Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Oconee County Democrats Offer District Attorney Gonzalez Opportunity To Respond To Legislation Introduced In General Assembly

***Also Discusses Criticism In Media***

The dissension that has surrounded Democrat Deborah Gonzalez since she forced and then won an election for district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit consisting of Oconee and Clarke counties in 2020 has intensified in recent weeks.

At the beginning of the current legislative session, Rep. Houston Gaines and Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represent Oconee County in the Georgia General Assembly, co-sponsored bills that would create an oversight committee to monitor the work of district attorneys. Each bill now has received a positive vote in the respective chamber.

Gaines also introduced a bill to make it easier to remove district attorneys from office. That bill did not pass the House by crossover day yesterday.

The Oconee Enterprise has published two editorials strongly critical of Gonzalez, including one that took her to task for scheduling a listening session in Clarke County on Wednesday but not one in Oconee County.

Oconee County Party Chair Kathy Hurley has urged people to turn out at the Wednesday meeting and demand “to be heard” and called Gonzalez “one of the worst DA's in our judicial districts history.”

The Oconee County Democrats, which have been very supportive of Gonzalez over the years, gave her a little quiet time in the storm last month, and she used the opportunity to defend her work as district attorney.

She contended that the staffing problem that has plagued her office since she took over as district attorney is the result of poor pay.

She also called the legislation being considered by the General Assembly “partisan” and said the goal is to set “impossible standards because they want us to fail.”

Gonzalez At Democratic Meeting

Gonzalez was the sole speaker at the Oconee County Democratic Party meeting on Feb. 16 held at the Oconee Chamber of Commerce in Watkinsville.

Davis With Gonzalez On Screen 2/16/2023

Gonzalez said she intended to be at the meeting in person but an unexpected issue--insects in the Courthouse in Athens--forced her to join the group by Zoom.

She began her talk by saying she was looking forward to hearing and answering questions from the audience “and hopefully dispel some of the untruths and things that you have been hearing out of the media and on social media.”

“It has been my honor to be able to represent you as your DA and to try to keep our community safe, but I also had a second mandate of bringing reform into this particular system,” Gonzalez said.

“It has been challenging. I can tell you that,” she said. “There has been a lot of learning and experience in the last two years.”


“I have been extremely transparent about the understaffing in my office,” Gonzalez said. “We lost a few attorneys in the beginning to higher salaries.”

“Some went into private practice,” she said. “Most of them went into neighboring circuits that were paying anywhere from 10, 15, up to 30,000 dollars more than what I could pay.”

Gonzalez said she now has eight assistant district attorneys, and that is less than half of what she needs.

She said her office has “an unsustainable case load” and she continues to seek more support from Oconee and Clarke counties.

“We are still dealing with the COVID backlog” when the courts were closed for 18 months, Gonzalez said.

Case Loads

“When I walked in in 2021, there was actually 2,400 cases that were still active,” Gonzalez said. Normal cases year-to-year was about 300 to 400 cases, she added.

Gonzalez said in 2022 her office “closed” more than 3,000 cases, including misdemeanors and felonies.

“We have an excellent rate of completion,” she said, adding that her office gets between 40 and 45 new cases each week combined from Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties.

Gonzalez said Oconee County pays for one assistant district attorney, Athens-Clarke County pays for nine, and the state pays for eight.

Her office is fully staffed with investigators and other positions and is only understaffed in assistant district attorneys, she said.

Gonzalez said an apprentice position as an assistant district attorney–someone without experience–is paid $54,000 in her office, compared with $85,000 in nearby Gwinnett.

According to Gonzalez, there are vacancies in 48 of the 50 District Attorney Offices in the state.

House Bill 48

Gonzalez said she had been asked by Democratic Party Chair Courtney Davis to talk about the legislation being considered by the General Assembly, and she began with House Bill 48.

Gonzalez Official Picture

Introduced by Rep. Jesse Petrea of Savannah, House Bill 48 would make elections for the District Attorney and Solicitor-General Of State Court nonpartisan. (Oconee County does not have a State Court, but Clarke County does.)

Gonzalez does not support the legislation, which did not get a vote in the House yesterday--Crossover day.

Bills not passed by either the House or Senate by Crossover day normally do not get consideration as stand alone bills after that point.

“My view is that our work is nonpartisan once we are in office,” Gonzalez said. “We are fair and just in the way that we do the work. However I do believe that running partisan makes a difference in terms of what is happening in terms of our approach to justice.”

Of the 50 district attorneys in the state, Gonzalez said, only 15 are Democrats “and the majority of those who are Democratic are people of color.”

“I am the only Democrat” elected locally in Oconee County, she said. “To make this nonpartisan would take that type of representation from you.”

Local GOP Response

Oconee County Republican Party Chair Hurley agrees with Gonzalez, and she sent out an email message to her listserv on Monday regarding House Bill 48.

“I cannot tell you how much we need this bill to be killed,” Hurley wrote.

