Lunches have been packed, sleep routines reset, and spelling words called out since students returned to classrooms across Georgia. Now parents, teachers, and students are reviewing progress reports and sizing up what happens during the next half of the grading period.
This point in the school year also gives school leaders an opportunity to review what is working and what might need to be adjusted. During a pandemic, the ability for schools to pivot on a pinhead may be the difference between lives saved and lost.
On the afternoon of Thursday, September 9, 2021, Washington County Public Schools sent out a survey using a Google platform tool asking for feedback from the school community. The survey tool is one I have used as both an executive director and board president of nonprofits.
The school system’s email with the link to the survey was sent to me by parents in the community. The form didn’t ask for any identifying information: no name, email, address, phone number. It did ask if the person responding is a school employee. It could be filled out by anyone anywhere who had the link. I filled it out and submitted it. Twice.
Friday morning when I returned to the link it said I had already submitted my answer. Fair enough. After poking around with it some during the second of many cups of coffee, I got this:
The survey showed my email address, but Google’s software told me it wasn’t collecting anything from my account.
This isn’t the first time the schools have sent out a survey without parameters set on who could fill out the survey, or requiring any identifying information, in order to submit the survey. Last school year I picked up the phone and ended up talking with Dr. Rickey Edmond, who assured me that they were able to collect identifying data even though none was require to submit answers. I told him having seen the backside of these surveys via my Google business account, I’d sure like to know how they were managing that, because it might help me in the future. All I got was, “We can.”
With the broad questions asked in last week’s survey, what can Dr. Edmond the Board of Education, and school principals really take away beyond how smooth car pick up and drop off are, and general satisfaction with instruction? Is a blind survey the only way for school leaders to know how parents and employees gauge the school year to date? How confident can school leaders, parents, teachers, and students be that the survey sent out on Thursday has the controls and parameters to collect accurate information?
It will be interesting to see what Dr. Edmond and the Board of Education members share with the community. Based on recent inquiries by myself and others concerned about the system’s Covid-19 record-keeping and reporting, my confidence in the quality of information collected and shared by the school system is low. Will the results of a survey available to anyone with email be used to guide judgement impacting not only the education of every student, but the health of the entire Washington County community?
With the return to classrooms across Georgia, I have been following the Covid-19 numbers in public schools in our state. Dismissing the recommended guidelines of the CDC, and the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, many superintendents and school boards are playing doctor with the health of their own communities. The outcome, with Georgia’s schools back in session for about a month, has resulted in schools opting to be online only, delaying the start of school, pausing all instruction after beginning the school year, and students, teachers, bus drivers, and bus monitors, dying of Covid-19.
Concerned families, school communities, medical providers, and epidemiologists wait on a weekly Friday report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) for Covid-19 cases and trends in their county. Friday afternoon is also when most school systems release their Covid-19 information to their community. Some school leaders choose full transparency and share all the data they send to DPH for its weekly report. Their communities know the number of confirmed cases, how many people are quarantined, and clusters in each school.* Other schools provide a scant report that often leaves community members in the dark while confirmed cases continue to break records in Georgia.
This data is supposed to help school leaders decide how safe, and effective, it is to keep students in classrooms. Some schools have opted for virtual and printed materials for entire grades, entire schools, or the whole system as a result of data and historic trends.
On Thursday, August 27th, during what Washington County’s school superintendent described as a “fireside chat,” Dr. Rickey Edmond told almost 100 people attending the online event that only confirmed cases matter. He dismissed the number of students and staff quarantined as”fluid.” I agree that number could be considered fluid, because it can change every day. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases can also change every day. DPH has already elevated Washington County schools to “substantial spread” and “increasing” in its weekly report.
With the state ratcheting up the level of concern for everyone in Washington County’s public schools, and having looked at reports posted by other systems across Georgia, I wondered exactly what DPH requires for its weekly school report. Seeing the reporting form was the best way to know.
A friend once told me, “I love a good Open Records Act request.” Like them, I also love a good Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) request. On Monday, August 30th, I sent one to the Dr. Edmond, copying the Washington County Board of Education members. My request was, “The information I am requesting is for the information used for the Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021. I am requesting the Covid-19 reports and/or data Washington County public schools sent to the Georgia Department of Public Health for its weekly school report.” That’s a pretty straightforward request because DPH requires it, the school is supposed to compile and send it, so releasing all of it doesn’t require extra work.
What I got back from Edmond was, “Reasonable access provided with good faith:
1. In response to your request: Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021 is attached in a PDF Table.
2. We can’t provide you with “COVID-19 Reports and/or data sent to Georgia Department of Public Health because that information is submitted via electronic portal and the medical form used falls under 50-18-72(a). As a school entity, we must uphold HIPPA, FERPA, and privacy requirements.
3. We have provided you with additional information complied by DPH for your reference.”
A complete and thorough GORA response should always be done “in good faith,” to use Dr. Edmond’s choice of words. The information sent to me isn’t what I asked for, and doesn’t comply with the GORA request. Dr. Edmond insisted that what they send has lots of confidential information in it. I asked that he redact any sensitive information and send me the form so I could see what the state requires for its weekly report on schools in our state. Additionally, saying that the form is completed online and cannot be released otherwise just doesn’t hold water in a school system with an IT department and virtual teaching capacity. Do they not save a copy of what they submit?
At this point, I was even more concerned about what the school system didn’t want to freely provide to the community. Case numbers matter, but so do the number of students and staff out for quarantine, and the number of clusters occurring in school settings. It is possible a school could have a low case load but a very high number of absences due to quarantine, resulting in dwindling classroom numbers.
What are they reporting that they aren’t telling us, and why is it so important to keep that information from us? As North Central Health District Director Michael Hokanson told me on the afternoon of August 27th, the reporting from schools relies on a good faith effort on the schools’ part.
If schools are sloppy with the parameters for collecting data, the data can’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted. If a school system isn’t carefully tracking why students are absent, for example a dental appointment, strep throat, or a death in the family, what you get at the end of the day is a number that tells you nothing about why those students were out of school. Kids and staff out due to quarantine are going to miss a significant number of consecutive school days. That impacts how they are learning, how teachers must adjust, demand for substitutes, and ultimately, if a system should use online resources to keep students up to speed, and everyone healthy.
Edmond told me to contact DPH to get the form that I ask for in my GORA request. Trying to find the right person at DPH, and actually reach them, is a circle of Hell Dante didn’t know about centuries ago. The staffers I did reach are frustrated and exhausted with how their agency is combatting Covid-19. One told me, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
I left messages at schools, emailed schools, and filled out GORA requests via forms school boards provided on their web sites. One school superintendent called me back eager to share blank copies of the weekly form schools send to DPH and volunteered to send the detailed form required for the district health office. I got the form from more than one system to verify I had the right one.
If a school isn’t committed to collecting accurate data, none of what they report can and should be trusted with full confidence by the state, or the people concerned about the health of every person in that school.
The responsibility of collecting good data falls on the Board of Education requiring it, and the schools led by Dr. Edmond following through. Thousands of families in Washington County are making life and death decisions for their children and themselves during this pandemic. For the Board of Education, Dr. Edmond, and school leaders to be satisfied with a refusal to collect good data and share it with families is not only a disservice to Washington County families. It shows a huge distain for the exhausted healthcare providers and DPH staffers working in the county and across our state.
*From GA DPH, “Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in two or more people [students or staff] with symptom onset/collection dates within a 14 day period who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing”).
Watching the schools prepare to reopen in rural Washington County Georgia is like watching someone pour gasoline on top of an already burning fire. As Covid-19 rates soar in a county that stubbornly refused to access tested and proven vaccines when a state-run vaccination site was set up in the county, the Board of Education is choosing the path of least resistance on healthy safety requirements.
The highly contagious Delta variant will find multiple classrooms ripe for explosive spread. The risk of exposure could be easily reduced if school leaders were willing to take one necessary step to protect those who cannot be vaccinated and those who refuse to be vaccinated-require masks in all indoor situations.
How bad is it in Sandersville and other communities in the county? Bad. Very bad.
The CDC rates the risk of transmission as high. According to the CDC, the percentage of people in the county fully vaccinated is a dismal 7.7 percent despite the easy access to the vaccine provided by the state in the spring when eligibility was expanded. School age students between 12-18 years old are fully vaccinated at a rate of 9 percent. If teachers and staff are in the age group of 18-65, only 9.4 percent of that age cohort have chosen to be fully vaccinated before returning to the classroom, cafeterias, hallways, and buses.
Still, Superintendent Rickey Edmond and the Board of Education are confident that letting 1405 students in the primary and elementary schools, 760 in the middle school, and 880 in the high school, sit in classrooms and move through hallways without a mask on is OK (because let’s be honest, it will not be possible to keep every child in a hallway distanced or properly masked). There is a Virtual School option only offered to grades 5-12, with limited capacity and criteria for acceptance, that will have 20 students.
The reported cases of Covid-19 in the seven days preceding August 2 are up 161.54 percent. The percent of tests that are positive has climbed by 15.63 percent. Local hospital admissions are up a full 200 percent. Schools haven’t had the first student in a classroom and the caseload is soaring in a county with great doctors but limited hospital services.
Late yesterday, a news report posted on Georgia Public Radio’s site summed it for me. Amber Schmidtke, PhD., a microbiologist tracking and explaining Covid data for mere mortals like me, said, and I am adding emphasis to her statement”So when this starts to happen [children becoming sick and requiring hospitalization] in a bigger way in Georgia and kids who were previously healthy are on ventilators, I don’t want school superintendents to claim that there was no way this could have been predicted,” Schmidtke said. “We have plenty of warning that the situation in 2021 is more dangerous than a year ago for children.Willingly choosing to endanger children by not doing the bare minimum of disease control and prevention should be treated the same way as knowingly allowing someone drunk to drive a school bus and organizations that do so should be held to account.”
Teachers and staff are preparing now for open houses in Washington County schools, with classes starting Friday. In a community with a rising case load, doubled Covid hospitalizations, low vaccination rates, and school leaders willing to, as Dr. Schmidtke suggests, let a drunk drive the school bus, they are providing the ideal breeding ground for very sick children, families, teachers, and staff.
