COVINGTON -- The first meeting of a committee that will make a recommendation on the proposed firearms discharge ordinance took place Thursday evening, and one commissioner is crying foul because the proceeding was not open to the public.
The committee met for about an hour in the community room of a county fire station. There are nine resident members and two commissioners -- Levie Maddox and Lanier Sims -- serving on the committee. Sims said it's still early in the process, and the committee won't have a recommendation in time for Tuesday's 6 p.m. work session on the ordinance. But the discussion centered on public safety. A majority of members are against the current proposal to require that discharge of firearms must take place at least 350 yards from any residence, place of worship or public assembly or roadway, he said.
Sims said the committee is looking for input from residents throughout the county. "Regardless of which side you stand on we need good ideas," he said.
But Commissioner John Douglas said the meeting was designed to keep the public out.
"I'm obviously very disappointed that they held a secret meeting. It just reinforces what the public thinks of government," he said. "I'm disappointed that this whole issue has come to this point and that they felt it was necessary to work in secret and, by only having two commissioners there, circumvent the Sunshine Law." Three commissioners constitutes a quorum and is required by law to be open to the public. In addition, any committees created by the Board of Commissioners would be required to hold meetings in public. However, the committee has not been formally appointed by the BOC.
Douglas, who took to Facebook on Thursday to express his frustration, said he won't consider himself bound by any recommendation of the committee.
"If they want to work in public, then we'll certainly be happy to listen to what they have to say, but secret government is not the way we do things," he said.
Douglas said a public forum hosted Monday night by Newton Farm Bureau proved the public has a lot of interest in the topic; the committee's deliberations should be done in public, he said.
"You can have a meeting in public but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to take public comment," he said.
Chairman Keith Ellis announced at the forum that a residents' committee would be meeting and making a recommendation to the BOC.
He said the goal was to have at least one meeting to establish ground rules and make sure members were willing to serve in the public eye before opening the meetings to the public. Some committee members dropped out following Monday's public forum, Ellis said. Ellis said two members from District 1, Douglas's district, are on the committee.
"It's team spirit I'm trying to build within and that's exactly what we have. I would imagine Commissioner Douglas would be excited about this procedure, having served in the Georgia General Assembly, where many times bills are put in committee," before being put to vote, he said.
Maddox said there is equal representation from the districts on the committee. He said all agreed to have their names made public and that will likely happen at the Tuesday work session. The location for the meeting has been moved to the jury impaneling room in the Newton County Judicial Center to accommodate more people.
Both Maddox and Sims said committee members are residents who volunteered and demonstrated passion for the subject.
In response to Douglas's comments, Maddox said, "That undertone is very inaccurate and very disrespectful, regardless of who made that."
"I welcome Mr. Douglas to form a committee and bring it to the board or sheriff or whoever. He has not made any suggestions I know of to be on this committee," Maddox said.
Maddox said the committee intends to pursue its work "in a matter that will address the safety concerns the sheriff has brought forward and appreciates and respects the people's way of life and traditions."
Maddox said it will likely be at least 90 days before the committee makes a recommendation. "This thing needs time to marinate," he said.
Hunters and recreational shooters were the majority of speakers Monday night. Though many said they would not be able to hunt if the ordinance amendments are approved, Ellis said hunting is exempt under the proposal, as is protecting property and person. The county's current ordinance does not offer an exemption for hunters.
"They want to find a common ground and not infringe on those law-abiding citizens," Ellis said. "And, if anything, this will lighten the load on those people that hunt regularly. I truly believe that's what we're going to see. I would ask for the patience of the people, patience of the commissioners while this committee works through it."
Ellis stressed that "We won't bring it to a vote until we feel there's been ample opportunity for people to speak."
Brown previously said the Sheriff's Office has received more than 1,300 complaints since 2011 related to firearms discharging, primarily in the high-density western portion of the county.
As proposed, discharge of firearms would be prohibited in most districts, with the exception of agricultural, agricultural residential and rural estate.
Exemptions would apply for law enforcement; anyone lawfully destroying dangerous animals for wildlife nuisance abatement; discharge of blank cartridges for theatrical or signal purposes, military exercises or funerals or memorial events; any resident lawfully defending person or property; and lawful use at a private or commercial sport shooting range.
Prohibitions against firing at a person, at or from a dwelling, house, railroad, train, boat, aircraft, motor vehicle or building used for assembling people would remain.
Firearm discharge in the appropriate areas would be limited to between one half-hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset.