A second Polk County grand jury, separate from the one impaneled last month following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions for Georgia superior courts, will help get through the extensive backlog of criminal cases being overseen by the district attorney’s office.
Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jack Browning said he will summon a concurrent grand jury — which is allowed by state law — to come in the first of December and work through more cases.
Browning and his staff went into the start of the grand jury’s session last month with over 200 cases that had built up over the six-month court closure. In the end, they were able to present 96 cases over a five-day span with all but three returning a true bill for indictment.
Having a second grand jury, while giving the original one a break, also keeps from having the same group return and be together for a longer amount of time in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m going to have two concurrent grand juries coming in not only to help me move business but, more importantly, it gives them a break from their obligation,” Browning said, adding that the first grand jury can be recalled to hear more cases if he still has a backlog.
Both grand juries would be impaneled through February, with a new court term beginning in March.
Most court operations were shut down statewide by a judicial emergency order issued by the state supreme court in mid-March, leading to a six-month halt to all in-person court activities, including all grand juries and jury trials.
Browning said they turned to video and online technology to hold court hearings and meetings during the pandemic.
When Georgie Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton issued his sixth extension of the emergency order in September, it authorized grand jury proceedings to resume while still suspending jury trials.
“We are starting to transition back toward having more in person hearings, to the extent that we can and when we can and when folks are comfortable doing that,” Browning said.
The district attorney’s office as well as the clerk of court’s office have to work to make sure all state and local COVID-19 guidelines are being followed in order to impanel a grand jury, including physical distancing.
“The thought was the grand jury is a smaller setting. You’re not bringing in as many people to impanel a grand jury as you are to have a jury trial,” Browning said. “So it’s easier, more manageable, to begin with the grand jury, and that’s why the supreme court said, ‘yeah, you can do that.’”
As far as jury trials go, Browning said he hopes to begin those at some point in 2021, although it will not look like it always has in the past.
The Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit’s COVID-19 Task Force, which has to file protocol and guidelines with the state supreme court before beginning to schedule and conduct jury trials, has met once.
But Browning said the summoning of a grand jury is a good sign to see how people feel about gathering and conducting court business in times of COVID-19.
Lots of pre-planning went into calling in the 23 members of the grand jury that was summoned last month, including questionnaires to determine any health-related concerns.
The courtroom was petitioned off with plexiglass to encourage physical distancing, everyony was required to wear a mask or facial covering, and a plexiglass barrier was placed around the witness stand.
“I looked at this as kind of a baby step and I wanted to do things safely,” Browning said. “I didn’t see the point of, well I’ve got a lot of cases, let me bring in two grand juries right away. Let’s bring in one and we’ll see how this goes.”
He encouraged the members of the grand jury to communicate with the bailiffs and courts staff if they had any concerns from a health standpoint, but Browning said they didn’t have any suggestions.
“So I take that as cautiously optimistic that we did everything right, but I still think there’s always places that we can learn and do things better,” Browning said. “So we’re going to be looking at those as we continue to bring in juries.”
Among the cases that have yet to be presented to a grand jury is the hit-and-run death of 38-year-old Erik Keais last September, which was slated to be heard by the grand jury in March before the statewide judicial emergency was issued.
An educator who made it her job to ensure that her students had a fully engaging experience when learning went from in the classroom to online this year was named Polk County Schools’ top teacher Tuesday evening.
Youngs Grove Elementary School’s Rachael Truitt was announced as the Polk School District 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year during a special meeting of the Polk County Board of Education held in the HON Room at the Polk County College and Career Academy at Cedartown High School.
Truitt, who is in her 10th year of teaching, became Youngs Grove’s distance learning teacher this school year after serving in the past as a special education teacher, a fourth-grade math teacher and a directive studies teacher.
She was selected as Youngs Grove’s Teacher of the Year by her co-workers at the Cedartown school and was one of 11 teachers selected as 2020-2021 Teachers of the Year at their respective school.
“Shocked is an understatement,” Truitt said when asked about her district win. “I’m very proud that I can represent Youngs Grove.”
During the sudden shutdown of in-person teaching in the spring at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Truitt began to make math topic videos to ensure that students could continue to be exposed to the subject even though they were at home.
“A lot of the resources I was seeing a lot of people produce were reading. So I had Math Mondays and Fraction Fridays that I made at my house with different things,” Truitt said.
That included one time making pizza with her children and showing how a pizza could be cut to represent equivalent fractions.
“I felt like that was a contribution to the time that we were all in. And now, being the virtual learning teacher, I have talked and communicated with parents more this year than in my entire career. We have weekly conversations, because you want to make sure the kids are getting the education that they need while they’re at home. So that’s been a big thing.”
