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Local Govt & Politics

    Gwinnett’s delegation to the state Legislature had its annual meeting with county officials on Thursday morning — the first major gathering of the county’s elected leaders since last month’s historic election that tilted local power toward Democrats. In a wave that in one way or another was expected, Democrats turned Gwinnett’s delegation on its head in November. The party converted a five-seat deficit into a nine-seat advantage with the party now holding a 17-8 advantage in its delegation of state lawmakers. Members of the newly empowered party said they plan to work with their Republican colleagues and try to find common ground, but that doesn’t mean they won’t push a progressive agenda when they can. Or that they’re not already making plans. “Of course, now that we are in power, we’ve got to govern,” said Rep. Pedro Marin, a Duluth Democrat who is now Gwinnett’s longest-tenured legislator. “We’ve already been meeting and we’ve got some ideas about what we have to do.” Having a majority on a local delegation can be largely symbolic. That’s especially true for Democrats in Georgia, where Republicans still hold a significant advantage in both the state House and Senate. But being in control will give the party more sway on issues that directly impact Gwinnett. Legislative delegations can make changes to the way things operate in their communities by championing local legislation about specific issues in the county. Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, said he hopes to push measures that would expand the size of Gwinnett’s county commission and its school board.Democrats and other advocacy groups have criticized the current structure of Gwinnett’s governing bodies. Four district commissioners and a countywide chairman currently represent the county’s more than 900,000 residents. The school board has five members. Litigation has also been filed alleging that the way both local bodies’ districts are drawn dilutes the potential influence of minority voters (though that claim may have lost some urgency in November, when a total of three people of color were elected to the commission and school board). Marin pitched a bill regarding expansion of Gwinnett’s governing bodies in the legislature’s most recent session, but it went nowhere. The county’s Republican-led delegation had no real interest. “I think what people will see more so now,” McClain said, is legislators “being more responsive, and people being more taken care of, instead of things.” Chuck Efstration was one of just a few local Republicans who won reelection this year. But the representative from Dacula was optimistic that little would change, at least functionally. “We’re going to have an outstanding working relationship … that is not bogged down by partisan affiliation,” he said. Gwinnett has been a Republican stronghold for decades, but the last few election cycles have made clear that the county is now up for grabs for either party — if not distinctly left-leaning. Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016’s presidential election, and Democrat Stacey Abrams bested Gov.-elect Brian Kemp by more than 14 points in last month’s contest. Two Democrats will be joining the five-member Gwinnett County commission in January. They’ll be the board’s first Democrats in more than 30 years. Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, a Republican, said the priorities that county officials presented to Gwinnett’s legislative delegation on Thursday were little different than they’ve been with her party in control of the state delegation over the last several years (or decades, for that matter). Most issues the county government deals with are less political than practical, she said. “I don’t start with the idea that just because we’re different political parties means that we can’t work together,” said Nash. “…We’re gonna try to keep focusing on what we think is important for the community, and I have no reason to believe any of the newly elected officials want to do anything other than that as well.”
