LISTEN: Tabled for now, a proposed resolution on Tybee Island asks for the authority to declare a state of emergency in the event of unsanctioned gatherings like this year's Orange Crush. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

The Tybee Island City Council, as seen during its meeting on June 8, 2023.

The Tybee Island City Council, as seen during its meeting on June 8, 2023.

Credit: City of Tybee Island

A proposed resolution to expand Tybee Island's emergency declaration powers has been put on hold, after a councilmember raised concerns that the measure may amount to a “power grab” by the city over large unpermitted events.

Introduced in a meeting of the Tybee Island City Council on Thursday, the resolution is a formal request to two Tybee-area state legislators, asking them to begin crafting a law which would allow city leaders to declare a local state of emergency due to unpermitted events which “create a risk to the general public.”

Such a state of emergency, as called for in the resolution, would authorize Tybee Island law enforcement to issue enhanced penalties for violations of existing city code.

“I just want to make sure that what we're asking for is closely tailored and gives us what we need, and it's not just a power grab just for the city to have extra power that it can use,” Councilmember Nancy DeVetter said at the meeting. “Even though we have great staff now, down the road it could be used in a way that is inappropriate.”

The resolution's introduction comes two months after the unpermitted Orange Crush festival, when an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people — mostly students from historically Black colleges and universities — visited Tybee, in part leading to massive traffic backups and concerns over safety on the beach.

“To me, it seems like we had a shortage of staff, and that we weren't prepared for the large numbers of people that came,” DeVetter said. “But requesting a law that allows us to do things that are similar to the Florida law seems like overreach to me.”

DeVetter — who is also a private practice attorney — was referring to an existing Florida statute which authorizes law enforcement to, among other things, double the dollar amount of fines associated with certain unpermitted events. The Tybee Island resolution states that any Georgia statute “would be similar” to this Florida law.

“Well, I think that's something that, obviously, reasonable minds can differ about,” Tybee Island city attorney Bubba Hughes said in response to DeVetter. “I think it's not designed to repeal the Constitution, or to do anything beyond maintaining public safety to protect everybody, just like the last one. If there are parts of the Florida [statute] that are not appropriate, we can mark it and take those out and address it that way.”

Hughes added that Georgia's legal landscape is fundamentally different from that of Florida, owing in part to the fact that Georgia was among the 13 original colonies, while Florida was not.

“They've got a whole different system of common law down there than in Georgia,” Hughes said. “So, that has an impact on what laws can be passed. Georgia had a mass gathering act. It was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. All of these trigger First Amendment issues, which is going to be a challenge for us and the state legislative counsel. But you got to get started somewhere.”

Hughes said that he has long been concerned about what he described as “the possibility of a counter-event being organized at the time of an unpermitted event. And that could be unpermitted also. And you have competing groups, with the residents stuck in the middle, and it won't matter who shot first. You don't have the capacity here to respond to that sort of potential emergency.”

DeVetter later countered, saying, “I don't see how this law changes our capacity at all. I mean, what we're planning already for July Fourth seems to be what we should have done for the original Orange Crush weekend, right? Had more [officers] here, had more coverage. I'm hoping that over July Fourth, we can show the city what we can do when we are adequately prepared.”

No councilmember besides DeVetter spoke in support of or opposition to the proposed resolution during the agenda item's discussion, which lasted more than 30 minutes and consisted of exchanges between DeVetter, Hughes and Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions.

“To me, government's first and foremost role is public safety,” Sessions said. “And I want to do everything that I can, that we can, to ensure that we have covered the bases, that our police department, our police chief has begged us to do whatever we can.”

As mayor, Sessions presides over City Council meetings but cannot cast a vote, except in the event of a tie among its six members.

Resolutions require only a simple majority to pass; however, Sessions said that the two state lawmakers named in the resolution — Sen. Benjamin Watson and Rep. Jesse Petrea — had communicated that they would support the measure in the Legislature only if it passed the Tybee City Council unanimously.

After acknowledging DeVetter's objections to the resolution, and after noting the absence of Councilmember Jay Burke from the meeting, Sessions tabled the measure to be reintroduced — with potential changes from its current form — at the council's next meeting on June 22.

DeVetter said that she plans to meet with Hughes ahead of that meeting to discuss the resolution and explore potential alternatives.