An Athens-Clarke County Federation of Neighborhoods forum with the Republican contingent of the local delegation to the state legislature turned testy Monday night as lawmakers were questioned regarding their positions on climate change.
Rep. Spencer Frye, D-Athens, the only Democrat in the local delegation, had a scheduling conflict and could not attend the forum.
Rep. Chuck Williams, R-Watkinsville, whose work in the legislature includes a focus on natural resources, drew the brunt of the crowd’s ire as he talked about “climate variability,” wondering whether it represents a natural cycle of global temperature changes or some human intervention in the natural world.
“Is it fossil fuels? Is it something else?” Williams asked rhetorically while speaking to the dozens of people gathered at Cine in downtown Athens for the FON forum.
“I think there’s something going on,” Williams continued, calling for help from the scientific community to figure out what may be happening.
His answers were met with some derision, and one audience member told Williams, “The kind of ignorance you are demonstrating is totally inexcusable.”
Moments later, Williams told the crowd, effectively, to put up or shut up.
“If you deem any of us ignorant,” Williams said, “pay your qualifying fee [to run for office] and see how it works out.”
In terms of developing state policy on climate change, Williams said, it is important to recognize that Georgia is just one state among 50 states, and there is reason to wonder how effective a single state’s action on climate change issues might be.
Rep. Regina Quick, R-Athens, weighed in briefly on the issue, telling the crowd — some of whom pointed to the University of Georgia as a wealth of resources on climate change research — that she had not seen any climate change policy guidance from experts on the UGA campus.
Another testy exchange came Monday on the “campus carry” issue. Late last week, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that allows licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
The bill, widely opposed on the UGA campus and throughout the state’s University System, includes some exceptions, prohibiting weapons in dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, sports venues, on-campus preschools, faculty or administrative offices, disciplinary hearings and areas attended by high school students.
Sen. Frank Ginn, the only member of the local delegation to support the bill, defended his vote Tuesday, suggesting that it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact boundary between a college campus and the surrounding community.
Ginn also asked the crowd if they could tell whether he was carrying a weapon as he sat with the rest of the delegation at the front of the room Monday. When someone in the audience offered an aside, wondering if Ginn had a weapon “in his truck,” Ginn pointed out that he had actually driven a 45 mile-per-gallon Volkswagen to the meeting.
As to whether there was a weapon in the car, Ginn told the audience, “That’s for me to know and others to find out.”
In other discussion Monday, Williams and Quick addressed the legislative attempt to change reporting protocols for sexual assault to require that assaults be reported to law enforcement agencies, with school disciplinary hearings coming only after a criminal investigation has begun. The bill was overwhelmingly approved in the state House, with Quick and Williams in favor and Frye voting against the measure, but it died in the state Senate as this year’s legislative session drew to a close.
Williams told the crowd that he was concerned about leaving investigations of sexual assault in the hands of collegiate administrators who might not have adequate training.
“Oftentimes, sexual assault is not a bright line” where an assault can be clearly shown, Williams said, adding that in some instances, accusations can come forward when an incident occurred “under hazy circumstances.”
Quick told the forum crowd that it is lawmakers’ “job to make sure that individual liberties are protected.”
In other comments Monday:
—Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said that outside of the campus carry issue, “I feel like this [legislative] session was kind of bland.” Cowsert went on to defend the effort to have a “domestic terrorism” bill passed, which would have classified a felony that results in destruction of critical infrastructure, and was intended to intimidate people or to change public policy, as an act of domestic terrorism.
The bill, a top priority of the Senate, where Cowsert serves as majority leader, did not make it through the House.
—With the exception of Ginn, members of the legislative delegation indicated support for an independent redistricting commission to draw state legislative districts, a process currently handled largely in the legislature. Ginn expressed some skepticism that “you can take the politics out of politics.”
—The lawmakers provided tips for the best way to get in touch with them, and to interact with them during the session. Briefly, Williams suggested that constituents send text messages to (706) 255-0717 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; Cowsert suggested emailing his Senate account, email@example.com; Quick suggested her office phone number, (706) 207-3520, as a way of getting in touch with her outside of the legislative session’s 40 legislative days, and Ginn provided his cellphone number, (706) 680-4466, as a means for constituents to contact him.
All lawmakers have legislative office telephone numbers and email addresses, available online at www.legis.ga.gov.