  • This report has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of Mann’s charges. When DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann pleaded guilty to charges last year after an episode where he allegedly exposed himself to an Atlanta officer, it threatened his law enforcement certification and ultimately his job. But a year-and-a-half later, with the state police oversight agency having decided to take away Mann’s law enforcement license, he still serves as sheriff. He has appealed the decision by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (P.O.S.T.) to revoke his certification. The state appeals process is moving so slowly that the prospect that Mann could serve out his term and face re-election in 2020 without a resolution seems increasingly possible. A spokeswoman for Mann said he will not comment about his appeal of the P.O.S.T. council’s decision. While his appeal is pending, his status remains unchanged. Esther Panitch, an Atlanta attorney who is not connected to the case, said she was surprised to hear that Mann’s case was still unresolved. “There is no reason it should take this long if somebody is in office who has admitted guilt in a crime,” she said. There are multiple levels to the appeals, and Mann is entitled to due process, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “It would be no different than ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in any other case,” Norris said. Mann’s ordeal started in May 2017 when Atlanta police charged him with public indecency and obstruction of an officer. An Atlanta officer accused him of exposing his genitals late one night in Piedmont Park then running away to evade arrest.  The episode was another blow to DeKalb government’s image, and Gov. Nathan Deal suspended the sheriff for 40 days. As he was returning to work, Mann worked out a plea agreement in July 2017 that required him to admit guilt to obstruction and a charge of prohibited conduct. He agreed to a $2,000 fine and 80 hours of community service. Mann was also barred from entering any park in the city of Atlanta for six months. In September 2017, the POST Council voted unanimously to revoke Mann’s law enforcement certification, a requirement under state law for elected sheriffs. A letter in his case file from Attorney General Christopher Carr criticizes his conduct. “The sheriff’s behavior demonstrated a lack of respect for law enforcement and for the office Sheriff Mann holds,” Carr wrote. “Sheriff Mann’s flight from Officer (Sherrod) Snell in the park and in the surrounding neighborhood could have placed the lives of the pursuing officer, himself and other citizens at risk that night.” The case was far from over. Mann met with a POST hearing officer in March in hopes of reaching a settlement that allowed him to keep his certification. He wasn’t successful, and the initial decision was upheld. Mann elected to appeal to an administrative law judge at Georgia’s Office of State Administrative Hearings. But the case can’t proceed in court until Carr’s office sends in the file, which hasn’t happened. Katie Byrd, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, said his office won’t comment on the pending appeal or offer any timetable for when Carr will move the case forward. Data from POST indicates that Mann may be a high-profile example of a process that is known for dragging along. Ryan Powell, the council’s deputy executive director, said that over the past three years POST has recommended that 2,414 law enforcement officers have their certifications revoked. Of those, 319 were appealed. Most appeals are handled within three months, Powell said, but it can take longer if attorneys ask for more time. “It also takes a considerably longer time if the case is forwarded to the Attorney General’s office for a hearing,” Powell said in an email. “If the case is forwarded to the AG’s office, it is not uncommon for the case to take several years before being heard.” If Mann disagrees with the administrative judge’s decision, his appeals could transfer to a higher court. He was elected sheriff in a 2014 special election, then won a full term in 2016. While his appeals have been pending, Mann has remained active in his role as sheriff operating DeKalb’s jail and overseeing a force of deputies. According to state records, Mann oversees roughly 700 certified deputies and jailers. If his certification is still intact in 2020, he will be eligible to run again. Panitch said Georgia citizens should not have to wait years to see if officers accused of wrong-doing are allowed to continue working. “If there is such a long wait for law enforcement officials to be evaluated, it makes me wonder how many others are waiting for an appeal,” she said. “And is that wait harmful to the citizens of this state?”
  • The MARTA Board of Directors Thursday approved plans for a Clayton County passenger rail line that supporters hope will transform commuting on the south side of metro Atlanta. The line would stretch 22-miles from MARTA’s East Point Station to Lovejoy, via Jonesboro. If all goes well, construction could get under way in 2023, with service beginning in 2027. The board also approved plans for a new bus rapid transit route from Southlake Mall to College Park Station. And it agreed to continue studying other transit options for Clayton County. The moves are the latest fruit of Clayton voters’ 2014 decision to join MARTA and pay a 1-cent sales tax for transit expansion. And they’re another sign that – after decades of stagnation – transit expansion is gaining steam across metro Atlanta. “Since first expanding to Clayton County three years ago, MARTA service has changed the lives of thousands of residents,” said board member Roberta Abdul-Salaam, who represents the county. “This continued expansion shows a strong commitment to community and economic development for one of metro Atlanta’s fastest-growing areas.” The board picked commuter rail as the “locally preferred alternative” for its planned high-capacity transit line in Clayton County. It’s a key step in the process of obtaining crucial federal funding for the project. The Clayton rail line would be comparable to commuter railroads found in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. Commuter rail features diesel-powered trains that could be bigger and faster than MARTA’s existing electric rail vehicles. The trains can seat up to 1,000 passengers, compared to 500 for MARTA’s existing trains. And commuter trains average 35 mph to 45 mph, vs. 30 mph to 35 mph for the existing ones. The line would parallel existing Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, using the same right of way – reducing construction costs, which have not been determined. MARTA must still negotiate an agreement with the railroad, which has declined to comment. The MARTA Board also agreed to upgrade bus Route 196 to bus rapid transit. The line carries some 3,800 passengers on an average weekday between Southlake Mall and College Park Station. When it’s upgraded, buses may operate in an exclusive lane or get priority at stoplights to speed up service. Finally, the board agreed to continue analyzing transit options for other busy corridors, including Tara Boulevard. MARTA has operated local bus service in Clayton County since 2015. Ridership has grown substantially since then. CEO Jeffrey Parker said MARTA is “incredibly excited to take this important step in fulfilling our promise to Clayton County of first-class transit, economic opportunity and community development.”
