Georgia Political News for May 3, 2012

“Xena” may be named after our favorite warrior princess from the 1990s, but this young female brindle and white mixed-breed’s toughest fight is against the clock. She is less than a year old, weighs 47 pounds, and is available for adoption today from Walton County Animal Services, and it appears that Walton County is experiencing an increase in dogs, which generally leads to good dogs being put down. Several dogs at Walton have sponsors who have committed donations to a licensed rescue for certain dogs.

Bibb County Commissioners have begun a search for a new animal shelter director as they prepare to take over Macon’s animal shelter, which has been the subject of news reports of appalling conditions, and where the then-director has been replaced by an interim director.

Perry City Council is considering whether to take action to improve conditions at their local shelter, which has a leaky roof and floods the cages when it rains. Friends of Perry Animal Shelter is a local organization working to improve conditions of the facility.

Governor Deal signs criminal justice reform legislation

Republican Georgia Governor Deal signs House Bill 1176, criminal justice reformGovernor Deal signed House Bill 1176 in a public ceremony in the Capitol yesterday. In a Press Release, Deal said,

HB 1176 will revolutionize how Georgia punishes nonviolent crimes by seeking alternative treatments where possible and preserving expensive prison beds for offenders who pose a danger to society.

“With this bold new direction in criminal justice, we will bolster public safety, increase our chances of rehabilitating lives and bend the unsustainable cost curve we face in our prison system. We spend $1.2 billion a year on our prison system and those costs were set to soar far beyond what we can afford. That makes no sense for taxpayers when there are most cost-effective means that have better outcomes.

“The Criminal Justice Reform Council worked all year, receiving input from all corners of the state, and I have asked the members to continue their work through this year to explore other areas for reforms. The result was a piece of legislation with support so deep that it passed unanimously in both chambers of the Legislature. This will pay dividends to taxpayers over and over, from the reduced cost to our prison system to the increase in the number of people who return to the workforce and support their families.”

The cost to taxpayers of the state prison system motivated criminal justice reform that is also expected to reduce the rate of repeat offenses. Included in the package were increases in the threshold amounts at which some theft crimes become felonies and programs to move nonviolent drug offenders into treatment and accountability programs instead of prison. The bill also requires more adults to report suspected child abuse.

Gov. Deal said that the reform was motivated in part by his experience attending the graduation ceremony for Hall County’s drug court, which is overseen by his son, Superior Court Judge Jason Deal.

“To listen to the stories, to the lives that have been changed, the families who have been reunited and lives that have, quite frankly, been cast aside by the system that was in place, had a tremendous emotional effect on me,” Deal said as he fought back tears.

Prior to the signing, Deal told the AJC:

“We didn’t get everything we originally asked for, but we got the bulk of it,” Deal said. “We think it is a significant step in the right direction. … We do think it’s the right thing to do. We don’t believe it jeopardizes the safety of Georgians. In fact, we believe it enhances it.”

Senate Ethics Commission meets, adjourns without public comment

Georgia Senate Ethics Committee meetingYesterday, the Senate Ethics Committee met in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building without a published agenda, and rumors suggest the meeting was about complaints against Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville).

Senator John Crosby (R-Tifton) opened the meeting, asked Sen. Bill Jackson (R-Appling) to say the invocation, and the Committee quickly voted to go into Executive Session without any Senators offering remarks and without any votes against the move. Journalists and citizens including Tea Party Patriots spokesperson Debbie Dooley, Georgia Common Cause Executive Director William Perry, and yours truly, were asked to leave. Georgia State Patrol officers ensured that no unauthorized visitors distubed the meeting.

The Committee broke shortly before 2 PM so that some members could attend the Govenor’s bill signing, and reconvened later. After the Committee adjourned, no public comment was made.

Because Senator Crosby was a Superior Court judge for 20 years and because of the high stakes both for a Senator accused of wrongdoing, and for the reputation of the Senate, I suspect that the Committee will stick closely to the Senate Rules (.pdf) and the rules adopted by the Committee itself. So let’s look at those rules while we speculate wildly.

As a threshold matter, we note that the Senate Ethics Committee may only address complaints alleging violations of Section One, Part Four of the Senate Rules. This section include prohibitions against using one’s office or employment for personal gain, against conflicts of interest, relating to soliciting campaign contributions, accepting things of value in exchange for performance of their duties, conviction of a crime involving moral turptitude or drug possession, sexual harassment, or discriminatory harassment. Interestingly, the Rules regarding travel and reimbursement are in Section One, Part Three, and therefore, not subject to complaints before the Committee.

Section One, Part 4.10(a) states that “[a] complaint may be brought only by any Senator or Senate staff, aides, interns and volunteers,” but §1.4.10(b) allows the Committee to “initiate an investigation on its own initiative by majority vote.”

It is possible that the Committee could find that the complaint, which is believed to not have been filed by a member, employee or volunteer in the Senate, is improperly before them and dismiss it. In that case, §1.4.10(c) requires that:

Any complaint brought by or before the Committee shall remain confidential until the Committee has determined that substantial cause exists that a violation occurred. If the Committee determines that substantial cause does not exist that a violation occurred, the complaint shall remain confidential.

Alternatively, if the Committee decided to address the complaints or initiate an investigation on its own, section (c) still requires confidentiality until a substantial cause determination has been made, following an investigation.

If the Committee investigates, a report shall be prepared and presented to the Committee. If no substantial cause is found, the complaint is dismissed and the complainant and respondent are notified (§1.4.10(d)), but that’s only if the investigation was made on the basis of the complaint. If the Committee investigated on its own authority, there is no requirement that notice of a failure to find substantial cause be given to anyone.

