Contrary to county Commissioner Kelly Robinson’s apparent misquote of an audit report during Monday’s work session, the Douglas County Sentinel has not been disqualified from being the county’s legal organ, according to one of the state’s top open government attorneys.
“I think you will find that the Douglas County Sentinel is the only newspaper published in Douglas County that meets the requirements of (state law),” attorney David Hudson wrote in a letter to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
Hudson represents the Sentinel and is general counsel for the Georgia Press Association.
State law dictates qualifications to be a legal organ newspaper including the rates for legal notices.
During Monday’s BOC work session, Robinson attempted to quote an audit report done at the beginning of the year by Mauldin and Jenkins for the county.
Robinson said there had been “disqualification” of the Sentinel to be the county’s legal organ “for not providing financial records accordingly or a financial audit for over a decade.”
Hudson, in his letter to the BOC and County Attorney Ken Bernard, made clear that state law does not require legal organ newspapers to file financial statements.
The law, OCGA 9-13-142, requires the legal organ to provide proof of paid circulation, and the Sentinel publishes that information every year as required.
The county’s sheriff, probate judge and clerk of superior court have the discretion to decide the legal organ newspaper from qualified publications, according to state law.
“It is important to us that our leaders and the Douglas County community know that we are and have always been in compliance with state law,” said Rachael Raney, publisher of the Newspapers of West Georgia. “We fully meet all requirements of the law to be the legal organ of Douglas County. This is a responsibility we do not take lightly. We at the Douglas County Sentinel are honored to continue to serve Douglas County as the legal organ.”
On Tuesday, the BOC voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on amending the county’s code of ordinances to add state law on legal organs and to issue a RFP for the legal organ.
The only reference in the Mauldin and Jenkins report that comes close to Robinson’s comments Monday is a finding that the county government hasn’t “completed any review of eligible legal organs in the last ten years.”
Robinson did not respond to a voicemail or email message seeking comment.
David Roberts, who presented the Mauldin and Jenkins report during a May 3 BOC work session meeting, did not return a telephone message seeking comment about the report.
Legal notices, like the BOC, city council and school board’s annual budget and millage rate hearings, have been published in legal organ newspapers in Georgia counties for more than a century.
“The newspaper is the ideal and most reliable place,” said Jim Zachary, editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and a First Amendment advocate. “It is a trustworthy place for readers in the community.”
Zachary said governments often try to take the legal organ status away from a newspaper when they feel they are not getting favorable coverage from that newspaper.
“It is honestly a shame because they feel it is not flattery,” Zachary said. “The newspaper is not trying to pick a fight, just report the news. Somehow, people react to the coverage and try to strip the newspaper of the legal organ. People who do that are not being good public servants.”
The audit report also recommended that the county enter into a contract with the Sentinel to be the legal organ. State law doesn’t require such an agreement, and the BOC can not adopt that into a local ordinance, according to Hudson.
Under Georgia law, to be a legal organ, the publication must be a printed product and contain not greater than 75% advertising content. The newspaper must also have 75% paid circulation.
“Your county is fortunate to have the Douglas County Sentinel serving its citizens as the legal organ newspaper, and it appreciates the opportunity to do so,” Hudson wrote.
When Billy Upton was asked what has been the key to his longevity in the insurance business, he quickly pointed to his wife.
“She has been the key,” grinned Upton as he pointed to his wife, Lisa.
Upton thanked his family and his State Farm customers after receiving the Douglas County Legacy in Business Award at the Douglas County Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday.
“I’m really honored,” Upton told the audience inside the ballroom at the Douglasville Conference Center. “I feel like a lot of my accomplishments over the years is because of the good people of Douglas County. I think they realize that I’m here to help them.”
There were 150 small businesses in the county that applied, and six were named finalists for the Small Business of the Year.
To be eligible, a business had to be in operation for over three years and have a commitment to serving the community.
The finalists were, Connally, Jordan and Associates, PO Solutions, Premier Drugstore, Stallings Insurance, The Vine Cafe and Market and West Georgia Cornhole.
Premier Drugstore was named the Health Hero Award winner for the work it has done during the pandemic in producing hand sanitizer during the shortage and administering vaccines.
Five businesses received Small Business to Watch Awards including LewDan Systems Learning, Place of Kai, Nancy’s Pizzeria, Stay On Pointe Dance Academy and WasteWater Industrial Solutions.
“You are the lifeblood and heartbeat of our community,” Douglas County Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones told the audience of small business owners.
Upton is celebrating his 50th year in the insurance business.
“We have a lot of people that depend on us,” he said. “My wife and team members have been by my side. My boys grew up in my office. They use to do their homework there and sometimes sleep in there. The biggest thing that makes me proud is people have trusted me. I take great pride in that.”
The new This is Douglas campaign was also officially launched at the luncheon by Chamber President and CEO Sara Ray.
The campaign is a community-wide effort to celebrate the great people, places and businesses in Douglas County.
