Panter and Fitts give their opinion on recent affordable housing vote

Featured News, Featured Stories
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Councilmembers Mike Panter and Nathan Fitts are sharing their reasoning behind a recent controversial vote on a proposed housing project presented by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

The following are direct statements from Panter and Fitts regarding their votes and opinions on the matter.

From Councilmember Mike Panter

Why I Voted No

To the Citizens of Blue Ridge, I have been asked multiple times sine May 11th, why I didn’t support the rezoning request and the affordable housing development with the Searles Foundation.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Let me begin by saying I do and have always supported the need for affordable housing in the City of Blue Ridge and Fannin County. However, just because you support something doesn’t mean you should automatically vote for something that is going to affect the citizens for the next 50 years. You must be able to support why you believe that this project is best for the city residents. Especially when over 100 citizens who live within a mile of the proposed project have signed a petition against the project.

When you stop and think about an additional 171 rental units being built and 200 additional automobiles daily, between two schools, on a heavily traveled road that has no traffic lights, turn lanes, street lights, sidewalks, roundabouts, any type of traffic study, or a 5-to-10-year strategic growth plan, it doesn’t make sense. You say to yourself there has to be a better location.

This project was started by the Haights on January 28, 2021. The variance application was not applied for until February 26, 2021. It was briefly introduced to the Council April 13, 2021 without any detailed information. It was presented to the zoning and planning board May 2, 2021 and to the council for final vote May 11, 2021. A lot of people didn’t understand that this was a land swap instead of a traditional purchase and sell. In my opinion both boards should have at least 30 days to research and verify their information before voting.

I was the only council member present at the one-hour meeting. Unlike other members of the audience, I was not allowed to speak or ask any questions because I am an elected official. Therefore, the majority of questions I would have asked were not addressed. One member of the Planning Commission was 30 minutes late to the meeting but still felt that they had enough information to make a motion to approve this 20 – 30-million-dollar project.

Is the Searles Foundation the right partner/developer for our city residents if we can only choose one?

  • Who are the partners that will be involved in the Searles Project?
  • Could the project ever be transferred or sold to another entity? What type of entity?
  • Who manages the project? Fairway Management Company? Haight House, LLC? Other?

Even though our current water and sewer is in good shape, the sewer plant was built 23 years ago and is currently in the design phase for a 5-million-dollar rehab. Can it handle another 171 apartments within the Mineral Springs area over the next 3 years?

What effect does President Biden’s 213-billion-dollar proposal for infrastructure and housing have on this project? Will the developer only allow current Fannin County citizens or will they be required to open up the development to qualified candidates within the state, southeast or country?

The following is a list of questions I have for the Foundation and Zoning Board.

  1. If we are going to have only one development within a 2-3 mile radius of the City, is this the best location?
  2. Will the current residents be forced to move?
  3. What is included in the rent? Water, power, cable?
  4. It has been stated that the Searles Foundation minimum rent is $600/month. The majority of residents are currently paying less than $300/month. Does their rent continue to stay the same?
  5. What out of pocket expense will the city residents and tax payers be responsible for?
  6. How do individuals with low to no income currently living in the woods behind businesses, cars, etc. afford the Searles Foundation project?
  7. What is the time period for construction?
  8. Will all of the trees be removed on the 15 acres?
  9. Will a center turn lane be added? If so when will the road be widened?
  10. Will sidewalks, traffic lights, streetlights or roundabouts be added?
  11. Who will be our new city residents? And can we have the answer to this question in a contract?
  12. Offering $40 thousand for road modifications at the end of Mineral Springs will by no means cover the expense. A traffic light and a roundabout would cost in excess of $100,000. Who pays the extra expense? City or County?
  13. Why is the Housing Authority pushing a 50-year contract when the current residents will be moved to the Searles project? There would be no need for this contract.
  14. Would the existing housing units be owned by the Haights and turned into personal rental income or torn down and developed into a trailer park?
  15. Can the Searles Foundation give us a plan or contract of what the current housing authority units will look like in 10 years?

These questions summarize why I requested an additional 2 – 3 days time before I was required to vote. How could I just vote Yes? I believe all of these questions need to be answered before a vote can take place which will affect our community for the next 50 years.

From Councilmember Nathan Fitts

I am extremely disappointed in some of our city elected officials and with the denial of the zoning for the affordable housing at the council meeting last week. To answer some of the outstanding questions I’ve heard and saw I wanted to outline the factual information as a council member. I know there have been some questions on why we didn’t table the vote for the rezoning.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

First of all, I don’t know why we would have tabled the vote as that was one of the main objectives of the council meeting that was on the agenda. I am the council member who made the motion to APPROVE the zoning contingent upon all of the conditions that had been recommended to us by the Planning Commission and Zoning Board previously who had already heard the request. At a recent previous zoning hearing, the mayor actually violated the city’s meeting policy by allowing it to be tabled and when the question was raised at the meeting about the legalities of being able to table it, I was not willing to participate in anything other than what I knew to be the law and policy in place. Additionally, I had legal counsel who had advised me that we had to vote. Unfortunately, our city attorney was not present and was not available to provide legal advice at the time, so I made the motion and proceeded by the policy that was set for such which is that we were to vote immediately following the hearing. That rule is outlined on page 4 as Item 5 in the Meeting Rules of Procedures. Additionally, all council members had all of the information to review ahead of time. As a matter of fact, all of them had talked with the developer personally, got questions answered, and had from the zoning hearing time frame to the council meeting date to research and investigate any matters regarding this zoning request so a decision could be made the night of the hearing as required. There have been rumors that this hearing was “rushed” or “pushed” through in a matter of a couple of weeks, and I can attest to the fact that such statements are untrue. The amount of time for it was longer than what was required by law and this has been being discussed for many weeks. If there are any proven facts to the contrary, I have not been privy to it and have no knowledge of such.

What is most disappointing, and heartbreaking is that one of the biggest opportunities in the history of this county, in my opinion, for the local community was lost. The need for affordable housing is real and needed in a bad kind of way. The chance for us as the city council and as the community as a whole to help the “locals” was there and stripped away due to political and personal reasons in my opinion. I might also add from knowing all of the facts and information surrounding this project as a whole, I feel that was the reason and reason alone that the mayor voted no for the project is out of spite as one of the parties involved which is ashamed in my opinion. This was not about her and anything political this was about doing what is needed in the area and doing the right thing for the people, something the mayor has lost sight of over the last few years it seems. The reason the mayor publicly gave as she voted no was because she wished she just had some more information and had some numbers for the sewer. I know my jaw probably dropped open when that was the reason given because the mayor is or should be very aware of the city’s infrastructure information as it was her herself who just a couple of weeks ago quoted the exact information at a city council meeting and also as the previous zoning hearing for another developer that she was now acting like she didn’t know anything about and had questions regarding. Well for the record, the question regarding the sewer, was information that she knows and all of us know and have known. As I made the statement at the meeting, the sewer upgrades the city has to do regardless and already have planned to do. Below is a snapshot of our master infrastructure needs for both water and sewer which you will see both of the items in question on that the mayor didn’t know anything about or have recollection of. Perhaps she forgot this spreadsheet even existed because the Mineral Springs sewer and Aska pump station have been on a list for repair/replacement for quite some time and even talked about publicly in March when this information was provided to the public. The mayor herself even spoke about it at the infrastructure meeting we had in April but now a month later for this situation she knows nothing about it. Very interesting. I would highly suggest going back and watching the meeting or reading the minutes of the meeting on infrastructure and you’ll see her concerns stated for the denial were already addressed and she’s fully aware of that. Please listen to the meeting of the April 21, 2021 meeting and compare it to Tuesday night’s council meeting. One would think it was two different Mayors speaking at each meeting. One sounds highly educated about our sewer/water and the other she sounds like she has not clue as to what is going on with it and is confused with questions. So, what was the real reason??? Is she really just totally out of the loop and neglecting her job duties as CEO of the city or did she just use that as an excuse and play dumb so she could vote against it? Now that everything is being researched and dissected and she’s been caught in lie after lie, I would think she would have learned some valuable lessons, however, it doesn’t seem she has. Each of you can do your own research, watch and listen and you can make your own conclusion.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

The water and sewer departments are both departments in which I am over so I can speak with firsthand knowledge of these items. These have been planned to be done and are slated to be completed by 2022 regardless of if this project had gotten approved or denied. The Aska pump station already has a task release number and will be applied for through grant at the beginning of next year. The cost is around $1,000,000. The Mineral Springs storm water problem is estimated at $500,000. It too is slated to be completed and corrected by 2021, but we will know more actually next week. Matt Smith, the city’s engineer from Carter and Slope, said that next week we will run another camera and he thinks the lines will have to be replaced as they are too small. He feels the high end of the project is $500,000. As stated, this is all in the works to be completed according to the plan by 2021 and is and has already been planned. The grant for the Aska Pump station would actually benefit from showing that we could have been adding more customers to this area. It shows we will have more ability to pay for these upgrades. Regardless of the project going forward or not, these two things HAVE TO BE DONE! There is no way around it.

