- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:


July 17

The Savannah Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, on preserving Savannah’s tree canopy:

Cutting down trees to make room for needed road improvements or for development that creates jobs and boosts Savannah’s economy is the price of progress.

But given the value of a healthy tree canopy, it behooves the community to try to minimize that cost.

City and Chatham County officials recently got a preliminary look at the latest “State of the Trees” analysis, which a Colorado-based company, Plan-It Geo, is conducting, thanks to a $60,000 grant from the Savannah Tree Foundation.

What researchers found should get community leaders thinking - especially in west Chatham County.

They said that the county has been losing the equivalent of three football fields of trees every day for the last 15 years. Most of that tree cover, they said, disappeared in fast-growing areas of west Chatham, including the communities of Pooler, Port Wentworth and Bloomingdale.

This area has been booming. But to accommodate all the new houses, businesses, warehouses and parking lots, developers have razed pine plantations and natural hardwood forests. That means the character and the look of that area has been evolving, often permanently.

Once a mature oak is removed, it’s gone forever.

Balancing growth and private property rights with the desire to protect trees that contribute to cleaner air, provide natural shade, help with drainage and add aesthetic value has been an ongoing process for more than 20 years here. It dates back to 1993.

That’s when a broad-based group of stakeholders - including engineers, home builders, developers and architects from the private sector - met with government planners. Their goal was to come up with a vision and help craft public policies and ordinances affecting tree cover and landscaping standards prior to development …

Trying to maintain that 50-percent cover has been the general goal. Toward that end, the city of Savannah has a reasonable, yet robust landscape and tree ordinance that applies to property being developed or redeveloped for commercial, institutional, multi-family and single-family subdivisions. The county’s Engineering Department is developing a comprehensive land development ordinance, one that would incorporate existing tree and landscape standards.

Leaders in Chatham’s westside municipalities should be equally motivated to do the same in light of the latest tree study. It’s not possible to spare every tree from the bite of the chain saw. But that doesn’t mean every tree can and must go.

“I hope it motivates the other communities in Chatham County to do more for their trees,” said Karen Jenkins, the foundation’s executive director. “I want better trees in parking lots, better trees at schools, and I want the other communities to care.”

Or, to put it another way, to turn over a new leaf to help preserve Chatham’s tree canopy.




July 18

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta, Georgia, on open court proceedings:

The Georgia Court of Appeals issued an important opinion earlier this month in the case of a law student who believed he was improperly denied the right to film Georgia court proceedings. At the heart of the ruling was some encouraging news for citizens: The court strongly reinforced the public’s right to observe and understand court activities.

It’s the second time in several months that corrective action was needed to keep secrecy from creeping into our court systems in Georgia.

It’s hard to imagine a place where the stakes for justice are higher than in our courtrooms. In the most extreme cases, people are literally on trial for their lives. Thousands of cases every day deal with less extreme but equally serious matters: the right to earn a living, protect a business, be compensated for an injury, keep government power in check. Our American tradition considers transparency and public access a key safeguard of courtroom justice. Citizens who can observe and understand the judicial process are more likely to hold our institutions accountable and have confidence in them.

At the heart of Joshua McLaurin’s case was exactly that principle. McLaurin, a UGA and Yale Law School graduate, is interested in documentary filmmaking and decided to mix that interest with his legal studies. He had read and heard about mistreatment of indigent defendants in Georgia’s courts. As a 2013 school summer project, he decided to observe and film proceedings in some rural courtrooms.

In Georgia, news media and others are allowed to film court proceedings under standards that include protecting the rights of defendants and ensuring court proceedings are not disrupted. McLaurin went through proper channels to request permission to film in several courtrooms. He got mixed results.

Some courts allowed the filming, and others did not. The rationale different judges gave varied, and their decisions seemed to be based on whether a student or general member of the public should have the same guarantees to film court proceedings as media have.

By July, McLaurin had seen enough and decided that the next time he was denied the right to film, he would ask the Georgia Court of Appeals to clarify the law. That denial came in Walton County Superior Court on July 15 after a very interesting hearing with Judge John M. Ott.