If substantial cause is found, the Committee may negotiate a disposition with the respondent, or failing to reach a settlement, the Committee may hold open hearings, with procedural protections for the respondent, to take evidence. A negotiated settlement also becomes public record.

If the process gets that far, the standard of proof is that the Committee must find “clear and convincing proof” that a violation occurred (§1.4.10(f)) and if that burden is met, the Committee “may recommend a sanction or penalty including a letter of reprimand, to the Senate.” (§1.4.10(g)). The Senate may act on the Committee’s recommendation or it may proceed under Georgia Constitution Article III, Section IV, Paragraph VII, which states:

Each house shall be the judge of the election, returns, and qualifications of its members and shall have power to punish them for disorderly behavior or misconduct by censure, fine, imprisonment, or expulsion; but no member shall be expelled except by a vote of two-thirds of the members of the house to which such member belongs.

The Georgia State Ethics Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission has no jurisdiction over the allegations likely involved here.

What do Don Balfour and George Zimmerman have in common?

In my opinion, some in the media who are calling for Don Balfour’s head, are making the same mistake they made when they wrote:

Those who support “stand your ground” must understand that with this freedom comes responsibility.  Zimmerman was no longer standing his ground when he advanced upon Martin.  Aggression is not defense.  Guns don’t kill people, people do. 

This case isn’t about gun laws, and it’s not about self defense.  It’s about George Zimmerman being overzealous and perhaps even paranoid in the “protection” of his neighborhood.  It’s about a seventeen year old black youth being presumed guilty until proven innocent.  It’s about Zimmerman taking it upon himself to be judge, jury, and executioner. 

At the very least, conservatives now understand that the facts in that case were more nuanced than the media establishment’s initial portrayal suggested. At RedState.com, Erick Erickson wrote:

Just about every single network and journalist who has touched on the Trayvon Martin matter should be deeply and terribly ashamed of themselves. I am disgusted by just how badly the media has botched the handling of a very real tragedy.

Instead of the facts, journalists decided to do what they do in pretty much every story these days — make it a victim vs. victimizer story. They sensationalized parts of the story, dramatized parts of the story, and fictionalized parts of the story. Instead of letting the facts decide the winner and loser, the journalists decided who would win and who would lose the story.

For better or worse, we have yet to hear Don Balfour’s complete rebuttal. If the Senate Ethics Committee has decided to move forward, we may not hear Balfour’s rebuttal for quite a while. But we should learn a lesson from when we shot first and later learned we might have hit our own foot and withhold judgment until we know both sides of the story.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns and Elections

Newt Gingrich suspended his Presidential campaign yesterday, and now some vendors and staffers are worried they won’t get paid. They can’t say I didn’t warn them. Some Carrollton Republicans have fond memories of their long association with the former US House Speaker.

Andre Walker of GeorgiaUnfiltered, who first wrote about Georgia Democratic Party Political Director Rashad Richey’s run-ins with the law will be on WGST 640 AM this morning at 7 AM, and I’ll be on around 8:20 AM.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter is disappointed that only two members of the Bibb County Board of Education showed up for the training session on Georgia’s new Open Records and Open Meetings laws.

“After hearing a series of complaints, we decided the easiest way to address” the situation was to hold Wednesday’s training session, Ritter said. The session, he said, “was not to throw stones.”

Before he began, Ritter said, “I’m disappointed that there aren’t more members of the board here today.”

Congressman Austin Scott (R) held an informational fair for seniors in Warner Robins yesterday.

State Rep. Tony McBrayer (R-Tifton) will not run for reelection to the state house.

Tommy Hunter, who ran for Gwinnett Commission District Three in 2004, then moved and ran for District Four in 2010, has been redistricted into District Three and is considering taking a third bite at the apple by running against incumbent Republican Mike Beaudreau.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles elected Albert Murray as their Chair, and former Republican State Rep. Terry Barnard as Vice Chair, effective July 1st.

Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett, who serve on the Augusta Commission, are calling for a rally to protest actions taken by the Commission. The rally will be May 14th at noon on the courthouse steps. As of yesterday, no permit application had been filed, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

The director of the Whitfield County Animal Shelter, Don Allen Garrett, will run for County Magistrate, a seat currently held by Kay Cope. Phillip Croy and Jerry Leonard previously announced their candidacies.

The Whitfield County Board of Education is considering a property tax hike to cover a $6 million deficit.

Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Art Smith faces a challenge by assistant district attorney LaRae Dixon Moore.

Ends & Pieces

The limousine used to transport First Lady Michelle Obama is being repaired in Macon after suffering damage in the recent visit to Fort Stewart.

Most of the ships in Savannah’s Tall Ship Challenge have arrived and the Savannah Morning News has a photo gallery.

Harold’s Barbecue will stay open for at least another month. Get some Brunswick Stew while you can.

1 Comment

  1. Eventually we’ll have more readers posting on these stories.

    I get your explanation about how much paperwork comes through the Rules Committee, and so perhaps Balfour WAS actually ‘working’ on all the days he claimed per diem and mileage. But his lack of public response on this just serves to further the perception that he’s a crook at worst, careless at best. And while it was in response to a completely different matter, you have to admit that Mr. Balfour’s quote for the session – “We’ve been doing this 20 years and I keep getting re-elected” – seems to fit into this perception of him as no good.

    He may be perfectly innocent. But the way he is interacting with the media – or not interacting as it were – presents an attitude of arrogance that is not doing him any favors with the public.

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