The Catoosa County News will challenge a decision by three constitutional officers to give the newspaper's "legal organ" status to an out-of-state newspaper.
The officers — Sheriff Gary Sisk, Probate Court Judge Jeff Hullender and Superior Court Clerk Tracy Brown — signed a resolution Friday, Nov. 30, to turn The Catoosa County News' (CCN) legal advertising over to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The switch is set to occur Jan. 1, 2018.
Otis Raybon, CCN publisher, said the newspaper will seek a court injunction. The Times, he maintains, does not meet the state's requirements to be the county's legal organ.
Georgia law requires, among other stipulations, that a newspaper serving as the county's legal organ be "published within the county — for at least two years," Raybon said.
The three constitutional officers say the Times "will open" an office in Ringgold that will be staffed Monday through Friday.
CCN, which has an office located near downtown Ringgold that is open Monday through Friday, has served the county's readers for 68 years, since August 1949. It currently employs an editor, two part-time news reporters, a parttime sports editor, and an advertising representative.
Probate Court Judge Hullender informed CCN by letter in
July that it would be "considering what the best resource for legal publication will be."
Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson, in a letter to Hullender, said a Georgia Supreme Court case, Carter v. Land, made clear the intent of the law: "... to aid in the building of the locality to be served by the newspaper advertisements. Georgian have always possessed a great desire of local pride and determination to patronize home industry and to build up local institutions."
Legal advertisements, a major source of revenue for newspapers, include notices such as sheriff's sales, probate court citations, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and more, which is why the decision on legal status is left to the sheriff, probate judge and Superior Court clerk.
CCN follows without any variance legal advertising rates that are set by state statute. Those rates have not been changed by the Georgia Legislature since 1994.
"We reinvest the money we earn from legal advertising," CCN Editor Don Stilwell said. "We put that revenue back into the community, for our readers both in print and online, in a lot of ways — the best Catoosa County sports coverage around, community news, school news, church news, upcoming events, special sections and lots more coverage that no other newspaper provides for Catoosa County residents."
"These three constitutional officials, with their decision, have put The Catoosa County News in jeopardy," Raybon said. "Catoosa County could possibly be left without a community newspaper."
Talks began in July
"We have been discussing this with them back and forth since July trying to reach an agreement," Raybon said.
"We want to be able to sit down with the three officers and have a conversation and discuss it again," he said. "We don't believe that an out-of-state newspaper, such as the Times Free Press, which is published in Tennessee, can be named legal organ in a Georgia county. And we also don't believe that the citizens of Catoosa County want — even if another newspaper has more subscribers than we do — to give up their local newspaper. So we plan to fight that change while we work out the details and have an impartial court decide if the Times Free Press meets the legal qualifications according to Georgia law. We are certain that we meet every requirement of the law to be the legal organ for Catoosa County, Georgia. The Catoosa County News already meets them, for 2018 and beyond."
The three constitutional officers said several factors played into their decision.
"The Chattanooga Times Free Press has a circulation that reaches more than double the households in Catoosa County as the Catoosa County News and therefore presents an opportunity for a larger segment of the population of Catoosa County to have access to official or legal advertising," they said.
Also, they said, "The Catoosa County News is only a weekly publication and advertising requests must be submitted a week in advance for publication the following week. This creates delays in some legal actions and advertisements. ... The Chattanooga Times Free Press is a daily publication and advertisements can be presented the day before publication with the exception of weekends."
"We do plan to challenge it in court," Raybon said, "and we do plan, if we are successful, to seek attorney's fees and court costs associated with this fight. This is not a fight between the Catoosa County News and Times Free Press. This is between the Catoosa County News and the three constitutional officers."
Raybon said he asked Sheriff Gary Sisk to notify him when, and if, the three officers decided to meet for a final decision on the matter, asking that CCN representatives be allowed to attend that meeting. "Then they met privately," Raybon said, "and didn't include anybody in the meeting, as far as I know. I had expressed a desire for us to be included in and bring my attorney. While there is no state law saying that meeting has to be public, he did tell me verbally that he would tell me when the meeting was to take place and that I could attend."
