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Environmental court helps keep county clean
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In 2000, after noticing an increase in littering and pollution in the area, Newton County, with the help of Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful, formed the Newton County Ordinance Violation Court to curb the troubling trend.

"We found that cases dealing with the environment were not being taken seriously," said Connie Waller, executive director of KCNB. "A judge would hear a murder case and then have to hear a littering case, and the littering case did not seem as important."

Through Keep Georgia Beautiful, Newton County and KCNB were able to secure money from the Georgia Solid Waste Trust Fund first to hire a code enforcement officer and then begin the Ordinance Violation Court.

Informally known as the Environmental Court, the Ordinance Violation Court is now headed by part time Magistrate Judge John Degonia, who takes a personal interest in keeping the area clean.

"I walk through my subdivision at least once a week picking up trash off the side of the road," Degonia said. "I take the environment very seriously. I also recycle."

 Degonia hears trails in the court every fourth Wednesday on the month. He said, on average, 30 to 40 people are charged in Environmental Court every month.

"First a person is served with a citation and given a date and time to appear in court," Degonia said. "When they have their day in court, they can bring a lawyer and witnesses. The state then has their own witnesses who counter, and the person can be cross examined. If found guilty, the person might be fined or be sentenced to community service like picking up litter on the side of the road."

Cases are prosecuted by part time solicitor James Griffin who also works for the Law Offices of Tommy Craig. Degonia said violators can be fined as much as $500 for littering.

"There has been a great growth in the county in the past several years which has resulted in a greater amount of litter and trash on the road," Degonia said.

In the seven years since the courts inception, the docket of cases has evolved to tackle a wide array of issues.

"We've been able to address a lot of different issues from keeping our water clean to soil erosion, which has become a major issue as the county grows," Waller said. "I think it has been successful."

The court also now handles cases involving animal control and vehicle codes.

Though the original grant money has since been delegated to state level environmental projects, the court continues to grow with several code enforcement officers now on staff.

Waller said the Georgia General Assembly could vote in 2008 to reallocate the grant money to city environmental projects.