– Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023 –

Good morning and welcome to Thursday. In today’s newsletter, we’re looking at the picks for a controversial Georgia prosecutor oversight panel, new changes coming to Chatham County’s emergency responses and how Liberty County will start to charge developers fees to pay for public safety and infrastructure.

Questions, comments or story ideas? You can reach me at jake.shore@thecurrentga.org. Let’s dive in.

DA oversight panel picks

On May 5, 2023, Brian Kemp signed into law a district attorney oversight bill passed by Georgia state Republicans in March. Kemp chose the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office as his location to sign the bill. Credit: Georgia Governor's Office

A district attorney oversight panel, passed by Georgia Republicans as a means to rein in “progressive” prosecutors, went into effect this month and has begun to take complaints following a judge’s ruling. This is despite an ongoing lawsuit from DAs who believe the Prosecuting Attorney’s Qualifications Commission unconstitutionally undermines prosecutor choice.

Like all things, the devil is in the details. What happens now depends on the appointees who sit on this commission. The Current asked the state’s governing board of prosecutors for their list of recommendations to Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, Speaker of the House Jon Burns and Senate appointment committee, who all had their share of appointments to the commission.

The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council (PAC) queried its prosecutors which of their peers they would like to see on the committee, and sent their recommendations to the state leaders (We posted both lists). Kemp, Jones and the senate committee all selected district attorneys from the PAC list to serve on the commission (save one pick from Kemp of a Bibb County Superior Court judge).

Burns, of Effingham County did not choose a single active prosecutor, nor choose from the PAC list, to serve on the commission — he nominated Joseph “Joey” Cowart, of Statesboro, and Steve Scheer, of Savannah.

Scheer is currently the city attorney of Pooler, a personal injury lawyer and a former chairman of the Georgia State Ethics Commission, according to his website. Cowart was the solicitor-general in Bulloch County for 16 years, prosecuting misdemeanors, before becoming a personal injury and DUI attorney, his website stated.

Scheer, who works in the same circuit where Chatham DA Shalena Cook Jones prosecutes, has likely encountered Jones during his work. Jones has been hammered locally by critics for allegations of mismanagement and so-called progressive policies. In May, Kemp signed the DA bill into law in Chatham County, causing some to believe Jones to be a target.

Changes underway, Chatham EMS chief says

Chatham County Emergency Management Services ambulance Credit: Chatham County EMS

A big change is coming to Chatham County’s emergency management services (EMS), which officials hope will reduce its oft-criticized, long response times.

On Oct. 10, the county’s first responders, law enforcement and 911 operators will begin using the same computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, according to Chatham County EMS CEO Chuck Kearns. The system will move most dispatching of units to emergencies — except for ambulances, which EMS will keep — to the county. In the old system, Sheriff John Wilcher, EMS, the county, the school system and Tybee Island all had their own dispatch systems (Tybee still has its own dispatch).

What does this mean? Kearns expects the centralization will reduce duplication of efforts by dispatchers and streamline responses.

He also said 911 operators will be trained on “priority dispatch.” That procedure will categorize 911 calls into Priority 1, 2 and 3, with 1 being the highest priority — shooting, unconscious person, stabbing, major trauma — and 3 being the lowest priority — mental health or welfare checks. CAD will automatically categorize the calls into its priority as operators ask yes-or-no questions to the 911 caller and input the answers into the computer, Kearns said. From there, dispatchers will get the priority call, and CAD will tell dispatchers which ambulances are closest and available, he said.

Chatham EMS has been criticized in recent years for its long response times for ambulances, to the tune of 17 minutes, as of Dec. 2022.

‘Impact(ful)’ change

Donald Lovette, Liberty County Board of Commissioners Chairman
Donald Lovette, Liberty County Board of Commissioners Chairman Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

Liberty County officials took a step towards getting assistance paying for its infrastructure, fire and police services and matching those services with the county’s rapid development.

At a Sept. 21 meeting, county commissioners voted unanimously to begin the process of implementing “impact fees,” a one-time fee that land developers pay to offset the impact of development using county’s services. Commissioners allocated the money to do so in the FY2024 budget. 

This comes after an investigation in May 2023 by The Current revealed Liberty officials pushed rampant industrial growth, while the countywide fire department struggled to get necessary equipment, implement planning, train for specific types of fires and hire enough firefighters. Despite approving 16 warehouse developments in the span of a year, Liberty County officials have not sought impact fees up until this point — the warehouses instead received tax breaks from the Liberty County Development Authority. 

Why does this matter for public safety? Growth, planning and development can have an outsized impact on public safety in one’s community. For example, if an understaffed fire department is responding to a massive warehouse fire, will it be able to reach your home that’s on fire miles away? 

In Liberty County’s defense, impact fees for Savannah — the source of much of the coast’s growth — only went into effect on July 1, 2023. The approval of Liberty’s motion sets up the county to hire a consultant, who will put together a report and a proposed fee structure, which Assistant County Manager Joseph Mosley said would take nine to 12 months. 

Judge clears Oct. 1 start for new prosecutors oversight panel

Judge clears way for Georgia Republican-passed district attorney oversight panel to go into effect while district attorneys in Democratic areas challenge the law via a lawsuit.

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911 call-takers are demoralized, overwhelmed and dealing with their own mental health woes

911 call dispatchers feel demoralized and overworked. Plus, poor training on mental health crises and inconsistent dispatch codes may contribute to a violent police response.

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Development continues as Liberty County fire protection lags 

Liberty County officials have pushed for warehouse development while its fire department lacks key equipment and safety standards. A historic home fire in November displayed the glaring deficiencies at the fire department.

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‘Tidal wave’ of new warehouses pushes residents out, changes coastal landscape

Hundreds of new warehouses are changing large swaths of Coastal Georgia’s landscape.  At least 100 million square feet of warehouse space has been built in Chatham, Bryan, Effingham, Liberty and Jasper counties to support the Port of Savannah’s booming business.

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Savannah DA slams Georgia’s new prosecutor oversight board as ‘dangerous’ to criminal justice reform

The district attorney in Savannah’s Chatham County is denouncing the Georgia’s new Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, which is tasked with investigating complaints of alleged prosecutorial misconduct.

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Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Email him at jake.shore@thecurrentga.org Prior to joining The Current,...