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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”