LAST PROPOSED COAL PLANT ON FILE IN THE UNITED STATES IS CANCELLED
The Fall-Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE) is proud to announce a permit extension for Plant Washington, a coal-fired power plant proposed to be built in rural Washington County Georgia, has been denied by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (Georgia EPD). The extension denial invalidates the construction permit and all amendments to the permit are revoked in their entirety. On April 6, 2020, Plant Washington was the only remaining proposed coal plant in the United States to be cancelled.
Announced in mid-January 2008, Plant Washington was heralded by local leaders and plant developer Dean Alford as a fossil-fueled benefit to the local economy. Alford, who is currently indicted for multiple felonies, said that he expected some opposition from environmental groups in Atlanta, which he believed would be tamped down easily. Alford, along with some local leaders, elected officials, and several Electric Membership Cooperatives (EMCs) across the state did not anticipate any opposition from local citizens.
Their assumptions were wrong. A small group of Washington County citizens quickly organized to establish FACE, and quickly began working with state, regional, and national organizations to hold community meetings, table at festivals, speak at state and federal hearings, and testify in court proceedings. FACE worked closely with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia Sierra Club, Altamaha Riverkeeper, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Justine Thompson Cowan, former director of GreenLaw, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Together with its partners, FACE worked diligently for more than 12 years to protect the natural resources, community health, and budgets of Washington County families from the financial boondoggle Plant Washington posed. While the coal plant developer searched futilely for customers, other partner EMCs withdrew their funding and support. In the same time period Azalea Solar Project was constructed and began operating just a few miles from the proposed coal plant site. Cobb EMC, the electric co-op which once fully backed Plant Washington with $13M dollars of its owner’s money, purchases all of the solar project’s electricity.
Despite studies and analysis provided by financial and energy experts refuting the need for the plant, Washington County residents sold or signed away their homes and land rights. Earlier this year a Washington County bank placed legal ads concerning loan defaults for land where the coal plant was supposed to be built. Last year’s property taxes on the land are still unpaid.
The Georgia EPD’s cancellation of the permits is the final death-blow to this no-bid, antiquated project. On behalf of the FACE Board of Directors, Katherine Cummings said, “FACE is deeply appreciative of the critical work our partners contributed towards defeating the country’s last proposed coal plant on the books. The ability to produce clean renewable energy right here in Washington County is further proof that dirty, outdated power generation does not make fiscal or environmental sense. Together with our allies, FACE remains committed to protecting the natural resources and health of our community.”
Last Friday Governor Brian Kemp took the unprecedented step of declaring a statewide public health emergency as the number of Covid-19 (coronavirus) cases began to increase on national and state levels. The Georgia General Assembly suspended its calendar last Thursday and returned for on Monday for a special session called by the Governor to approve his actions. Yesterday the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) confirmed 197 cases of Covid-19 and three deaths. The number of reported cases are updated daily at noon.
Whether the changes we are adopting come from business, civic, or elected leaders, the chorus in this choir is to avoid being closer than six feet from other people. I prefer the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing. We need our social connections now more than ever, just not the close physical ones.
Last weekend I was supposed to be with about 12 other Life Is A Verb Campers for a house party filled with making art, cooking Pi Day themed meals, walking, yoga, and sharing stories. Instead of being together physically, we gathered at 11:00 in the morning via Zoom for coffee and everyone’s choice of pie. I made a roasted mushroom and asparagus quiche. It wasn’t the same as being in a room together, but it was good to see much-loved faces and talk.
Having done that on Saturday, the next morning I did a quick FaceBook search of five large churches in rural Washington County to see how they were adapting to the six foot wingspan way of living now. All five opened their doors to congregation members. One of the five churches was St James Christian Fellowship. This congregation is led by Georgia State House Representative Mack Jackson. He did not reply to my email with questions about opening the church last week.
Last Thursday Jackson worked with other state representatives to suspend their work and return home out of an abundance of caution due to Covid-19. On Friday some members stood closer than six feet to Kemp while he announce the public health emergency. Despite the cautions taken by the state, Jackson and other faith leaders invited people to gather together, perhaps more than once, last Sunday.
Everyone in those churches knows that the local hospital, like those in other rural counties, is not equipped to handle a large number of Covid-19 patients. The capacity just isn’t there, no matter how caring and well=trained the health providers are. With all of the free and easy-to-use technology available for streaming a service, why any church leaders thought that unlocking the doors last Sunday was a good idea, is enough to test one’s faith.
For the past 17 months and six days, people have said that I am handling suddenly being widowed with grace. Being furious and raging wasn’t going to unwind the fact that a careless driver killed my husband while he was riding his bike. I have limited reserves of energy, and I knew that walking around being angry wasn’t going to get me very far.
Last Thursday I was both angry and sad. If David Cummings was alive, I would have put down whatever work project had my attention in Atlanta just before 2:00, gotten in my car, and driven back to Sandersville, Georgia to celebrate with him. As I have told friends before, it was David who helped me connect the dots not too long after the boondoggle Plant Washington was announced.
I didn’t know much about energy production before the end of January 2008 when Dean Alford was presented to the business leaders of Washington County in an invitation only presentation at the Washington EMC. As I learned more, I became very concerned. It’s handy to be married to a geologist who can explain the water tables and such when a coal plant is going to draw down 16Million gallons of water per day, and your household water source about eight miles from the plant site is also drawn from a well in that same geologic plain.
