Sunday Reads — July 24, 2022

Accountability turns out to be this week’s theme: Residents of a county, citizens to each other, police to a community, elected officials to ratepayers and neighbors to neighbors. Whether it works out for all is a mixed bag for you to decide. What’s clear: There’s no accountability without public vigilance, transparency and action. We all share responsibility.

Sapelo Island
On Sapelo Island, warning signs are among the things that residents say should be maintained by the government with the tax dollars they pay into the county. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

Sapelo residents settle with county

A lawsuit simmering since 2016 over decades-old grievances may have ended this week after a 15-hour mediation session. Dozens of Sapelo Island natives and residents and the McIntosh County Commission worked out the framework for the county to provide basic road and upkeep services for the island’s Gullah-Geechee community of Hogg Hummock — also known as Hog Hammock. They’d reached an agreement with the state of Georgia two years ago. The lawsuit was basic: The residents wanted services for the tax money they were paying. Requests included help with fire protection, emergency medical aid, road access and sign maintenance. Reporter William Daughtry and visual journalist Jeffery Glover spent time with community leaders to understand their resolve, the community divides over help, and how they stayed focused on getting the same services other state and county citizens do. Their answer remains simple: Survival. The suit was headed for a federal jury trial on Monday, but the agreement was reached last Wednesday. It’s not yet etched in legal stone, and that may take a bit of time since all 57 plaintiffs must sign it. Read Daughtry’s story for detail on the basics Hogg Hummock residents requested and what they may receive.

Covid-19 vaccine vials

Covid y’all: Vaccinations still matter.

As a new round of Covid quietly traverses the state, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know someone with a “surprise” case. In other words, this new variant, BA.5, is so contagious that you get it and you don’t even know where you picked it up. Coastal Georgia counties are flirting with the most serious case rates, and more public places are requesting masks once again. At last week’s Glynn County Commission meeting, masks were mandated as the county’s case rate jumped 128% and hospitalizations lept 140% over the past 14 days. The crucial Georgia Public Service Commission hearings on Georgia Power’s future plans were conducted without on-site access for the public because of Covid. This could be the new normal, especially as vaccination rates continue to lag in many counties.

A survey of Coastal Georgia and neighboring counties found the lowest and highest vaccination rates. Liberty County ranks second for highest vaccination rate in the state with 66% — that’s likely due to the military-related residents there near Fort Stewart. (The top county is Chattahoochee County with 95%, where nearly half of the county is home to Fort Benning.) Chatham and Camden counties are tied for 8th spot at 57%. Further down the top half of the list is Bryan is at 55%; Glynn, 52%; and McIntosh, 42%.

However, drive one county over to the west from nearly any spot on the coast and you’ll find the worst rates in Georgia: Long (22%), Charlton (26%), Brantley (26%), Bacon (31%) hold the absolute lowest vaccination rates in the state. All the other neighbors hover near 35%. If you want a closer look at county and state rates, this New York Times statistics snapshot for Georgia makes it really easy to see why we all still need to be cautious about Covid. Vaccinations continue to be the best way to mitigate the deadly threat of Covid, and they are available without charge in every city and county.

One of several redacted portions of the option agreement for the Spaceport Camden site.

Is Spaceport Camden without a space?

Union Carbide Corporation may have done what a majority of Camden County voters couldn’t do: End the work for Spaceport Camden. Late last week, UCC, which owns the 4,000 acres optioned by the county for the project, said in a statement that it recognized the March 8 referendum as the final decision and that it does not intend to sell the land under the option agreement. The statement said the company was committed to the property’s “long-term conservation value.” The Camden County Commission, through an outside law firm, said the option contract is still valid and expects the company to honor it.

It’s hard to know all the contract provisions, including the costs taxpayers would bear, since the county has only released a redacted copy of the option contract after a Georgia Open Records Act request by The Current. The commission, so far, has spent at least $11 million on the Spaceport Camden project. It also continues to pay outside legal costs to fight its citizens in court over the legality of the March referendum in which voters rejected the land purchase.

Officer who killed man had force complaints

Carver Village neighbors, activists and family members last week continued to demand answers regarding the shooting death of Saudi Arai Lee on June 24. Lee was shot by Savannah Police officer Ernest Ferguson in the department’s fifth officer-involved shooting this year. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation continues its investigation and no one has been charged. The Current’s Jake Shore used Georgia open records law to look into Ferguson’s background as a prison guard at Coastal State Prison before he was hired by Savannah Police in 2021. Documents showed a pattern of use-of-force complaints at the prison. Two incidents were referred for investigations, two were noted for additional training and one resulted in discipline for Ferguson.

A statement from the Savannah city attorney’s office said that in police pre-employment checks Ferguson was listed as eligible for re-hire at the prison and there were no documented issues of causes for concern. Shore’s story describes the documented incidents at the prison and Ferguson’s training to join the Savannah Police Department, which has been struggling to fill more than 70 openings.

PSC OKs long-term plan for Georgia Power

Climate change is top of mind this week if you’ve just gotten your electric bill from these very hot summer days and weeks. Once you get past how you’re going to adjust your budget and thermostat for the future, you may want to think about how your state Public Service Commission and local power utility is handling it all. Granted, it’s not an easy balance. This week the elected officials of the Georgia Public Service Commission voted to accept Georgia Power’s long-term plan to provide power to its 2.7 million customers while it transitions from coal to cleaner energy sources.

In the agreement, the PSC will allow Georgia Power to extend the life of one coal-fired plant. It also will continue to limit the popular incentive-based solar rooftop program for homeowners. The PSC also decided not to require removal of toxic coal ash from unlined pits at various sites, some of which might have been billed back to consumers. The commission of elected officials also sets prices for your power bill, and it will consider Georgia Power’s next rate request in August. The utility is asking to increase your rates nearly 12% through 2025 — that’s an additional $16.29 per average home. And that, in a nutshell, is why PSC candidates should get your attention in November.


Stories that caught our eyes this week:

Hyundai incentives: It’s no secret the state and local authorities offered deals to land the new Hyundai Motor Group electric vehicle and battery manufacturing development for north Bryan County. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told us this week that it’s a record-breaking $1.8 billion package including a rail line, a new I-16 interchange, worker training center, utilities, land and tax abatement. Hyundai has a list of items it must attain by 2031 or be penalized.

Carter and same-sex marriage: Coastal Georgia’s only voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, wasn’t among the 47 Republicans who voted for the Respect for Marriage Act last week. The bill protected interracial and same-sex marriages and passed the House 267-157. Carter said the new legislation was “settled law” and that he wanted to spend his time on “real issues.” The bill’s fate is uncertain in the U.S. Senate. To track Carter’s votes, floor speeches and social media, here’s a handy link to do that.

Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis and the elections inquiry: The New York Times has a broad look at the ongoing work of the Special Grand Jury investigating the 2020 election and possible interference by then-President Donald Trump and allies. Wholly separate from the Jan. 6 hearings, it’s a look into how the plan for fake electors and other efforts to discredit the election came together in Georgia and how the legal system is playing out so far. The span of inquiry continues to spread as U.S. Rep. Jody Hice has been called for questions in what may turn out to be a racketeering case. Hice was the spokesman for Georgia representatives, including Coastal Georgia’s Rep. Carter, who sought to throw out Georgia’s votes in the 2020 presidential election.

Your second cup: Did court closures cause crime to rise?

As we navigate the fallout from the early Covid pandemic years, we’re learning more about how to handle the next one — in theory. It’s already clear that we’re dealing with many facets of fallout, and one may be the rising crime rates across the country. ProPublica, along with The Atlantic, has published a story that looks at Albuquerque and Wichita and the different ways they approached the courts system. One town has lower crime and homicide rates, and the other has higher ones.


Sapelo natives reach agreement in long fight with county over basic services

Lawsuit, in which a jury trial was set to begin this week in Savannah federal court, was attempt to force the county to provide Hogg Hummock basic public services that homeowners pay for with taxes but which have been denied them.

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Georgia COVID-19 daily statistics

Today’s cases, change, deaths, hospitalizations, testing, vaccination sites and tracker

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Owner of Spaceport Camden land says deal’s off

Property owner Union Carbide says it no longer has a contract with Camden for Spaceport property

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Savannah cop who killed Carver Village man had use-of-force investigations in prior job

Savannah Police Officer Ernest Ferguson shot and killed a man in Carver Village last month. Records show he was disciplined and the subject of internal investigations for use-of-force incidents when he worked at Coastal State Prison.

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State regulators OK Georgia Power long-term plan to keep coal plants, cap solar growth

Environment and energy advocates expressed disappointment Thursday that commissioners didn’t press Georgia Power to act more urgently to mitigate climate change.

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Bipartisan vote for same-sex marriage doesn’t include Carter

Coastal Georgia’s representative in Congress, Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter, wasn’t among the 47 Republicans who joined Democrats in approving the Respect for Marriage Act.

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EVs in short supply, high demand in Georgia

Some dealers are charging thousands above the sticker price for in-demand EVs.

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2 cities took different approaches to pandemic court closures. They got different results.

Experts say court closures may have undermined promise that crimes would be promptly punished, allowing criminals to work freely, increase their levels of harm.

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