The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of The Catoosa County News in its fight to remain the county-designated publisher of legal notices.
The three-judge panel, in a 22-page decision Tuesday, March 5, said the out-of-state Chattanooga Times Free Press does not meet Georgia law requiring that a legalorgan newspaper be "published within the county."
CCN Editor Don Stilwell said the ruling is "great news, not just for The Catoosa County News, but for newspapers across Georgia."
"It is also a win for Catoosa County," Stilwell said. "We have been serving Catoosa for 70 years. We reinvest the money we earn from legal notices. We put that revenue back into the community, for our readers both in print and online, in a lot of ways — the best county sports coverage around, community news, school news, church news, upcoming events, special sections and a lot more, that no other publication provides for county residents."
Chief Judge C.J. Dillard, in the court's decision, wrote, "The Chattanooga Times's 'home' is, without question, located in Chattanooga, Tennessee."
Under Georgia law, the legal organ newspaper must be published for at least two years within the county that it is to serve, unless there is no newspaper in the county already doing so.
The CCN, which is on Nashville Street near downtown Ringgold, Ga., and is open to the public five days a week, has been the county's legal organ — the designated publisher of legal notices — since 1949. It publishes its print edition each Wednesday and publishes daily on its website.
The CCN, as the county's legal organ, publishes all legal advertising, including sheriff's sales, probate court citations, bankruptcies, foreclosures and more. In addition to print, legal notices are also posted on the CCN website and on GeorgiaPublicNotice.com – an aggregate website for the legal-organ newspapers from each of Georgia's 159 counties. GeorgiaPublicNotice.com is hosted by the Georgia Press Association.
Three constitutional officers — sheriff, probate court judge, and Superior
Court clerk — are tasked with designating the county's legal organ since many of the notices originate from their offices.
In November 2017, Sheriff Gary Sisk, Probate Court Judge Jeff Hullender and Superior Court Clerk Tracy Brown decided to change the legal organ to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The CCN successfully challenged that decision in Catoosa County Superior Court in December 2017, arguing that the Tennessee newspaper did not qualify as the legal organ under Georgia law. The three officials then appealed the decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Chief Judge Dillard, in the ruling, wrote, "... While the Chattanooga Times operates a distribution center in Catoosa County that employs county residents, .... publishing a newspaper involves more than mere distribution of the newspaper. Additionally, evidence showed that, before the 'physical newspapers' are transported to distribution centers, the Chattanooga Times is edited, formatted and issued in Chattanooga."
Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson said the ruling is a significant one for Georgia newspapers. "This is an important and beneficial decision upholding local legal organ newspapers," Hudson said.
Hudson noted that the appeals court judges used a 1932 case, Carter v. Land, to arrive at their decision.
"The Carter case," Hudson said, "decided that publishing a newspaper 'means something more than the mere distribution of the newspaper' or simply 'having it entered at the post office for distribution.' If that was all that was required, it would not serve the purpose of the statute to patronize in-county industry and build up local institutions."
Catoosa County Attorney Chad Young, who argued the case for the county, said, "The existing statutory framework governing qualifications for county legal organs in Georgia is approximately 30 years old and the appellate precedent, to the extent it exists, governing the specific issue in this case dates back approximately 100 years. Neither the existing statutes nor appellate precedent address the current manner in which news and information are reported, transmitted or received in the 21st century.
"While we respectfully disagree with the ultimate ruling," Young said, "we appreciate the diligence and thoroughness of the Court of Appeals' opinion and legal analysis, especially when faced with the difficult task of interpreting what amounts to antiquated statutes and legal precedent and applying the same to modern times.
"We are hopeful that the legislature will take note of these deficiencies and modernize the existing statutes to provide more current guidance to local elected officials charged with making decisions concerning the legal organ of their counties in today's media environment," Young said.
Young said the case has cost the county $28,006 in attorneys fees, court costs and other expenses.
He said that the county pays him and County Attorney Clifton "Skip" Patty $125 per hour. Their office, Patty & Young law firm in Ringgold, bills the county each month, he said. Paralegals who work on cases for his office are paid less, he said.
"The Carter case decided that publishing a newspaper 'means something more than the mere distribution of the newspaper' or simply 'having it entered at the post office for distribution.' If that was all that was required, it would not serve the purpose of the statute to patronize in-county industry and build up local institutions.
Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson
With early voting underway and the March 19 election day rapidly approaching, Catoosa County has published its lists for work it plans to do if voters approve the proposed one-percent transportation tax.