In my opinion whether it be that used for the excuse or something else, there was going to be an excuse to vote no because of the underlying motif behind the denial. I had calls from people prior to the meeting trying to get what the true facts were about this project and the developers behind it as people were stating that they were called from the mayor personally giving information and her opinion on the project that were not even factual and were discrediting parties involved and doing what she’s been known to do best which is creating “chaos” to push her agenda. In addition to a personal vendetta towards some of the parties involved she also has been at odds with and has a strong dislike for the director of the housing authority for years. As a matter of fact, the housing authority as of this very minute still doesn’t have a signed coop agreement from the city that has expired, and they’ve been working diligently on getting done for months and months if not well over a year as I’ve been involved the last few months. Every time we get everything done and ready to vote and sign off on it, there’s another hurdle thrown up or excuse to delay it even further. Again, all power plays and personal dislikes which are putting the citizens and public’s best interest in the crossfire which is shameful and disgusting. For those people who are living in the tents around town, in campers and in tractor trailers, the homeless, and those living with family members because they can’t find housing and affordable housing at that in this area, they are the ones that this effected the most. This could have made an impact on their lives and it was an opportunity lost and only for the reasons for the mayor to flex her muscles for political and personal vendettas. I want to thank all of those people who have put so much time and effort in trying to get affordable housing in this area. It is needed way beyond what most people who live locally even realize. I hope that we can all do our part to help those in need and that there will be a new solution for affordable housing at some point in the near future for the residents of this area.

Management of City Parking will not go out to bid

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Tempers flared again as Blue Ridge City Council voted on whether it would be in the City’s best interest to put the management of municipal parking out to bid.

In a second Special Called Meeting held on Friday, May 21, 2021, Council Member Nathan Fitts proposed that the City release Executive Parking Systems (EPS) from their current contract managing the City’s parking and put the duties of parking management out to bid.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

Payment kiosk installed by EPS for 24/7 collections.

Fitts stated his reasoning for his proposal was that by not placing the service out to bid there was a look of impropriety in allowing the contract to continue without any competition and that EPS was in violation of the terms that had been agreed upon.

“The fact that this agreement only applied to special events is further confirmed by the audio of the City Council meeting in October 2019 when the council voted on this issue,” Fitts said, explaining the breach of contract.

According to Fitts the agreement with EPS was for the company to handle Special Events parking only, not day to day collections that the company is currently providing.

Council Member Rhonda Haight played audio clips from a previous meeting between City Council and the Downtown Development Authority where Fitts does clarify that EPS would be used for Special Events only.

Fitts said that EPS continuing to collect money for parking that was not from Special Events was in fact illegal.

Fitts stated, “The council has a duty to the citizens to immediately stop these unauthorized funds that are being collected by Executive Parking.”

During discussion, fellow Council Member Mike Panter referred to an email sent by City Attorney James Balli that stated “In this instance, the parking contract is not required to be submitted to the sealed bid process”.

The current contract between the City of Blue Ridge and EPS states of parking that EPS will furnish duties “as needed or requested by the City” and that EPS would collect “20% of the Net Operating income from each event, which is the total income made per event minus EPS employee expenses”.

EPS had presented the City with an updated contract changing the wording of these two statements to duties furnished would be “24 hours a day/7 days a week/ 365 days a year” and collecting “25% of the Net Operating Income each month from all City Properties, which is the total income made per month per location”.

The updated contract, however, was never approved by council.

“I know what the contract says,” Mayor Donna Whitener expressed when questioned if she understood the contract,  “It says as needed and you all needed it.”

Fitts responded to Whitener saying that her opinion is invalid, “You have a conflict of interest because you sold them a piece of property. You’re in violation of the Charter.”

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

EPS signage located in municipal parking off of Mountain Street.

Shelli Wojohn, General Counsel at Valet Vault & Executive Parking Systems, also spoke up saying, “An event is every time we operate as per stated in the contract.”

“So every day is an event in Blue Ridge?” Haight questioned WoJohn.

As the meeting began to unravel, Whitener tried to adjourn but Haight said adjournment would not take place since a motion had already been made and the Council was in the middle of a vote.

Cesar Martinez, Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, was asked his opinion since he had been present throughout much of the discussions related to the City’s parking.

“In my opinion, and I am not a lawyer,” Martinez responded, “When we let them put the parking meter up in the city municipal lot that was under the request of the City. They were doing it as needed and requested by the City.”

Panter and Council Member Harold Herndon voted against putting the service out to bid.

“They’ve done a good job. There was a need. Income has been good,” Herndon explained his position, “I don’t think the City at this time of the year can afford a delay or holding up services for any length of time.” 

During fiscal year 2020 the City made $65,116.87 in revenues collected by EPS.

With two opposing votes (Panter and Herndon) and two in favor (Haight and Fitts), a tie breaking vote was cast by Mayor Whitener against bidding out parking management. Council Member Robbie Cornelius was not present for the meeting.

Haight went on record that she felt the Whitener’s vote was a direct conflict of interest due to a real estate transaction between the Mayor and EPS. 

Haight also stated of EPS continuing to collect revenues everyday and not just for Special Events, “Right now in my opinion they (EPS) are taking money that doesn’t belong to them and that’s theft.”

Council rejects rezoning request on affordable housing development

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The proposed affordable housing project to be located on Mineral Springs Drive has come to a halt after a tie breaking vote denied the rezoning request put forward by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

Emotions were high in a full room as City Council listened to sides both in support and in opposition of the new project.

The crowd gathered at City Hall on May 11 showed overwhelming support of the proposed affordable housing project, where at the Planning Commission meeting held on May 4, citizens present then were mainly in opposition of.

Despite the opposition, the Planning Commission chose to move forward, recommending rezoning of the area from R2 residential to R3 high density residential, contingent upon suggestions made through the staff analysis.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Proposed plans of affordable housing development in City of Blue Ridge.

Among the supporters present at the City Council meeting were many who work directly with various charitable organizations in Fannin County.

“Without a stable place to call home, it is very difficult for working families to show up for work consistently,” Sherry Morris, Executive Director of Fannin County Family Connection, said of situations that she encounters daily, “I know it seems unbelievable but national statistics show that impoverished citizens work an average of 1.4 jobs. That’s right, it takes a great deal of working hours at service wages just to be poor. Let’s be a caring community and give a hand-up to our citizens.”

Philip Searles, President of the Beverly J. Searles Foundation, was also in attendance to give Council and the public a brief overview of the intended affordable housing units. 

Searles took the time to address several of the concerns that had been brought to his attention during the Planning Commission meeting.

Of these concerns, Searles addressed specifically the danger of the intersection at Mineral Springs Drive and Aska Road stating that his foundation was willing to work with the county and offer $40,000 towards a solution to the area, such as a traffic signal.

Searles also addressed nearby residents’ concerns of increased crime once the units were occupied. According to Searles, the units would not be available for occupancy to anyone with a previous felony that is on record. Searles also stated that he had spoken with local law enforcement on the matter.

His foundation proposed that they would install a vehicle tag reader at the entrance of the complex. This reader would have a direct feed to law enforcement and police would be able to monitor whether any vehicle entering the premises is connected to an active warrant.

“I’m not expecting this to buy you all or make you all want me here, I get that, but I want to let you all know that I hear you all and I’m trying to do what I can,” Searles turned and spoke to a group of would be neighboring residents who had expressed concerns during the Planning Commission meeting.

Residents from neighboring properties still spoke in opposition and expressed concerns over the City’s infrastructure as well as decreasing property values.

Council Members discussed their concerns over the project, with Council Member Nathan Fitts stating that his main concern would be with the added traffic to the area.

Council Member Mike Panter questioned Searles over recently passed Federal legislation allowing for Federal Housing to be filled with persons outside of the general area. Searles assured Panter that this would not happen due to the need for the housing in Fannin County.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Crowd storms out of City Hall after rezoning request is denied.

Traver Aiken, Manager of the Blue Ridge Housing Authority, explained that the demand in Fannin County is great for this type of housing. All of the Housing Authority units are currently occupied and according to Aiken there is a waiting list of approximately 70 applicants.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not ready to make a decision,” Panter stopped Council Member Nathan Fitts before a motion was made to vote, “We just got the report from the Planning Commission today.”

Discussion began of the legalities of tabling the rezoning request.  Tabling would allow Council Members more time to research the topic. 

With no clear guidance on whether delaying the vote was within the legal powers of the City Charter, Fitts motioned to accept the rezoning request with prior contingencies in place.