  • MARTA will beef up staffing and security for the SEC Championship as it continues to prepare for the larger national spotlight of the upcoming Super Bowl. Saturday’s game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will serve as a test for MARTA, which made changes after the debacle that followed last January’s college football championship game. Hundreds of fans were stranded at Five Points Station until nearly 2 a.m. “We are committed to delivering outstanding service not just to our daily riders but the tens of thousands of people who will use our system during major events such as the SEC Championship Game and the upcoming Super Bowl,” said MARTA General Manager Jeffrey Parker. Here’s a look at how MARTA plans to make things easier for fans attending the big game: Trains will run every 10 minutes between the Lindbergh and Airport stations on north-south lines, as well as between King Memorial and Ashby on east-west lines. MARTA will deploy “transit ambassadors” to the Dome and Vine City stations adjacent to the stadium, as well as to end-of-the-line stations at North Springs, H.E. Holmes, College Park and Indian Creek. They will greet riders and assist them with directions and Breeze Card purchases. Other employees will help load and unload trains and prevent platform overcrowding at the Dome, Vine City and Five Points stations. In addition to the usual vending machines, MARTA employees will sell Breeze Cards at numerous stations. Bathrooms will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. at numerous stations. Previously, they closed at 7 p.m. The MARTA Police Department will supplement its uniform patrol division with other officers during the game. It also will use more than 10,000 security cameras to monitor the transit system. MARTA’s preparations for big events have become a matter of intense interest since the problems following January’s game, which also featured Georgia and Alabama. Fans described a chaotic scene at Five Points, the hub of the MARTA system, as northbound trains failed to depart, even as more fans arrived from the stadium. Some fans searched in vain for MARTA employees who could provide information and control the crowd. It took more than an hour to clear the station. MARTA later said medical emergencies at other stations prevented the trains from leaving, but short-staffing, poor communication and ineffective crowd control exacerbated the problem. The agency has vowed to be ready for the Feb. 3 Super Bowl. “This year, we have seen tremendous success during the Peachtree Road Race, MLS All-Star Game and dozens of other events, and this football game is a great opportunity for MARTA to continue providing the service and support needed to move large crowds of people safely and efficiently through our city,” Parker said.
