Oconee County Post 3 Board of Commissioners candidates Margaret Hale and W. E. "Bubber” Wilkes take similar stands on some of the issues facing the county, but they differ markedly on one important one.
Hale wants to keep in place the current organizational chart for the county in which the administrative officer and the finance director report to all five Commission members equally and in which all other department heads report to the county administrative officer.
Given the current make-up of the Board of Commissioners and the differing views of the two candidates, voters in the July 22 runoff election will be deciding not only who holds Post 3 but also the type of Commission they want.
The Democratic Party has not put forward any candidates for the spot, so whoever wins in the runoff will run without opposition on Nov. 4.
Interviews With Candidates
Wilkes said in an interview on June 18 that he wants the chairman of the Board of Commissioners to be in charge and that he wants to change the organization chart back to the way it was before 2009. The short video below gives his exact words.
Hale said in an interview on June 15 that she felt the changes made in 2009 were good ones and mostly had worked. She said times had changed and going back to a strong chairman was a move backwards. The short video below contains those comments.
I interviewed Hale, who is the incumbent holder of Post 3, and Wilkes, who served on the BOC for 20 years, ending in 2004, at Jittery Joe’s in Watkinsville.
I asked both candidates the same 23 questions, tailored in Hale’s case to reflect her incumbency and in Wilkes’ to reflect his status as the challenger. The questions asked of Hale are here, and the exact questions asked of Wilkes are here.
I developed the 23 questions in collaboration with Sarah Bell and Russ Page. The three of us attend most Board of Commissioners' meetings and know issues before the Commission.
Page and I originally asked both Hale and Wilkes to participate in a candidate forum we planned to organize, as we had done before the May 20 primary.
Wilkes said he would not participate. Hale initially agreed but said she would not participate if she were to be the only candidate present.
Both subsequently agreed to be interviewed and to have the interview video recorded. Page and Bell did the recording.
We chose to point the camera at the candidates and not make any changes so that both candidates were treated in the same way. Hale was interviewed at 4 p.m. Wilkes was interviewed at 5 p.m.
The interviews covered a wide range of topics, including zoning, transparency in the budgeting process, and equal enforcement of county ordinances.
The full video recordings are on the Vimeo site of Oconee County Observations and embedded at the bottom of this posting.
Early voting in the runoff starts at 8 a.m. tomorrow at the Board of Elections Office, 10 Court Street, next door to the courthouse in downtown Watkinsville.
Voters will be able to cast their ballots at that office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday except July 4 until July 18.
Polling places will be open on July 22 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Voters who voted in the Republican primary in May as well as registered voters who did not cast a ballot in May or who cast a ballot but did not vote in either of the party primaries are eligible to vote in the runoff between Hale, the incumbent, and Wilkes.
Important statewide runoffs are on the ballot as well, including, on the Republican side, for the U.S. Senate nominee, for the nominee for the 10th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, and for the state School Superintendent.
The Democratic runoff only is for the state School Superintendent. Voters who did not vote in May or who voted but did not pick the ballot of either party can vote in that race.
Hale Focuses On Commission Power
Hale raised the issue of the power of the four voting Commission members and of the chairman in response to the second question posed to her about her biggest successes as a Commission member and at several times as the interview progressed.
The video clip above was taken from her answer to the final question about why voters should pick her rather than Wilkes.
Wilkes mentioned the relative power of the Commission only in response to a specific question posed on the changes the Board made in 2009 to the organizational chart.
Those changes were designed to give the four voting members of the BOC direct access to information from department heads and the finance director rather than only indirect access through the BOC chairman, as had been the case before the changes were made.
Hale, Commissioner Jim Luke, Commissioner John Daniell and then-Commissioner Chuck Horton pushed for those changes, over the objection of Chairman Melvin Davis.
The chairman of the Commission is a full-time employee of the county with his or her own office and day-to-day access to county staff. The chairman also runs Commission meetings but does not vote except in the case of a tie among the other four commissioners.
The four voting commissioners are part-time employees and do not have offices or their own staff. Prior to the change in the organization chart, they largely were dependent on Davis for information on the issues that came before the Commission.