Council Member Rhonda Haight recused herself from the vote as she is the current owner of the property located on Mineral Springs in which the affordable housing complex would be built.

Council Members Nathan Fitts and Herald Herndon voted in favor of the rezoning request and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius voted against.

Mayor Donna Whitener cast the tie breaking vote in opposition of the rezoning request: “I don’t think anybody here is opposed to affordable housing but I just think that if we had had some more information, it would have been a little better. I would have liked to have known what this number is for sewer, so I vote no.”

 

Featured Image : Crowd gathers at City Hall for Council meeting regarding rezoning request for affordable housing development

Blue Ridge’s Panter provides county with brief aquatic center synopsis

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aquatic center

BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Blue Ridge City Councilmember Mike Panter attended the April 27 Board of Commissioners meeting to present his idea for an aquatic and wellness center.

Though not officially on the agenda, the commissioners granted Panter time to present during public commentary. Previously, the commissioners all encouraged the city council to publicly present the idea at a county meeting.

He began by stating he wants to develop a communal space for the city, county, and school on the unused farmer’s market property. The area’s been closed for almost 12 years according to Mayor Donna Whitener.

Intended property for the building.

The proposed aquatic and wellness center would include an indoor heated pool, outdoor splash pad, two indoor gyms, indoor playground, fitness center, wellness center, two multipurpose conference rooms, and indoor/outdoor walking tracks.

Panter estimated the project will cost between $7 and $9 million since the city already owns the land – 4.91 acres. In-depth cost analysis wasn’t addressed during the meeting.

“Lot of opportunity, a lot of money that can be raised for a facility of this size. Now $7 to $8 million dollars sounds like a lot of money. If we wait 10 years from now that same facility will be $25 million based on our growth,” Panter explained, “What I’m proposing is that the city of Blue Ridge do a joint venture with the school system and the county government to see if we can use this piece of property, we’ve got sitting right here in the heart of our community.”

The project could be completed in phases. According to the handouts provided by Panter, phase one would include the main building and pool. The pool would be enclosed during phase two with PEMB and openable glass doors.

Panter commented that the center could be a profitable venture for the county, city, and school. Under the current plan, volunteers would predominately operate the facility. The city would pay for the three or four full-time employees.

“If we continue to allow our land to be developed to go high-end commercial to people outside of our community, that land’s not going to be recreated for us down the road. And one of the things I talked to the council about, I said ‘why don’t we take this facility and see if we can work with the county and school system and put something together,” Panter explained.

He added that SPLOST, LOST, hotel/motel tax, and possibly grants could pay for a portion of the project. According to the materials provided, the aquatic and wellness center might qualify as a tourism product development under Georgia Code 48-13-50.2(6)(A-P).

“And other ‘creation or expansion of physical attractions which are available and open to the public and which improves destination appeal to visitors, support visitors’ experience, and are used by visitors,’” the handout document stated.

The layout of the proposed facility

Panter offered that some new residents of Fannin look for tax deduction opportunities and residents could donate money toward the proposed facility. His materials cited Internal Revenue Service Code section 170 (c)(1) which pertains to charitable donations to governmental units for tax deductions if made for a public purpose.

As for SPLOST funds, typically, when citizens vote to approve a new SPLOST tax, it lists the proposed projects. An aquatic and wellness center wasn’t included in the latest list of SPLOST projects, but that doesn’t mean a county can’t divert funds for the effort.

However, Fannin has yet to move forward with the voter-approved administrative facility aside from purchasing Whitepath in 2019. The future of that building for administrative offices faces continued uncertainty with a public hearing scheduled for next week.

Additionally, any decision regarding Whitepath could affect the future of the library. While the library hasn’t appeared on a SPLOST vote either, the state did provide $1.3 million to the library for a capital outlay project – namely the construction of a new facility, either at Whitepath or elsewhere. There’s also a timetable associated with those state funds. Basically, the county has several big-ticket projects to consider before entering into an intergovernmental agreement with the city for something new.

The aquatic and wellness center will be discussed at a later meeting, and Panter intends to speak at a board of education meeting to gauge their support.

Panter campaigned on bringing a YMCA-like facility to Blue Ridge before being elected to city council. He’s tried to develop a similar facility since 1990.

Council rejects rezoning request on affordable housing development

City Council, Community, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The proposed affordable housing project to be located on Mineral Springs Drive has come to a halt after a tie breaking vote denied the rezoning request put forward by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

Emotions were high in a full room as City Council listened to sides both in support and in opposition of the new project.

The crowd gathered at City Hall on May 11 showed overwhelming support of the proposed affordable housing project, where at the Planning Commission meeting held on May 4, citizens present then were mainly in opposition of.

Despite the opposition, the Planning Commission chose to move forward, recommending rezoning of the area from R2 residential to R3 high density residential, contingent upon suggestions made through the staff analysis.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Proposed plans of affordable housing development in City of Blue Ridge.

Among the supporters present at the City Council meeting were many who work directly with various charitable organizations in Fannin County.

“Without a stable place to call home, it is very difficult for working families to show up for work consistently,” Sherry Morris, Executive Director of Fannin County Family Connection, said of situations that she encounters daily, “I know it seems unbelievable but national statistics show that impoverished citizens work an average of 1.4 jobs. That’s right, it takes a great deal of working hours at service wages just to be poor. Let’s be a caring community and give a hand-up to our citizens.”

Philip Searles, President of the Beverly J. Searles Foundation, was also in attendance to give Council and the public a brief overview of the intended affordable housing units. 

Searles took the time to address several of the concerns that had been brought to his attention during the Planning Commission meeting.

Of these concerns, Searles addressed specifically the danger of the intersection at Mineral Springs Drive and Aska Road stating that his foundation was willing to work with the county and offer $40,000 towards a solution to the area, such as a traffic signal.

Searles also addressed nearby residents’ concerns of increased crime once the units were occupied. According to Searles, the units would not be available for occupancy to anyone with a previous felony that is on record. Searles also stated that he had spoken with local law enforcement on the matter.

His foundation proposed that they would install a vehicle tag reader at the entrance of the complex. This reader would have a direct feed to law enforcement and police would be able to monitor whether any vehicle entering the premises is connected to an active warrant.

“I’m not expecting this to buy you all or make you all want me here, I get that, but I want to let you all know that I hear you all and I’m trying to do what I can,” Searles turned and spoke to a group of would be neighboring residents who had expressed concerns during the Planning Commission meeting.

Residents from neighboring properties still spoke in opposition and expressed concerns over the City’s infrastructure as well as decreasing property values.

Council Members discussed their concerns over the project, with Council Member Nathan Fitts stating that his main concern would be with the added traffic to the area.

Council Member Mike Panter questioned Searles over recently passed Federal legislation allowing for Federal Housing to be filled with persons outside of the general area. Searles assured Panter that this would not happen due to the need for the housing in Fannin County.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Crowd storms out of City Hall after rezoning request is denied.

Traver Aiken, Manager of the Blue Ridge Housing Authority, explained that the demand in Fannin County is great for this type of housing. All of the Housing Authority units are currently occupied and according to Aiken there is a waiting list of approximately 70 applicants.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not ready to make a decision,” Panter stopped Council Member Nathan Fitts before a motion was made to vote, “We just got the report from the Planning Commission today.”

Discussion began of the legalities of tabling the rezoning request.  Tabling would allow Council Members more time to research the topic. 

With no clear guidance on whether delaying the vote was within the legal powers of the City Charter, Fitts motioned to accept the rezoning request with prior contingencies in place.

Council Member Rhonda Haight recused herself from the vote as she is the current owner of the property located on Mineral Springs in which the affordable housing complex would be built.

Council Members Nathan Fitts and Herald Herndon voted in favor of the rezoning request and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius voted against.

Mayor Donna Whitener cast the tie breaking vote in opposition of the rezoning request: “I don’t think anybody here is opposed to affordable housing but I just think that if we had had some more information, it would have been a little better. I would have liked to have known what this number is for sewer, so I vote no.”

 

Featured Image : Crowd gathers at City Hall for Council meeting regarding rezoning request for affordable housing development

Council rejects rezoning request on affordable housing development

City Council, Community, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The proposed affordable housing project to be located on Mineral Springs Drive has come to a halt after a tie breaking vote denied the rezoning request put forward by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

Emotions were high in a full room as City Council listened to sides both in support and in opposition of the new project.

The crowd gathered at City Hall on May 11 showed overwhelming support of the proposed affordable housing project, where at the Planning Commission meeting held on May 4, citizens present then were mainly in opposition of.

Despite the opposition, the Planning Commission chose to move forward, recommending rezoning of the area from R2 residential to R3 high density residential, contingent upon suggestions made through the staff analysis.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Proposed plans of affordable housing development in City of Blue Ridge.