  • Stockbridge officials spent more than $660,000 of taxpayer funds to beat back an attempt by the Eagle’s Landing community to break away and become its own city, financial records show. The majority of the money — almost $481,000 — was paid to law firms that represented Stockbridge in unsuccessful suits to keep the cityhood referendum off the Nov. 6 ballot. VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue But the city also spent more than $120,000 on lobbyists, who tried to convince the state Legislature to oppose the cityhood effort; more than $20,000 on studies that looked at the impact the separation would have on Stockbridge; and $17,000 on postage for anti-cityhood fliers and postcards sent to homes. “For a city the size of Stockbridge, (the cost) was not insignificant, but it wasn’t fatal,” said Kennesaw state economist Roger Tutterow. “I’m not sure that the city had a lot of choice because, had the restructuring gone through, it would have had implications for tax revenues not just this one time, but going forward forever.” In a referendum earlier this month, voters rejected the cityhood measure roughly by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin. Eagle’s Landing cityhood backers have said they wanted to secede to have more local control over city services and to jump-start economic development in the community. But Stockbridge leaders argued that attracting development would be better accomplished as one community instead of two. The cityhood plan would have de-annexed half of Stockbridge — including 50 percent of businesses — and married it with areas of unincorporated Henry County to form the new municipality. In its efforts to keep that from happening, Stockbridge paid roughly $304,000 to the law firm of Balch & Bingham, which counts former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers among its staff. The firm argued that the referendum was unconstitutional before the state Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford said he wants to continue to pursue the legal case because it could create a precedent if there are other cityhood movements that would seek to de-annex an already incorporated city to form a different town. The city spent about $5,000 on bus rentals, parking and lunches as it took residents to the Georgia State Capitol to protest the legislation that would eventually allow Eagle’s Landing to seek cityhood. Other costs included $7,000 for T-shirts, meals, paper copies, newspaper and Facebook advertising and office products.
  • Two Iranian citizens have been indicted for a series of cyber attacks across America, including the March assault of the city of Atlanta’s computer systems, according to an FBI announcement Wednesday morning. The cyber attack on Atlanta caused myriad issues with the city’s computer systems and could end up costing $17 million to taxpayers, according to one report. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the indictment also accuses the same defendants of a similar attack on the city of Newark, N.J., and some 200 other victims, including hospitals and health care agencies. VIDEO: More on the Atlanta cyber attack The defendants, Faramarz Shahi Savandi, 34, and Mohammad Mehdi Shah Mansouri, 27, allegedly collected some $6 million from various victims. Officials declined to say if Atlanta paid a ransom. The defendants, who may still be in Iran, are not in custody. The FBI said the attacks were part of an increase of such activity from Iran, but officials made no allegation that the government of the country was involved. The defendants used so-called ransomware to shut down computer systems and then demand payments to restore the systems, according to the federal indictment, which was filed in Newark.  “According to the indictment, the hackers infiltrated computer systems in 10 states and Canada and then demanded payment,” Rosenstein said. “The criminal activity harmed state agencies, city governments, hospitals, and countless innocent victims.” EARLIER COVERAGE: Confidential report: Atlanta’s cyber attack could cost taxpayers $17 million Atlanta police recovering from breach, ‘years’ of dashcam video lost Atlanta city employees turn on computers for the first time since hack In June, Atlanta  announced it had largely recovered from the March attack, but the Atlanta Police Department said it had lost 'years' of dashcam video. The six-count indictment accuses the defendants of a 34-months-long hacking and extortion scheme using malware called “SamSam Ransomware.” It was capable of forcibly encrypting data on the computers of victims, locking out the victims. “The City of Atlanta is aware of the U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment related to the March cyber-attack against the City,” a spokesperson for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement Wednesday. “The Administration remains committed to ensuring the ongoing safety and security of the City’s cyber-infrastructure, as well as that of the people of Atlanta.” The men are accused of seeking out victims who would be most vulnerable and stand to lose the most by being attacked.  Among the more than 200 victims FBI named were hospitals, municipalities, and public institutions. In addition to Atlanta and Newark, other victims were: the Port of San Diego, California; the Colorado Department of Transportation; the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and six health care-related entities: Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, California; Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita, Kansas; Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, more commonly known as LabCorp, headquartered in Burlington, North Carolina; MedStar Health, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland; Nebraska Orthopedic Hospital now known as OrthoNebraska Hospital, in Omaha, Nebraska and Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc., headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Return to ajc.com for more on this developing story.
