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NAACP condemns election-related actions of Albany Commissioner B.J. Fletcher
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ALBANY — An Albany City Commission member is catching heat for her work with a Texas-based group that challenged election rolls in several Georgia counties.

On Tuesday, the Albany-Dougherty Branch of the NAACPP called for the commission to condemn Commissioner B.J. Fletcher’s actions in relation to the challenge, referencing the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol that took place during certification of the Electoral College presidential vote.

Fletcher, an Albany restaurant owner who represents Ward III, filed a challenge to more than 2,700 voters registered in Dougherty County ahead of the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff elections in the state on behalf of Texas-based True the Vote.

The group also challenged voters in Ben Hill and Muscogee counties.

The challenge to the voters in Dougherty County was denied by the Albany-Dougherty County Joint Board of Registration and Elections. The board also rejected another challenge, filed by another individual, challenging seven voters registered in the county that were claimed to live out of state.

“In December 2020, one week before the general runoff election for the state of Georgia, Commissioner B.J. Fletcher filed a challenge against the Dougherty County Board of Elections in an effort to disqualify thousands of people from being able to vote,” the NAACP said in a statement. “She falsely accused these voters of committing voter fraud by challenging the validity of their residence.

“As white supremacists attacked the U.S. Capitol last week, B.J. Fletcher contributed to an environment that empowered white supremacists and insurrectionists by working with organizations like True the Vote, championing Stop the Steal and exploiting the black community. She has proven to be a danger to our democracy and to this community.”

During a telephone interview, Amna Farooqi, interim president of the Albany-Dougherty County NAACP, said that the invasion of the Capitol that left five people dead, included participation from southwest Georgia residents.

An Americus attorney and a Pelham man have been arrested and charged in connection with the invasion of the Capitol building.

During a telephone interview, Farooqi said that the organization is calling for Fletcher to at the least apologize.

“I would want her to come out and condemn that and make it clear,” she said. “That’s what we want to do, hold her accountable.”

Fletcher said her involvement with True the Vote has been beset with misinformation that has allowed detractors to “blow this out of proportion.”

“I’m not sure why this was so blown out of proportion,” Fletcher said in an email to The Albany Herald. “It was actually very simple. The state hadn’t cleaned its voter rolls in two years; 2,700 people in Dougherty County had notified the USPS that they’d permanently changed their residence. So I submitted challenges for review.

“A citizen challenge is a right given to Georgia citizens — to all citizens — and it allows us to ask the county to take a look and help ensure election integrity, which benefits us all. What should have happened is, if a voter came in who was on the challenged list, they would have been asked to verify their residence. The law gives them time to do this, it’s not difficult at all, and it would likely have applied to very few voters because most of them have moved and aren’t going to try to vote. But like so many things these days, it became hyper-political. I was accused of being a vote suppressor, my business was doxed, and now I’m here. But I’m glad I get a chance to explain it.”

Fletcher said Young and members of the NAACP accused her of trying to “suppress black voters,” but said the breakdown of the voters questioned by True the Vote paints a different picture.

“I want to give you the breakdown of challenges in Dougherty County, by race, because I’ve been accused of this being racially motivated,” the Ward III commissioner said. “I had no idea what the racial breakdown was because the challenges were based only on residence. Georgia includes race in the voter rolls, so I went back to take a look.

“The breakdown of the challenges includes:

♦ black not of Hispanic origin: 43.55%

♦ white not of Hispanic origin: 40.65%

♦ unknown: 12.26%

♦ Hispanic: 1.42%

♦ other: 1%.”

Prior to a news conference conducted by Farooqi, Ward VI Albany Commissioner Demetrius Young tried to bring the issue up during a Tuesday morning commission meeting.

Ward IV Commissioner Chad Warbington objected to the discussion, and Mayor Bo Dorough agreed to place the issue on the agenda at the next meeting.

The item was not on the agenda, Warbington said, and Robert’s Rules of Order, under which meetings are conducted, prohibits personal comments about members.

“We are not a judicial body,” he said. “This meeting is not to have conversations about each other.”

The city’s charter has no provision for censuring a commission member, City Attorney Nathan Davis told commissioners.

“This has to do with actions and comments of a sitting member of the City Commission,” Young said. “I don’t think this ought to be swept under the rug. We are talking about what somebody says, what somebody does, that puts other people in jeopardy.”

Phoebe reaches 10,000 vaccine milestone as COVID surge continues
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ALBANY – Phoebe Putney Health System will reach a milestone in its COVID-19 vaccination effort Tuesday, surpassing 10,000 vaccinations, officials with the health care system announced.

