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H.B. 346 targets slum landlords
Measure would protect tenants facing unhealthy living conditions

Water leaks and sewage overflows. Rampant mold. Rat infestation.

Residents' descriptions of such conditions in some Cobb County apartment complexes recently underscored the breadth of environmental hazards that tenants can face.

In Georgia, renters have the right to complain about unlivable conditions, and landlords have a legal duty to make necessary repairs. But advocates for tenants say it can be difficult to get such remedial action taken. They say many renters fear retaliation — including possible eviction — for making a complaint.

House Bill 346 is sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. At a recent hearing on the legislation, Cooper cited the "terrible" conditions in certain Cobb apartments.

She pointed out that children's asthma can be exacerbated by housing hazards. "Mold is one of the leading causes of an asthma attack," Cooper told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. Asthma is a leading reason why children miss school, she added.

The problem is slum lords, negligent owners who fail to maintain decent conditions in their rental properties, Cooper said. Tenants who face unhealthy conditions often don't have the money to go to a lawyer. and eventually, the landlord can move another family into the hazardous home, she added.

Susan Reif, an attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program, told lawmakers, "We tell clients that you have to weigh the risk of calling code enforcement, against the possibility of eviction."

Under House Bill 346, if a tenant were to complain about unsafe conditions, and suffer a rental increase or eviction as a consequence, a retaliatory eviction could be halted, and the landlord could face civil penalties.

More than 40 states have similar anti-retaliation laws, says Elizabeth Appley, an attorney representing the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The center has organized a coalition that includes consumer groups, the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia chapter

of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Environmental hazards can lead to ER visits, missed days from school, and eventually homelessness, Pam Kraidler of the Health Law Partnership. told the subcommittee. The partnership is a collaboration among Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the Georgia State University College of Law, and Atlanta Legal Aid.

"No one should live in conditions like this," Kraidler said. "Our clients are terrified of retaliation."

Michael Murphy, assistant for special projects to Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce, said, "We need support from the state."

Most evictions, experts note, are related to tenants not paying their rent.

House Bill 346, meanwhile, is designed to deal with serious cases of landlord misconduct.

The Georgia Apartment Association, at the hearing on the bill, said it does not represent slum lords. "Our hope is that they can craft a targeted measure to address abuse by an unscrupulous landlord while recognizing that the overwhelming majority of property owners do not engage in that type of activity," Russ Webb, an association vice president, said Monday, March 4.

Appley said the Apartment Association and the Georgia Association of Realtors have signed off on the latest version of the tenant protection bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, March 1.

Cole Thaler of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation cites a high student turnover at an Atlanta public school that was linked to "highly dilapidated conditions" at a nearby apartment complex.

Tenants, he said, are often fearful of landlords and want to avoid eviction, which could lead to homelessness.

House Bill 346, Thaler said, "would protect tenants and send a message to slum lords."


THC oil bill 324 draws concerns from sheriffs

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, smallerscale 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.


Walker County schools face bus driver shortage

Anyone can drive a car, but it takes a special person to be able to drive a school bus.

The Walker County school system is facing a shortage of full-time bus drivers and looking to hire more. The pay includes $13.57 an hour for full-time drivers and $10.54 per hour for substitute drivers, who are paid for their travel time from their own home. There is also a myriad of insurance benefits to choose from, which include life insurance and short-and long-term disability.

The process for becoming a bus driver is fairly complex, which is part of the reason the school system is having difficult time finding drivers. First, an applicant would need to interview with the school system's transportation department officials on U.S. Highway 27. If they see you as a good fit, they will send a recommendation to the school board for approval. Past that, you need to pass a background check and drug test.

The applicant would need to move forward by going to the state Department of Driver Services and obtain a permit for a commercial drivers' license, which is essentially a CDL learners license. Past that point, you would be required to complete a minimum of six hours of driving training without students in the vehicle.

Once the applicant is completely comfortable operating the vehicle, the applicant will have the opportunity to move forward and test for a commercial drivers license. Once that test has been passed, and the applicant has obtained a CDL, the applicant is required to do several training hours with a trainer and students onboard. Once those hours are completed, the applicant becomes a school bus driver.

"We have a little over 6,000 (students) who ride every day. Basically two-thirds of the kids in our school system are taking the school bus. To a lot of folks we are a very necessary service. Our drivers are the backbone of what we do, and they are tremendous." said Kevin Richardson, transportation supervisor for Walker County Public Schools. "If you think about it, a bus driver is the first person to greet a kid in the morning and the last to see them at the end of the day. Some drivers even give out their numbers and help the parents."

Bus drivers also make a big difference to the children themselves.

"We are trained to spot abuse and neglect. We are trained in first aid. I've come to notice that school bus drivers are public service. We are like unsung public servants," Lori Alan, a local school bus driver, explained. "There's a lot of good that can be done. For someone that wants to serve the public and help kids, this is the way to do it. Most kids remember who their bus driver was, and it's a relationship that a lot of people don't realize."

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information or to apply for a position, reach out to Kevin Richardson in his office at (706)-375-6744.


Superintendent Day pleads 'no contest' to theft
Judge orders Melody Day to get counseling, stay out of Belk and pay $525 in restitution

Melody Day

Melody Day, superintendent of Chickamauga City Schools, pleaded "no contest" in court on Friday, March 8, regarding a theft charge. Also called a nolo contendere guilty plea, this is an alternative to "guilty" and "not guilty," meaning that the defendant neither admits nor disputes the charge in question.

As a result of her plea, Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gary Starnes told Day to get counseling, to stay out of Belk stores and to pay restitution to Belk in the amount of $525. He further said her record (of her misdemeanor conviction for theft) could be expunged in a year if she follows those orders.

Day has worked for Chickamauga City Schools since 1978 when she was a teacher there. She was hired as superintendent in 2000.

No one from the school board was available Friday to comment, but in January board sources insisted that while her charge was still pending, she would continue to work under a presumption of innocence.

Day was accused of trying to steal more than $300 worth of clothing from Belk at Hamilton Place Mall in Chattanooga on Dec. 2. She was allegedly switching price tags of sale items and full-price items while in a dressing room to lower the price.

When an employee noticed her selecting merchandise to take into the dressing room, Day was apprehended in the store and the police were called. The value of all the items was then reported to be a little more than $300. Police cited her for theft under $1,000.

The Chickamauga School Board's monthly meeting will be on Monday, March 11, at 5:15 p.m. at 402 Cove Road.