Criminal threats precede discussion of proposed Code of Civility

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories, News
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

Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, Featured News, Featured Stories, News

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.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Zoning, Hastings, Development, College Street, Highway 515, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli, Utility Director, Rebecca Harkins, Integrity Development Group LLC

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.

Arguing erupts over City Park playground

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

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

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

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

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

View of playground in City Park showing height of slide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguing erupts over City Park playground

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

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

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

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

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

View of playground in City Park showing height of slide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panter doesn’t back down from decision to close park

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Blue Ridge, Ga. – The Blue Ridge City Council held a special called meeting last week, but due to a lack of a quorum no votes could be taken and business for the city remains at a halt. While lack of a quorum seemed to be a contentious issue, it did not stop the remaining members of the council along with the mayor from presenting information to the public.

Council member Mike Panter has recently come under fire for his decision to close the playground area of the city park. With citizens and even other council members questioning his decision and authority, Panter did not back down from his stance and took the time to explain his reasoning.

“I did not want the liability. I did not want the city to have the liability, and I felt like it was my responsibility to close the park,” Panter said of recent events, adding, “I know I did the right thing.” 

For Panter, the issue of public safety came to his attention during the state mandated shut down of the city park during the onset of Covid-19.

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Plans for Blue Ridge City Park Playground area showing where the height of the slide stands at 12 feet.

Panter had examined the 12 inch bumper placed around the park and realized the mulch had not been properly maintained.

Municipal playgrounds are required to maintain a certain depth of “padding” around equipment for safety purposes, and for the City of Blue Ridge that depth should be maintained at 12 inches considering the height of the slide, standing at 12 feet tall.

“How much mulch do you think we have underneath that slide,” Panter questioned and then answered, “three inches.”

According to Panter, the mulch in the city park should be maintained every six months and that the park itself should be inspected once a year.

“We haven’t had any additional mulch added in three and a half years. We have not had an inspection in three and half years since it was put in,” Panter remarked of the current state of the playground area.

Panter discussed a number of options for remedying the situation that included mulching, rubber mulch, and his preferred option of padding and synthetic grass. 

While the synthetic grass option would be more costly upfront, it would allow for proper drainage to be installed and would also come with a 15 year warranty.

Panter stated that “the cost is half (compared to the mulching option) over that 15 year period”.

Mayor Donna Whitener also commented that using the synthetic grass would make the park more accessible for those with mobility issues and for very small children.

“Everything that you look at has positives and negatives,” Panter said of the possibilities to get the park back up and running.

There is expected to be a more in depth discussion on the matter along with costs of the project at the Special Called Blue Ridge City Council meeting to be held on Thursday, Nov. 12.

All Special Events Canceled for City of Blue Ridge

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Blue Ridge, Ga. – In an unanimous vote the Blue Ridge City Council decided that any special events within the city limits will be canceled until further notice. This includes the cancelation of Blue Ridge’s Halloween SafeZone and Light Up Blue Ridge.

Discussion of canceling future events for the remainder of the year had previously taken place among council but no official vote had been made on the matter.

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Blue Ridge Halloween SafeZone 2019

“We need to make it official,” Council member Rhonda Haight spoke, referencing that since their previous discussion special events had been permitted to take place: “I felt like we should have voted last time.”

Mayor Donna Whitener expressed that she didn’t fully agree with the idea of canceling all events with no exceptions and pointed out that the recent prayer vigil held for Blue Ridge Chief of Police Johnny Scearce would technically fall under the special event category.

Haight made the motion of  “no more events allowed until further notice”, which carried without opposition.

Although the Halloween SafeZone has been canceled an alternative has been set up according to Cesar Martinez, President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA).

“We get 5,000 or 6,000 people downtown and we just can’t do it this year,” Martinez said and noted that state guidelines would just not make it feasible for the city to accommodate.

The BRBA will be partnering with Blue Ridge United Methodist Church to offer a drive thru option for families to enjoy. Booths will be set up along this route, where participants can hand out candy.

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Lighting of the Tree – Photo courtesy of Light Up Blue Ridge Facebook Page

Other locations that are offering Halloween festivities include Dairy Queen, Home Depot, and Kevin Panter Insurance Agency.

Light Up Blue Ridge will also not take place in an official manner. Festivities of the weekend that draw a large crowd in close proximity have been called off. This includes the annual parade and the lighting of the tree.

Even with these changes, Blue Ridge plans to make the city Christmas ready for those visiting the weekend following Thanksgiving. 

The tree will be lit in the park but without the lighting ceremony and Santa can still be found at the park’s gazebo but with safety precautions made due to the ongoing Covid-19 risk.

“We are suggesting that the city close East Main Street for the two days after Thanksgiving,” Martinez recommended to the council stating that this would give more room for the large crowds to social distance that weekend.

No official plans were made on how to handle the influx of visitors for the weekend following Thanksgiving, but discussions are expected to continue in future meetings.

Jasper considers 2.125 mill increase in early budgeting process

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JASPER, Ga. – The City of Jasper is holding meetings with citizens to discuss plans to move forward with a major increase of its Millage Rate.

The increase being considered is a 45.6 percent increase over the 4.655 mills that the city has held for three years now. In 2017, the rate was set at 4.655 mills from 2016’s 4.683 mills.

The proposed Millage Rate for 2020 is 6.78 mills. An increase of 2.125 mills.

Millage Rate

A comparison sheet shown by City Manager Brandon Douglas in the September 24, 2020, public hearing for the millage rate.

The last time the rate was raised was 2001 when it went from 4.630 mills to 4.710 mills. The last time the millage rate was over 6 mills was 1996 when it was set at 6.850 mills.

According to City Manager Brandon Douglas, he met with the finance department and department heads, they found that normal operating costs produced a preliminary 2021 budget held a deficit of roughly $551,000. He also noted that indications pointed to a two to two-and-half percent increase in revenues while expenditures increase at three to five-and-a-half percent per year.

Douglas said, “That is not a sustainable financial model.”

He went on to say that the city needs corrective action for the finances. The gap between revenue and expenditures that the city is seeing has come from not correcting these issues sooner.

Douglas also noted the importance of property taxes as they make up 30 percent of the total revenue budget for the city. Many of the sources of revenue that make up the other 70 percent are unknown or not directly controlled by officials and the city. This puts the point of the property tax as something directly controlled by these elected officials.

There will be another meeting of the city at 5:30 p.m. on October 5, 2020, to hear more from the public on the proposed millage rate as Douglas stated, “It is staff’s goal to work with the elected officials through this public hearing process to recommend and adopt a millage rate that is reflective of providing a balanced budget. It is not our goal to just simply adopt a 6.78 millage rate.”

He noted that by the October 5 meeting of the Jasper City Council, he hopes to have gotten with officials through their committees to identify “ways to reduce certain preliminary department budgets.”

As a part of the budget process, the millage rate is adopted before the budget is adopted. The plan for the 2021 budget, according to Douglas, is adoption on December 7, 2020. Working towards that  goal. This process is way to see what the budget could look like in order to have the budget in mind while adopting the millage rate which must be adopted first before the actual budget is adopted.

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