On the Wednesday, Jan. 24 edition of Georgia Today: State lawmakers are trying once again to redraw the school district map in one of the state's largest counties; a new bill seeks to stiffen penalties for corrections officers who smuggle contraband into Georgia prisons; and the nominees for the 2024 James Beard Awards are announced, with Atlanta and Athens restaurants in the running. 

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Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB news. Today is Wednesday, January 24th. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode. State lawmakers are trying once again to redraw the school district map and one of the state's largest counties. A new bill seeks to stiffen penalties for corrections officers who smuggle contraband into prisons. And the nominees for the 2024 James Beard Awards are announced, with Atlanta and Athens restaurants in the running. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.

A child walks toward a yellow school bus stopped in a residential street.

A Cobb County School bus moves on a neighborhood street on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga.

Credit: AP Photo/Mike Stewart

Story 1:

Peter Biello: The Georgia State Senate today passed a bill to redraw school board district maps in Georgia's second largest school system, after a federal judge ruled they were unconstitutionally discriminatory. But Democrats, including Atlanta state Senator Jason Estevez, are warning the Republican back map doesn't fix the racial discrimination that led a federal judge to throw out the school district map in Cobb County.

Jason Estevez: This bill continues the packing of black and brown voters in Cobb County, particularly on the south side of the county, limiting their influence and increasing the influence of the four northern districts.

Peter Biello: Meanwhile, Acworth State Senator Republican Ed Seltzer says the new map maintains core communities from current districts. The map moves on to the House for more debate. If lawmakers give it final passage, a federal judge would have to decide if it passes legal muster.

Story 2:

Peter Biello: A new program to prepare workers for Georgia's fast growing electric vehicle industry, has graduated its first cohort of students, GPB's Amanda Andrews reports on the job training, backed by Goodwill of North Georgia.

Amanda Andews: Over the six week training, students in the Clean Tech Infrastructure Academy are paid to learn how to install and maintain electric vehicle chargers, heat pumps and solar panels. After that, they're placed in entry level jobs. Nigel West is part of the first cohort of 16 students. He says he joined after some family issues.

Nigel West: In order to do what I need to do as the eldest child. I have to step up after, increase income, which this program is allowing me to do. I just pretty much to make more to support my family.

Amanda Andews: The program received a five year, $2 million federal grant to expand. Goodwill expects to work with over 200 participants during that time. For GPB news, I'm Amanda Andrews.

Story 3:

Peter Biello: The Alabama company that plans to mine for titanium dioxide near Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has agreed to pay a $20,000 fine related to exploratory drilling for the project. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division issued the fine to Twin Pines Minerals yesterday. Project opponents say the agency could have used the violation to shut down the project, which has drawn considerable opposition. The company denies any wrongdoing.

Story 4:

Peter Biello: The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating how a Boeing 757 jet, operated by Delta Airlines lost a nose wheel while preparing for takeoff from Atlanta over the weekend. The flight, headed to Bogota, Colombia, was taxiing for departure at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when the incident took place on Saturday. Passengers were soon deplaned and bused back to the terminal. A Delta spokesperson says no one was injured, and the plane was given a new tire and placed back into service the next day.

Story 5:

Peter Biello: And in other news from ATL, the world's busiest airport today released numbers showing passenger volumes increased by nearly 12% last year to nearly 105 million passengers. That's the busiest the airport has been since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic, but it's still about 5 million passengers below 2019 numbers. Georgia is now home to a first of its kind sustainable jet fuel factory. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports. Officials say the plant in rural Soperton is part of the aviation industry's transition to a cleaner energy future.

Benjamin Payne: The new Freedom Pines plant, halfway between Savannah and Macon, will convert ethanol into lower carbon jet fuel. Much of the ethanol will come from independent farmers, who can sell feedstocks such as corn and soybeans to LanzaJet Company behind the factory. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was on hand at the unveiling.

Tom Vilsack: If we're really to mitigate the consequences of a changing climate, the transportation sector clearly has to get to a net zero future in order for it to get to a net zero future. Aviation has to get there as well, and it can't get there without a sustainable aviation fuel.

Benjamin Payne: LanzaJet says its plant will churn out 9 million gallons of sustainable jet fuel each year and generate $70 million of annual economic activity in Oakland County. For GPB news, I'm Benjamin Payne. And so pretty.

Story 6:

Peter Biello: A bill now headed to Governor Kemp for his signature would stiffen the penalties for corrections officers convicted of bringing contraband cell phones, drugs and other banned items into Georgia prisons and jails. Under the law, what was once a minimum two year prison term is now as many as ten years. Recently, I spoke at the state House with the bill's co-sponsor, Republican Senator Randy Robertson, about what he hoped to accomplish.

