by Jake Cantrell & Matt Aiken — As much of Dahlonega braces for a controversial rally on Saturday, Mayor Sam Norton says he’s “praying for rain.”
But the city council is also taking drastic action at the same time.
“We’re going to play the cards that are dealt to us,” Norton said. “But we’re going to try to stack the cards in favor of public safety as much as we can.”
Getting those cards in order resulted in an emergency called meeting on Thursday, where representatives unanimously passed two new ordinances which will provide increased oversight of public demonstrations while also limiting the use of drones in the city limits.
“The ordinances that are on the books I think are sufficient to deal with 99 percent of everything that goes on,” Norton said during the special called meeting. “The event planned on the 14th is going to be extraordinary or has the potential to be extraordinary. There’s no way to tell if we’re going to need this or not.”
This event in question was originally organized by former KKK leader Chester Doles with the stated intent of a pro-Trump reelection rally. However, as it was heavily promoted on white supremacy websites an online outcry resulted in the promise of counter protesters.
As a result Sheriff Stacy Jarrard and City Marshal Jeff Branyon are now coordinating with local, state and federal officials in hopes of quelling any potential violence during the event which will run from 1 to 3 p.m. in the shadow of the Dahlonega Gold Museum.
“We’re planning on having a large law enforcement presence and we're still waiting to see what the numbers will look like,” Jarrard said.
Doles, a Dahlonega resident, told The Nugget that the event had “nothing to do with race.”
Yet the list of reported guest speakers has grown to include those who have visible ties to white supremacy or neo-Nazism.
Last week Congressman Doug Collins forcefully denounced the event in the pages of The Nugget when he said he would have nothing to do with a rally “that has been organized by known associates of hate organizations.”
Republican State Senator Steve Gooch has since joined the chorus of those speaking out against the event.
“I don’t support racism, bigotry or hate from any group, no matter who it is,” he told The Nugget. “I just wish it wasn’t happening in our town.”
No doubt representatives of the Dahlonega City Council are wishing the same thing.
But since the event is looking like a certainty, the recently passed ordinances will add extra layers of control to the rally.
Most of that control will go to City Manager Bill Schmid.
READYING FOR THE RALLY
According to the newly adopted measure, the city manager has the power to restrict the time and length of an event, limit the number of participants allowed at an event, move the location of the event to another location in the city and prohibit items to the fullest extent permitted by law that pose a risk to public safety.
“I recognize the significant responsibility that a document like this has,” Schmid said. “…I would be in consultation with the mayor, with the marshal, likely with others, the council.”
Most visibly, the measure will allow the city to take the stadium model approach to events like Saturday’s rally, regulating points of entry and what can be brought inside the boundaries, much like at a sporting event.
“If they’re going to participate in the demonstration downtown, we’re going to basically create a corral area with barricades and a checkpoint,” Branyon said. “So if you want to come into that area, you have to subject. It’s like the airport.”
But with one big difference. Officials can’t interfere with the Second Amendment rights of any rally attendees.
WEAPONS RIGHTS AND WRONGS
“You can’t take in a toy gun, but you can take in a real gun,” said City Councilman Bruce Hoffman to Branyon.
The city marshal concurred.
“The second amendment doesn’t apply to a toy gun,” he said.
That means non lethal “weaponized objects,” which could range from to sticks to stones to frozen water bottles and beyond, can be confiscated.
Guns held by permitted owners can not.
When asked by The Nugget if these measures will assist in securing the event, Jarrard didn’t mince words.
“It’s like putting a band-aid on an elephant’s rear,” he said.
The sheriff quickly added that he appreciates the council’s attempts to help, but since the downtown square is public property that can only go so far.
“The stadium entrance [model] is basically for private property,” he said. “You can keep things out there. But with this being public property you can have this ordinance to take certain things away but you can’t take guns because we’re not on private property.”
CROWD CONTROL IN, DRONES OUT
Under the ordinance, the city manager could also regulate how many people are allowed to participate in the event. Norton said that is a common sense measure since it pertains to how many people an area will hold.
“The general public can’t simply stand in the street and block traffic today so there is a defined space which will hold a certain number of humans and whatever that is, whatever that maximum number is, is probably what the safe number of people that can stand in front of the welcome center is,” he said.
The second ordinance, regulating drones and other unmanned aircraft, requires anyone who wishes to fly a drone, weighing more than 250 grams, within the city limits of Dahlonega to first seek permission through the city, although the city can prohibit drone flight during certain times where large crowds are expected.
“This does not prohibit drone flights in Dahlonega, except potentially on festivals and large events,” Norton said.
Officials said this ordinance adoption is aimed at keeping the public safe.
“The drone ordinance allows the city to regulate drones within the city limits,” City Attorney Doug Parks said. “The city manager may restrict or eliminate drone operation at certain areas of the city at any time.
One concern is that drones could be used as weapons at events such as this Saturday’s rally, dropping harmful contents on those below.
“In the same way that they can be used to transport packages and release them, we wouldn’t want them to use them to release other things,” Schmid said.
Drones and other unmanned aircraft can now be flown during times permitted by the city as long as the operator gives the city advance notice.
“There are two means of notice, one is the electronic version basically online on the website and the other one would be a paper version for those that aren’t connected to the internet,” Schmid said. “So they have the means to let us know, it’s not a permission thing it’s just telling us.”
‘CAREFUL WITH THE CONSTITUTIONAL LAW’
When The Nugget asked about the possibility of these measures infringing on the rights of those demonstrating, Schmid, who helped draft the ordinance, says that it’s all about keeping the public safe.
“Public safety is our highest priority,” he said. “Minimizing and reducing risks is a key part of my job so I’d be foolish not to try to use the best tools available. And given the option I’m always going to err on the side of public safety.”
Parks said Dahlonega is in new waters with these measures.
“I would say we’re in .001% of jurisdictions that are doing this so we need to be careful with the constitutional law,” he said.
Following up with Parks after the meeting, he said he believes the case law referenced in the ordinance, specifically Ward v. Rock Against Racism 1989, should be able to sustain the ordinance.
Norton added that he feels most citizens will accept the new ordinances since they are designed for protection.
“I think the general public will welcome this legislation, simply because it’s geared toward public safety,” he said. "...Some of the outlying extremists may not like it. They may not like not being able to bring projectiles or wasp spray or other weaponized household [items]. They would probably be opposed to it but the general public would welcome it.”
The ordinance went into effect immediately following the meeting’s adjournment, but will include a sunset date of Dec. 31, meaning the ordinance must be readopted this year before it will become permanent.
“[The ordinance is] empowering the city manager with quite an arsenal here and I think we should give it some time to see if that’s the appropriate place where this arsenal of tools should be residing,” said councilwoman JoAnne Taylor. “I also think a sunset date means we revisit this after this coming event and see if this covers everything we want it to cover or if it’s overreaching or whatever and we should revisit it and make sure that it’s the one we want permanently.”