- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:


July 11

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer on a protest in Columbus:

As a response to what the New York times aptly and accurately described as America’s “Week From Hell,” Saturday’s protest in Columbus leaves us with much to be relieved about, much to think about, and much to respect.

As reported by staff writers Larry Gierer and Alva James-Johnson, community activist and former Columbus Council candidate Marquese Averett and Columbus NAACP President Tonza Thomas were arrested and (very briefly) held after a protest event Saturday on Veterans Parkway.

Averett, a Young Minority Leaders organizer, said he put together the event as a protest against recent police-related shootings around the country. Thomas said she got involved in the event at Averett’s request, and while unlawful assembly and blocking traffic weren’t necessarily part of the agenda, “we knew it was a possibility that we would be going to jail.”

What stands out about this sequence of events is the degree to which both the protesters and the city of Columbus - especially the whole law enforcement community - seem to have made every effort and taken every precaution to keep the “civil” in civil disobedience. If the subject of this protest was clashes with police, it seems everybody was determined that it was not going to involve one.

Averett announced plans for the protest in a Facebook post. Police Chief Ricky Boren told Averett a gathering of more than 16 people on public property without a permit would constitute unlawful assembly; according to Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, “Marquese said he understood but was going to move forward anyway.” City leaders wisely decided, “given the tensions and emotions across the country,” not only to let the assembly issue slide, but to have police officers on hand for the protesters’ protection. (As, tragically, were the Dallas officers who were slain protecting what should have been a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest event.)

Only when the protesters blocked Veterans Parkway to traffic - reportedly including a fire truck - and after three warnings from police were Averett and Thomas arrested.

“If people are going to gather,” Tomlinson wrote afterward, “they must obtain a permit so the police can plan and protect them, as well as others. It’s serious. We will exercise our First Amendment rights, but we will have civil order that protects everyone.”

And after the two protest leaders had been released on bond posted by their fellow participants, Thomas commended the police for their handling of the whole thing, describing the professionalism of Boren, Assistant Chief Lem Miller, Major J.D. Hawk and the deputies at the jail as “awesome.”

Certainly it appears the city’s responses, and especially those of the police, were pitch-perfect: Only when police determined (rightly, we believe) that protesters’ actions had become an issue of public safety did they step in.

Maybe it’s naïve to expect that this event set a tone and an example for how Columbus can avoid the rage and violence that made last week in America so hellish. Naïve or not, that tone is something we would be irresponsible to disregard.




July 11

The Augusta Chronicle on the jailing of a north Georgia attorney:

Let’s say you’re charged with a crime - but the prosecutor later decides to drop the case. Would you object?

Russell Stookey is. And we can’t say we blame him.

The north Georgia attorney and the newspaper publisher he was representing for free - Mark Thomason of the weekly Fannin Focus - were both jailed overnight recently and charged with identity theft and attempt to commit identity theft.

They say the charges were bogus attempts by a corrupt Fannin County criminal justice system to punish them for digging into the public bank accounts of local judges.

After a firestorm of criticism and national publicity, the district attorney, Alison Sosebee, dismissed the charges at the request of Chief Judge Brenda Weaver - who seems to be at the center of the brouhaha.

Amazingly, Stookey - a First Amendment crusader who says his reputation has been impugned by Weaver and Sosebee - doesn’t accept the withdrawal of the charges.

In a bizarre twist, and perhaps a wacky precedent, Stookey is seeking to prohibit the prosecutor from dismissing the charges against him. He wants a court fight to expunge the record against him and expose what he says is rampant corruption in the Fannin County criminal justice system.

“I want a trial,” he told us Friday.

Stookey says he’ll also take Fannin County officials to federal court for violations of his civil rights, false arrest and defamation. He says at least one law enforcement officer warned him that his life might be in danger.

The case has rocked the state’s journalism community, as it appears for all the world as if a judge and prosecutor have used the fearsome power of arrest and criminal charges to punish the very basic journalistic enterprise of obtaining open records and holding government officials accountable.