Among the supporters present at the City Council meeting were many who work directly with various charitable organizations in Fannin County.

“Without a stable place to call home, it is very difficult for working families to show up for work consistently,” Sherry Morris, Executive Director of Fannin County Family Connection, said of situations that she encounters daily, “I know it seems unbelievable but national statistics show that impoverished citizens work an average of 1.4 jobs. That’s right, it takes a great deal of working hours at service wages just to be poor. Let’s be a caring community and give a hand-up to our citizens.”

Philip Searles, President of the Beverly J. Searles Foundation, was also in attendance to give Council and the public a brief overview of the intended affordable housing units. 

Searles took the time to address several of the concerns that had been brought to his attention during the Planning Commission meeting.

Of these concerns, Searles addressed specifically the danger of the intersection at Mineral Springs Drive and Aska Road stating that his foundation was willing to work with the county and offer $40,000 towards a solution to the area, such as a traffic signal.

Searles also addressed nearby residents’ concerns of increased crime once the units were occupied. According to Searles, the units would not be available for occupancy to anyone with a previous felony that is on record. Searles also stated that he had spoken with local law enforcement on the matter.

His foundation proposed that they would install a vehicle tag reader at the entrance of the complex. This reader would have a direct feed to law enforcement and police would be able to monitor whether any vehicle entering the premises is connected to an active warrant.

“I’m not expecting this to buy you all or make you all want me here, I get that, but I want to let you all know that I hear you all and I’m trying to do what I can,” Searles turned and spoke to a group of would be neighboring residents who had expressed concerns during the Planning Commission meeting.

Residents from neighboring properties still spoke in opposition and expressed concerns over the City’s infrastructure as well as decreasing property values.

Council Members discussed their concerns over the project, with Council Member Nathan Fitts stating that his main concern would be with the added traffic to the area.

Council Member Mike Panter questioned Searles over recently passed Federal legislation allowing for Federal Housing to be filled with persons outside of the general area. Searles assured Panter that this would not happen due to the need for the housing in Fannin County.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Crowd storms out of City Hall after rezoning request is denied.

Traver Aiken, Manager of the Blue Ridge Housing Authority, explained that the demand in Fannin County is great for this type of housing. All of the Housing Authority units are currently occupied and according to Aiken there is a waiting list of approximately 70 applicants.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not ready to make a decision,” Panter stopped Council Member Nathan Fitts before a motion was made to vote, “We just got the report from the Planning Commission today.”

Discussion began of the legalities of tabling the rezoning request.  Tabling would allow Council Members more time to research the topic. 

With no clear guidance on whether delaying the vote was within the legal powers of the City Charter, Fitts motioned to accept the rezoning request with prior contingencies in place.

Council Member Rhonda Haight recused herself from the vote as she is the current owner of the property located on Mineral Springs in which the affordable housing complex would be built.

Council Members Nathan Fitts and Herald Herndon voted in favor of the rezoning request and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius voted against.

Mayor Donna Whitener cast the tie breaking vote in opposition of the rezoning request: “I don’t think anybody here is opposed to affordable housing but I just think that if we had had some more information, it would have been a little better. I would have liked to have known what this number is for sewer, so I vote no.”

 

Featured Image : Crowd gathers at City Hall for Council meeting regarding rezoning request for affordable housing development

Council rejects rezoning request on affordable housing development

City Council, Community, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The proposed affordable housing project to be located on Mineral Springs Drive has come to a halt after a tie breaking vote denied the rezoning request put forward by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

Emotions were high in a full room as City Council listened to sides both in support and in opposition of the new project.

The crowd gathered at City Hall on May 11 showed overwhelming support of the proposed affordable housing project, where at the Planning Commission meeting held on May 4, citizens present then were mainly in opposition of.

Despite the opposition, the Planning Commission chose to move forward, recommending rezoning of the area from R2 residential to R3 high density residential, contingent upon suggestions made through the staff analysis.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Proposed plans of affordable housing development in City of Blue Ridge.

Among the supporters present at the City Council meeting were many who work directly with various charitable organizations in Fannin County.

“Without a stable place to call home, it is very difficult for working families to show up for work consistently,” Sherry Morris, Executive Director of Fannin County Family Connection, said of situations that she encounters daily, “I know it seems unbelievable but national statistics show that impoverished citizens work an average of 1.4 jobs. That’s right, it takes a great deal of working hours at service wages just to be poor. Let’s be a caring community and give a hand-up to our citizens.”

Philip Searles, President of the Beverly J. Searles Foundation, was also in attendance to give Council and the public a brief overview of the intended affordable housing units. 

Searles took the time to address several of the concerns that had been brought to his attention during the Planning Commission meeting.

Of these concerns, Searles addressed specifically the danger of the intersection at Mineral Springs Drive and Aska Road stating that his foundation was willing to work with the county and offer $40,000 towards a solution to the area, such as a traffic signal.

Searles also addressed nearby residents’ concerns of increased crime once the units were occupied. According to Searles, the units would not be available for occupancy to anyone with a previous felony that is on record. Searles also stated that he had spoken with local law enforcement on the matter.

His foundation proposed that they would install a vehicle tag reader at the entrance of the complex. This reader would have a direct feed to law enforcement and police would be able to monitor whether any vehicle entering the premises is connected to an active warrant.

“I’m not expecting this to buy you all or make you all want me here, I get that, but I want to let you all know that I hear you all and I’m trying to do what I can,” Searles turned and spoke to a group of would be neighboring residents who had expressed concerns during the Planning Commission meeting.

Residents from neighboring properties still spoke in opposition and expressed concerns over the City’s infrastructure as well as decreasing property values.

Council Members discussed their concerns over the project, with Council Member Nathan Fitts stating that his main concern would be with the added traffic to the area.

Council Member Mike Panter questioned Searles over recently passed Federal legislation allowing for Federal Housing to be filled with persons outside of the general area. Searles assured Panter that this would not happen due to the need for the housing in Fannin County.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Crowd storms out of City Hall after rezoning request is denied.

Traver Aiken, Manager of the Blue Ridge Housing Authority, explained that the demand in Fannin County is great for this type of housing. All of the Housing Authority units are currently occupied and according to Aiken there is a waiting list of approximately 70 applicants.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not ready to make a decision,” Panter stopped Council Member Nathan Fitts before a motion was made to vote, “We just got the report from the Planning Commission today.”

Discussion began of the legalities of tabling the rezoning request.  Tabling would allow Council Members more time to research the topic. 

With no clear guidance on whether delaying the vote was within the legal powers of the City Charter, Fitts motioned to accept the rezoning request with prior contingencies in place.

Council Member Rhonda Haight recused herself from the vote as she is the current owner of the property located on Mineral Springs in which the affordable housing complex would be built.

Council Members Nathan Fitts and Herald Herndon voted in favor of the rezoning request and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius voted against.

Mayor Donna Whitener cast the tie breaking vote in opposition of the rezoning request: “I don’t think anybody here is opposed to affordable housing but I just think that if we had had some more information, it would have been a little better. I would have liked to have known what this number is for sewer, so I vote no.”

 

Featured Image : Crowd gathers at City Hall for Council meeting regarding rezoning request for affordable housing development

Hiawassee moving forward with planning ordinance modifications

Featured News, Featured Stories, News
planning ordinance

Hiawassee, Ga – City Council agreed everyone needed to participate in the review and potential rewrite of the planning ordinance.

After Celtic Management presented its plan to develop 16 townhomes on two acres next to Georgia Vision Center, it was clear the ordinance would need rewriting. The existing ordinance only allows for four units per acre.

The project entitled Mountain View Townhomes would include 10 two-bedrooms at 1,960 square feet for $230,000 and up. 6 three-bedroom units at 2,300 square feet for $280,000 and up.

“I think it’s a great idea. I love townhomes,” Mayor Liz Ordiales said about changing the ordinance, “but if we do this for him, we have to do it for everyone.”

She added that there’s more property in Hiawassee than the council may realize especially if they decide to let more units be developed per acre.

Hiawassee doesn’t have zoning, so any change goes into effect for the whole city, not just one area. It’s unlikely the city will institute a zoning ordinance in the near future.

City Attorney Thomas Mitchell stated the planning ordinance provides parameters, but the council needs to make those decisions. For instance, they can limit townhome developments to a minimum of two or three-acre lots. The council could restrict the construction of any additional storage units being developed within city limits.

Ordiales commented that she didn’t think commercial and residential developments needed to be separated in the document. She didn’t want to restrict either one.

Councilmember Jay Chastain’s worried about Hiawassee’s water and sewer capacity if the city grows rapidly without any checks and balances in place.