  • New projections put the cost of administering Gwinnett’s stand-alone MARTA election at about $769,000 — more than a quarter-million dollars higher than initial estimates. The Gwinnett Board of Commissioners voted in August to call the referendum, during which voters will decide if the county should join MARTA and pay an extra 1 percent sales tax to cover the billions necessary for new transit projects. Transit advocates and Democrats rejoiced but also called foul — because the referendum was scheduled to be held all by itself on March 19, not during November’s general election. IN-DEPTH: Gwinnett’s proposed 2019 budget: pay raises and more officers When county officials initially estimated that the standalone March vote would cost around $500,000, the same folks criticized the government for wasting money, too. Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash revealed Tuesday her proposed county budget for 2019, it allotted even more money to run the county’s first MARTA vote since 1990. The $768,937 budgeted for the referendum includes enough funding to offer six full days of advance voting at seven different satellite locations, plus one Sunday of early voting at the elections office, Gwinnett spokeswoman Heather Sawyer said. That’s in addition to typical offerings like Election Day voting at the county’s 156 precincts.  Nash previously said that “having as much support from members of the Board of Commissioners for the ballot question[was] important enough to warrant the cost” of holding a special election rather than tacking the MARTA referendum onto ballots for elections that were already being held.  District 4 Commissioner John Heard — who lost his re-election bid earlier this month — has admitted he traded his support for the referendum in exchange for having the election pushed back to March. Voting in Gwinnett has also come under fire in recent weeks, with the county — a longtime Republican stronghold that’s quickly turning blue — becoming the target of multiple lawsuits and other accusations regarding transparency and the way it evaluates certain ballots. All of that is likely to add an extra layer to the already contentious MARTA vote, which has the potential to pave the way for heavy rail in Gwinnett.  The county’s plans include the possibility of extending rail from the existing Doraville MARTA station to the area near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 in Norcross — and perhaps all the way to the Gwinnett Place Mall area. One recent poll raised questions about Gwinnett County’s appetite for transit, to which the suburb has been historically averse. But Nash helped create the legislation that allows Gwinnett to call a referendum, and she has been bullish on the odds of it passing.  A survey released earlier this month by the Atlanta Regional Commission found that more than half of Gwinnett residents asked were willing to pay more taxes for transit expansion.
  • UPDATE, 5:00 P.M.: Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux has formally conceded. “This campaign was about more than me; it was about building community and working for change,' she said in a news release. 'We moved the needle in this district more than anyone thought possible.' Read full coverage here. UPDATE, 3:50 P.M.: Rob Woodall picked up nine votes in the Gwinnett County recount. Carolyn Bourdeaux picked up one additional vote. That would place Woodall’s new -- and perhaps final -- lead at 433 votes. UPDATE, 2:45 P.M.: The Forsyth County portion of the 7th Congressional District recount is complete -- and Republican incumbent Rob Woodall appeared to widen his margin by six votes.  Information released by Forsyth showed Woodall had gained four new votes while Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux lost two.  That would put Woodall’s lead at 425 votes. Gwinnett County, which makes up the lion’s share of the 7th District, was nearing completion of its own recount. ORIGINAL: The camp of Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux is questioning the transparency of Wednesday’s scheduled recount in the tightly contested race to represent Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.  Bourdeaux, who is trailing Republican incumbent Rob Woodall by just over 400 votes for the seat that’s split between Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, officially requested the recount Tuesday afternoon. It began at 10 a.m. and, as of 1:45 p.m., had not been completed in either Forsyth or Gwinnett.  An order from Secretary of State Robyn Crittenden directed elections officials to “manually review by hand, in plain view of the public and designated officials for both candidates, any optical scan ballots” that have extra votes, stray marks or are folded or bent in such a way that they can’t be scanned.  Most ballots are cast electronically and will be recounted the same way. But the roughly 20,000 paper absentee and provisional ballots received by Gwinnett County — about 70 percent of which could be from the 7th District — are scanned individually.  An email exchange between Bourdeaux campaign manager Spencer Smith and Bryan Tyson, an attorney for Gwinnett County, suggests Gwinnett plans to manually review paper ballots only if they can’t be successfully scanned first.  