I’ve always credited David for helping me find my way on responding to Plant Washington. On one of the first beautiful spring days in 2008, the kind that makes you want to find any reason to go outside, I told David I wished there was someone who lived near the proposed plant site that I could talk to, because surely they would be concerned about the threats of coal ash emissions, access to water, safety, and property values. He casually said that long-time family friends Randy and Cathy Mayberry had a cabin adjacent to the site, that maybe I should talk to them.
That sunny afternoon I went out to walk, and after about an hour, sweaty and kind of worn looking, I knocked on the Mayberry’s front door. Cathy answered, and while I told her I didn’t want to interrupt their day, and I surely wasn’t fit to sit down with anyone to talk, maybe sometime we could have a conversation about the risks posed by Plant Washington. From the living room Randy called out, “Come on in.”
From there Cathy and I met on someone’s porch with Lyle Lansdell, Pat, and Sonny Daniel, Paula and John Swint. Jennette Gayer came drove down from Atlanta. Seth Gunning, a student at Valdosta State who was light years ahead of the rest of us about energy and the environment, drove up for a meeting. Larry Warthen, whose church was founded after the Civil War, where unmarked graves of enslaved and free people are just yards from the plant site perimeter, stepped up to help lead in the work. The lawyers and partner organizations came to us to teach us, guide us, and become champions for our community too.
David didn’t go to those early meetings, but he listened to me, counseled me when I thought my head would explode as I learned more about the convoluted way coal plants are developed, permitted, and financed. He signed the petitions and went to the hearings. He phone banked when volunteers across the state came together to help return Cobb EMC to the rightful control of the member-owners. He used a few vacation days to attend court proceedings and EPA public comment sessions. Later he agreed to serve on the board of the small grassroots organization, the Fall-Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE), that came together after the first few community meetings. Because he grew up fishing, canoeing, and swimming at our family’s farm on the Ogeechee River, he became a certified stream monitor.
In the summer of 2010, when I knew to my core that quitting a job as a rural health advocate, where I excelled, instead of working nights, weekends, and burning through vacation days to fight Plant Washington, was my true calling, David supported me. When I worked 12 hours a day, he walked the dogs and cooked dinner. When I had cancer and was exhausted from radiation treatments, and the work required to fight Plant Washington totaled at least one thousand hours each week among our partners, he supported me. When Plant Washington’s funders backed out, and the truth in what FACE and our partners had said all along became clearer and clearer, David celebrated with me. And when the work of fighting Plant Washington wasn’t a full-time job any longer, because winning meant I would work my way out of a job, David supported me while I looked for work that would tap all the passion and experience I had garnered since 2008. He was always there.
Thursday evening I had plans to meet Atlanta friends who don’t know me as coal-plant fighting activist. One of them said she wanted to hear the story of my work as we began walking through the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. I told her I couldn’t compress it well at the moment, as it began in 2008 and changed me forever.
So we toasted a long-awaited victory, one they know matters to the health of the small rural community where my husband and children grew up, where some of my grandchildren live now, the community that helped FACE leaders become the best and truest versions of ourselves. We toasted to doing work that matters and benefits everyone on this one planet, and to those whose bodies have been returned to it.
Wednesday afternoon I stopped to get gas after picking up some groceries in Milledgeville, the “big” city to the west of my home town of Sandersville. A small SUV pulled up at a pump diagonally to mine. The driver, a woman maybe in her mid 60s, jumped out of her car and started walking toward me, smiling as she approached me standing at the rear corner of my car.
With great enthusiasm in her voice she asked me where I got my bumper sticker. She looked so happy, like she had finally come across another kindred soul, that she gave me a high five and immediately started telling me how worried she is about Donald Trump becoming President.
I replied that the racism and hate people feel comfortable sharing is horrifying, adding that the judgmental attitudes about people who don’t look or behave like them is stunning.
She said she’s taken issue with people she knows who judge gay people as sinners, saying that her response has been, “Do you believe God made everyone, and does God make mistakes?”
From there she said friends and family had turned away from her after she came out as gay, and that others in her family have been treated similarly.
Think about that- a family shunned one of their own, not because she was a murderer or thief, but because she wanted to date women instead of men.
This woman then looked at my car tag and realized I live in a neighboring county, and she said, “You live in Washington County and you have this one your car? You are a brave woman.”
It’s not so hard to be a privileged, white, straight woman driving around rural Georgia with a Democratic pride sticker on your car. When it helps you find members of your tribe while doing the ordinary things in life, it is even easier.
Thank you Bonnie, for extending your hand, telling me your name and story, and saying We Are Stronger Together.
Washington County Regional Medical Center (WCRMC) has steep financial challenges. That doesn’t make the rural hospital in Middle Georgia unique.
The solution proposed by recently appointed Hospital Authority members led by Chair Jim Croome, and, the Washington County Board of Commissioners (WCBOC), is to ask the county to approve a $ 15.4Million dollar bond.
The debt that citizens can choose to take on in a May referendum will fund $9M for infrastructure, IT, and computers at WCRMC. Property owners will have to decide if their personal budgets can stretch to take on more in property taxes to also give the hospital $6.4M to pay down debt, address pension plans, and general operations.