“Main street ought to be attractive to make people feel good about being here, Councilmember Anne Mitchell. However, she’s not in favor of the townhome project in part because she doesn’t believe they will sell.

Also, townhomes aren’t considered a subdivision, and the phrases townhouses or multi-family homes don’t occur in the current document.

Ordiales again stressed that the council and the planning committee need to “take a minute and make sure we do this right.”

Mitchell plans to read through the ordinance and highlight areas the council will need to address. The council will be emailing him any questions too. Hopefully, by the April 26 work session, they will have a path forward. The ordinance changes could take several work sessions.

Fitts goes on record with Mayor’s alleged violations

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Council Member Nathan Fitts is going on record with alleged City Charter violations and State Law infractions committed by the Mayor and certain Council Members.

At the March 9th City Council meeting Fitts made the public aware that Mayor Donna Whitener and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius had been served with an Ante Litem notice on his behalf.

This legal notice comes after Panter presented a censure against Fitts, which ultimately passed. Panter, Cornelius and Whitener voted in favor of the censure while Council Members Rhonda Haight and Herald Herndon voted against.

During the March meeting Fitts briefly explained the Ante Litem notice and stated that the censure was an attempt to silence him from exposing the wrongdoing of the Mayor and Council.

Fitts went on record with some alleged violations during this meeting and FYN has obtained a copy.

***FYN is publishing the alleged violations as presented by Council Member Nathan Fitts. These accusations have not been verified.***

Alleged Violations of Mayor and Council as presented by Council Member Nathan Fitts

Mayor Donna Whitener: 

2011 – 2019 Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations – These are just a few that’s been put together that have happened during the 12 years the Mayor has been in office.  There are more to come as time allows as there is an extensive history of violations of both state and local laws. 

  • After being elected to office in November 2010, she immediately implements insurance compensation for herself and the council members, without council approval. This was a violation of the City Charter; a year later she voted on her own re-zoning request that made her resident legal for her to hold office. Until she cast the tie breaking vote, Donna Whitener didn’t have a legal residence to even hold the office of Mayor. She illegally ran for office and after winning illegally held the position, due to the fact her residence wasn’t zoned to allow her to live above her furniture store. Mayor Whitener’s tie breaking vote she cast was a conflict of interest and was an unethical action, which could have been called null and void according to law. Her unethical action was cited by an investigation propertied by the council in her second term, due to her continued illegal actions.
  • Mayor Donna Whitener spends and gives away Hotel Motel Taxes illegally during her first 4-year term as Mayor. A portion of Hotel Motel tax is restricted by law and can only be given to C-6 Non-Profit Organizations; Mayor Whitener gave thousands of tax dollars away illegally to non-profit organizations, of whom some were friends or acquaintances of hers. Misuse of tax dollars is a violation of state and local laws and warrants not only removal of office but possibly more drastic consequences.
  • Mayor Donna Whitener violates the city charter and her oath of office and neglects her duties as the mayor. As mayor, she is to preside of the meetings meaning: to exercise guidance, direction, or control, to occupy the place of authority: act as president, chairman, or moderator. She is to make sure the meetings are run correctly according to the meeting policy set forth by the council and the governing laws of the state and it is her duty to make sure all state and local laws are adhered to.  She is not authorized or allowed to make up her own laws or ignore the city charter.  Not one time in her 12 years as mayor has the mayor conducted the meeting in accordance with the councils meeting policy.  The mayor is responsible for following all policies and to make sure the meetings are conducted professionally. Mayor Whiteners neglect conduct meetings by policy and her neglect to follow state laws and the city charter since her first days in office has caused years of unproductivity, chaos, arguing, division, taxpayers money wasted and shame and embarrassment to the city and county.

2020 Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations

  • February 5, 2020:  Violation of Charter and Sunshine Law:  On February 5, 2020, a Special Meeting was called to vote on Annexation.  Nathan Fitts and Rhonda Haight attended in person.  They were the only two council members present.   Both questioned the validity of the meeting since the third member joined by phone. Mayor Whitener assured them both that this was a legal meeting, but this was false information.  According to the Sunshine Law and the City Charter there was no quorum present; therefore, the items voted on were in violation of state and local law. Mayor Whitener not only lied to the council about details of the annexation, but she also lied about the legal process, all in an effort to press the annexation through for her own personal political agenda. After Nathan Fitts and Rhonda Haight found out Mayor Whitener had lied to them, they also discovered the mayor had made promises to developers and others to push the annexation through.
  • February 11, 2020:  Violation of Charter:  Mayor Whitener proposed a retaining wall replace the deck on East Main Street; however, she didn’t have quotes for the council to approve, so the city council voted to table proceeding with project until quotes were provided. The mayor abused her authority, blatantly defying the council’s vote, stating that she was going to tear the deck down anyway.  With no idea of what the project would cost or if the city could afford the project, the mayor had workers tear the deck down before quotes for the project had been received and ignored orders of the council not to move forward with the project until quotes came in. Mayor Whitener destroyed City Property without authorization and council approval. (See attached Meeting Minutes) (This is on audiotape). The mayor’s actions constitute abuse of power and violates her duty of office.
  • May 2020:  Violated Civil Rights of Councilman Nathan Fitts: Mayor Whitener tried to force an investigation through fabrication of lies submitted to Home Depot, even after being told by Home Depot there was no issue.  Mayor Whitener abused her power by directly trying to force actions by attempting to have the Blue Ridge City Police engage in actions that was not warranted by law. It took the Chief of Police to stop her attempts by telling her he would not allow her to use his department to pursue her attacks on a council member and that it would be liability to the city if she continued trying to pursue a case without cause.
  • October 20, 2020: Violation of City Charter:  Mayor Whitener violated the City Charter by allowing items to be added to the agenda after the meeting was called.  The Charter and state law states NO ADDITIONAL ITEMS can be added to a Special Called Meeting Agenda.  Mayor Whitener allowed Council Member Mike Panter to speak for 10 minutes on a topic that was not on the Agenda, even after being warned that it was illegal.  In fact, she admitted she forgot to add it and permitted Panter to speak anyway.  (See Meeting Minutes) Both Whitener and Panter violated the Charter and state law.  At the time of the violation, they were both notified and told they were in violation and they both ignored the council member siting them and illegally proceeded the meeting as they had planned.
  • October 20, 2020:  Georgia Open Meetings Act Violation: Mayor Whitener violates state law and her oath of office by allowing Council Member Mike Panter to violate the state meetings law and the city charter in a special called meeting she presided over. The mayor has an obligation to uphold the city charter and state laws and she willingly ignored her duty, by allowing Panter’s misconduct and local and state law violations.
  • December 2020: Violation of City Charter: Mayor Whitener violated the city charter by not disclosing the sale of her parking lot and using inside information for personal financial gain.  Elected official prohibitions are mandated by the charter under Section 2.16. (a)(1), (a)(3), (a)(5), (a)(6), (b), (c). that any elected official that engages in personal business transactions with city employees or anyone in a contract with the city, disclose their intentions to the city council and the public at a public meeting with the item clearly stated on the agenda and the disclosure must be recorded and kept on file with the city clerk. Mayor Whitener failed to disclose the sale of her personal property to a company in contract with the city, to the council in an open meeting as prescribed in Section 2:16 of the city charter.  Mayor Whitener violated the city charter by participating in a matter related to a contract or negotiation that she benefited from financially as specifically prohibited under Section 2.16.a.6.
  • January 9, 2021:  Violation of City and State Zoning Meeting Policy:  Mayor Whitener violated the city charter and local and state zoning meeting laws by allowing Council Member Mike Panter to violate the zoning laws himself. The zoning meeting law mandates the council vote on a rezoning request immediately after the hearing and Council Member Mike Panter made a motion to table the vote till the next meeting.  Mayor Whitener failed to inform Council Member Mike Panter that his motion violated the law; the mayor and the other council members that voted in favor of Panters motion should have known the law regarding zoning hearings. They either did not know the law or they ignored it.  The mayor also allowed the vote to be delayed again in the February meeting, with Council Member Mike Panter leading the charge to put the vote off again and Council Members Cornelius and Herndon voting with him. The mayor should know the laws and her duties and should have corrected the illegal actions and behavior, however, due to possible political alignment and close friendship she allowed Council Member Mike Panter to violate the law.
  • February 2021: Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts Fourth Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence.  Under the laws of the United State Constitution due process is required and even after being put on notice by Councilman Fitts, Councilman Fitts personal attorney and the City Attorney, the mayor allowed such action and furthermore, she cast a tie breaking vote for said “censuring” which his illegal and not allowed under the City of Blue Ridge’s charter.  Additionally, they manipulated the agenda for the February meeting in efforts to try to publicly humiliate and embarrass councilman Fitts.  Their direct premeditated actions prove they have set out to try to harm him, discredit him and using tactics that are defamation of character and illegal under the law.  Lastly, they not only have harassed Councilman Nathan Fitts by making up a stream of lies and events over the last year on him, none of which have turned up to have any validity, proof, or substance.
  • February 2021:  Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts First Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence with the same conditions as outlined above.
  • February 2021:  Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts right to vote as an elected official and councilman stating he couldn’t vote on the “illegal” censure vote and did not allow him to vote.  The mayor was the tie breaking vote, but she had not only a conflict of interest with her obvious vindictive behavior towards him over the last year or so but also, she voted on her own zoning which is clearly a conflict of interest but uses her abuse of power to manipulate the outcome to her needs.