The Bourdeaux camp, which provided the email chain with Tyson to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, doesn’t think that’s good enough. It believes Crittenden’s directive instructed elections officials to manually review all paper ballots, period. “There’s nothing in the order from the [Secretary of State] that says that they have to be rejected by the machine first,” Smith wrote in a Tuesday night email.  In response, Tyson said that scanning machines would reject ballots with the issues listed in the Secretary of State’s order. “The ballots that are rejected by the optical scan machines for those reasons or otherwise cannot be read by those machines will be hand-reviewed in accordance with the Secretary of State’s directive regarding the recount,” Tyson wrote, according to the email chain. The Bourdeaux team also raised questions about being relegated Wednesday to an observation area separated by a glass partition from those actually counting ballots— “where we could not read the ballots even if we had binoculars,” as Smith put it in an email. Smith actually brought binoculars Wednesday. Tyson responded that any ballots reviewed by hand will by evaluated by at least one Democrat, one Republican and one independent member of the five-person Gwinnett elections board.  “Your objection about the observation area is noted,” Tyson wrote. “Gwinnett will ensure that the Democratic members of the Board of Elections are personally reviewing all of the ballots that are required to be reviewed by hand.”  Gwinnett officials did not immediately respond to a request for further comment. In a conversation with Smith outside the elections board meeting room Wednesday morning, Van Stephens, another county attorney, confirmed Gwinnett’s stance regarding observation. A pair of observers from the U.S. House of Representatives were later allowed behind the glass, Gwinnett elections board chairman Stephen Day said. The county has been under fire throughout the current election season. A number of court orders and guidance from the Secretary of State’s office ultimately led the county to accept hundreds of ballots that might not have otherwise been counted.  One restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May directed Gwinnett to reassess and count absentee ballots and applications that were rejected solely due to signature mismatches. Another stopped Gwinnett from rejecting absentee ballots due to birthdate issues — most commonly the result of voters leaving that space blank or erroneously listing the current year.  A third court order instructed Gwinnett and other counties to allow voters whose registrations were erroneously flagged due to citizenship questions to cast ballots.  The county certified its election results on Thursday, two days later than originally planned.  Wednesday’s recount is also scheduled to include ballots in Gwinnett County Board of Education District 2, where Republican Steven Knudsen leads Democrat Wandy Taylor by 118 votes.
  • Sometimes, when Cahmbriel Clackum gets home from night shifts at the hospital, her spine hurts bad enough she just sits in the car for a while, afraid to move. “I have to convince myself to get up because the pain is so bad,” the Cobb County native, a vital signs monitor tech, said recently. She had just had a particularly bad morning, unable to sleep because of a cruel radiating sensation creeping up her back into her neck. She tossed for hours, worried that the pain, more intense than normal, was revealing some new problem. Clackum, who’s been in health care more than a decade, doesn’t take opioids because she’s seen the deadly consequences. Like many Georgians, she’s been afraid to try medical marijuana, the one thing she believes could safely free her from this hamstrung life. Under state law, she could legally use oil derived from cannabis — the scientific name for marijuana — but she knows there’s nothing to stop an employer from firing her over it. Workers in various trades across Georgia are frustrated by the friction between the law allowing the use of cannabis oil and other laws that allows employers to fire workers for using the drug because it’s federally illegal. Many residents fear losing jobs or not being able to get one if they fail a drug screening test. During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers intend to search for a way to satisfy employers and protect patients who are following state law while still performing their jobs well. “We hear almost every week from someone who is concerned about potential employment issues,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. The legislator led the push for Georgia to legalize cannabis oil with only low amounts of THC, the constituent that gives the user a high. Peake said he’s heard push back from some business leaders who want to run “drug-free” workplaces and are afraid about employees coming to work impaired, even though the oil has little THC. Peake, who’s retiring at the end of the year, is encouraging colleagues in the Gold Dome to not give up on finding a