Sunday Solutions — Sept. 17, 2023

We’re two days past Democracy Day, and it’s still a good time to take a look at last week through that lens. Let’s start with McIntosh County and Hogg Hummock and move through trials by a jury of peers to open government and the search for intelligent life with your tax dollars. Consider your Sunday dinner conversation fueled for a few hours.

Alberta Mabry of Darien and a Hogg Hummock descendant talks to McIntosh County Commission Chair David Stevens after he cast the deciding vote.

It’s the process

As we covered the McIntosh County rezoning of Hogg Hummock community last week, a few things became apparent: Citizens felt left out of the governmental process, officials can use the process to exclude voices, and both sides are intensely frustrated with the others’ lack of perspective on their work and lives. These are the divides that threaten the democratic process more every day. After all, the entire system is based on a level of trust for the process.

Look no further than the crowds who gathered to oppose the plan at the zoning hearing, the county commission workshop and the next night’s meeting where the commissioners voted 3-2 to change the rules for the islanders’ land. The commissioners said they had considered the changes for more than 2 years, but those directly affected said differently. Both sides cited an August 2021 listening session to discuss how some changes might work, and all agree nothing was ever etched in stone and no public meetings or copies of the plan were held in the two years since to mediate what an agreement might look like.

As the meeting began, a short public hearing on the 2024 budget signaled a rocky night ahead. Public questions about spending items to commissioners and county manager were met with quick answers shrouded in jargon that left those outside the process unsatisfied. The commission chair moved swiftly to a vote and the county budget was final.

The Tuesday agenda moved on to a vote on the amended zoning plan, which island residents see as a genuine threat to their homes and culture. If you want to hear how that discussion went, here’s a recording from The Current, made only after the sheriff allowed the media to bring in cell phones. (We’ll address that again below.) The human fault lines of perspective and trust between generations, races, wealth and geographies will be evident as you listen to the discussion of the zoning rules and house sizes.

We’ve assembled a primer page of coverage, documents and other information regarding the recent meetings, the community’s relationship with the county, including why the enclave is referred to as Hog Hammock and Hogg Hummock. For a full view, take a look and listen at all the coverage and the documents around the changes. The challenges aren’t settled and, when some eventually are, that giant disconnect between taxpayers and their elected officials won’t be bridged any time soon.

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins stands beside a poster board while making his closing arguments to the jury on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

When a murder acquittal is still a life sentence

Fundamental protections of the Constitution include the privacy and safety of one’s home and the work of the state to protect all fairly through due process. These ideas collided in Camden County Superior Court last week in the trial of Varshon Brown, who was arrested on multiple charges after his cousin was shot and killed by deputies during a raid on Brown’s home. While Brown did not fire the shot that killed Latoya James in 2021, he was charged with felony murder in her death. Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins, who presented the case himself, said Brown should be convicted for fostering the situation, while Brown’s attorney said the Camden deputies’ irresponsible actions and violations of protocol created the circumstances for the death. The jury acquitted Brown after a 6-hour deliberation. However, Brown will still spend life in prison on other convictions stemming from the shootout. The Current’s Jake Shore spent the week covering the unusual trial, and you can read his breakdown of it here.

From the week

Your rights: Eyes, ears on democracy

Georgia state law requires that access to public proceedings be open to attend, to document through media and your own devices, and to participate through public hearings and comments. The state’s open government laws apply to all citizens. Last week, The Current skirmished with McIntosh County officials over those rights as we worked to follow the zoning hearing for Hogg Hummock and the commission work session and meetings. County Sheriff Stephen Jessup, backed by the county’s Commission Chair David Stevens, closed the proceedings to all audio and photo devices — until the commission met on Tuesday. After legal letters were sent to all county officials on behalf of The Current, the sheriff relented to allow only credentialed journalists to bring in and use only cell phones for recording the controversial zoning vote and statements. It wasn’t a one-time ban on citizen recording — that’s the way it’s been done. While the meeting could be recorded, the new access still violates the law as long as citizens aren’t allowed to make their own recordings. Read about last week’s effort, legal letters.

Let’s get quizzical

new quiz logo

Did you follow the week’s news? Let’s find out. Here’s your weekly quiz.

Did you earn a spot on the leaderboard? Congrats to First Place (7/10): Vicki, Savannah Agenda, Rex;

Second Place (5/10): Sandy; Third Place (4/10): BC, Sunny, Laurie

Artist’s rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

Your second cup: Life elsewhere?

Last week, NASA announced that we might be closer to finding life on other planets. The James Webb Space Telescope, a beneficiary of US tax dollars, has found the presence of dimethyl sulfide on a planet 120 light years away. That molecule is only known to be produced by life and the planet K2-18b orbits a cool dwarf star just far enough away to support life. Scientists have also detected methane and CO2 in the planet’s atmosphere, so there’s a chance there’s water. This BBC report explains why all of that matters and how the scientists can detect the molecules here. This discovery comes as NASA administrator Bill Nelson named a new director of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) but didn’t immediately announce who was selected. A NASA UFO report says there’s no evidence of “extraterrestrial origin” for reported sightings. Here’s the wrap of questions, and some answers, from the New York Times.


Woodbine man gets life in prison after controversial deputy shooting killed cousin

A Camden County jury acquitted Varshan Brown of the murder of his cousin, LaToya James, who was shot by police during a botched drug raid. However, the jury found him guilty of drug and gun charges as well as shooting at police. A judge sentenced him to life in prison.

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McIntosh votes to rezone Hogg Hummock

The new zoning allows larger, taller homes in the 427-acre community on Sapelo, where the descendants of enslaved people who worked the island’s plantations have lived for generations.

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Ligon escaped indictment despite recommendation of special grand jury

One other Coastal Georgian whom the grand jury voted to indict but who was not charged is C.B. Yadav, a businessman in Camden County who was a member of the fake elector list. Brad Carver, also a fake elector whom the grand jury voted to indict, is among the top recipients of taxpayer funding from the doomed Camden Spaceport project.

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Balance of power at stake as judge considers Georgia redistricting arguments

If Jones sides with the groups and Black voters who have brought the legal challenges, the case could affect the balance of power on the national level – where Republicans hold a fragile majority in the U.S. House – and it could shrink the already tightening margins under the Gold Dome.

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Why don’t Coastal Georgia warehouses have solar on their roofs?

Warehouses seem like a no brainer for rooftop solar, but few of these enormous, flat-roofed buildings take advantage of the sun for their energy needs.

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Open government: What happened in McIntosh County

While access to record opened for final meeting, restrictions remain for the general public.

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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,...