Councilman Mike Panter: 

             Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations

  • October 20, 2020: Mike Panter violated the City Charter by not following the agenda and talking and acting out of turn from the filed agenda.  He ranted for over 10 minutes on a subject matter that still isn’t even understood the purpose.  The Charter states NO ADDITIONAL ITEMS can be added to a Special Called Meeting Agenda.  He was notified and told he was in violation and he ignored such and continued his rants instead of following the process required by law.   
  • October 20, 2020:  Mike Panter violated state law and his oath of office by his misconduct and misbehavior.  As the charter plainly states the oath of office is taken to uphold local and state laws.
  • Violated the Opens meeting Act by not following the agenda set forth.
  • Violated the rezoning meeting policy and state zoning laws making a motion to table the vote after the hearing. He again the second time violated it again when the vote wasn’t taken at the next meeting after being table the prior month. The mayor should know the laws and should have corrected this illegal behavior, however, due to political and special treatment she allowed Mike Panter to violate the policy.   old him he couldn’t do that, but she didn’t so she is actually in violation of the meeting and zoning laws as well.
  • Violated council orders and a council vote by giving approval for paying 4 V Ranch without approval from the council.  Even after he was notified, he was in violation, he still continued forward and paid it without approval.  Being within his budget did not make it alright, regardless of if you are over the department or not, council decision and votes are not at the liberty of one council member to make the decision as set forth by the city charter.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts Fourth Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence.  Under the laws of the United State Constitution due process is required and even after being put on notice by Councilman Fitts, Councilman Fitts personal attorney and the City Attorney, the mayor allowed such action and furthermore, she cast a tie breaking vote for said “censuring” which his illegal and not allowed under the City of Blue Ridge’s charter.  Additionally, they manipulated the agenda for the February meeting in efforts to try to publicly humiliate and embarrass councilman Fitts.  Their direct premeditated actions prove they have set out to try to harm him, discredit him and using tactics that are defamation of character and illegal under the law.  Lastly, they not only have harassed Councilman Nathan Fitts by making up a stream of lies and events over the last year on him, none of which have turned up to have any validity, proof, or substance.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts First Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence with the same conditions as outlined above.  February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts right to vote as an elected official and councilman stating he couldn’t vote on the “illegal” censure vote and did not allow him to vote.  The mayor was the tie breaking vote, but she had not only a conflict of interest with her obvious vindictive behavior towards him over the last year or so but also, she voted on her own zoning which is clearly a conflict of interest but uses her abuse of power to manipulate the outcome to her needs.
  • Failed his obligation of the city charter under Section 2.17. Removal of officers – Under (a) it states that the mayor or councilmember, or other appointed officers provided for in the charter, SHALL BE removed from office if one or more of the following causes which those are listed in items 1-6.  This section doesn’t give the councilmembers options as to if they “want” to remove another elected official from office it says they “shall” and mandates for it to be done to uphold the charter.  Has allowed the mayor to intentionally violate state and federal laws without any type of reprimand, recourse or public call to action directly violating his obligation to the people of this city and the oath of office he took.

Councilwoman Robbie Cornelius:

            Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations

  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts Fourth Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence.  Under the laws of the United State Constitution due process is required and even after being put on notice by Councilman Fitts, Councilman Fitts personal attorney and the City Attorney, the mayor allowed such action and furthermore, she cast a tie breaking vote for said “censuring” which his illegal and not allowed under the City of Blue Ridge’s charter.  Additionally, they manipulated the agenda for the February meeting in efforts to try to publicly humiliate and embarrass councilman Fitts.  Their direct premeditated actions prove they have set out to try to harm him, discredit him and using tactics that are defamation of character and illegal under the law.  Lastly, they not only have harassed Councilman Nathan Fitts by making up a stream of lies and events over the last year on him, none of which have turned up to have any validity, proof, or substance.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts First Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence with the same conditions as outlined above.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts right to vote as an elected official and councilman stating he couldn’t vote on the “illegal” censure vote and did not allow him to vote.  The mayor was the tie breaking vote, but she had not only a conflict of interest with her obvious vindictive behavior towards him over the last year or so but also, she voted on her own zoning which is clearly a conflict of interest but uses her abuse of power to manipulate the outcome to her needs.
  • Failed her obligation of the city charter under Section 2.17. Removal of officers – Under (a) it states that the mayor or councilmember, or other appointed officers provided for in the charter, SHALL BE removed from office if one or more of the following causes which those are listed in items 1-6.  This section doesn’t give the councilmembers options as to if they “want” to remove another elected official from office it says they “shall” and mandates for it to be done to uphold the charter.  Has allowed her personal friendship and obligations to the mayor to take precedence over her judicial duties for the city by allowing the mayor to intentionally violate state and federal laws without any type of reprimand, recourse or public call to action directly violating his obligation to the people of this city and the oath of office he took.

Mayor asked to return key to City Hall

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Mayor Donna Whitener was asked to turn in her key to City Hall as council members expressed their concerns over the upcoming election.

“With all that has been going on over the past couple of months, which the public is just now starting to find out about, to be very honest, I don’t know that I feel comfortable with the election that is coming up and not having an unbiased party being over the election,” Council Member Nathan Fitts expressed his feelings on the upcoming election.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Election, 2021, Qualifying, November, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener

Haight requests that Whitener return her key to City Hall during the election period.

Council Member Rhonda Thomas and Fitts both agreed that having outside municipal counsel handle any election related events would be in the best interest of not only the candidates but the City as well.

This proposition comes with the consideration that current City Attorney James Balli is hired to represent City Council members, many of whom will be running in the upcoming election, and therefore might have a biased conflict of interest in any election related matters.

Haight suggested approaching the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) attorneys and getting their legal opinion on the matter.

Fitts agreed with Haight’s recommendation stating, “I know too much. I know the history of the last election. I know things that went on and I do not feel comfortable with it.”

With the request for an outside legal counsel, Haight also requested that the Mayor return her key to City Hall during the election period.

“None of us have keys except for the Mayor and I don’t feel like she should have a key to this building during that election time,” Haight said adding that she doesn’t want any possibility of wrongdoing to occur and jeopardize the election process.

“I have no problem with that,” Mayor Whitener responded to Haight’s request but did point out that there have been emergency occasions when she (Whitener) has had to access the building.

One thing that all council members and mayor did agree upon was to look into third party handling of future elections.

Fitts pointed out that the staff of City Hall, who currently handle city elections, is “put in the middle of way more than they should be”.

While some council members felt it was too late to seek outside handling of the 2021 City Election, they did agree to pursue this route in the future.

The General Election is set to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 with voting at City Hall. Polls open at 7 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m.

Fitts pursues legal action against censure

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Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The recent censure of Council Member Nathan Fitts could lead to legal proceedings that would cost the taxpayers of Blue Ridge.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Feb. Zoom City Council meeting in which Panter brought forth the censure of Fitts.

Fitts’ personal lawyer and previous City Attorney for the City of Blue Ridge, R. David Syfan, sent an Anti Litem Notice (intent to sue) to those members of council, including the Mayor, who pursued and voted in favor of the censure.

“Honestly I sit here as a council member embarrassed to even have to discuss these items,” Fitts said informing the public that an Anti Litem Notice had been sent.

Among those to receive the notice were Mayor Donna Whitener, Council Member Mike Panter and Council Member Robbie Cornelius.

Fitts claims that there has been a series of harassment leading up to the censure in an attempt to silence him for bringing alleged wrongdoings by the Mayor and Council to light.

Through this harassment, Fitts says that he has had to defend his name and reputation over “falsified information”. Fitts stated that the council needs to focus on the City Charter and the law and quit pursuing personal vendettas.

“Not one piece of evidence. Not one fact. Not one incident that can be proven has still to this day come out,” Fitts said of the censure and added according to the City Charter, “You don’t need to censure me. Remove me from office but you better prove I did something wrong.”

Fitts spoke before the vote of censure that took place during the Feb. Blue Ridge City Council meeting. It was during this time that he read a letter from his attorney, Syfan, stating that the censure would not only be violating the City Charter but also Fitts’ civil rights.

