Arguing erupts over City Park playground

Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, Featured, Featured Stories, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Blue Ridge, Ga. – It was clear from the onset of the Blue Ridge City Council meeting that tensions were high between fellow council members Rhonda Haight and Mike Panter.

During approval of the minutes from a Special Called Oct. 20, 2020 council meeting Haight made the motion to accept the minutes but with it being noted that Panter had brought forth non agenda items at this meeting and that this was illegal according to the Open Meetings Act.

During this meeting Panter asked to speak and used this time to point out the history of dysfunction within the city council.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

View of playground in City Park showing height of slide.

Mayor Donna Whitener pointed out that it was a council member who had made the request for this for the time to speak.

“It doesn’t matter if it was a council person,” Haight responded to the Mayor’s comments, “I’ve never been allowed to do that.” 

The motion to accept the minutes with the added note passed 3-2 with council members Robbie Cornelius and Panter opposing.

Contention didn’t stop there, as Haight then moved to have the agenda amended, moving Panter’s line item (Presentation of playground and Purchase) from Action Agenda Items to Purchasing Approvals.

Haight stated that according to the city charter and for clarification in minutes that the item should be moved: “Are we going to be purchasing?”

Council member Nathan Fitts backed Haight stating, “If we’re going to go by procedures, let’s do it correctly.” Fitts added that everyone needs to get on the same page.

“An action item can be an action item where you are taking action on something and a purchasing approval,” City Attorney James Balli clarified whether the item had to be moved. “Legally you can do it under either one.” 

The motion to move the item passed with only Panter in opposition and council member Harold Herndon expressing his opinion that it didn’t really matter.

Panter had previously presented to the public his research and opinion on the route that should be taken when considering reopening the City Park’s playground area.

During his presentation at the current meeting Panter reiterated that his concern is with safety and the lack of upkeep the city has done in maintaining the playground area. 

Panter advocated for using rubber padding in lieu of mulch and stated that while the initial cost would be over $60,000, the benefits of not having the upkeep of mulch would save the city money in the years to come.

“We had two grants of over $150,000 offered to the city,” Panter stated of the park’s history, “We got zero because we couldn’t make a decision.” 

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Panter presenting his research and findings into reopening the City Park playground.

Arguing among council and mayor erupted over who had been previously responsible for the decisions made about the park and playground.

“Ms. Whitener went down to the park yanked all the equipment out and left it totally blank,” Haight said of the park’s two year saga of renovation between 2015 – 2017.

Haight acknowledged that there was a grant for $120,000 to be used in the park but that the grant was for a botanical garden and not for the playground. 

Mayor Whitener retorted to Haight, defending the landscaping that began but was later removed, “You were moving the park to the other side.” 

“And yes I did want it to go at the other end but it was too late at that point,” Haight responded to Whitener’s remark.

One thing that the two did agree on was that $12,000 was spent during this time on sod that was later removed and a sprinkler system.

Conversation became more heated when Whitener pointed out that council member Haight’s husband had been involved with the park at that time. Haight acknowledged that her husband had volunteered some of his time but was not involved in the ultimate decisions that were made.

“I think you’ve told so many lies over the years, you don’t even know what the truth is,” Haight spoke directly to Whitener.

Fitts tried to steer the conversation back to addressing the playground as it is today instead of discussing the history: “We need to do what is best for the citizens right now. What would it take to get the park open to code?”

Cornelius finally made a motion to purchase the turf option presented by Panter, stating that the problem should just be fixed rather than “putting a band-aid on it”. The motion, however, failed to pass with only Panter and Cornelius voting in favor.

“I’m not interested in taking the liability and doing that,” Panter said when suggested that the city use mulch for now.

Haight responded to Panter,  “Just because we voted you down, you don’t want to participate even though you’re over the park?”

“I’ve done my job,” Panter responded “You do your job. I’ve done mine.”

Haight motioned for $10,000 to be spent in bringing the playground up to code with the use of mulch and to address drainage issues in the area. This motion passed 3-2 with Cornelius and Panter in opposition.

Planning, Zoning and Project Manager Jeff Stewart agreed to take on the project of the City Park playground and will oversee the steps necessary to reopen the playground to the public.

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