- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

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May 11



The Brunswick News on the investigation into the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery:

Many questions have been understandably raised about how the investigation into the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery unfolded. Why did the Glynn County Police Department not hand the case over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation considering one of the suspects, Greg McMichael, was a former county officer? What part did the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office play in the investigation since McMichael was also a former investigator for the office?

These questions became even more confusing over the weekend when the district attorney and county commission, which was acting on behalf of the county police department, gave different accounts of what happened. Even with the differences, it is easy to look at both versions and see where head-scratching decisions were made.

Let’s start with the county police. The county’s official statement said the reason the county police didn’t involve the GBI right away was because none of the officers working the case were with the department when Greg McMichael worked with the department from 1982 to 1989. That was an incredibly shortsighted and naive decision by the individual who made it. The county didn’t say who made that decision, leaving out a key detail in this puzzle.

The stink of impropriety would still be on the public’s mind, even if none of the people involved in the investigation didn’t work with McMichael when he was with the department. It isn’t hard for someone to assume that he got preferential treatment because he was a former county police officer.

This investigation needed to be free from all implications of bias. It should have been turned over immediately to the GBI, something that has since been acknowledged by the interim county police chief Jay Wiggins, who was not chief when the shooting occurred.

The district attorney’s office also made a questionable call when it comes to perception of bias. While district attorney Jackie Johnson told The News the two assistant district attorneys recused themselves when contacted by police, police still needed legal advice. According to Johnson, that’s when she requested an attorney from the Ware County district contact police.

The only problem with that scenario was that George Barnhill, the Ware district attorney, had a familial connection to an assistant district attorney in Johnson’s office. We have to imagine that Johnson knew about that connection and still thought it was best to contact Barnhill, who met with police the day after the shooting.

That decision is just as myopic as the county’s decision not to hand over the investigation to the GBI. In trying to keep this investigation as bias free as possible, choosing someone who has a connection to the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office to provide legal advice for the police when one of the suspects is a former investigator for the DA was not the wisest decision.

Who is to blame for the lack of action in the Arbery death has become the latest salvo in a political battle between the county and the district attorney’s office that has been waged since the scandal surrounding the joint narcotics task force emerged in 2019. The result of that conflict has made the Golden Isles look like a backwards community in the eyes of the nation.

Even if you take the word of the county or the word of the district attorney’s office as gospel in this matter, it is clear missteps were made on both sides. Instead of playing the blame game, both sides should acknowledge their mistakes. The two must work together to ensure justice.

Online: https://thebrunswicknews.com

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May 9

The Augusta Chronicle on tensions and mental health issues rising as the pandemic continues:

Perhaps you heard about the woman in Oklahoma City who was arrested on suspicion of shooting a fast-food worker and injuring others.

Gloricia Woody tried to enter a McDonald’s restaurant that was closed because of COVID-19 concerns. After the irate woman was forced outside, she returned with a handgun and an unreasonable urge to fire it, hitting an employee in the arm.

We could learn little more about her. So for all we know she could be a perfectly nice lady, and her outburst could be utterly unconnected to the mental and emotional stress so many Americans are enduring because of coronavirus restrictions.

But the conclusion is awfully hard to discount.

And things are expected to get worse before they get better. Those stresses aren’t going to automatically vanish after COVID-19 releases its grip.

A poll conducted more than two weeks ago was the first wave of the COVID Impact Survey, by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, for the Data Foundation. About two-thirds of the Americans surveyed said they felt nervous, depressed, lonely or hopeless on at least one day in the past week.

You think the coronavirus health emergency is bad? Brace yourself for a national mental health emergency that an underfunded mental health system will have to confront.

“That’s what is keeping me up at night,” said Susan Borja, who leads the traumatic stress research program at the National Institute of Mental Health. “I worry about the people the system just won’t absorb or won’t reach. I worry about the suffering that’s going to go untreated on such a large scale.”

Findings have been jarring. As reported in The Washington Post:

“Nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year. Last month, roughly 20,000 people texted that hotline, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.”

What we’re seeing in part is one of the pitfalls of government-mandated social distancing orders. Such orders are a sound strategy for maintaining physical health. Mental health, not so much. Forced isolation can cause depression, increase despondency and deepen existing mental health problems in people who can’t access the treatment they could reach only months ago.

Making matters worse is the stress of job loss. The Department of Labor reported that the U.S. unemployment rate climbed to 14.7% in April, its highest level since the Great Depression. Years’ worth of prosperous job growth - gone.

Help is coming. The emergency coronavirus package passed by Congress included $425 million to boost care for mental health and substance use disorders. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently awarded Georgia and several other states federal funding for mental health services during the pandemic. The agency’s Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training program helps fund state-provided crisis counseling for residents struggling with COVID-19-spurred stress and anxiety.

But even before COVID-19 hit, Republican lawmakers nationwide had been making mental health a priority, seeking to expand or reform programs. According to a Washington Post analysis, in the first 10 months of last year, the country’s GOP state lawmakers had proposed 5,372 bills that mention “mental health.”