The Anti Litem Notice reiterates this stance stating:

“The due process requirements of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution would require appropriate advanced written notice of the alleged violations, and evidentiary hearing in which the alleged evidence of the alleged violation could be presented, and which would allow the accused Councilmember to have the ability to be represented by an attorney at the public evidentiary hearing and have cross examination of witnesses, and review any documentary evidence.”

The Anti Litem Notice goes on to cite the Georgia “Whistleblower Law”, stating that Fitts brought to light the actions of Council Members and Mayor and that the censure is an attempt at retaliation.

“At the very least they acted negligently in attempting to impose injury upon Mr. Fitts,” states the notice, “and in the context of the whole situation, they also acted maliciously and oppressively.”

The letter asks for the council to “rescind the censure motion and publicly apologize” and states several times that Fitts does not wish to proceed with the lawsuit unless necessary.

Council and Mayor have been given one month to rescind the censure and the issue is expected to be addressed at the next Blue Ridge City Council meeting to be held on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

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Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Criminal threats precede discussion of proposed Code of Civility

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Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Criminal Threat, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Code of Civility, David Ralston, Speaker, House of Representatives

Blue Ridge, Ga. – As the Blue Ridge City Council discussed revising the Rules and Procedures of its meetings, conflict erupted over the newly proposed Code of Civility presented by Council Member Mike Panter.

During a very heated discussion, it was also revealed by Council Member Nathan Fitts that Panter had allegedly made criminal threats against him.

Panter read from a letter sent to council regarding the review of the City’s Charter and the recommendations that were being made based on a committee that had been formed for the review.

Along with the committee Panter said input had been taken from several sources including Donna Thompson, who runs a local governmental accountability group, current and previous council members, a local attorney, business owners and residents.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Criminal Threat, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Code of Civility, David Ralston, Speaker, House of Representatives

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Criminal Threat, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Code of Civility, David Ralston, Speaker, House of Representatives

City of Blue Ridge proposed Code of Civility Policy

Panter did point out that prior to reading his letter to the council, the letter itself had already been leaked to the public.

Later Council Member Rhonda Haight would question this remark asking Panter, “Do you have a problem with the public knowing what we are doing?”

Panter pointed out that as far as the Rules and Procedures of council meetings, previous City Attorney David Syfan had drafted an ordinance that would still be in compliance with the City Charter. 

In an effort to save tax dollars Panter suggested that the city vote on the adoption of this particular ordinance instead of paying more attorney fees to have new ordinances written: “I think we should readopt this ordinance which was done away with by previous council.” 

“It (vote to adopt ordinance) was moved a few months later because evidently the council didn’t like what he came up with and they just threw it away,” Panter explained of the ordinance drafted by Syfan and why it was not already put in place.

“I’m totally great with that ordinance that David wrote,” Haight said, adding, “I thought it was wonderful. He did a great job.”

Haight did have concerns over the Code of Civility section Panter was presenting and expressed these concerns.

According to the Code of Civility section, a council member would be asked to resign or a vote could take place for the elected official’s removal after receiving two censures.

This section of the Code of Civility came directly on the heels of a censure of Council Member Nathan Fitts. Earlier in the same meeting, Panter had brought forth a censure against Fitts for “continuous inappropriate conduct”.

Haight felt this particular item in the Code of Civility would be in violation of the City’s Charter since evidentiary hearings would need to take place for a censure vote and no evidentiary hearing was given to Fitts previously that night.

Panter replied to Haight,  “Our charter says that we have the right to remove an elected official.”

“For wrongdoing,” Fitts retorted to Panter’s comment.  “The only person that has violated state and local law is you and Ms. Whitener.”

Incivility ensued as Mayor Donna Whitener questioned Fitts over his accusations against her. After a brief period of numerous calls to and points of order, discussion continued over the proposed code.

Haight pointed out that the Code of Civility was also attempting to limit the council’s transparency. 

The Code states of council that:

“There should be no public statements, letters to the editor or on social media or with an organization, advertisements, emails, texts or announcements regarding official city business without Council approval.”

“As a public official I have every right to tell the public what we are doing. I have every right to post on social media what we are doing,” Haight spoke to Panter, “I will never vote on this as it is.” 

Council Member Fitts agreed with Haight that the Code of Civility needs attempts to limit the transparency of local government and needs further review.

Fitts also pointed out the hypocrisy of Panter in not only introducing the Code of Civility but also for the censure that Panter brought forth earlier in the evening. 

“You made a criminal threat to me and Ms. Haight this week and said that you were going to drag me out of the council meeting by the hair and beat me up,” Fitts made public the alleged threat by fellow Council Member Panter. “You need to practice what you preach.”

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Criminal Threat, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Code of Civility, David Ralston, Speaker, House of Representatives

Former Blue Ridge City Attorney R David Syfan

Fitts and Haight have both personally sought legal advice from former Blue Ridge City Attorney David Syfan regarding any proposed new ordinances. Both Fitts and Haight are personally paying Syfan for his help.

“This will not be charged to the city,” Haight made clear her and Fitts personal financial responsibility to Syfan.

Current City Attorney James Balli, according to Haight is not trained in municipal law, where Syfan is.

Panter, who is the newest elected official to the council, questioned why Syfan was let go in the first place.

Leading both Haight and Fitts to agree that Balli was hired solely on the recommendation of Mayor Whitener.

Fitts went into further detail with Haight backing up his recollection of events. 

Fitts stated of the reason for Balli’s hire, “She (Whitener) said that because Speaker Ralston was from Blue Ridge and that Mr. Balli was his pick. She said that Blue Ridge would get stuff that we would not get otherwise and that’s why she asked us to choose Mr. Balli.”

Whitener replied that Fitts and Haight’s claims were “more misinformation” and that council had a chance to vote no.

The Rules and Procedures Ordinance along with the Code of Civility will be discussed and reworked before vote will be taken on its adoption.

Fitts censured for creating hostile work environment

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment

Blue Ridge, Ga. – In a split vote ultimately decided by the Mayor, Blue Ridge City Council went on record with a censure of Council Member Nathan Fitts for continuous inappropriate conduct leading to council’s inability to perform their duties.

While not on the agenda, Fitts asked at the beginning of the meeting to be heard before Council Member Mike Panter presented his case for the censure. Panter agreed to Fitts speaking.

Fitts read a letter from his personal attorney, also former Blue Ridge City Attorney, David Syfan. This letter laid out that beyond the censure not being handled in a proper legal manner, it is also a violation of Fitts constitutional rights since it attempts to void Fitts of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The letter stated in part : “Just because Fitts is an elected official does not mean that he has lost his First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Mr. Fitts would have full and complete right to express his opinion as to whether the Mayor has followed the City Charter and also express his opinion as to whether the Mayor has violated the conflict of interest provisions of the City Charter.”

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment

Full letter from attorney David Syfan

“By bringing violations out in public meetings it compromises his (Panter) and the Mayor’s re-election plans,” Fitts said of the proposed censure and added, “I am very disappointed in every council member that sits back and covers up these violations.”

Fitts accused Panter of caring more about alliances and personal gain than doing his elected duty to the citizens of Blue Ridge and specifically pointed to the recent sale of private property by Mayor Donna Whitener calling the censure a “blatant attempt to cover up for the mayor”.

“I will be first to admit that I have been a part of the meetings becoming unprofessional but every other council member sitting in them has been equally guilty,” Fitts said of his own actions, adding,  “I will continue to do my job as an elected official and I will continue to call out any violation. I was elected by the citizens in Blue Ridge and I will continue to do my duty until they decide to replace me.”

When Fitts concluded, Council Member Mike Panter read a letter from current City Attorney James Balli. Balli stated that if the censure “does not impose any punishment or attempt to take any official action to reduce one’s elected authority” then it could be voted upon without an evidentiary hearing.

“I would prefer executive session if that were possible, however, with multiple conversations with legal counsel the only way to approach this matter is that censure of Nathan Fitts be included on the agenda and presented publicly,” Panter spoke of his decision to bring the item forward.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Censure, Conduct, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, David Syfan, Hostile Work Environment

Council Member Mike Panter reads motion to censure Council Member Nathan Fitts.

Panter stated that throughout his life and career he has sat on numerous boards and has worked with various organizations and had never experienced behavior like that demonstrated by fellow Council Member Fitts.

Panter added that he had witnessed and had been told of multiple situations regarding Fitts’s conduct toward City employees and the general public. According to Panter there have been “outbursts, personal attacks and unprofessional behavior” all of which is unacceptable and makes doing daily jobs impossible.

Council Member Rhonda Haight pointed out that Panter is also pushing a policy that states any Council Member who receives two censures may be removed, effectively meaning that the current censure could in fact hold punishment against Fitts.