Last year the Washington County Tax Commissioner included a neon green insert with 2015 property tax bills stating that one mil of their taxes was being used for the hospital.
Last year county leaders could have chosen a course of action that might have made last week’s 2.5+ hours county commission meeting a lot shorter.
In late April 2015, county and hospital leaders had an option to improve operations and secure $5Million in capital improvements through an offer from University Hospital in Augusta. A management agreement already in effect between the two hospitals had already secured a $1Million line of credit for WCRMC.
University’s offer included a 20 year lease with an option for Washington County to sell the hospital if it decided that was the best course of action (University held first right of refusal. After that Washington County could pursue another buyer: page 3, University_proposal_to_WCRMC_April_29_2015). University guaranteed 24/7 Emergency Department operations, surgical and inpatient nursing services, and diagnostic and imaging services.
The lease proposal also stated that University, “will not seek any support from Washington County for the operation of WCRMC” during the first five years of the lease agreement (page 3, University Hospital offer to WCRMC April 2015).
Instead of saying “No thanks” to the offer, the Washington County Commissioners took a different tack, one that broke the management agreement with University and a retraction of their April offer.
County Attorney Tom_Rawlings hand-delivered letters on June 8th to local doctors inviting them to a private meeting with Navicent Health representatives from Macon to “structure a partnership with a larger hospital system.’ The meeting wasn’t planned for county offices or Rawlings’ office , both located on the high visibility Courthouse Square.
Instead, the June 8th meeting to discuss a possible relationship with Navicent was planned at Daniels Heating, Air, and Electrical just north of Sandersville, where cars travel pass at 55 MPH. The Chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners is Horace Daniels.
While Navicent Health was planning a meeting with Washington County leaders and physicians, their 11 month old management arrangement with neighboring Oconee Regional Medical Center was spiraling towards a fatal crash.
Davis closed his letter with, “We wish you and the Commissioners the best of luck in preserving a hospital in Washington County.”
Washington County leaders signed an agreement with University that secured a $1Million line of credit for our hospital. The organization that right-sized McDuffie County’s hospital proposed a 20 year lease agreement with $5Million of improvements to our struggling hospital. It did not include a request for $15.4Million in bond debt funded by Washington County property owners. It did include a restriction on future requests for taxpayer dollars.
Washington County needs a good hospital. Voters should have an opportunity to read the documents that brought us to a $15.4Million bond referendum in May. As I work through more documents I’ll post them here.
I wanted our trip to the mailbox to be more than routine.
(We asked the USPS if we could make our box open towards
the sidewalk because our street is very busy. Now no one has
to stand in the street to deliver or check the mail).
I am so worn out with re-enacting the Civil War. We know the outcome of the war, but we still have work to do concerning the persistent racism and income equality stemming from the enslavement of Africans.
After 8.5 years, a lot of questions about Plant Washington, Cobb EMC, and Cobb Energy, a for-profit company created by Dwight Brown while he ran the state’s largest electric co-op, have been answered after a forensic audit conducted for Cobb EMC was released by Channel 2 News in Atlanta last week. (A forensic audit is a type of financial audit that is conducted concerning possible fraud or misconduct.)
The document, which includes a 150+ page Executive Summary, also shines a bright light on Plant Washington, which Washington EMC leaders spent $1Million pursuing. Allied Energy Services, run by Brown’s crony Dean Alford, holds a no-bid contract to develop Plant Washington.
The audit includes some big numbers. Dwight Brown and his wife Mary Ellen, received over $20Million in payments, loans, benefits, and preferred stock from Cobb EMC and Cobb Energy, a for-profit company, established in 1998 under Brown’s directive.
Brown’s private business partner and Vice-President at Cobb Energy, Dean Alford, hauled in about $18Million in payments and benefits, according to the audit.
Alford was selected by Brown to serve on the Cobb Energy Board. From there Alford landed CEO appointments to Allied Utility Network and Allied Energy Services, both owned by Cobb Energy. The auditors wrote that they, “found no evidence that Cobb Energy reviewed or approved any business plan for any of the businesses it acquired or created.” The audit states that, with the exception of perhaps two entities, neither of them being Allied Energy Services of Allied Utility Network, “all of the Cobb Energy spinoffs lost money, some on a grand scale.”
Cobb Energy gave Allied Utility Network $5.9M by moving money from the nonprofit Cobb co-op to Cobb Energy, the for-profit company that, according to the audit, was anything but a profit generator. The audit reports that Cobb Energy general ledger entries totaling $4M appear to have funded Allied Energy, but the bookkeeping isn’t precise (lack of clear bookkeeping records is just one of the many criticisms raised in the audit).
So what about Allied Energy Services, Plant Washington, and the group of co-ops, including Washington EMC, that organized Power4Georgians (P4G) to support Plant Washington (and another coal-fired plant to be located in Ben Hill County) that Brown and Alford were touting years ago?
