Thursday, March 30, 2023

Local Oconee County Legislation, District Attorney Oversight, Ban On Gas Powered Leaf Blowers, Part Of Final Days Of General Assembly

***Watkinsville Gets Authority***

In the last two days of the legislative session, which ended on Wednesday, the Georgia House and Senate agreed to create an oversight commission for district attorneys, with the support of Oconee County’s legislators, who had championed the effort.

The General Assembly didn’t agree to make district attorney races nonpartisan, to make it easier to recall the district attorney, or to move Banks County from the Piedmont Judicial Circuit, perhaps putting into motion transfer of Oconee to the Piedmont Circuit.

The House rejected the Senate’s bill creating vouchers for students who opted out of attending public schools–a bill opposed by the Oconee County Board of Education.

Despite that opposition, Oconee County’s Rep. Houston Gaines and Rep. Marcus Wiedower voted in favor of the voucher bill, as did Oconee County’s Sen. Bill Cowsert.

All three of Oconee County’s legislators voted in favor of a modified House Bill 189, increasing the weight of trucks on state and county roads.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell spoke out against increasing truck weights as the bill was being discussed.

The House and Senate approved 10 local bills requested by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to give voters a chance to increase the homestead exemption and to freeze property taxes assessments once the owner turns age 65.

Oconee County’s delegates voted with the majorities of both the Senate and the House to tell local governments they cannot ban gas powered leaf blowers and they must enforce local laws banning homeless camps, to approve a state budget, and to grant Watkinsville the ability to create a Public Facilities Authority.

District Attorney Legislation

Gaines, who represents Oconee County’s Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts in House District 120, was the co-sponsor of House Bill 231, creating an Oversight Commission for District Attorneys.

Gaines Screen Shot 3/29/2023

Cowsert, who represents all of Oconee County in the 46th Senate District, was co-sponsor of Senate Bill 92, which creates a Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission with “the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement” of district attorneys or solicitor’s general.

Senate Bill 92 was agreed to by both houses on Monday night.

Both Gaines and Cowsert made it clear that they had District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat, in mind when they fashioned the legislation. Gaines, Cowsert, and Wiedower are Republicans.

Gaines also sponsored House Bill 229, which Wiedower co-sponsored, to reduce the number of voters required to initiate a recall petition and dramatically reduce the number of voters required to approve the petition for an actual recall election to be held for the district attorney.

That bill never made it out of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.

Savannah Rep. Jesse Petrea of the 116th House District introduced House Bill 48, that would have made the election of the district attorneys nonpartisan.

That bill never got out of the House Governmental Affairs Committee.

Less Prominent Bill For Banks County

The bills creating an oversight commission as well as the recall and nonpartisan bill received some attention.

Wiedower Official Photo

Less prominent were House Bill 368 and Senate Bill 269, which would have moved Banks County from the Piedmont Judicial Circuit to the Mountain Judicial Circuit.

The Banks County Board of Commissioners requested the move in a resolution it passed on Feb. 22, 2022.

The resolution stated that “the population of Banks County is more similar to the population of the counties in the Mountain Judicial Circuit than the counties in the Piedmont Judicial Circuit.”

The resolution also states “Banks County feels that it has no voice at the polls, now or in the future, in electing the Judges of the Superior Court or the District Attorney of the Piedmont Judicial Circuit.”

Chris Erwin, of Homer and the 32nd House District, introduced House Bill 368, and Bo Hatchett of Clarkesville, representing the 50th Senate District, introduced Senate Bill 259.

The Senate Bill passed that body, with Cowsert voting in favor, and was sent to the House Judiciary Committee. It never was voted on by the House, and House Bill 368 never received a vote in the House.

Implications For Oconee

The Piedmont Judicial Circuit consists of Banks, Barrow, and Jackson counties. Oconee and Clarke counties form the bordering Western Judicial Circuit.

Wiedower and Gaines had asked the Workload Assessment Committee of the state Judicial Council to review a possible boundary change for the Western Judicial Circuit in 2021, following the election of Gonzalez the previous year.

The Workload Assessment Committee recommended against the change, and the Judicial Council accepted that recommendation.

I sent Cowsert and Gaines an email on Tuesday (March 28) asking: “Has there been any discussion of changes in the Western Judicial Circuit in the context of the proposed change to the Piedmont Judicial Circuit?” Neither answered.

I also wrote to Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz and Oconee County Commission Chair Daniell asking the same question.

“There was some chatter about merging the Piedmont and Western Circuits during this (legislative) session,” Girtz wrote in reply the next day. “But that seems to have died.”

“SB259 did not get hearing or vote in House Judiciary,” Daniell wrote on Thursday (March 30).

“There was some chatter about making additional circuit changes,” he added. “However, I have not seen any details about any circuit changes other than those currently in SB259.”

Local Legislation

The Georgia House of Representatives passed 11 pieces of local legislation on March 23 sponsored by Gaines and Wiedower with votes in each case of 162 to 0.

Cowsert Screen Shot 3/29/2023

The Senate passed those same bills by a vote 52 to 0 on Wednesday (March 29), the last day of the session.

Ten of the bills call for an Oconee County election in May of next year to allow voters to decide if they approve of the increased homestead exemption for all home owners in the county and a freezing of property assessments once the owner reaches age 65.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners requested that Gaines and Wiedower introduce this legislation.

The 11th bill would authorize Watkinsville to create a Public Facilities Authority to give it a new mechanism for funding construction of recreational, public safety, and transportation projects, among others.

Wiedower, whose 121st House District includes Watkinsville as well six of the county’s eight precincts, introduced that legislation at the request of the Watkinsville Mayor and Council.


All three of Oconee County’s legislators voted in favor of Senate Bill 140, which prohibits hospitals and doctors from providing hormone-replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries to minors. Gov. Kemp has signed that bill.

All three also voted in favor of House Bill 514, which limits a temporary moratorium on zoning decisions or issuance of permits by a local government to not more than 180 days. In the end, the two bodies could not agree on final language, and the bill was not sent to the governor.

House Bill 517, strongly opposed by Oconee County Commission Chair Daniell, never received a House vote. The bill would have prohibited counties and cities in the state from regulating building design of one- or two-family dwellings, unless those dwellings were in a historic district. decisions

Senate Bill 233 would have given $6,500 to the families of Georgia public school students in the bottom 25 percent of schools who pulled their children out of class to attend private school or study at home.

The bill failed in the House by a vote of 85 to 89, with Gaines and Wiedower joining most–but not all--of the Republican members in supporting the bill.

House Bill 237, the revised Soap Box Derby Bill onto which sports betting had been added, never was voted on by the Senate.

The revised House Bill 189 allows trucks carrying food, timber, and other agricultural and forestry products to weigh as much as 88,000 pounds, up from 80,000 pounds.

Wiedower had voted against the bill on March 6 but in favor in the vote late on Wednesday.

Other Bills

All three Oconee County legislators voted in favor of Senate Bill 222, which prohibits local elections officers from receiving private donations to help run their operations.

All three also supported Senate Bill 44, which requires judges to impose prison sentences of at least five years on those convicted of recruiting gang members.

House Bill 196, intended to address problems with the state’s medical marijuana program, failed in the Senate, with Cowsert voting against the bill.

Gaines and Wiedower had supported the bill in the House.

House Resolution 438, setting up a House Study Committee on the Okefenokee Swamp, never got a vote.

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