“Non-partisan races can be the death knell for Republicans and especially so in the realm of District Attorney and Solicitor's General,” she wrote.

“In Oconee County we are suffering from one of the worst DA's in our judicial districts history,” she said.

“Please contact your state reps and state senators and ask them to please vote NO to HB 48,” Hurley wrote.

The bill never came up for a vote.

House Bill 229

Rep. Gaines, who represents the Marswood Hall and Bogart precincts in Oconee County, introduced House Bill 229, which would reduce the number of voters required to initiate a recall petition for the District Attorney.

It also would dramatically reduce the number of voters required to approve the petition for an actual recall election to be held for the District Attorney and change the grounds for recall of the District Attorney.

Rep. Marcus Wiedower, who represents the remainder of Oconee County and parts of Clarke County, was a co-sponsor. Both Gaines and Wiedower are Republicans.

The bill did not get a vote in the House yesterday.

If House Bill 229 passes, Gonzalez said the district attorney would “have to proceed with cases that have probable cause,” which is the basis for an arrest. Conviction in a trial is based on the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt,” she added.

“If we do not pursue any particular case, we can actually be deemed derelict in our duty and anybody can raise a complaint,” she said.

The bill would drop the number of signatures required on a recall petition from 30 to 2 percent of the voters “registered and qualified to vote at the last preceding election for any candidate offering for the office held by the officer” who is being recalled.

“So this is a very targeted bill,” Gonzalez said. “They are not bringing down that recall number for every elected official, not even for everyone in the judiciary.”

“It is only going to affect elected DAs and solicitor generals,” she said.

House Bill 231

Gaines was a co-sponsor of House Bill 231, which would create a Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission with the powers to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of district attorneys.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents all of Oconee County, was a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 92, which also would create a Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission. Cowsert is a Republican.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 92 on March 2, and the House passed House Bill 231 yesterday. Cowsert voted for Senate Bill 92, and Gaines and Wiedower voted for House Bill 231.

“One of the issues that comes out from these bills is the very partisan nature of them and the targeting aspect of them and what they are trying to do,” Gonzalez told the Democrats last month.

“We’re already subject to oversight by the legislature, by the Attorney General, by the State Bar of Georgia, and by the voters–you guys,” she said.

“If you don’t like what we’re doing, you can vote us right out,” she said. “We are public officials, and we have to deal with that election every four years.”

“They are setting up impossible standards because they want us to fail,” she said. “They want to be able to bring us in front of this Commission and say you are derelict in your duty because you have not done these things and therefore we are going to remove you.”

Suggested Activity

Gonzalez told her audience that they should “Contact your state Rep and your Senator, even though you might not get any response from them.”

Gonzalez Picture From Library Announcement

She also suggested writing letters to the editor.

“I know The Oconee Enterprise has had headlines for me three weeks in a row. I guess they sell a lot of papers by having me on there.”

“But if you are so inclined, write letters to the editor countering some of the things that they are putting out there in the media,” she said.

“Those opinions and those articles are really detrimental,” she said of the pieces in the Enterprise. “They are giving a very false narrative.”

Gonzalez will host a “Community Safety Listening Session” from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday (March 8) in the Athens-Clarke County Library’s Appleton Auditorium, 2025 Baxter Street, Athens, to discuss and address community and individual safety concerns facing Athens.

The Library announcement says that “All community members are invited to attend and encouraged to participate. Community input and experiences are essential components of creating change within the justice system and in building a safer community.”

“(L)et’s fill the Appleton Auditorium at the Athens-Clarke Library to show that Oconee demands to be heard,” Hurley wrote on her listserv.


Oconee Democratic Party Chair Davis agreed to put a camera at the back of the room for Gonzalez’s presentation on Feb. 16.

When Gonzalez had to attend remotely, she arranged to have the camera pointed at the screen at the front of the room.

Gonzalez began speaking at 1:02 in the video.


Michael Prochaska said...

The Oconee Enterprise has had front-page stories scrutinizing Republican elected officials (former Mayor Bob Smith, former Police Chief Lee O'Dillon and Chief Superior Court Judge Eric Norris to name a few) and stories scrutinizing Democratic elected officials, like Gonzalez.

First, of course the goal of a newspaper is dissemination of information, which its to say the distribution of the physical newspaper is important. And The Oconee Enterprise is not a free newspaper, so yes, the concept of selling newspapers (whether on the newsstands or subscriptions) is important to any newspaper, and there's nothing wrong with that......But when someone says that a newspaper is "trying to sell papers," it's usually a negative connotation/tone. And I detect that's undertone she was taking.

Regardless, the goal above catching readers' eyeballs is holding elected officials accountable. And that is what The Oconee Enterprise has done and will continue to do, regardless of whether an elected official has a D in front of his or her name or an R.

Michael Prochaska
Co-Publisher, Editor
The Oconee Enterprise

Michael Prochaska said...
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