MCDONOUGH, Ga. — Henry County officials have altered nine plaques on government buildings, removing the name of a county commissioner who is now in prison. The move may run afoul of a new state law, signed days ago by Gov. Brian Kemp, to protect public monuments.
The controversial new law made news because it protects Confederate and other battle memorials. But it also protects other public monuments.
When Henry County built a new fire station near McDonough, it put a plaque on the front, noting the date and the county commissioners who served at the time. But the district two commissioner is now marked by a blank space.
Workers removed the name of commissioner Gary Freedman in recent weeks. The county says it had good reason.
"The commissioner in question is a convicted child molester," said county spokeswoman Melissa Robinson. State records show Freedman is serving a 20 year sentence at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.
When Freedman held public office, Henry County built nine new buildings, all bearing Freedman’s name on plaques. Robinson says all those names have been wiped from the building’s plaques.
"Removing his name from the plaque is a statement on the crimes against children that he committed. And the county wants to distance itself from that," Robinson explained.
But altering public plaques can be more complicated than that.
"It’s frustrating that here in DeKalb County, we don’t have the same choice," said state Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta).
DeKalb County is barred by state law from altering the Confederate monument at its old courthouse – a law the legislature strengthened this year. Sen. Parent opposed this year’s bill restricting the alteration or relocation of monuments. Public spaces are rife with them.
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There’s an 1897 marker at the old Henry County courthouse bearing the names of long-gone county commissioners. Parent thinks Henry County may have run afoul of the new law by removing commissioner Freedman’s name from nine plaques.
"If you look at the new law, it’s certainly arguable that Henry County should not be, under state law, permitted to alter those plaques," said Parent, an attorney. "It sort of goes to my point of allowing local governments to have some flexibility in some of these situations is really good public policy."
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But state Sen. Brian Strickland (R-McDonough) disagrees with Parent. He thinks the new law isn’t intended to protect mere plaques – but rather more grandiose historic monuments.
"These names are simply listed to confirm who was on the board at the time," said Strickland, who supported the new law.
Parent think it’s murky – and that it would be an interesting question for a court.