Late last year, Catoosa County and the cities of Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold put the proposed Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) on a March 19 referendum. The tax projects to bring in approximately $60 million in revenue over the next five-year cycle and is supposed to be used for transportation-related roadwork.
In recent weeks, residents have shown up to public meetings held by all three local governments voicing their opinion on the tax.
On Feb. 19, several residents spoke out against the TSPLOST during the Board of Commissioners meeting, and a lot of the concern revolved around not only the financial impact on locals, but also the lack of knowledge about what the plans were for the money.
"You don't have an exact plan for the money, so that makes me think it's going to get washed into some special projects or things that are not actually transportation-related," said resident Sam Martin. "If we had an exact plan of what the money was going to — 'we're going to do this bridge, we're going to do this road, we're going to do x, y, z'... — I would probably feel differently about it. There has not been a clear plan for the money."
A week after that meeting, Catoosa County published lists for not only the county, but the cities of Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold as well.
In a 30-page statement, the county explained how the revenue can be used and what type of projects it plans to work on.
In the funding policy statement, commissioners said, "TSPLOST dollars by law can be used to fund only to following: patching, leveling, milling widening, shoulder preparation, culvert repair, and other repairs necessary for the preservation of roads, streets, bridges, sidewalks and bicycle paths."
Other work that can be done in relation to roads, streets, bridges, sidewalks and bicycle paths includes stormwater and drainage capital outlay projects, acquisition of right-of-way; construction, renovation and improvement of each, relocation of utilities, and improvements related to surface water drainage from roads, streets, bridges, sidewalks and bicycle paths.
With the list Catoosa County provided, there is a caveat: "The list is subject to change as the priorities for roads, bridges, and stormwater change year to year," the statement reads. "The TSPLOST, if passed, would allow our Public Works Department to concentrate on repairing neighborhood roads throughout the county while also maintaining our regular resurfacing program."
With 426.52 miles of road to consider, Catoosa County has plans listed in three different phases.
Phase I of Catoosa County's list focuses on neighborhood road repair and rehab. The list identifies Rolling Hills, The Meadows, Heritage Estates, Hickory Hills, Mountain Brook, Plemons Estates, and Dug Road as the neighborhoods to be worked on first, in addition to stormwater projects, bridge projects, and work on Graysville Road at the railroad tracks if feasible.
Phase II includes Water Mill Trace, Poplar Springs, Baggett Estates, Shannon Drive, Mill Creek.
Phase III lists Cedar Farm, Lindsay Drive, Cherokee Springs, Morris Estates, and Lehon Estates as points of priority.
Each phase of work is projected to cost approximately $14 million, which adds up to $42 million of the $60 million the county is projected to receive over the five-year TSPLOST cycle.
Fort Oglethorpe's projects list
The city of Fort Oglethorpe lists several areas of need, highlighted by the construction of the planned round-a-bout at Mack Smith Road and Steele Road, and constructing a traffic solution for Dietz Road.
Fort Oglethorpe officials also submitted several stormwater projects in its list, such as drainage improvements at Alamar Street, Stuart Road, General Johnson Road, Cindy Circle at Barrett Drive, and Stovall Street. The city also plans to do a hydrological study of the city to establish a prioritized list of other needed stormwater projects.
The city's repaving projects would include Mack Smith Road from Steele Road to the state line, Fant Drive, Thomas Drive, Stovall Street, and the Edgewood subdivision.
Ringgold's projects list
The city of Ringgold's submitted list includes several repaving projects, some stormwater endeavors, and two areas where sidewalks are a huge need.
The city's resurfacing list features Tennessee Street, Robin Road, South Sparks Street, Emberson Drive, Candy Lane, Cotter Street, Clearview Drive, Forest Drive, Hunter Lane, Gladstone Drive, Willowind Lane, Creekview Drive, Canyon Cove, and Lodgestone Drive.
The city also lists stormwater projects along Lamar Street, Tiger Trail, and Meadow Lane.
For years, the city has discusses the sidewalk needs of Boynton Drive, which is listed as one of its two sidewalk projects with Meadow Lane.
When county commissioners and the two city councils entered their intergovernmental agreement in December, they identified a 70/20/10 split of the projected funds.
That breakdown would equate to $42 million for Catoosa County, $12 million for Fort Oglethorpe, and $6 million for Ringgold.
Commissioners have spoken in recent months about how the TSPLOST is an alternative to increasing property taxes.
During the Feb. 19 meeting that includes criticism from so many residents, Chairman Steven Henry defended that claim.