Leah Redden, principal at Youngs Grove Elementary, spoke about how much Truitt has contributed to the dramatic shift their school and faculty have had to endure as they adjusted to the world of virtual teaching.
“This year, she has gone above and beyond to answer that call of duty. As has been mentioned, we are in some uncharted waters that we’ve never traveled before, and she’s done a great job with meeting with students and talking with parents and doing everything she can to make this year a good year for them and for us,” Redden said.
“Rachael is someone who goes out of her way to be involved with the students. If she sees a need, she jumps right in and offers her assistance. And she’ll never know ho much I appreciate that.”
Each school’s teacher of the year was recognized and presented with a framed certificate and $100 gift card sponsored by NFP prior to the reveal of the district winner. Truitt was presented with a second $100 gift card for being named the district winner and will move on to the state Teacher of the Year competition, which is conducted by the Georgia Department of Education.
The teachers of the year for the other Polk School District schools are Cedartown High School’s Benjie Frasier, Cedartown Middle School’s Gay Popham, Cherokee Elementary School’s Michael Chandler, Eastside Elementary School’s Natoshia Rowell, Northside Elementary School’s Audra Broome, Polk County College and Career Academy’s Mike Lester, Rockmart High School’s Jason Purser, Rockmart Middle School’s Kris Maynard, Van Wert Elementary School’s Daphne McClendon and Westside Elementary School’s Cassie Bennett.
Also, the school board unanimously approved Superintendent Laurie Atkins’ recommendation that the school system continue to follow a four-day school week for the spring semester.
Polk County Schools have been operating on the schedule since late August, which allows teachers to use each Monday to update and create digital lesson plans for both in-person and distance learning instruction while students take classes Tuesday through Friday.
The move to extend the adjusted schedule comes as COVID-19 cases continue to be reported in Polk County as part of the current pandemic. Polk County Schools have not had reported a large outbreak of the virus since August.
Polk County will still have two separate runoff elections despite a move by Georgia’s Secretary of State last week to combine the Dec. 1 and Jan. 5 statewide runoff elections.
Meanwhile, county elections officials were well into a hand recount of the county’s more than 17,000 ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election that was also ordered by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Polk County Elections Director Lee Ann George said last week her office is still in charge of administering the local runoff for District 2 Polk County Commissioner between Ricky Clark and Linda Liles that is scheduled for Dec. 1.
The special election to fill the seat vacated by Jennifer Hulsey earlier this year had five candidates qualify for the Nov. 3 general election, with no one candidate getting 50% plus one of the total vote. Clark and Liles were the top two vote getters.
Raffensperger announced last week that several state and local runoff elections, including a seat on the Public Service Commission, would be rescheduled from Dec. 1 to Jan. 5 for election workers to better prepare for another wave of voters.
The races for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats are headed to a runoff scheduled for Jan. 5, but George said since the county commission winner would have to be sworn in and take office Jan. 1 they would be moving forward with the local runoff on Dec. 1.
With the county commission runoff date coming up soon, Polk County Elections Coordinator Brande Coggins advised voters who wish to vote absentee to contact the elections office at 770-749-2103 to request a ballot.
She also pointed out that if a voter is on the automatic absentee ballot distribution list that they could get the ballots for both the Dec. 1 and Jan. 5 elections at the same time and to be extra vigilant that they use the correct envelope to return their ballots for the correct election.
Early voting for the Dec. 1 runoff will only be held Nov. 23-25 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the county elections office, 144 West Ave., Suite D, Cedartown.
Georgia’s Jan. 5 state and federal runoff will include both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats and the District 4 Public Service Commission seat, in which Republican incumbent Lauren “Bubba” McDonald (I) fell about 4,000 votes shy of the 50% plus one votes needed to win outright in a race against Democrat Daniel Blackman.
Absentee ballots for the Jan. 5 runoff can be requested by contacting the Polk County Elections Office or by visiting ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov.
Advance in-person voting for the January election will be held at the elections office in Cedartown on Dec. 14-18, 21-23, and 28-31 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Rockmart early voting site at the Nathan Dean Community Center at 604 Goodyear St. will be open Dec. 28-31 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
All Polk County polling precincts will open on both Dec. 1 and Jan. 5.
George and her staff were working to complete absentee ballot requests and plan for both runoff elections on Friday when they also began the process of recounting the county’s 17,399 votes that were cast in the presidential election as part of the statewide audit.
Raffensperger formally called for the hand recount as part of a regular audit of the election results, which were poised to be done via an electronic sampling of ballots before Raffensperger revised the process under emergency powers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All 159 county elections boards in Georgia will have until Friday to count by hand every in-person, mail-in and provisional ballot cast in last week’s election.
Polk County’s election office put out a notice Friday on its Facebook page that it would be recounting the county’s votes through the first half of this week with the process expected to be completed by 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18.
