Statesboro City Council last week held formal first readings of three proposed new ordinances, one of which would make misdemeanor marijuana possession a non-jail offense punishable by at most a $500 fine or equivalent community service.
Another pending ordinance will implement the Sunday brunch 11 a.m. restaurant pouring time approved by Statesboro voters Nov. 6. The third proposal is a "transparency ordinance" establishing a procedure for enacting future ordinances. Council members did not discuss these during the Nov. 20 meeting, where they simply opened and closed the first-reading hearings and moved on.
During a council meeting in June, Councilman Sam Lee Jones had suggested "decriminalizing" possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. The discussion at that time quickly turned to the less dramatic step of making misdemeanor possession a "cite and release" offense.
"I think there's a need for that, especially being a college town and we have so many youths who unfortunately are experimenting," Jones said after last Tuesday's meeting. "We hate for them to end their career before they begin."
The intent expressed by Jones and some other Statesboro officials is to avoid sending young offenders to jail, where they are fingerprinted, photographed for mugshots and released on bond. He suggested that this change will help them avoid lingering damage to their lives and careers.
After the council opened the public hearing on the marijuana ordinance last week, Mayor Jonathan McCollar called for anyone who wished to speak in favor or in opposition, but no one came forward. That was also the case with the other two ordinance proposals.
Georgia law provides for up to a year in jail and a fine up to $1,000 for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, defined as possession of less than 1 ounce. However, by enacting an ordinance, cities can provide lower penalties when offenders are cited by the city police and prosecuted in the city's court, Statesboro City Attorney Cain Smith told the council in June.
"Even if it is decriminalized at the local, municipal level, that in no way means that state and federal law wouldn't also apply here," Smith cautioned then.
Other agencies could still arrest people in Statesboro under the state law, Chief Mike Broadhead of the Statesboro Police Department said during the earlier discussion. But the city police would cite suspected offenders under the city ordinance, unless they are also charged with other offenses that would send them to the county jail and State or Superior Court.
The preamble to proposed Statesboro Ordinance 2018-14 contains several "whereas" clauses. One is "Whereas, it is not the intent of the City Council to legalize or otherwise decriminalize the possession of marijuana within the corporate limits of the City …."
So, if the council approves this ordinance by a majority vote at a future meeting, it will not be decriminalizing misdemeanor possession or making it a civil violation. It will remain a crime even in Municipal Court, but one more comparable to speeding than to DUI, for example.
The proposed ordinance doesn't directly state that police will write tickets for the offense, but it forbids jail time.
The penalty section states: "Any person found guilty of violating this section shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.00. Where the Court finds that a defendant is without the financial means to pay a fine, the Court may direct the defendant to perform community service commensurate with the fine that would otherwise be imposed. In no event shall any person convicted of marijuana possession pursuant to this section be punished by imprisonment for any term."
The "Brunch Bill" ordinance amendment, when enacted by the council, will put into effect a change approved by 68 percent of Statesboro voters. At City Council's initiative, the referendum was placed on a separate city ballot for a special election held at the same time as the general election. The Nov. 6 vote count was 2,633 "yes" to 1,253 "no."
The amendment will allow licensed restaurants to begin serving alcoholic beverages at 11 a.m. Sundays, instead of the previous 12:30 p.m. The change will not affect legal hours for beer and wine sales from stores or on-premises pouring times at non-restaurant establishments, Smith noted.
Senate Bill 17, approved by the Georgia General Assembly last session, allows cities and counties to make this change by referendum.
At an upcoming meeting, council members will also consider a second reading and possible vote on an ordinance guiding how future ordinances are adopted.
Suggested by Councilman Phil Boyum during a meeting in October, this would formalize the practice of holding first and second readings before most ordinances or revisions are enacted.
"We've been doing the first and second readings as kind of an unofficial process, and there's been some hiccups along the way, some questions about what the proper procedure was, and the advice of our attorney was, 'Hey, let's put this stuff in writing,'" Boyum said after last week's meeting.
Another provision specifies that only the mayor, council members or city staff may propose ordinance revisions. Citizens, boards or outside organizations will need to get their district council member or the mayor to sponsor a new ordinance or change.
An initial vote by the council to have the city attorney draft an ordinance or revision would be required, and only after the council discussed the draft and any revisions were made could council vote on a first reading.
Only corrections of "scrivener's errors" would be allowed between a first and second reading. Any substantial changes would require a new first reading.
The proposal includes a final provision allowing the multiple readings and other formalities to be waived, but only by a unanimous council vote on a recommendation from staff.
"The most important thing is that it provides transparency when we're writing legislation and gives our citizens the opportunity to give their input before we write the legislation, not after," Boyum said.
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Dec. 4.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.