"I want to remind everybody, we were $2.8 million under budget this year. We were $2.4 million under budget last year and we rolled taxes back that last two years," Henry said. "Just to throw out the facts — the millage (property tax) rate went down. The millage rate ... what we control, went down two years in a row."
Residents still have time to vote early on the matter March 11, 12, 13, and 15 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and March 14 from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Final ballots can be cast March 19 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Those planning to vote early can do so at the Freedom Center and Westside voting locations in Ringgold and Rossville; however, on March 19, residents with have to go to their assigned precinct.
Adam Cook is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He has been a reporter since 2009. He can be reached at The Catoosa County News office at 706-935-2621 and by email at ACook@CatoosaNews.com.
Several North Georgia sheriffs held a press conference Monday, March 4, to voice their concerns about proposed legislation that would allow the growing of cannabis and sale of THC oil in the state.
Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk organized the press conference at his department. The event featured support from sheriffs in neighboring Walker, Whitfield, Dade, Chattooga, and Gordon counties.
The proposed legislation, House Bill 324, was passed Tuesday, March 5, in Atlanta by the Georgia House allowing the cultivation and harvesting of cannabis and hemp products for the use in producing low THC oil. The bill will now move on to the Senate.
The bill, which was approved by a 123-40 vote, would permit the growing of medical marijuana, testing, manufacturing and distribution.
Since 2015, those suffering from cancer, seizures, and other illnesses have been able to use medical marijuana oil. The bill would essentially make the oil more accessible for those in need.
During press conference Sheriff Sisk said some of his biggest concerns pertained to how it would impact the underground or "black market," multiple manufacturers popping up in the community, and those with criminal history getting involved in the business.
"We've already seen from other states that've gone down this route that it does not do away with the black market. It only enhances the black market because the price of these products typically are fairly high, so then people don't have a way to afford them and they start looking around to the black market," Sisk said.
Sisk added that the bill lacks certain limitations on who can be involved with the business.
"Another concern that's actually listed in the bill is that you can be a convicted felon," Sisk said. "As long as your conviction is older than 10 years, you can still be a part of one of these manufacturers or distributors."
Sisk gave an example of someone serving a 10-year sentence and then being able to buy into one of these dispensaries the day after they're released.
With I-75 running through Catoosa County, Sisk said he's worried that new businesses involved in the trade will start popping up near the state line as a way of garnering customers for neighboring states similar to how methadone clinics have tried to operate in recent years.
Overall, Sisk and the other five sheriffs felt it was their duty to get some information to the public before the vote.
"That is the responsibility of the sheriff," Sisk said. "We are the local chief law enforcement officer in our community. Therefore we need to make sure that our constituents are aware of what's going on."
The legislation proposes that the state license a total of 60 medical marijuana dispensaries divided into "large growers, distributors, smaller-scale companies, and standalone retailers."
In one of his parting shots during the press conference, Sisk said the bill seems to have been rushed without carefully detailing some of the specific requirements related to convicted felons, background checks, and coordination with law enforcement.
"It seems like there's just been a rush and they're not even looking at current laws that are on the books," Sisk said.
On Tuesday, March 5, Senate Bill 77, sponsored by Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, passed the Senate.
"Last year my district, as well as several others around the state, had issues with gravestone desecration," Mullis said. "While current law provides protection to military monuments and memorials, Senate Bill 77 would extend this protection to all monuments.
"The issue is not a matter of the events people want to remember, rather, the events people must remember," he said. "All monuments are created for a purpose to remind us of certain events and lives that have played a part in creating the great state we live in today.
"In addition, the reason why this issue was brought to the Georgia Senate is that we don't have enough protection for the lives of people who can no longer stand up to honor and defend themselves.
"I was able to work with senators who stood in opposition to this bill and support two amendments on the Senate floor that may help ease tension from those opposed to the underlying debate. I look forward to seeing this bill move through the House and signed by the governor in the near future."
Senate Bill 77 provides protection for all monuments. The bill would prohibit individuals and agencies from removing or concealing monuments, and would allow for measures that would protect and preserve the monuments. The two events in which it would be appropriate for relocation of a monument include: construction in an area where a monument is currently located, or the expansion or alteration of the monument. The bill also specifies when a monument must be relocated, and where the monument can and cannot be relocated.
Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga, is chairman of the Rules Committee. He represents the 53rd Senate District, which includes Catoosa, Dade, and Walker counties and portions of Chattooga County. He can be reached at his office in Atlanta at 404-656-0057 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.