This is the second time constitutional officers have considered transferring the newspaper's legal organ status to the Times. Fifteen years ago, in 2002, three constitutional officers held public meetings on the matter, which helped change their minds. This time they did not offer public meetings.
In July of this year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Catoosa County Schools' attorney Renzo Wiggins leveling two charges at the district, one regarding Heritage High School and one regarding Ringgold High School.
"A local resident informed us," says the FFRF letter, which was released by FFRF to local media outlets on Nov. 29, "that a leadership class at Heritage High School ("HHS") partnered with an organization called Nicamerican Missions ("NM") during the 2016-2017 school year to build a school in an impoverished area of Nicaragua."
The letter went on to say that because the mission "is an explicitly Christian group with an explicitly Christian mission" it was a "poor choice" for the school to decide to partner with it. FFRF says in the letter that HHS's partnership with
the mission sends the message that HHS prefers Christianity over other religions and prefers religion over non-religion.
The letter then states, "HHS must immediately terminate its partnership with this religious organization and cease all fundraising for religious projects."
The second complaint in the letter regards students at Ringgold High School who helped make crosses for the Festival of Flags celebration in Ringgold. FFRF indicates in the letter that it learned of this activity by reading about it in The Catoosa County News.
The letter says that "public school teachers may not assign students to create religious symbols." The heavilyfootnoted letter does not cite a source for believing the work was required.
In closing, FFRF says to the Catoosa County School District, "Please inform us in writing of the steps the District takes to ensure that these constitutional violations are resolved."
The letter is signed by a staff attorney for FFRF but is not backed by any court order.
Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese issued this statement on Nov. 29: "Catoosa County Public Schools supports students' participating in service activities. The flag holders that the RHS construction class built to support honoring our veterans, and the money that our HHS students raised to build a school for underprivileged children are examples of our students working to serve others. The system's attorney is thoroughly researching the allegations from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and when he has completed this research he will respond to them explaining how our students can continue to participate in these service activities."
CHI Memorial in Chattanooga will buy Cornerstone Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe and has acquired the former "Hutcheson on the Parkway" in Ringgold.
Larry Schumacher, CHI Memorial CEO and senior vice president of operations, Southeast Division, Catholic Health Initiatives, said, "In August, at the request of Cornerstone's Atlanta-based owner, ValorBridge, CHI Memorial began to manage Cornerstone Medical Center, and talks progressed on integration opportunities. Subsequently, a definitive agreement to acquire was signed effective December 29, 2017. At the same time, we have acquired the former Hutcheson on the Parkway."
CHI Memorial will provide services at the newly named CHI Memorial Hospital- Georgia (formerly Cornerstone Medical Center) and CHI Memorial-Parkway (formerly Hutcheson on the Parkway).
"With this acquisition, Cornerstone will become part of an integrated health system with more than 3,500 employees and 661 medical staff members. This will enable physicians and associates at Cornerstone and CHI Memorial to collaborate and innovate in order to improve the delivery of efficient and effective inpatient and outpatient care across a broad geographical region" says Schumacher. "This is an opportunity to enhance the services that we can offer in the North Georgia region and build upon the good work that has
been accomplished by the Cornerstone team. In light of the everchanging healthcare landscape, this will help ensure we keep our enduring promise of exceptional quality health care to the residents of the entire region."
"This is a significant investment in the health of our community by a brand our residents know well and trust. The hospital will provide great healthcare and jobs which are important to our area's economic development," said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, president and CEO of the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority.
"In the past few years, our region has seen significant industrial and residential growth," said Randall Peters, chairman of the Board of the Catoosa County Economic Development Authority. "The need for quality healthcare close to where people work and live continues to grow. This acquisition will restore muchneeded advanced medical services to the people who live and work in North Georgia, and opens new doors for our community organizations to work with CHI Memorial to address widespread health disparities," he said.
