Sunday Solutions — Sept. 10, 2023

We’ll take a little extra space today to talk about why citizens can feel disenfranchised even when they vote. Lack of transparency, understanding and bureaucratic inertia often collide to create mistrust, cloudy decisions and cost taxpayer money in the long run at local, state and national levels. Democracy Day is Sept. 15. Let’s look at some points of order.

Sapelo Island
Sign designating the Historic Hog Hammock Community on Sapelo Island. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

Sapelo community faces zoning challenge

In a public hearing on zoning changes Thursday night, residents of Sapelo Island’s Gullah-Geechee community did what few communities do: They showed up. Nearly 200 people crowded the McIntosh County Courthouse in a display of unity in opposition to a proposal that would specifically affect Hogg Hummock, the small community of the dozens of descendants of Black enslaved workers who have occupied and owned the land for more than a century. The county’s Planning and Zoning commissioners were clearly unprepared for the crowd that assembled in opposition to the planned rules the community, also called Hog Hammock, which would mandate minimum sizes for lots, greatly expand the allowable square footage for homes, end agricultural use, allow for inns and a marina. And, the wording would erase historic recognition or protection in county zoning for the last surviving Gullah-Geechee community on the coast. The most obvious complaint: Residents felt they had no voice in the changes.

After 35 speakers (all in opposition) and nearly 3 hours, 3 members of the 5-member commission voted 3-0 to make some adjustments to the proposal, including decreasing the dwelling sizes allowed and disallowing inns or a marina. Then it sent the measure on to the county commission to consider 4 days later at its Monday work session, promising the crowd that county commissioners would see — before it met — copies of the hearing’s minutes, statements, submitted statements and letters from school students who’d toured the island.

Also, we’d love to show you at least some of the meeting, the residents’ questions and the county attorney’s defense of the zoning panel whose members were unable to answer specific questions about the proposal they were about to approve. However, no recording exists. The public at the public meeting in the public county courthouse was prohibited from bringing in phones, cameras, purses or anything that might be banned from a court proceeding by order of the McIntosh County Sheriff. It could not be viewed live, and neither will Monday’s county commission’s work session or Tuesday’s regular meeting. Some full county commission meetings are recorded and posted later to view for a fee. The First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law says blocking recording of a public meeting by the public is an open meetings law violation — it’s sending a letter to the county sheriff and commission chair on The Current’s behalf to alert them to that.

One note for representation: The Thursday meeting was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. when the ferry — the only transportation back to Sapelo and Hogg Hummock — was set to leave for the day. The state decided to hold the ferry until the end of the meeting so island residents could stay and speak.

How did it all come to this? There are some mysteries, but here’s a story from The Current’s Mary Landers on what we do know. Monday’s county commission meeting is set to be a work session with no public input. It’s possible for the zoning proposal to go to a vote at Tuesday’s monthly commission meeting. If you are interesting in attending or contacting a commissioner, background and information are provided in the story.

Red counties are in the bottom quartile nationally for poverty. Credit: Charlie Hayslett, Trouble in God’s Country

Georgia’s rural-metro fissure becomes chasm

Charlie Hayslett, a respected analyst for health and economic strategy in Georgia, has returned to writing for his terrific web site, “Trouble in God’s Country.” It’s always a fascinating look at the relationships of data, politics, economics, public health and other factors in the state — especially those affecting the rural parts of the state’s 159 counties, which he calls “NotLanna.” Lately, he’s been looking at the wide disparities in per capita income (PCI) to help elected leaders and the rest of us to understand the state’s divisions through distribution of income and poverty.

In what’s often touted to be “the best state to do business,” Hayslett’s analysis makes some jarring points. Nationally, there are 778 counties in the lowest 25% of per capita income; Georgia has 105 of them — more than any other state. Looking at the bottom quartile for poverty, Georgia scores again with 87 counties with poverty rates that range from 5.3% to 34%. Hayslett dissects the most recent data to show counties, regions and various types of income. His work and explanations take into account some recent gains and shine light on how much there is yet to do. Here’s a link to his very deep dive illuminating why the fractures in Georgia come from different perspectives of equity that must be bridged before other gaps can be filled.