What do you do for a living? Regardless of what it is, can you imagine being thrown in jail for a night and being charged with a crime for doing your job?

So far, no one has produced one shred of evidence that either publisher Thomason or attorney Stookey has done anything wrong.

We think three things need to occur as a result of this apparent miscarriage of justice.

1. The Society of Professional Journalists has filed a complaint against Judge Weaver with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. It deserves a full and fair disposition.

Which may be problematic: Judge Weaver is the current chair of the commission. Awkward. Perhaps she needs to step down.

2. The journalism group also is calling on Attorney General Sam Olens to investigate the case and determine if anyone in the local government should be charged with obstructing an open records request - and maybe false arrest and more.

3. We don’t know if it’s legally possible or wise in the long run - but we’d love to see Stookey’s wish granted: We’d love to see him drag the state to court, instead of the other way around. He may be the first person in Georgia to ever do so!

Stookey is confident he’ll decimate Weaver, Sosebee et al. But just as important, since they filed charges against him, if he can keep the case open his own attorney can request all kinds of documents and other things from the prosecutor and judge. As a criminal defendant, that’s his right.

We’d love to see what he unearths that a simple - completely legal - open records request was unable to.




July 10

The Rome News-Tribune on the proposed state constitutional amendment to create the state “Opportunity School District”:

There’s no other way to say this.

Good intentions notwithstanding, the proposed state constitutional amendment to create the so-called state “Opportunity School District” represents an unwarranted, dangerous power grab that deserves overwhelming defeat by the voters of Georgia.

This proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot would set up a new state agency under an un-elected superintendent with the power to take over public schools based on an analysis of their performance over the most recent three years. The OSD superintendent would be appointed by the governor, would report directly to the governor and serve at the pleasure of the governor - who would set this new official’s salary as well.

The selection process for the new agency taking over schools is spelled out by Senate Bill 133, which is a must-read for every Georgia voter. The devil is in the details and there are lots of details.

For starters, the process for taking over schools would place “emphasis on student growth and progress and other considerations, including geographic clusters” of “qualifying schools,” i.e., candidates for takeover. The process also “shall include a public hearing to allow for parent and community input” - but “the final selection of which schools are transferred into the OSD shall be in the sole discretion of the OSD superintendent.”

The OSD would be authorized to take over up to 20 qualifying schools in any single school year and could have a maximum of 100 schools under supervision at one time. The superintendent also “shall have the sole discretion in determining the timing and sequencing of transferring” schools to the OSD. Before takeovers, the OSD would be required to “conduct evaluation and conference with” the principal, local school board members and superintendent.

The OSD would be empowered to reconstitute a school as an OSD charter school or close down a school “which is not enrolled at full capacity” and could reassign the students to another school within the local school system.

Under another provision in SB 133, the OSD would rate every public school in the state every year. The law says OSD shall annually “determine a rating of A, B, C, D or F for each public elementary and secondary school in this state based on student achievement, achievement gap closure and student growth. Such ratings shall be based on the state accountability system approved by the State Board of Education.”

The proposal is backed by Gov. Nathan Deal and by most members of the General Assembly when the legislation passed in 2015. Arrayed against it are all the state’s teacher organizations and other groups who oppose the plan as far too broad and over-reaching - and unnecessary!

On that point, Dr. Allene Magill, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, wrote in a recent posting: “The state Department of Education already possesses the power to force change on under-performing schools that are designated as focus or priority schools.” Magill said the governor’s attempt “to wrest control” from local school boards and communities is motivated by “power, control and money.”

Finally, the language of the proposal on the ballot is blatantly and deliberately misleading, obviously calculated to ensure approval by the voters.

Here’s the ballot question mandated by Senate Resolution 287: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

It does not ask the obvious, honest question: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to take over chronically failing public schools with the objective of improving student performance?”

If for no other reason, the deceptive ballot language should doom this proposal.



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