Before the Georgia General Assembly’s legislative session was cut short, lawmakers added $25 million for school counseling, But the budget has yet to be approved by the state Senate. And students whose school years were cut short likely will be returning to classes with more mental health needs. If legislators can’t increase that amount, they should at least not cut it.

That will be a tall order, considering Gov. Brian Kemp is asking for 14% austerity cuts across the board. But the concern over his constituents’ mental health still is on his radar.

When rightly defending his decision late last month to gradually open some businesses as COVID-19 runs its course, Kemp pointed out in a Fox News interview that his decision was weighted in part by considering the stress shouldered by business owners with locked doors.

“We are talking about a few businesses that I closed down to help flatten the curve,” he said. “But for us to continue to ask them to do that while they lose everything, quite honestly, there are a lot of civil repercussions of that, mental health issues.”

Kemp’s prudent move likely stopped mental health risks from worsening. As for the risks that still exist, Georgia should brace for a mental health crisis and, more importantly, enact a comprehensive plan to confront it.

But with the state experiencing sharp revenue shortfalls, is it a crisis Georgia can afford to fight?

Can Georgia afford not to?

Online: http://www.augustachronicle.com

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May 7

Savannah Morning News on a scrutinized real estate transaction by a U.S. Congressman:

As every elected official knows, to enter public service is to invite public scrutiny.

U.S. Congressman Buddy Carter was reminded of that

as details of a 2018 real estate transaction came to light. Rep. Carter purchased property near a proposed spacecraft launch facility, a project requiring federal approval but one Carter was advocating for long before he closed on the nearby land in mid-2018.

The dealings have aroused concerns. The situation is full of nuances, and for those looking to pounce on Rep. Carter, it’s an easy leap from suspicion of impropriety to conclusion of such. Judging by the public outcry in recent days, many have rushed to judge this a scandal.

Yet it’s just as likely this is not some underhanded attempted at what some in this community have called a “sweetheart land deal.”

Let’s not skip the scrutiny stage.

Keep in mind the political nature of this scenario. Carter is increasingly viewed as highly partisan, a persona he himself has propagated through his words and actions in recent years, from storming a closed door deposition hearing during the impeachment process to the overt pro-Trump tone of his campaign literature.

Carter’s driven a deep wedge between himself and others who don’t share his partisan views. Those opponents see opportunity in this spaceport flap.

Now is the time to slow down and do the due diligence before public scrutiny of the situation is devalued.

We need to drill down on the details.

TIMING

The intersection of efforts to build Spaceport Camden, Carter’s property purchase and Carter’s support for the spaceport project begs vetting.

At issue: How much, if at all, did the potential for economic growth tied to the spaceport influence Carter’s interest in the nearby property? Further, did his property investment drive his recruitment of other legislators to support the project?

Keep in mind that Carter should take the lead on the spaceport, as the site is located in his congressional district. Also note that his support for the spaceport pre-dates his land purchase by two-and-a-half years, as documented in a letter to a government contractor. Those speculating Carter leveraged his political influence to get a deal are stretching.

THE PROPERTY

Rep. Carter’s 471-acre tract is a natural wilderness located on Sheffield Island, approximately seven miles inland along the same road as the proposed spaceport site. He maintains he purchased it as a hunting and fishing camp with no intention of developing it.

However, the tract is zoned residential, and as much as 251 acres are not considered wetlands and could be developed. The smaller - 147 acres - neighboring property is for sale and lists residential development rights for 110 single-family residences. Should the spaceport open up the road and bring jobs, traffic and a need for housing, marketability of Carter’s tract is obvious.

PRICE

Rep. Carter paid $2.05 million for land that previously sold for $4.85 million in 2007. For further comparison, Carter paid $4,352 an acre versus the $7,142 per acre price being asked for the neighboring tract. Subtract out the wetlands, and Carter paid $8,134 per acre while the seller’s next door are asking for $8,536 per acre.

TAX ASSESSMENT

The tax situation is puzzling. Camden County tax officials assess the property’s value at $273,810, meaning Carter’s 2019 tax bill on 471 acres was $3,352. Contrast that with the $3,954 he pays on his home, which sits on a 0.34 acre lot in a Pooler subdivision abutted by other homes on three sides.

Camden’s Chief Appraiser Brian Bishop notes the county does not base valuations on purchase price but on sales data from similar tracts in the same property class.

Carter deferred when asked about the tax assessment, saying that was a question for the tax authorities. Yet it’s fair to assume Carter knew the property was being assessed in a way that limited the tax liability when he was negotiating the sale. And according to Camden’s Bishop, Carter did not respond to a post-sale questionnaire from the assessor regarding the transaction.

Given those many points, the situation indeed demands more scrutiny. Rep. Carter would do well to address the issues. His constituents should withhold judgment until he does so.

Online: https://www.savannahnow.com

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