Allied Energy Services, led by Alford, secured the no-bid contract to develop coal-fired Plant Washington, even though, as the audit states, “neither Alford nor Allied had any experience building or developing a coal-fired power plant, and witnesses indicated he was hired on the basis of a recommendation by Dwight Brown.”Alford also heads P4G, which continues to promote Plant Washington even though all of the original EMCs that made up the consortium have ceased funding the project. P4G has already dropped plans for the second facility, which would have been called Plant Ben Hill.
Large tracts of land for both coal plant sites have been bought or tied up in contracts by several companies in amounts that totaled in the millions.
Where all that money came from is among the audit’s more interesting findings.
Monies paid to Cobb EMC by its members went to more than the for-profit companies owned by Cobb Energy. Both Alumni Properties LLC, which was involved in land acquisitions for the Ben Hill coal plant, and Buster and Brown, LLC, another private real estate venture, are linked to Dean Alford and his boss at Cobb Energy, Dwight Brown.
But there were even more land companies, including Ben Hill Timberland, LLC and Washington Timberland, LLC. Washington Timberland, LLC, as readers of Rural and Progressive may remember, has a history of late property tax payments in Washington County.
Dean Alford and P4G cancelled Plant Ben Hill over three years ago, but the audit raises questions about whether it was ever a real project.The audit says that “Senior Cobb EMC officers…advised that Plant Ben Hill was a ‘decoy” designed as a subterfuge to keep land prices lower in Washington County.”
Which raises troubling questions about Plant Washington and whether it was ever a viable proposal, or merely a scheme designed to enrich P4G.In January of 2012, Cobb EMC Board members ceased funding Plant Washington following a presentation by Alford, during which he said, “P4G never intended to build Plant Washington” and that, “P4G’s goal has always been to obtain the permits needed and then sell them to any interested party that could build the plant.”Unfortunately, it took many more months before Washington EMC followed Cobb EMC’s lead.
I happened to attend the invitation-only announcement for Plant Washington at the end of January 2008. The event was attended by former Washington CEO Frank Askew, then CFO and now Washington EMC CEO Wendy Sellers, Washington County Industrial Development Authority Chair, and Sandersville Railroad stockholder Hugh Tarbutton, and other Tarbutton family members.At that time, Alford was clear in stating that Plant Washington would be built, owned, and operated by P4G members to provide affordable power to co-op members.
“Senior Cobb EMC officers interviewed advised that Plant Washington is now dormant,” according to the audit.
There’s a lot of information to digest in the 150+ page audit, which was requested by the Cobb EMC Board members elected after Brown and his cronies were ousted from the electric co-op almost four years ago. Last week Cobb County Prosecutor Don Geary told Channel 2 News in Atlanta that additional criminal charges could result from the findings.
The audit concludes with this statement, “This report has clearly demonstrated that how the former CEO made business and accounting decisions from which he and his friends profited. There was no effective compliance and ethics program and no oversight on the part of the Board of either entity, Cobb Energy or Cobb EMC to stop the activities perpetuated by the former CEO.”
It is time for Washington EMC leaders to come clean with its members and the larger community about the waste of member resources that Plant Washington has been from the beginning. Members expect and deserve the truth. We must hold them, and all our county leaders, accountable for the boondoggle they signed us up for over 8.5 years ago.
The Friday Photo
June 5, 2015
A Little Free Library is a great way to teach children about being part of a community. Both of my grandchildren took books home to read (and helped add more young reader books to the box).
About two years ago my friends the Digh/Ptak family built a Little Free Library and placed it in front of their home in Asheville. A Little Free Library (LFL) is simply a place where books are made available for anyone to take a book to read or leave a book for someone else to read. You don’t even have to ask if it is ok to leave a book, you just put it in the library!
A LFL can be sponsored by a family like mine, a business, church, civic group, Scout troop, or a group of friends and neighbors. Most are located outside in a water-resistant box/container where there are lots of people throughout the day. Occasionally they are located inside a business too.
The cost is minimal. Registering a Little Free Library and getting your official Little Free Library sign requires a one-time cost of $35. They’ll send you some helpful information to spread the word about your LFL, and once you have yours ready, you can make it official and be placed on the LFL map and list of locations. My LFL is number 16,856, so there were 16,855 Little Free Libraries before me! LFL is non-profit organization and can be found at littlefreelibrary.org
So why is my LFL made out of an old newspaper box? Unfortunately I was not able to convince my husband to build one for me because he seems to be busy helping me with other things on a list that never ends. Last summer when a bike tour of Little Free Libraries in the Mercer area in Macon was announced, my determination to have at least one LFL in Washington County took off again.
After searching the web I found some old newspaper boxes repurposed into libraries. No building required! The Sandersville Progress didn’t have any boxes to offer, but after several phone calls I was able to get some from the Augusta Chronicle.
Once I got the boxes back to Sandersville, the real work began to make Little Free Libraries a community project. Washington County Machine Shop made some repairs so the boxes would be more weather resistant. Once I retrieved the shored up boxes, I got local businesses to help make Washington County’s first LFL happen.
ACE Hardware supplied me with paint, Brooker Business Products contributed a custom stamp for library books that reads “Little Free Library Washington, GA.” Katlyn Norwood painted to lettering on the box, and Smith Farm Supply donated a fence pole for me to secure the box in my front yard.