solution. The best idea Peake has come up with is for legislators to pass a bill requiring companies that want to fire an employee to prove medical marijuana caused the worker to be impaired on the job. A 2018 survey by the employee screening firm HireRight found that 63 percent of employers it works with conduct drug tests; 38 percent don’t allow the use of medical marijuana; 17 percent allow it only on a case-by-case basis; and 33 percent have no policy. Many companies are growing more tolerant, but employers aren’t keeping pace with the states that are allowing more access to the medicine, HireRight found. In 2015, the National Institute of Health issued guidance for American hospitals, urging them to come up with policies on medical marijuana use for employees. The guidance said hospitals could chose whether to allow workers to use the medicine as long as it doesn’t affect the work or to bar them from using it on or off the clock. In Georgia, the majority of hospitals drug test as a condition of hiring and randomly screen employees, according to the Georgia Hospital Association. Clackum said the hospitals she’s worked at don’t allow medical marijuana use. State Rep. Micah Gravley, a Republican co-chairman of a committee studying changes to Georgia’s medical marijuana laws, said he intends to search for a fix to the employment issue during the 2019 legislative session, though he isn’t sure what the solution could look like yet. “I think we have to at least try to address it,” he said. “The medical cannabis oil is, in my opinion, a safer option from some of the drugs these people are having to take.” Whatever state lawmakers do, they may run afoul of federal law allowing workplace drug testing and deeming marijuana illegal in all forms. Gravley hopes U.S. lawmakers will clear the way for new leniency from employers. Congress could do that by acknowledging the potential of cannabis and removing it from the list of Schedule 1 drugs, which the government claims have no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse. For Clackum, such hope is nice. But with no guarantees, she decided to do something drastic. ‘Injustice’ Clackum — who is in her thirties, single and loves to write historical fiction on the Revolutionary War — said multiple relatives have had spinal issues. For her, the inherited problems were exacerbated by years of heavy lifting, both at work and in recreation. By 2013, while living in Ellijay, she had surgery to improve her ability to walk. The operation helped with mobility, but the hurt didn’t stop. In 2014, she kept up with Peake’s fight in the Georgia capitol to make cannabis oil available for medical use. Peake’s legislation failed that year, only to pass the next year with one glaring hole: the one that says you can possess the oil but not buy it. Clackum remembers feeling taken aback that her home state could do no better in helping residents use a medicine she sees as “not only harmless but helpful.” She calls it an “injustice.” Since the law passed, the list of approved uses for the oil in Georgia has been expanded to include chronic pain, like Clackum’s. According to the state health department, more than 7,400 Georgians have obtained a state-issued card the law requires for them to possess cannabis oil. While many residents have found ways to get the oil, Clackum knew she couldn’t join them because of her job. Meanwhile, pain hurts her in so many ways. She used to have hair down to her waist, but she had to cut it off because the weight hurt her neck. The pain plunged her into a deep, long depression at least once. It makes her tired. It leads her to take ibuprofen way too much, possibly damaging her liver. It keeps her from exercising in some of the more intensive ways she’d like to, such as weightlifting and running. It even makes writing hard since she can only sit at the keyboard so long. Last December, she decided she had to make a change. She left Georgia. Fighting a nightmare with a dream In Newport News, Va., she still works at a hospital and fears being fired for using medical marijuana. But Clackum moved there with hopes of starting her own business, which is a dream but also a way to be her own boss and not worry what anyone thinks of her medicine. The company, which she plans to open next year, will offer tours around Yorktown, the site of the last battle of the Revolutionary War on American soil. For as long as she can remember, she’s been obsessed with the war. She’s decorated her apartment with Revolutionary War collectibles, including portraits of key figures such as battle legend Daniel Morgan, cavalry officer William Washington and Major Gen. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III. People of strength who beat great odds. One recent morning, Clackum was fighting her own battle. She tossed and tossed in bed, worried and hurting. Finally, she went to YouTube and looked up a song called “Weightless.” It’s 10-hours long, a droning ethereal piece composed for relaxation with just one chord: a D minor, which is both mournful and soothing. At some point, she drifted away. When she woke up, she was soon back to work on the business plan, the pain motivating her.