Commissioner Mark Saxon, who replaced Horton when Horton stepped down two years ago to run, unsuccessfully, against Davis for the chairmanship position, generally has given no indication so far he is interested in challenging Davis in continuing disputes over control of information and decision-making.
Horton defeated Wilkes in 2003 in a contest for Post 4, now held by Saxon. Commissioners do not serve by district, but rather serve all of the county.
Like Working With People
Hale and Wilkes gave strikingly similar responses to a question asking them why they were seeking to be elected to the Board of Commissioners again. Hale was first elected to the Board in 2000.
Hale said she enjoyed the job and enjoys “working with the citizens of Oconee County.”
Wilkes said: “I’m a people person. I love dealing with people.”
Hale said she considered her influence on the development of Veterans Park as one of her biggest successes.
Wilkes said improving county infrastructure, including widening of roads, provision of water and sewer services, and building of fire stations, were the accomplishments he was most proud of from his time as commissioner.
Approach to Zoning
Wilkes said his basic approach to zoning would be to concentrate growth in areas already experiencing development and to protect the rural areas of the county from development.
Hale said she meets with both sides in zoning cases and tries to get “a realistic view of what is going to happen” when the rezone takes place.
Hale defended her decision in 2010 to rezone property south of Watkinsville for Oconee Waste Transport. The rezone was inconsistent with the county’s land use map and was against the recommendation of the county planning staff. It also was opposed by many residents in the area.
“Our planning map is a guide,” Hale said. “It is not cut in stone.” She said she knew residents were concerned about noise, but she felt those concerns had been addressed in the rezone.
Wilkes said he would have voted against the rezone.
“I didn’t think it needed to be out there,” he said.
Transfer of Development Rights
Wilkes said he would vote to go forward with study of a Transfer of Development Rights program for the county, following a unanimous recommendation of a Commission-appointed group in 2009 that the county do so.
Wilkes said he wanted to “preserve some of the farmland we’ve got left in the county.”
Hale said she didn’t think she would support a TDR ordinance and didn’t think it was a good idea to study it further under that circumstance.
“I don’t want to waste the county’s money,” she said.
The Board of Commissioners in the summer of 2012 voted to spend money to reconstruct a wooden structure built to look like a covered bridge in the Northwest Woods subdivision, using money from the 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
The money was from a category for recreational, historic and scenic properties.
Hale voted for that expenditure in 2012, and she said she felt that was the right decision at the time.
“It was historic to the neighborhood,” she said. But she said she wants to reconsider the vote now that cost estimates have come in higher than expected.
Wilkes said: “I want it back. I liked it.”
Wilkes said he would not criticize Hale for pushing to delay the referendum on a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax from May until November, but he wanted the issue on the ballot in May.
His concern, he said, is that, if the issue is defeated in November, the county would have to wait a year to have it back on the ballot. For that reason, it would be impossible to have a second vote before the current SPLOST expires on Sept. 15, 2015.
“I think it was the right choice to make,” Hale said. She said she felt she needed more information on a number of projects before she could make decisions on how to allocate funds.
Liquor By Drink
Hale said she has still not made up her mind how she will vote on putting liquor-by-the-drink on the ballot.
Wilkes said although he does not drink, he “would vote to put it on the ballot” if he were on the Commission.
Wilkes isn’t likely to get a chance to do that.
The Oconee County Chamber of Commerce has sent a letter to the BOC asking it to put the issue on the ballot in November.
Hale said she expects the issue to pass the Commission regardless of how she votes and to be on the ballot in November.
Comments from the commissioners and past voting suggest that Luke and Saxon will support it, and Davis will vote in favor as well if his vote is needed.
Full Responses In Video
The two candidates also answered questions on transparency in the budget process, on the impact of the Epps Bridge Parkway commercial development on fire and police services in the county, on differential enforcement of county ordinances, and on other issues.
The interview with Hale lasted just less than 49 minutes. She gave lengthy responses in many cases, and I asked follow-up questions to clarify some of those responses.
The number in bold on the questions shows the approximate location on the video in minutes for the answer.
Wilkes gave shorter answers, and his interview lasted just less than 24 minutes.
Again, the number in bold on the questions shows the approximate location on the video in minutes for the answer.
The order of the videos is alphabetical by last name of the two candidates.