Haight stated that according to the City Charter and the proposed policy by Panter, this censure should have an evidentiary hearing.

Panter interrupted Haight several times as she questioned his process. Finally Haight pointed out to Panter, “You are being rude right now and that is what you are trying to say that Nathan is doing but you’re being rude to me.”

Haight also said that she spoke to several City employees regarding the accusations made against Fitts and there was an overwhelming consensus among them that they wanted no part in the process.

Panter made the motion to censure Fitts on the grounds of “continuous inappropriate conduct, unfounded accusations and the creation of a hostile work environment for the employees, council members and the mayor of the City of Blue Ridge”, with Council Member Robbie Cornelius giving a second to move forward with a vote.

Council Members Harold Herndon and Haight voted against the censure, while Panter and Cornelius voted in favor.

With Fitts being unable to vote, this left the tie breaking decision up to Mayor Whitener, to which she voted in favor of the censure.

After Whitener’s vote, Fitts immediately stated of her vote: “which is a conflict of interest”.

Whitener questioned what conflict of interest Fitts felt she had. He simply replied, “because you put him (Panter) up to it.”

Zoning request for Hastings Development tabled

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Blue Ridge, Ga. – A development that has drawn the attention of many in Fannin County has once again come to a temporary halt as the developer seeks to have land rezoned in the City of Blue Ridge to accommodate the plans.

What has become known locally as the Hastings Development is a residential development set in the City of Blue Ridge with access points to Highway 515 and College Street. The 14 acre property sits adjacent to Overlook Subdivision.

The proposed development itself has seen a number of changes based on community feedback and most recently the city zoning board gave approval for an 83 town-home high density site. The Blue Ridge City Council has final say on whether zoning of the land will be changed for the development to take place.

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Developer Johnnie Hastings addresses concerns of the citizens and presents a revitalized plan for the development.

The Hastings Development has been met with concerns ranging from the possibility of high volume traffic on narrow College Street to whether the city’s infrastructure can handle the additional stress of the new units.

A vote was expected to take place at the Jan. 12 Blue Ridge City Council meeting but with last minute changes to the proposed plans, a motion was made to table the decision until next month’s meeting.

“We listened,” Johnnie Hastings, the developer of the property, spoke to the council and citizens, “What is the need in the community? What is it that you guys need in terms of housing?”

Hastings explained that the original concept for the development dating back to Jan. 2020 was for affordable housing in the $250,000 range, but after gathering further community input the design was changed to upscale town-homes in the $450-500,000 range.

“I want to do something…that’s good for the community, that we can all get around,” Hastings said as he revealed the revised plan based on community push back to the suggested 83 town-homes, “Believe it or not but that’s my heart.”

Hastings’ new plan consists of 56 freestanding family homes at 4 homes per acre. The price will still be in the range $500,000 per home.

“We’re here to compromise and bring a little unity to this project,” Hastings said, adding, “At the end of the day you’ll be very pleased with what I did up there.”

Citizens who had come to the meeting to speak in opposition or at least express concerns over the development were taken off guard with the proposed changes to the site.

The main concerns echoed by the citizens present was the need for the new changes to be approved by the planning commission or flow through proper channels, whether the city’s infrastructure could handle the added usage and traffic coming onto College Street.

“It concerns me that you would vote on this when the planning commission has not,” one citizen spoke.

“The sewer system won’t handle it. The water system won’t handle it,” another citizen voiced.

Utility Director Rebecca Harkins addressed the concerns of city infrastructure stating that the city has more than enough capacity remaining in their system to handle the proposed development.

“I don’t have a position on this development,” Harkins stated adding that she simply wanted to present the public with the facts.

Harkins confirmed that the city did have capacity to handle the additional units to the system and that there are issues that need to be fixed and updated throughout the city’s infrastructure, but that those issues would have to be addressed regardless of the development adding on.

“I agree that it needs to be worked on and it needs to be worked on diligently,” Harkins said of the city’s current infrastructure and reassured residents that the development would cost nothing to the city: “The city does not fund any portion of the water and sewer system for a new development.” 

Harkins also pointed out that the developer would be financially responsible for any impacts on the system from the development to the plant caused directly by their connection.

Mayor Donna Whitener confirmed that City Attorney James Balli had sent in writing that council could vote on the rezoning if Hastings had lowered density but that it would need to go through proper channels before coming to council if the density had increased.

Council member Mike Panter made a motion to table the vote until the next regular meeting in Feb. giving the council more time to look over the proposed changes. 

All council members voted in favor of tabling the vote with the exception of Council member Rhonda Haight who stated her reason as “I think we’ve kept people waiting long enough”.

Hiawassee earns good opinion for 2020 audit

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Hiawassee coronavirus

HIAWASSEE, Ga – Rushton and Associates gave the city of Hiawassee a clean or unmodified opinion for their 2020 audit. It’s the second year in a row that Hiawassee received this rating.

The 2020 audit showcased how city revenues dropped and expenditures increased for the year too. Revenues were down $55,012 (5.4 percent). Expenditures were up $73,922 (8.8 percent).

The following revenue areas decreased for the year:

  • Motor Vehicle Tax – $49,779
  • Franchise Tax – $12,447
  • Intergovernmental Revenues – $56,457

However, four departments increased revenue:

  • Property Tax – $13,360
  • Local Option Sales Tax – $10,402
  • Alcohol Beverage Tax – $6,296
  • Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures – $24,352

On the expenditure side, the administration increased by $82,997 due to capital outlay.

The unassigned fund balance grew from 2019 to 2020 to $389,653 or 47.6 percent of expenditures. The city has 5.1 months of operating expenses on hand in case of emergencies. It’s recommended to keep at least three months of expenditures stored away.

Copy of the Hiawassee general fund 2020 audit.

In 2020 the city also paid off one loan in the amount of $697,996 and paid $287,585 in principle on other loans. Since 2017, they reduced the debt by 41 percent. Currently, $2,694,778 in debt is still outstanding.

Hiawassee received $47,000 in CARES Act Funding, $3,000GMA Safety Grant from LGRMS, $68,000 USDA Rural Development Grant for the Paris Building, $17,000 LMIG grant from GDOT, and $8,000 mural grant.

Water and Sewer

The water and sewer operating revenue grew by $279,015 (14.4 percent).  $114,559 came from a payment made by the water treatment plant. According to Rushton and Associates CPA Chris Hollifield, the remaining amount, $164,456 came from revenue growth.

Operating expenses for 2020 increased by $69.352 (4.2 percent). From 2019 to 2020, operating income shot up by $209,663.

Water Treatment Plant

Revenue for the water treatment plant decreased by $12,211 (1.65 percent) and expenses increased by $192,110 (46.4 percent). The payment made to water and sewer accounted for the majority of the change. In 2019, the water treatment plant made $327,838 in income. In 2020, the plant’s income was $123,512.

Copy of 2020 water and sewerage fund audit.

Police Year in Review Report

In 2020, Hiawassee Police Department filed 274 reports, issued 308 warnings and 325 tickets. It made 75 arrests: 10 misdemeanor drug offenses, 18 felony drug offenses, 44 other misdemeanors, and 3 felonies.

Towns tenth in the nation for new COVID-19 cases

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LIz Ordiales Towns Covid-19

HIAWASSEE, Ga – Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales attended a Georgia Municipal Association conference call where Emory doctors and CDC officials warned Towns County and Georgia COVID-19 numbers were trending in the wrong direction.

“Georgia’s below the national average in testing. They’re higher than the national average in positive cases – 120 percent higher than we were in April,” Ordiales explained. “The rural counties are the worst hit.”

Towns County was ranked number 10 in the nation for increases and bad results and number one in new COVID-19 hospitalizations. In the last week, Towns confirmed 62 new cases with a positivity rate of 17.8 percent. The target rate for COVID-19 is five percent.

Chatuge Regional Hospital is currently full. Ordiales asked everyone to be careful because there’s no room at the hospital. The ICU and regular rooms are booked at Union General Hospital. Georgia hospitals are facing three issues: space, stuff, and staff. All three are running low.

“Their biggest concern now is they’re going to have to place less care on folks, “Somebody who is 90 who is sick do they really transport them because they have nowhere to take them.”

Emory and CDC condemned the vaccine rollout, stating that some vaccines in the state were wasted due to the lack of people available to receive the vaccine. As of Tuesday, 95,706 Georgians had taken their first COVID-19 shot. Both Pfizer and Moderna are a two-shot vaccine.

Follow the guidelines of gatherings of no more than 50 people and six feet of separation urged the local hospitals.

Election and qualifying fees were approved for the 2021 elections.

Hiawassee also paid off the remaining balance for a $1.2 million loan with a 4.375 interest rate. The city had paid $850,000 in interest with 18 years left on the loan. Hiawassee saved approximately $500,000 in interest.

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