From the week

new quiz logo

Are you on the leaderboard?

How did you fare on last week’s news quiz? PK32 scored 10 of 10 for the second week in a row! Want to challenge PK32? Test your news knowledge with a few short questions that pertain to stories we published earlier in the week. Here’s the leaderboard from the week:

First Place (10/10): PK32 (two weeks in a row), Eric, Squeeze
Second Place (6/10): FRANWS4, Mike, EWH
Third Place (5/10): Mimi, Bill, LAJ, Vicki

And here’s the link to this week’s quiz. Good luck!

The Littoral Combat Ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) was commissioned in 2008 and decommissioned in 2021. (U.S. Navy photo).

Your second cup: Ship project sinks

The Navy’s answer to modern marine warfare was to be the Littoral Combat Ship, designed for fast moves and better mine sweeping, among other needs has become a boondoggle costing billions in taxpayer dollars. The “little crappy ships,” as they are nicknamed, are now being mothballed early because of fatal design flaws that created engineering points that corrode the ship’s engines from within and never allowed weapons systems to work. However, the problems were known early, yet the inertia of military bureaucracy and home-state politics kept the projects alive to pay for even more ships than the Navy ordered. Here’s ProPublica’s thorough explainer that illustrates the effects when process and project failure meets political power.

NOTE: This week we say good-bye to Dow Jones News Initiative data intern Kailey Cota, our final summer staffer to leave us. She’s headed to great work in South Carolina, and we’ll cheer her every step of the way. We’ll also miss her quiet smile and thorough efforts to find people to give real meaning to gray data sets.

Origin of Sapelo zoning proposal uncertain; residents want their say

The proposed zoning changes delete reference to Hog Hammock’s “unique needs in regard to its historic resources, traditional patterns of development, threat from land speculators and housing forms.” They would also allow larger houses to be built and set a minimum size that’s larger than some of the traditional cottages.

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State awards first grants under new rural housing program

The $8.4 million in infrastructure grants go to five local government applicants, the first round of awards through a rural workforce housing initiative.

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Georgia craft brewers look to legislature to ease sales restrictions

Senate Bill 163, which remains alive for consideration in 2024, would repeal a provision in the 2017 law that limits craft brewers to selling no more than 288 ounces of beer per day – equivalent to one case – for off-premises consumption.

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Fulton grand jury recommended charges against Perdue, Loeffler in 2020 election case

The special grand jury heard evidence and testimony from 75 witnesses before suggesting that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis pursue charges against three dozen people for their involvement in an alleged conspiracy to overturn a 2020 election that saw Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly end former President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.

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Research: Paper ballots good, but accurately hand-counting them is next to impossible

In other countries where hand counting is used, there is typically just one race on the ballot. But in many parts of the U.S., it is common for there to be a dozen contests or many more during each election – and on a single piece of paper. Sometimes a ballot paper has two columns for voting, with candidates or ballot questions on both […]

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Federal judge rules Georgia can resume ban on hormone treatment for transgender minors

A panel of judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Georgia, lifted an injunction on a transgender medical ban in Alabama, finding that state’s law does not discriminate on the basis of sex, blocking hormone treatments there.

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Kemp nixes call by Trump supporters for special legislative session

Kemp’s comments were aimed at calls for a special legislative session targeting Willis from freshman state Sen. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, and other members of the Georgia Freedom Caucus.

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Check the agendas for issues and votes so you can show up and let your elected and appointed representatives know what you want.

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Susan Catron is managing editor for The Current GA. She has more than two decades of experience in Georgia newspapers. Susan served as executive editor of the Savannah Morning News for nearly 15 years,...