Through Monday, Phoebe had administered 9,326 vaccines at vaccination sites in Albany, Americus and Sylvester, and it expected to provide at least 1,100 more Tuesday. This even as the post-holiday COVID-19 surge continues in the region.

“We want to continually grow our capacity to put shots in arms and protect more southwest Georgians from this virus,” Phoebe Health System President/CEO Scott Steiner said. “The work that has gone into our vaccination effort is truly incredible, and it’s running like clockwork. The one potential disruption to our plan is the vaccine supply. We’re just not sure when we’ll get additional deliveries of vaccines or how many we’ll receive, but we will continue to push full steam ahead and remain optimistic that vaccine supply will keep up with demand.”

Phoebe began administering vaccines to health care workers on Dec. 17, 2020, and opened community vaccination sites in Albany, Americus and Sylvester on Jan. 11 for southwest Georgians who are 65 and older. Based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health, only health care workers, first responders, those at least 65 years old and certain caregivers are currently eligible to receive the vaccine.

Phoebe has received countless compliments on the ease and efficiency of the vaccination process.

“The vaccination process was wonderful,” Nancy Morris, who got her shot at Phoebe’s largest vaccination site at Healthworks, Phoebe’s employee gym and wellness center adjacent to its main hospital, said. “We really appreciate that there were people outside to get us to the right place. Everybody was friendly, smiling and very, very nice.”

Ronnie Cook agreed.

“It was great,” he said. “I got right in and right out, and everybody was super nice.”

“It went so smoothly; I had a wonderful experience,” Velma Coley said. “It couldn’t have gone any better, and I advise everyone to get this shot.”

Phoebe is also now offering a mobile registration option for southwest Georgians who want to schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments. The new service allows people to handle the registration process with their smart phone in the palm of their hands. It does not replace the Phoebe COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline.

“It is important for us to vaccinate as many people as possible quickly, and we are constantly looking for ways to help us do that,” Phoebe Putney Health System Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dianna Grant said. “People eligible to receive the vaccine can still call (229) 312-1919 and talk to a real person right here at Phoebe to schedule an appointment. The mobile option simply allows us to expand our capacity and make sure we’re filling every available vaccination appointment.”

Southwest Georgians who would like to use the mobile registration option should download the Phoebe Access App from the App Store or Google Play, then click on the COVID-19 vaccination registration link to begin the mobile scheduling process. Phoebe is also making plans to begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations at certain Phoebe Physicians primary care clinics and will release those details soon.

Even as the vaccination process progresses, the region remains in the middle of a serious and deadly winter surge of COVID-19 cases. As of noon Tuesday, Phoebe’s COVID-19 numbers included:

♦ COVID-19 patients in Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital: 105;

♦ COVID-19 patients in Phoebe Sumter Medical Center: 21;

♦ COVID-19 patients in Phoebe Worth Medical Center: 0;

♦ Total inpatients recovered: 1,748;

♦ Total COVID-19-related deaths at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital: 221;

♦ Total COVID-19-related deaths at Phoebe Sumter: 52;

♦ Total vaccines administered: 9,326.

Albany City Commission considers earlier bar closing times
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ALBANY — Last call could come a little earlier at Albany’s bars and nightclubs under new alcohol ordinance provisions under consideration by the Albany City Commission.

The proposed revision would change the current 4 a.m. cutoff point for alcohol sales to 2:45 a.m. It also would require establishments that sell alcohol for on-premises consumption to be cleared by 3:15 a.m. rather than the current 5 a.m. time.

The proposal was one of three alcohol-related measures presented to the commission by City Attorney Nathan Davis during a Tuesday work session at which no vote was taken. The other two deal with the advertising required of applicants for alcohol sales licenses that are posted ahead of public hearings on those requests.

“This has been discussed at a Public Safety Committee meeting,” Davis told commissioners. “(Albany Police Department) Chief (Michael) Persley was in favor of no longer having the 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. provisions stay in effect.”

Other commission members also supported that measure during the meeting, Davis said.

There was no discussion of opposition on Tuesday to the earlier time for ending sales of alcoholic beverages. However, Mayor Bo Dorough questioned whether the 30-minute time frame after that time was sufficient to empty establishments of customers and have employees close for the night.

Dorough also suggested scheduling a public hearing prior to the commission making a final decision, which could delay making a decision.