Judges in Georgia have some discretion in deciding whether to approve cameras in their courtroom. They consider a multi-factor test that weighs the public value of recording the proceedings, the administrative burden, the rights of the defendant and other matters. McLaurin told me Judge Ott was very diligent and appropriate in considering the balancing test and in documenting his thinking so that McLaurin could file his appeal.

But McLaurin was convinced that Ott gave too little weight to the idea that filming court proceedings can increase transparency and knowledge of our judicial systems. McLaurin also believed the judge was too concerned with the idea that the law student did not have the credentials and professional standards a member of the media would have. In his balancing test, Ott cited the administrative burden on the court of ensuring the rights of every defendant and witness on the court calendar that day…

It’s not the first such victory for citizens recently.

In August 2013, the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, a body that investigates ethical complaints about judges and courts, issued a very strong opinion reinforcing the principle of open courts in Georgia. The commission wrote in its opinion that it had heard many complaints of closed courtrooms…

The commission has been criticized by some judges for taking on the issue too aggressively, but the opinion was a clear public service.

So was McLaurin’s challenge in Judge Ott’s courtroom. The ruling in McLaurin’s case kicked the matter back to Judge Ott for reconsideration. Since McLaurin’s summer project is complete and he’s now studying for the bar exam and considering job opportunities, an additional hearing is unlikely. Still, his challenge, and the opinion by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, are likely to have lasting influence on the principle of open and transparent courts in Georgia.

And that’s good news for all of us…




July 20

The Augusta Chronicle, Augusta, Georgia, on proposed Internet rules:

Large corporations can’t always be trusted to do the right thing. But neither can governments.

So when either considers tinkering with the Internet - our most pervasive information source and an increasingly indispensable part of our lives - we are naturally cautious.

You should be, too.

The Federal Communications Commission this year will make decisions with wide-ranging implications on how companies deliver web content to consumers.

The proposed “net neutrality” rules currently out for public comment will define what constitutes a “free market” on the Internet - and possibly open the door to increased governmental regulation.

The FCC’s previous regulations were struck down by a federal court earlier this year. Those rules prevented Internet service providers, such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T;, from offering web-content producers, such as Netflix and Amazon, faster data-delivery speeds for a higher fee.

The practice finally would free the ISPs to create a tiered delivery system, with so-called “fast lane” service to those willing to pay premium prices to reach millions of households and businesses. It also would likely prompt ISPs to expand network capacities and invest in new technologies to better meet consumers’ insatiable appetite for data.

However, the tiered-system concept, which the FCC calls “paid prioritization,” goes against some people’s notion of a “free Internet,” where everyone is entitled to the same access and all data is equal. Hence, the “Net neutrality” debate.

The courts say the FCC can’t prohibit tiers as long as the Internet remains classified as an “information service.” So the danger is that the Democrat-controlled FCC, under the banner of net neutrality, will move to reclassify ISPs as “common carrier” telecommunications services, subjecting them to monopoly-style public utility rules, regulations and taxes.

That should make everyone cringe.

Do we want a vital segment of the economy that has flourished for two decades without significant government controls subjected to the bureaucratic whims of Washington? Do we want the nation’s 20th-century regulator of broadcasters and phone companies morphing into a 21st-century Internet traffic cop?

We don’t need a “Federal Internet Commission.”

In addition to the self- vs. government-regulation debate, the FCC will get to define what constitutes a “free market” in cyberspace. It boils down to this: Does free mean ISPs pushing all content equally through their pipes, or is free when ISPs can offer faster service to those willing to pay for it?

We believe it is the latter….

We’ve seen enough meddling with the First Amendment on public airwaves. We don’t need bureaucrats intruding in the copper wires and fiber optic lines connecting our homes to the rest of the world.

Heavy regulation seldom benefits the marketplace, yet that’s what many people are asking be done to the country’s largest market.

The FCC public comment period closes in September. Those asking for a heavier government hand in the Internet should tread lightly, because they may get exactly what they wish for.



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