McIntosh County commissioners are looking for a new place to hold public meetings as a result of a complaint by The Current to Georgia’s Attorney General about controversial limits placed by the county on residents and the media during official discussions about changes to the historic Black community on Sapelo Island.
Earlier this month, Sheriff Stephen Jessup had prohibited cell phones or recording devices while the zoning commission and county commissioners discussed building changes that the Black landowners on Sapelo fear will destroy the history and fabric of their community in favor of wealthier, white property owners. The zoning changes, which were passed on Sept. 15, come a year after many of the historic landowners sued the county and the state and won accommodations over long standing discrimination of basic services to the island, such as sanitation and fire fighting.
The record: Sapelo Island,Hog Hammock District: Coverage, detail, documents, recordings and other information around the rezoning efforts by McIntosh County.
Over the last two weeks, the county has worked to tamp down perceptions that they have violated Georgia law about public meetings amid community outrage and the potential of further lawsuits.
Citing rising costs of services to all residents of the county, the McIntosh County manager, attorney and the majority of the commissioners pushed through the zoning changes, with several of the officials expressing frustration about enduring the legal challenges previously raised by the Black residents and the cost of providing service to Sapelo.
According to many in the community, the ban on recording devices is evidence of a good old boys network that dismisses the concerns and needs of the county’s minority Black community, while officials say that the ban was a public safety measure.
McIntosh County Attorney Ad Poppell answered the attorney general’s letter advising the county of the potential legal violations by saying that the prohibitions were made by the sheriff as a result of a “brutal” attack on one the chairman of the board of commissioners in March 2022. Poppell added that the sheriff was within his rights to do so, as the sheriff is responsible for safety at the county courthouse, where the official meetings took place.
The letter did not elaborate on the nature of the attack. Previous media reports, however, indicate that the altercation did not take place during an official county meeting, but at a bar, where Chairman David Stevens got into a fight with the husband of a rival candidate who lost the election to Stevens.
The commissioner and the man who was arrested for punching Stevens were previously acquainted. The police report said that the assailant and his wife, who had been “nasty” to the commissioner ever since she lost the race.
McIntosh officials claim that until the Sapelo Island zoning dispute, their decision to hold public meetings at the county courthouse and to prohibit recording devices had been uncontroversial. They also said that the court house was the only space large enough to accommodate the public for the Sapelo meetings.
Yet, in response to the attorney general’s letter, the sheriff now has closed the courthouse to public meetings.
Meanwhile, residents concerned by what they see as a back-door deal to push out historic residents in favor of gentrifying the small community of Hogg Hammock are mustering their numbers to try to reverse the new zoning rulings.