  • Fresh from igniting what could be a major expansion of public transportation in metro Atlanta, state lawmakers are taking aim at a more difficult task: fixing transit in rural Georgia. Across large swaths of the state, seniors struggle to make it to medical appointments, workers can’t get to jobs and college students can’t find a ride to class. Many don’t own cars. And unlike their peers in metro Atlanta, their public transit options and private services like Uber and Lyft are limited or nonexistent. VIDEO: More transit news Now a state House of Representatives commission is exploring options to meet rural Georgia’s unique transit needs while also limiting state spending. The commission is considering various private sector incentives, such as tax credits for employers, as well as transit subsidies for the unemployed in rural areas and small cities. “I’m excited to see what can come out of something like that, creating a competitive environment,” said Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who chairs the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding. “We want to create an environment for innovation.” Tanner’s commission spent last year crafting transit legislation for metro Atlanta. The result, House Bill 930, allowed 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes for mass transit. It also created a regional board to oversee transit planning and construction. The idea is to encourage new service and transform a mishmash of transit agencies into a seamless regional system. The fruits of that legislation are already evident. In March,Gwinnett County residents will consider joining MARTA and approving a 1-cent sales tax for transit expansion. If successful, the measure would extend MARTA rail service to Norcross and expand bus service across the county. Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb counties also are contemplating transit expansions made possible by HB 930. In metro Atlanta, transit expansion may involve new MARTA rail lines and new bus routes. But that approach won’t necessarily work for the two million Georgians who are scattered in rural areas and small cities across the state. These sparsely populated communities don’t have the riders or concentrated tax base to fund traditional mass transit systems. Instead, residents in 118 rural counties are served by sixty-five small transit operations that provide mostly on-call van services, rather than fixed-route buses. Officials in these areas say they are a vital link for their residents - but there’s not enough service to meet the demand. That’s why Tanner’s commission is seeking different strategies to help enhance these services and expand transportation options for residents in these areas. In recent months, senior citizens’ advocates, college officials and business leaders have told lawmakers they face unique challenges as they try to help people get where they need to go. Eve Anthony, CEO of the Athens Community Council on Aging, said as seniors age their loss of independence and mobility can have devastating consequences, especially in rural areas. The agency, which serves seniors in 27 northeast Georgia counties, doesn’t have enough funding to transport all seniors who need help. She recalled an elderly Clarke County woman who repeatedly asked for transportation help when the agency delivered meals to her home. The agency couldn’t provide it. Later, the woman was struck and killed by a car while crossing the road. “It’s really hard to say no,” Anthony said, “and transportation is the service we have to say ‘no’ to most.” For workers, lack of mobility can mean lost opportunity, particularly if they live paycheck to paycheck and don’t own a dependable car. Brianna Wilson, who owns a staffing agency in Albany, said the city has bus service, but it doesn’t reach some major employers in the rural areas of southwest Georgia. To help fill the void, Wilson is launching a new company that will transport workers to their jobs. “We have some really good employees,” she said. “They just need someone to reach out and say, ‘here’s how we can do it.’” That’s where Tanner’s commission comes in. The group is discussing tax credits that employers could use to help pay for new workers’ transit passes or vouchers for private transportation services. The commission also is considering direct transportation subsidies for the unemployed. Tanner said this assistance would draw new people into the workforce, generating payroll tax revenue to partially offset the costs. Other ideas the commission is kicking around include: *Shifting state hotel-motel tax proceeds dedicated to road and bridge construction to rural transit. Tanner said Georgia’s motor fuel sales tax – which can only be spent on road work – could be raised to ensure spending on roads is not diminished. *Assigning one state agency the authority to oversee transit funding in rural Georgia. Currently, three agencies handle various aspects of transit funding. Tanner said the savings from consolidation could be used for transit service. *Dividing the state into regions based on traffic and economic patterns. Each region would produce its own plan to improve transit service. The state could pay for pilot projects proposed by the various regions. Tanner hopes to finalize recommendations in December and to unveil legislation in the upcoming session of the General Assembly. “You’re talking about a lot of moving parts – three state agencies and a whole host of rural transit providers out there,” he said. “It’s a difficult lift. But I do think it would be positive if we could get it done.”