“Before we vote on this next week, we ought to give the people who operate bars the opportunity to speak on this,” he said. “I think we need to afford the stakeholders a chance to speak on this. Because of this, I don’t think we need to vote on this next week. I think we ought to have a public hearing on this.”

A second ordinance change would require applicants seeking a license for package or on-premises sales to place a larger, more prominent ad in the newspaper notifying the public of scheduled hearings before the commission. Commissioners also could require that applicants place a sign at the proposed location similar to the signs placed at properties ahead of zoning hearings.

The third would require that the commission notify applicants who are denied an alcohol license through a written notice within five days, giving the reason for the denial. The statements also would notify the applicant of how to file an appeal and schedule a public hearing before commissioners.

Over the past year, alcohol applications have been more contentious as some commissioners have complained about a proliferation of stores selling alcohol, particularly package sales in neighborhoods.

The commission also heard two zoning change requests during the work session that could come up for a vote during the regular meeting next week, and one of those also drew red flags.

Kashif Butt has requested rezoning 1701 and 1703 W. Gordon Ave. from R-2 residential use to a C-2 commercial designation. Butt purchased the two houses and property and intends to build a convenience store with gasoline pumps at the site.

The Albany-Dougherty County Planning Commission on Jan. 7 voted 7-0 against the proposal.

Mattie Wright, who spoke against the proposed store on her behalf and that of nearby residents, said the presence of gasoline tanks would be a potential danger in the neighborhood setting.

“What he’s wanting to do at 1701 and 703 West Gordon is not enough room for a convenience store and gas pumps,” she said. “There are several convenience stores (around) there. Right in that area, I really don’t think that’s a good idea to put that there.”

The store also would bring additional traffic and lighting to the area, she said.

Ben Barrow, president of LRA Constructors of Albany, who spoke on Butt’s behalf, said the project would replace two dilapidated houses with the new business. The project would provide rehabilitation and gentrification in the area.

“It’s a neighborhood that’s somewhat in decline,” he said. “It’s because of loss of population. It’s because some of the commercial establishments have moved toward Slappey (Boulevard). In his mind, in our mind, he’s just improving the situation. He has a good track record.”

The second rezoning request made by Claire Jackoski and V.R. Morgan was to change a C-1 commercial designation to C-2 commercial to allow for a drive-through restaurant at 1300 N. Slappey Blvd. The rezoning would be required in order to operate a drive-through at the site.

The proposed restaurant would have no indoor seating.

Commissioners could vote on both proposals at the board’s Jan. 26 meeting.

Economist: State employment, consumer spending strong despite pandemic
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ATLANTA — The unusual nature of the current pandemic-driven recession has put Georgia in a stronger economic position than could have been expected otherwise, the state’s chief economist said Tuesday.

Georgians have received so much money from the coronavirus relief bills Congress has passed that personal income is actually higher than before the pandemic struck last March, Jeffrey Dorfman told state lawmakers at the start of three days of hearings on Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget plan.

“People have more money than they had before,” Dorfman said. “People have the money to spend. They’re just waiting until it’s safe to do so.”

A large portion of the net job losses Georgia has suffered since the pandemic began – about 113,000 – were part-time jobs occupied mostly by high school and college students or parents with child-care responsibilities, Dorfman said.

“Our labor market is about as fully recovered as it can be until the pandemic is over,” he said.

Dorfman also credited Kemp’s decision to re-open Georgia’s economy ahead of many other states and the creativity of business owners who limited their losses by adapting to the pandemic.

“Business owners in Georgia have done a tremendous job finding ways to keep their businesses operating,” he said. “The ingenuity of Georgia citizens really helped.”

As a result, consumer spending has remained strong, which has kept state sales tax revenues higher than expected, Dorfman said.

Another mark of an unusual recession has been an increase in the savings rate among Georgians, higher credit scores and a decrease in credit card debt, Dorfman said. The stimulus checks Congress has handed out since last spring have gone to Georgians whether they have lost their jobs or not.

“Our citizens have been very financially responsible at saving a lot of the money the federal government gave them if they weren’t unemployed and needed the money,” he said.

However, Dorfman warned that a long-term trend could put a dent in an otherwise positive economic forecast.

He said population growth in Georgia, which soared during the 1980s and 1990s, has been coming down since the turn of the century. The resulting reduction in available workers could threaten Georgia’s status during most of the last decade as the No. 1 state in which to do business, he said.

“We can’t keep that up if there aren’t enough workers to take jobs,” Dorfman said. “We need to grow the labor force.”

Anna F., Lake Park Elementary School