Charles Lee was willing to bend the rules for Chamber of Commerce Ribbon Cuttings since this is the first official Little Free Library in our county. Bob West and his crew were kind enough to get my front yard “ribbon cutting” ready. Neil Pittman at the Country Buffet and Judy Page contributed food for everyone who attended the ribbon cutting.
On Monday, October 27 community leaders, friends, and neighbors gathered to celebrate Washington County’s first Little Free Library at my house on West Church Street. The books inside Washington County’s first LFL were donated by Jeanne Roughton, Susan Garrett, and my friend in the Monticello area Susan Joris. They range from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and early reader books for young children, to adult murder-mysteries.
In the next few weeks Little Free Libraries will be popping up all over Washington County. The Beauty Junction on South Harris Street has put one out with children’s books. Washington EMC employees had a design contest for the one they will put on the front porch of their office in Sandersville. The Pendry family will have one on West Church St near the city cemetery soon. The Progress has found a newspaper box this fall to contribute and that one will be decorated and placed in front of Susan Lewis’ office on the Square. The fellows at ACE Hardware plan to build one and place it at their store, and Clayton Sheppard is going to try and make space inside JP’s Kwick Shop for a LFL that Warthen residents want to sponsor.
I am really appreciative of the help and support local businesses and friends have given to bringing Little Free Libraries to Washington County. I have one newspaper box left that I will give to someone who wants to decorate, register, and sponsor a Little Free Library in our county. If you want to get your name in the hat email me with your contact information, who will sponsor the LFL (your family, a Sunday School class, etc), and where you will place it. The other Washington County Little Free Library “librarians” will select a winner.
The deadline for your nomination is Friday, November 21. The winner will be chosen and announced in early December. Email me at email@example.com with your nomination.
There’s no doubt that money follows power. When your primary measure for the most important appointments is “who has money and who will give it to me” then you have a government like Nathan Deal’s, which is dominated by a few major donors instead of reflecting the diversity of Georgia’s citizens.
Last week the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that, “Three powerful Georgia boards help to bankroll Gov. Nathan Deal.” The three boards reviewed include Washington County’s own Tarbutton family.
As noted by the AJC, Ben Tarbutton, III, often referred to in conversation as Ben III by people in Washington County, currently sits on the Georgia University System Board of Regents . Ben III is a former Chair of the Board of Regents and was appointed by Gov Deal for a second term in 2013. He will sit on that Board until 2020. The AJC reports that Ben Tarbutton, III has donated $158,100 to Deal’s campaign since 2009.
The AJC quoted Ben III describing his donations as part of “modern day politics.”
During Ben III’s first term on the Regent’s Board he was joined by Dean Alford, who holds a no-bid contract to build a coal-fired coal plant in Washington County called Plant Washington.
Alford’s second wife, Debbie Dlugolenski Alford, was appointed to lead the Georgia Lottery in October 2012. The AJC reported that Ms Alford was the sole finalist for the job. She had no previous experience running a lottery. One Lottery Board member, Frances Rogers, resigned because she thought Gov Deal had interfered in the process for selecting someone to lead the Lottery.
Just a few months after Debbie Alford was appointed to lead the Lottery, Benjamin R Tarbutton (Benjie to folks in Washington County) was appointed to the Georgia Lottery Board. I don’t know if Benjie filled the seat held by Ms Rogers. Benjie is Ben III’s cousin.
Benjie’s father is Hugh Tarbutton, Sr. Hugh Sr. was re-appointed to the Georgia Ports Authority two years ago by Gov Deal. He had served 20 years on the Ports Authority Board but former Gov Sonny Perdue wouldn’t extend his term. Hugh Sr. has donated $157, 200 to Deal’s campaign according to the AJC’s infographic and he is back on the Ports Authority Board. (Hugh Sr. has a son who is also named Hugh, hence the use of Sr. here.)
It gets even cozier.
The Tarbuttons own Sandersville Railroad, a short-line railroad, that would move hundreds of cars of coal every week to Alford’s proposed Plant Washington, if the plant is ever built. They also own B-H Transfer, a trucking company based in Washington County. The Tarbuttons have a vested interest in transportation, and Georgia’s ports are tied to transportation.
Plant Washington will also require thousands of acres of land. The proposed plant site include large tracts of land owned by Hugh Tarbutton, Sr. A few tracts of Plant Washington land that don’t belong to Hugh Sr. are connected to Washington Timberland, LLC. That LLC is registered to Dean Alford. According to county tax records (Tuesday, August 26, 2014), property taxes due in December 2013 by Dean Alford’s LLC are still unpaid, and are subject to auction next month at the Washington County courthouse.
Crop mob– A group of landless and wannabe farmers who come together to build and empower communities by working side by side.
You don’t have to be landless or a wannabe farmer to support farmers who are committed to sustainable farming. You also don’t have to know anything about farming or gardening (that would be me).
You will need a decent pair of work gloves, sturdy outdoor work shoes/boots, a hat, some bottled water, sunscreen, and a willingness to get your hands dirty for a few hours. In exchange you’ll help a small farmer who needs additional help during a critical part of the growing season.
