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After a Year’s Study, Overview Commission Turns in Its Report

The third citizens’ Overview Commission—a panel constituted periodically since the Athens and Clarke County governments were combined in 1991—uncovered no scandals, but offered 147 recommendations to improve ACC government. Its 21 citizens (two from each commission district, plus Chairwoman Jill Jayne Read) were appointed by the grand jury over a year ago, and have held over 100 meetings, Read said last week as she handed over the group’s report to ACC commissioners. The Overview Commission interviewed the heads of all of ACC’s dozens of departments, and also sought feedback from county employees and citizens.

No departments were damned in the resulting 80-page critique (although the Planning Department was criticized for slow service, and the Clerk of Courts for costly backlogs), and a number were complimented for service or efficiency (including Transit, the Clerk of Commission, Public Utilities, Permits and Inspections, Human and Economic Development, and the Board of Elections). ACC’s Police Department is “well-run and effective,” the report says, and the Solid Waste Department got kudos for “aggressive efforts to divert waste from the landfill.”

Among the Overview Commission’s recommendations, according to the report:

• The government’s charter should be amended to “clarify” whether sewer service must be provided “to all residents of the county” as it appears to say. The issue has become “divisive” since ACC commissioners have supported extending water lines throughout the county, but not sewer lines, which they view as driving sprawl development. “The citizens need and deserve a clear statement of [ACC’s] position and plan.”

• Some Athens sewer lines date to the 1800s, but “ACC so far hasn’t considered what’s needed to maintain an aging infrastructure,” its Public Utilities director is quoted as saying.

• “Slow or inefficient department action” by ACC’s Planning Department costs builders “great amounts of money,” even forcing them to hire legal counsel to meet county requirements. This generates complaints that the county isn’t “business-friendly.” Construction planning can involve several departments, but continued improvements are needed to keep reviews “on the promised schedule.”

• An independent audit should consider the staffing needs of the mayor’s office and whether the mayor should be paid more.

• ACC needs to become “more visible with state government,” possibly by hiring a lobbyist, as some other Georgia cities have.

• ACC’s many boards, authorities, committees, and commissions (over 50 by one count) should file annual reports, their members should have term limits and sign conflict-of-interest statements, and ACC commissioners should review each board’s effectiveness and whether to continue it.

• Citizens who serve on the Tax Assessors board are paid $352 to attend each monthly meeting (including some that are only 20 minutes long). Significant training and certification are required, but the pay is “by far the highest” of any county board and should be reviewed, along with possibly limiting the number of six-year terms a citizen can serve.

• Planning Commission meetings and ACC Mayor and Commission work sessions should be broadcast on cable TV (as the M&C’s regular meetings and agenda sessions already are) since many citizens don’t have internet access.

• The costs and benefits of using outside consultants need to be tracked and reported. An earlier Overview Commission (in 1999) made similar recommendations, which “have not been addressed.”

• A full-time staff position is needed to apply for grants that may be available to the government, and some departmental employees should also be trained to apply for and manage outside grants.

• All county departments should eventually be studied by ACC’s auditor, even if there are no obvious problems. Several departments (including fire, utilities, and state courts) have never been audited.

• ACC’s plan to limit the number of private trash haulers “appears to be anti-competitive” and should be reviewed by the county attorney.

• The J&J Chemical Company fire and spill into Trail Creek should be used “as a case study” to evaluate ACC’s emergency operations plans.

• “The Overview Commission repeatedly encountered instances of inefficient data collection, storage, and utilization,” and the government in general needs to make better use of electronic data management.

• Courthouse security procedures need to give preference to courthouse employees; in interviews “it was made clear repeatedly and strongly that employees are delayed in getting to their offices because of the current security plan.”

• A common data system for tracking cases through the justice system is much-needed (and was approved for SPLOST funding). If all relevant departments use it (including constitutional officers, like the sheriff and district attorney, who make their own decisions), employee productivity will increase and jail times will decline for prisoners awaiting trial.

• The sheriff needs to prioritize and reduce the backlog of unserved warrants.

• The county coroner does not maintain comprehensive records as required by state law.

• Future SPLOST committee members need to be selected by the grand jury (not by commissioners) and chosen to avoid “actual or perceived conflicts of interest between members and SPLOST projects.”

• ACC should consider drilling wells to reduce the costs of watering athletic fields.

• ACC’s Motor Vehicle Division is so efficient at processing titles that even out-of-county auto dealers come here. But ACC loses $10 per title on these transactions—losing $75,000 in 2009—because state law doesn’t allow ACC to charge what the service really costs.

All the report’s recommendations will be reviewed by the office of County Manager Alan Reddish, who serves as the CEO over most county departments. His office will prepare written responses for the elected county commissioners (under whom he serves), most likely agreeing and implementing some recommendations, and stating why he may not agree with others. Commissioners can then instruct the manager differently, fund changes, or pass ordinances if needed (or ignore any recommendations if they choose to). The Overview Commission’s report is available on the Auditor’s page of the county website.