Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News
McIntosh County cancels next board meeting, one month after violating Georgia's open meetings law
LISTEN: Shortly after the public was barred from recording meetings about Gullah Geechee land, McIntosh County has canceled its next meeting as it searches for a new venue. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.
Southeast Georgia's McIntosh County has canceled the next public meeting of its board of commissioners, originally scheduled for Oct. 10, following a recent vote by the five-member body to rezone the historic Gullah Geechee community of Hogg Hummock on Sapelo Island.
McIntosh County Manager Patrick Zoucks released a statement Monday saying that county meetings would no longer be held at the county courthouse in Darien, citing security concerns from Sheriff Steve Jessup about the facility.
The county violated Georgia's open meetings law multiple times last month by prohibiting the public from recording three public meetings regarding the rezoning of Hogg Hummock, where descendants of enslaved West Africans have owned land and homes for generations.
The measure, which passed 3-2, was roundly criticized by the Gullah Geechee community, who fear the rezoning will open their ancestral land to outside developers, raise property taxes and price out longtime residents.
The meetings — including a public comment hearing, a workshop session and a full meeting of commissioners — were held at a packed McIntosh County Courthouse, where Jessup normally does not allow the public to bring in electronic devices.
However, because these were public meetings rather than court proceedings, McIntosh County violated Georgia's open meetings law, which states that visual and audio recordings shall be permitted by the public.
In response to a public records request, GPB obtained an audio recording made by the county of the public comment hearing, where more than 30 people spoke against a draft version of the rezoning.
The Georgia Attorney General's office has begun looking into the county's open meetings law violations, after it received a complaint from the Georgia First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law.
In a letter to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Settlemire, Zoucks wrote that because each meeting drew in over 150 attendees about a “highly charged issue,” Jessup “acted within his right” to prohibit recording devices.
Zoucks also cited a “brutal attack” in March 2022 against McIntosh County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Stevens by an "intoxicated, disgruntled resident." He was apparently referring to a bar fight with the husband of a political rival of Stevens, which was not related to Hogg Hummock.
Neither Zoucks nor Jessup has explained how a recording device could pose a threat to safety. Even with the prohibition, attendees were required to walk through a metal detector; additionally, the meetings were staffed by several sheriff's deputies.
The open meetings law does not provide any exemptions to allow for prohibitions of recording devices.
Jessup has since closed the courthouse to public meetings, prompting county staff to search for a new meeting location. Zoucks wrote in his letter that he anticipates the new location will be a rented facility.
He expects a special meeting will be held sometime before the regularly scheduled November meeting, in lieu of the canceled October regular meeting, to discuss the operations of a community center on Sapelo Island, among other county business.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a complaint was submitted to the Georgia Attorney General's office by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. In fact, it was submitted by the Georgia First Amendment Clinic.