A recount of this magnitude has not been conducted before in Georgia and follows record turnout in the Nov. 3 general election. Raffensperger said the hand count should instill confidence in the final election results amid growing — and unproven — accusations of voter fraud.
“We understand the significance of this for not just Georgia but for every single American,” Raffensperger said. “At the end of the day, when we do a hand count, then we can answer the question of exactly what was the final margin in this race.”
Officials with both Cedartown and Rockmart are encouraging local groups and organizations to sign up for this year’s holiday events that are being held in place of the usual downtown parades.
The deadline to register for both the City of Cedartown’s Reverse Christmas Parade and the City of Rockmart’s Christmas Display Contest is Dec. 1. Both events are designed to encourage physical distancing in order to cut down on the threat of COVID-19.
Cedartown’s “reverse” parade will be held Dec. 5 from 6 until 8 p.m. and will be set up at the Polk County Fairgrounds, ensuring plenty of space for displays as spectators drive through a route.
Entry forms must be turned in to City Hall by 5 p.m. on Dec. 1. There is no fee to participate, and the form and a copy of parade rules can be found at www.cedartowngeorgia.gov.
Though the event will look different compared to previous years, the prize money up for grabs remains the same. There will be $500 for a first-place win, $300 for second and $200 for third in each category, open division and church division. A grand prize of $500 will be given to an overall winner.
The theme for this year’s event is “Let It Snow.” Churches, businesses, organizations and residents wishing to participate this year are asked to decorate according to the theme.
Entrants must provide their own power (if needed). Electrical access will not be available at the fairgrounds. Floats are of course welcome to participate, but so are displays and live nativities. For more information on the parade, visit www.cedartowngeorgia.gov or call 770-748-3220.
The Rockmart Cultural Arts Center and the City of Rockmart are taking a different approach by having community groups, churches, schools and businesses create holiday displays visible from the outside and register them with the city.
The theme is “Angels Among Us,” and there is no entry fee to register. Applications must be turned in on or before Dec. 1, with displays completed by Dec. 5 in order to be judged between Dec. 5-12. Winners will be announced on Dec. 14.
Cash prizes will be available for first, second and third place winners in each of the three categories — churches, schools/clubs/nonprofits, and commercial. Prize amounts are $500 for first, $300 for second and $150 for third, except for the commercial category, which are $300, $200 and $100.
Official rules and instructions, as well as an online entry form, can be found at rockmart-ga.gov.
God’s Loving Angels and the Stocks family of Rockmart will be providing food to those in need close to Thanksgiving this year instead of holding their annual community Thanksgiving feast. Volunteers will be distributing food on Nov. 21 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Seaborn Jones Park in downtown Rockmart. Anyone wishing to receive food can drive up near the Silver Comet trailhead and it will be placed in your trunk.
The Cedartown Recreation Department is holding online registration for the upcoming youth basketball season at www.cedartownrec.org. In-person registration will be held at certain dates in November at the Nathan Dean Gym at Bert Wood Park, 605 Lynton Drive, in Cedartown. The in-person dates are Nov. 16, 17, and 19 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Nov. 23 and 24 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Registration is $40 per child and is open to boys and girls ages 5-12. For more information call 770-748-7783.
The American Red Cross will hold a blood drive at First Baptist Church of Rockmart, 311 E. Elm St., on Nov. 19 from 2-7 p.m. There is a critical need for blood at this time and donors can be tested for the COVID-19 antibody.
Tallatoona CAP is scheduling appointments for the LIHEAP Heating Assistance Program for the senior households 65 years of age and older. The general public may begin scheduling appointments starting Dec. 1 at 8:30a.m. For more information or to schedule an appointment visit www.tallatoonacap.org or call the appointment line at 770-817-4666 and select option 2.
The Rockmart Cultural Arts Center is hosting the exhibit “Angels Among Us” at its gallery through Dec. 24, 2020 along with many local handmade items in its gift shop. Artwork is on display from 30 artists in a variety of mediums with angels, nurses, firemen. Church groups are welcome to schedule a tour with masks and social distancing. For more information call 770-684-2707 or visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rcac.ga.
The Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living holds a COVID-19 Peer Support call every Monday at 2 p.m. via the Zoom website and by phone. For the link and password, or if you need assistance, contact Christina Holtzclaw at 628-246-1825 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NWGA Center for Independent Living is offering free Personal Protection CARE Kits to people with disabilities who live in Northwest Georgia. The kits include three face masks, two disposable thermometers, give pair of gloves and alcohol wipes. To request a kit and become a consumer, contact the center at 706-314-0008 or email@example.com.
Want to get your event or announcement on the calendar? Email JStewart@polkstandardjournal.com.
Want to get your event or announcement on the calendar? E-mail JStewart@polkstandardjournal.com.