My friend, and organic farmer, Lyle Lansdell, is hosting a Crop Mob at her farm, Forest Grove Farm in Sandersville, Washington County, this Sunday, April 13. Her passion for good health and good food inspired her to dig into (no pun intended) organic farming after retiring from a public health career at Chapel Hill. Lyle has also continued the careful restoration of her family’s 1850s era home, Forest Grove, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lyle told me when she decided to raise and sell lamb, she committed to making sure she knew exactly how the lambs would be butchered and processed. She chose a processor after walking through the entire facility and talking with the owner. She sells at the newly renamed and relocated Green Market in Milledgeville on Saturdays and the Mulberry Street Market in Macon on Wednesday afternoons. You might also find her at the Sandersville Farmer’s Market on Wednesday mornings in the summer.
If you’ve wanted to show a child where food really comes from, and how much work it takes to grow that food, bring them along to help. You’ll leave with a little dirt under your fingernails and a craving for ripe, red, sun-warmed tomatoes.
Late one afternoon last week I walked into the Sandersville post office just steps behind an older man dressed in jeans, a work shirt, and boots. He looked very comfortable in his clothes, like that was what he had worn to work in for years. His gate was slow, which seemed to emphasize his tall and lanky build. He turned to go toward the post office boxes and I went into the customer service area to mail my package.
Before long he came in and got in line. When it was his turn he approached Lynn, the mail clerk. He said he didn’t understand why his phone bill was almost $100. It was hard to understand him through the combination of a rural Southern accent and speech that was perhaps thickened by an earlier stroke. He didn’t want to pay the bill because it was so high, but he said he would. Lynn asked if he was making long distance phone calls, or if anyone else was using his phone or had added services to his line.
As a spectator listening to the conversation while I filled out my shipping forms, it was heartbreakingly clear that this man had no one else to ask for help. Well actually, he did. He knew the clerks at the Sandersville post office would at least listen.
Those few minutes dispelled all the arguments laid out in big city offices about why small town post offices just aren’t necessary, that they really don’t serve anyone at all.
Before I turned around to get in line, Lynn told him that if his bill was high again next month, she would come to his house, help him figure out why, and then help him do something about it.
Lynn told me after he left that she has helped other seniors with similar problems after she has left work. She said it is her way to pay things forward so she can sleep at night.
And really, rural post offices are like community water coolers. People share news in the lobby while they retrieve their mail: marriages, births, graduations, new jobs, children moving away, illnesses, and deaths. The clerks ask about vacations when people come in to pick up their mail, how grandchildren are, if the house will be full of family for the holidays.
Lynn happened to be at the counter that afternoon, but anyone who has stood in line in the Sandersville post office has seen each and every person working behind that counter treat the customers who need a little more help, who aren’t moving as fast as those of us who operate in a constant “hurry up” mode, with respect and patience.
I could buy stamps for our Christmas letter at Wal-Mart on Sunday night when the counter at the post office is dark. But I won’t. I’ll buy them in Sandersville during old-fashioned “banker’s hours,” stamp them at home, and then slide them into the outgoing mail slot in the Warthen post office five miles from the house, which is now only open two hours every weekday.
Sure, it will take a few days for the letters to get delivered. But here’s no replacement for putting a Christmas card on the refrigerator which may well stay there until next year’s arrives to replace it. This is one time of year when snail mail trumps email.
Dementia is a cruel illness. My father-in-law, Frank, has done everything he can to protect his health in an effort to beat back the illness that robbed his father and brother of their keen minds and wit. I can’t imagine what we would do if he had developed dementia, because he is the constant companion to my mother-in-law, Jo, who, despite working at good health, developed the same disease which stalked her aunts.
Despite Frank’s best efforts, and those of a part-time caregiver, my mother-in-law has managed to slip away. The first time, during the night, the police returned her. Earlier in the summer a family friend, Mike Logue, and his co-worker at Washington EMC, James Brooks, also hunted to return her safely.
But last week’s escape illustrates just how special rural communities are. The alert was sounded by Joe Meeks, who saw her out on the courthouse square. He alerted Susan Lewis in her office there, who called me. (Susan seems to be our “go to” person. She played a critical role in helping Sterling Everett and Jack Schellenberg in Macon when they were heroes last spring).
Susan then set out to look anywhere she thought was a likely destination, like the Geneology Museum, where Jo spent many hours helping chronicle the history of Washington County residents. I ran into Queensborough National Bank and Trust, where Candy Edwards and Ashley Benfield said she had been, but left. My father-in-law checked at the George D. Warthen bank down the block. Geraldine White at the Washington EMC, still further down the street (but on the way to the house where my mother-in-law grew up), hadn’t seen her come in their building but would call me if she did.
As it is in a story with a happy ending, Jo made her way home on her own, but unable to tell us what she was doing except trying to “live her life” and run an errand. The errand had taken her to Queensborough Bank, located in what was the post office Jo knew in her youth. The young tellers don’t know my mother-in-law, but when she needed to buy a stamp to mail her letter, they kindly sold her one, and then assured her they would mail her letter.
I hope when these types of scary things happen in bigger cities that the lost folks find a kind and patient person to help guide them back to safety.
Fortunately for us, so far, her memory leads my mother-in-law down a small town sidewalk where people who know her will contact us and try to engage her while we race to get her. In the mean time, my father-in-law gets up every day and sets the bar a little higher for every spouse to reach.