More information on the campaign can be found at thisisdouglas.com.
The Douglasville City Council approved an agreement for a bridge over Riverside Parkway and the sale of alcohol at two Cracker Barrel restaurants during its legislative meeting Monday.
Additionally, the city extended its moratorium on new or expanding small box discount stores.
All four items were approved unanimously by the council on Monday night.
As expected the council approved an agreement for the Georgia Department of Transportation for the construction and rehabilitation of a bridge on Riverside Parkway across Sweetwater Creek.
The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, according to Patrice Williams, the city’s community development director.
The total cost of the project is $843,888 with $675,110 coming out of a federal program through GDOT, according to a construction agreement report.
In addition, the council gave the OK for both Cracker Barrel locations in the city to begin selling alcohol.
The managers of each of the restaurants spoke at the meeting. No resident spoke for or against the licenses during the public hearing portion of the meeting.
Cracker Barrel has locations on Concourse Parkway of Highway 5 and West Pointe Court of Thornton Road, both of which are within the city limits of Douglasville.
The Tennessee-based restaurant chain, known for its biscuits and gravy, began selling alcohol at select Florida locations last year.
It is the first time in the 51-year history of the restaurant that it has sold alcoholic beverages as part of its menu.
The managers told the council that sales will begin as soon as they receive their licenses. They said employees that are eligible to sell customers alcohol have already been through company training.
Cracker Barrel started testing the alcohol concept before the pandemic begin. After a successful launch at over 100 locations, the company decided to make it a permanent menu item in select markets.
The test stores were located in Florida, Kentucky and its home base of Tennessee.
Company CEO Sandra Cochran told shareholders that the new concept had been well-received by customers.
The current moratorium on small box stores was set to expire at the end of the month. The extension would run until Aug. 31. A study on small box stores is expected to be published next week by Georgia State University.
Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores are the biggest small box store brands in the United States.
The stores have a combined total of 20 locations within the county, and five stores within the city limits of Douglasville.
Officials said there are no pending requests to build or open a new small box store that would be impacted by the moratorium.
Douglas County’s top public health official said she is concerned about the highly contagious coronavirus delta variant as the number of new cases creeps up and vaccination rates continue to remain low in the county and across the state.
Dr. Janet Memark, director of Cobb & Douglas Public Health, said as of Tuesday the positive case rate in Douglas was at 132 cases per 100,000 residents. She said the county was at 50 cases per 100,000 residents a few weeks ago.
She said the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has increased from 2% at its lowest back up to 8.4% earlier this week.
Memark said just 39% of Douglas County residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is lower than the state rate of 44% who have received at least one dose and well below the 70% full vaccination rate scientists say is needed for herd immunity.
Memark cited CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s recent comment that “this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
“When you have 39% that have just gotten the first dose, that leaves 61% that are vulnerable,” Memark said.
She said close to 100% of people who are being hospitalized and dying are unvaccinated.
And Memark noted that while local hospitals are not close to being full, the CDC shows that new hospitalizations in Douglas County are up 144% in the past week.
Memark said she believes misinformation spreading on the internet continues to keep vaccination rates down.
She said some of the misinformation includes false claims that the vaccine isn’t safe and that it can affect a woman’s fertility, neither of which aren’t true, Memark said.
“I’ve never seen a campaign like this against something that’s shown to save lives,” Memark said. “It’s really tough. What we do is really tough right now.”
Memark said that the novel SARS coronavirus that first hit last year was able to “breed and mutate” because scientists didn’t know how to keep it controlled right away and vaccines hadn’t been developed.
“It’s survival of the fittest. So these weird mutations, that’s just part of nature, it just happened,” she said. “The ones that are strongest and most clever are the ones that are able to rise to the top.”
She said the alpha variant, also called the UK variant, was at least 30% more contagious than the original coronavirus. She said over time, the country has seen the number of alpha variant cases decreasing and the delta variant taking over.
Memark said the CDC is reporting that 85% of cases now are the delta variant. She said while the delta variant isn’t thought to be more deadly, it is able to “very very quickly affect the host.”
She said those that are vaccinated and pretty healthy should be OK. But she said those who were vaccinated but who may not have had a full response to the vaccine because they’re elderly or otherwise immunocompromised should be a little more cautious now.
Asked about what children should do with school starting in a few weeks, Memark said she is recommending that local school districts follow CDC guidelines which suggest children who are unvaccinated wear masks.
So far, only children 12-and-older have been approved for the vaccine, meaning most if not all students in elementary schools haven’t been vaccinated, Memark said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics came out earlier this week advocating universal mask-wearing in schools.
Portia Lake, spokesperson for the Douglas County School System, said Wednesday afternoon the district hasn’t finalized its policy on mask-wearing and other COVID precautions for the upcoming school year.
Memark said vaccinations are available at the Douglas County Health Department without an appointment. She said additional locations and information can be found at Cobb & Douglas Public Health’s website — http://www.cobb anddouglaspublichealth.org/.