having districts rather than at-large posts, but these have gained little traction.

What has gained more attention is the law that allows the Board to replace members who step down without holding an election.

This legislation most recently came to the fore on Sept. 2, 2021, when the Board voted to name Argo chair to fill out the term of Tom Odom, who had resigned for health reasons.

Odom had been re-elected chair only in November of 2020, so Argo moved to the chair position and a term that didn’t expire until November of this year. She is not seeking re-election and has announced she is stepping down at the end of what was Odom’s term.

At that same meeting in September of 2021, the Board appointed former Board Member Wayne Bagley to return to the Board to fill out Argo’s term, which expired in 2022.

All of this was without seeking any input from the public.

Board Salaries

The Board never expressed any discomfort with the legislation that allowed it to do these replacements.

Boards in the past, however, have expressed unhappiness with the salary Board Members receive.

At present, that figure is only $1,800 per year for each of the five Board members.

Back in 2009, the Board of Education wanted to increase the salary of the holder of Post 1, the Board Chair, from that $1,800 to $10,000 and of the Vice Chair to $7,000.

Each of the other three Board members was to get $6,000.

The request went nowhere because Bob Smith, then representing Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives, would have none of it.

What Happens Next

The steps that the Board of Education needs to take for the legislation it wants considered in the remaining days of this session would seem to be the same as those taken by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners last year.

After much public discussion of its plans, the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 3, 2023, passed a resolution calling on the legislators to introduce bills in the General Assembly that would allow for a referendum on changing the homestead exemption and changing the freezing of assessments in the county.

On March 16, the legislators placed a legal advertisement in the Enterprise stating their intent to introduce local legislation.

The law requires them to wait at least until Monday following the publication of that advertisement, March 20, and Gaines and Wiedower introduced the legislation on that date.

Local legislation is not restricted by the crossover rules of the General Assembly, and the bill passed the House and then the Senate in the final days of the session.

As a result, Oconee County voters will be asked in a 10-part referendum to approve these changes on May 21.


Rosemary Woodel said...

Good detective work. Scary stuff.

Jim Gaither said...

Good catch, Lee.

I'm surprised Argo and Burgess are retiring. They enjoy playing hide-and-seek so much they should schedule regular play periods.