Peter Biello: Can you describe for me the the problem that you're seeing that this bill is intended to solve?

Randy Robertson: The problem that we're having right now, primarily in our correctional institutions around the state of Georgia, and I believe around the United States, is that individuals that are employed by prisons, jails and corrections institutions and contractors who work in those facilities have become one of the primary conduits of getting contraband into the prisoners and detainees housed there, whether it be cell phones, drugs, weapons, and other items that that can be used to either harm an officer or a fellow, inmate or possibly use to start up and operate a, a criminal enterprise while being held in, in our prison.

Peter Biello: There are several correctional facilities in your district. Is there something you're seeing there in particular?

Randy Robertson: No, it's, it's a pattern throughout the state of Georgia. If you look at the, the number of employees that have been arrested over the last couple of years for bringing contraband across the guard line. If you look, we just had a, state prisoner who was, convicted of fraudulently obtaining $11 million while being incarcerated. This individual could not have done that without having a infrastructure that was supported by contraband. And the same thing goes with all the other types of contraband that come in. While some people think some of it is harmless. Once a correctional officer or once a contractor, goes into some kind of, agreement with a prisoner to provide contraband, then from that point forward, you'll see that the prisoner will continue to manipulate the employee and continue to increase their wants and increase what they're asking for. And basically, the correctional officers and the contractors find themselves trapped because they, of course, don't want to be caught, arrested. So they do practically anything in order to avoid that. And all it does is just compound a very dangerous situation.

Peter Biello: So this bill changes the language so that instead of a minimum two year sentence, there's a penalty of ten years in prison. What do you think the impact of that as a deterrent will be?

Randy Robertson: Well, I think the impact it has on a correctional officer as a deterrent will be substantial, because not only will the officer lose their job and not only will it be charged with a crime, but they will be prevented from ever working in a correctional facility or in law enforcement ever again. In the ten year penalty is not a mandatory ten years in prison. The penalty can be broken up any way the judge feels is best based on the situation.

Peter Biello: Is there a connection between the prevalence of the problem you've described and pay for corrections officers and the shortage statewide of corrections officers in Georgia prisons?

Randy Robertson: I don't know necessarily if there is a if there's a connection between the issues of recruiting and retaining correctional officers. I definitely think there's temptation because of the low pay and and benefit issues that you find in corrections. I also think that there's a morale issue in corrections where most people see law enforcement officers, in a role where they're out in the public, they're, you know, driving around in patrol cars or they're in the courtroom or something like that. And, and individuals get to see the uniform and the presence of the officer, correctional officers and jailers that are locked inside of buildings that that people many times aren't even aware of. And I think their role in law enforcement sometimes is discounted. And, it should not be. They're extremely important. But I think that does wear on the morale within that population. And I do think it could lead to individuals making poor choices.

Peter Biello: How does this make you feel as as someone who worked in law enforcement to, to have to legislate this kind of thing, to check the behavior of corrections officers?

Randy Robertson: It's disappointing but, the individuals that hired me a long time ago set the standard high when public safety professionals crossed the line? I think the punishment needs to be swift, and it needs to be, harsh.

Peter Biello: Senator Randy Robertson, thank you very much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Randy Robertson:  And I appreciate the interest that you have in this subject. Thank you and have a great day.

Story 7:

Peter Biello: The James Beard Foundation today named semifinalists for chefs and restaurants vying for one of the hospitality industry's most prestigious awards. Seven restaurants in Atlanta and one restaurant in Athens are being considered in four categories for the 2024 James Beard Awards. Most of this year's semifinalists are new to the list, but not necessarily to culinary recognition. Outstanding chef semifinalist Atsushi Hayakawa last year received a michelin star for his Atlanta sushi restaurant, Hayakawa. James Beard Award finalists will be announced in April. Winners will be announced at a ceremony in Chicago in June.

Story 8:

Peter Biello: In sports. Former Atlanta Braves star Andrew Jones got a little bit closer to becoming a Baseball Hall of Famer, but he still fell short. He needed 75% of the ballots cast by eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to be elected, but he only got 61.6%. And that is an improvement over last year, when he gained about 58% of the vote. His stock has improved with each passing year, so it is possible he could be elected next year. Adrian Beltre, Todd Helton and Joe Mauer were elected to baseball's Hall of Fame yesterday.


Peter Biello: And that is it for this edition of Georgia Today. If you want to learn more about any of these stories, visit GPB.org/news. And if you haven't yet subscribed to this podcast, take a moment and do it now. We'll be back in your podcast feed tomorrow. And as always, if you have some feedback for us or perhaps a story idea we should know about. Email us. The address is GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.



For more on these stories and more, go to GPB.org/news

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