"The Board of Commissioners and I are extremely excited that we have the opportunity for stability and growth in health care services available to the residents of Catoosa County and Northwest Georgia," said Catoosa County Board of Commissioner Chairman Steven Henry. "With our growing population and convenient interstate and highway access, it makes perfect sense that Catoosa County should become the center of gravity for world class health care in Northwest Georgia, and we commend CHI Memorial for undertaking a major leadership role in our region. Catoosa County Government stands ready to work with CHI Memorial to grow and expand our health care infrastructure and services."
When did CHI Memorial begin a relationship with Cornerstone Medical Center?
On August 1, 2017, CHI Memorial signed an agreement to manage Cornerstone Medical Center.
When did CHI Memorial acquire Cornerstone Medical and the former Hutcheson on the Parkway?
A definitive agreement to acquire Cornerstone was signed with a transaction closing date of December 29, 2017. CHI Memorial has completed acquisition of the former Hutcheson on the Parkway ambulatory site on Battlefield Parkway in Ringgold, GA.
Are the names of the facilities changing?
Yes, Cornerstone Medical Center will be renamed CHI Memorial Hospital-Georgia. Hutcheson on the Parkway is now CHI Memorial-Parkway.
What services will be available at each location?
We will continue to provide emergency services, laboratory services, radiology, pharmacy, and select inpatient medical services at CHI Memorial Hospital- Georgia (formerly Cornerstone Medical Center).
CHI Memorial - Parkway (formerly Hutcheson on the Parkway) is home to CHI Memorial Family Practice Associates- Ringgold, CHI Memorial Pediatric Diagnostic Associates, and The
Chattanooga Heart Institute.
How many patient beds will CHI Memorial- Georgia have?
CHI Memorial – Georgia currently has 19 patient beds and future plans are in place to increase bed capacity.
What insurance plans will be accepted?
CHI Memorial Hospital-Georgia plans to participate in a variety of commercial insurance plans, as well as Medicare advantage and supplements, and Georgia Peach State Health Plan.
How many people will be employed at CHI Memorial Hospital- Georgia ?
What happens to the employees of the former Cornerstone Medical Center?
Eligible individuals will become CHI Memorial associates.
What is CHI Memorial's presence in North Georgia?
In recent years, CHI Memorial has made significant strides in broadening our scale and reach in the North Georgia market, reopening Hutcheson primary care clinics in Chickamauga, LaFayette and Trenton under the CHI Memorial Medical Group brand, opening The Chattanooga Heart Institute clinic, and expanding access to providers at CHI Memorial's Family Practice Associates-Ringgold and Professional Park Associates in LaFayette, GA. As well, a new office of Pediatric Diagnostic Associates will open at CHI Memorial-Parkway.
Why is CHI Memorial expanding its North Georgia footprint?
The focal point for North Georgia is Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties. People residing in these counties are traveling long distances for hospital care, including to a CHI Memorial facility, and represent 24% of CHI Memorial's inpatient discharges and 22% of outpatient surgeries.
The region has experienced population growth, particularly in Catoosa County, which has led in population growth at 3.3% in the last 5 years and is projected to grow another 3.3% by 2020.
More than 50 percent of residents in need of medical care are traveling to a more distant Georgia hospital for care.
Re-establishing facilities for advanced medical care in North Georgia will allow people to remain close to home and work and receive care from a brand they know and trust – CHI Memorial. This is particularly important for Millennials to Active Boomers - people who are working and caring for family members - who demand exceptional convenience that fits their busy lifestyle.
Residents in Catoosa and Walker counties experience high incidence rates for chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer. CHI Memorial has developed nationally recognized expertise in diagnosing, treating, and managing these conditions, which means we have the ability to offer visits with specialists close to home and coordinate care for complex conditions, thus eliminating the need to travel to more distant Georgia locations for specialized procedures.
This is an opportunity to enhance the services that we can offer in the North Georgia region and build on the economies of scale that a larger organization can provide. In light of the ever-changing healthcare landscape, this will help ensure we keep our enduring promise of exceptional health care to the residents of the entire region.