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”.

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

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

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.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, Safety, Mayor, City Council, Donna Whitener, Mike Panter, Children

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

City Council, Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, Featured, Featured Stories, Festivals, News

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.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, City Council, Mayor, Blue Ridge Business Association, United Methodist Church, Halloween, Christmas, SafeZone, Light Up Blue Ridge, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Cesar Martinez, Cancel, Special Events, Covid-19

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.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, City Council, Mayor, Blue Ridge Business Association, United Methodist Church, Halloween, Christmas, SafeZone, Light Up Blue Ridge, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Cesar Martinez, Cancel, Special Events, Covid-19

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.

CORE receives grant and state office at ribbon-cutting

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – “This is the kind of project that will spread prosperity throughout our entire region. It is the kind of skin-in-the-game project that deserves support…” Georgia Speaker of the House, David Ralston praised the CORE Facility in Ellijay who hosted their official ribbon-cutting today.

Nestled just off Maddox Drive on the banks of the Coosawattee River in Ellijay, Georgia, the CORE Facility hosts business offices and incubation locations for entrepreneurs and start-ups in need of an office or workspace without the hassles of long-term investment.

Left to right, Gilmer Commission Chairman Charlie Paris, Fannin Commission Chairman Stan Helton, and Pickens Commission Chairman Rob Jones celebrate with Greater Gilmer JDA Executive Director Kent Sanford at the CORE Facility ribbon-cutting in Ellijay, Georgia, on July 24, 2019.

However, the facility’s impact reaches so much farther than the city limits or the county’s borders. Today marked a celebration for the region and for the state. Representatives statewide joined together for this ribbon cutting including Gilmer Commission Chairman Charlie Paris, Gilmer Post Commissioner Karleen Ferguson, Pickens Commission Chairman Rob Jones, Fannin Commission Chairman Stan Helton, Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, State Senator Steve Gooch, State Representative of District 11 Rick Jasperse, Ellijay City Mayor Al Hoyle, Gilmer Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs, and many representatives from the Ellijay and East Ellijay City Councils and Gilmer Board of Education. Efforts from many organizations have led into combined organizations such as the Greater Gilmer Joint Development Authority (JDA) and the Greater Gilmer Community Foundation.

That Foundation was the birthplace of the initiative to build CORE. According to Kent Sanford, Executive Director of the Greater Gilmer JDA and part of the Greater Gilmer Community Foundation, a 14-month birth cycle has finally come to full fruition.

While the celebration was a culmination of efforts so far, it is only the beginning. It is a project that holds great impact on the future, according to Ralston who said, “It will create jobs in our area. The jobs of tomorrow will be possible because of the work that goes on in this building.”

Speaker of the House, David Ralston announces a $420,000 state grant for the CORE facility to applause from attendees at the ribbon-cutting on July 24, 2019.

Ralston also dedicated support to the facility as he announced, “Because of the local commitment to the CORE building the State of Georgia, through our OneGeorgia Authority, is awarding $420,000 to this project to be used for Facility purchase and improvement costs. This $420,000 grant is historic. both in terms of its dollar amount and the impact it will have on this project and community.”

Ralston continued speaking about the economic development and job creation in the county before offering the second announcement of the day regarding the Center for Rural Prosperity & Innovation, also known as Georgia’s Rural Center.

Ralston stated at the ribbon-cutting, “I am proud to announce that the new North Georgia of the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity & Innovation will be housed right here in Ellijay in this facility. The office will be led by Janet Cochran.”

Ralston’s office later offered a full Press Release on the announcement stating the center serves as a central information and research hub for rural best practices, including community planning, industry-specific assistance and cooperative efforts with community partners. The center was proposed by the House Rural Development Council in 2017 and was created by House Bill 951, which was enacted in 2018.

The Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity & Innovation, also known as Georgia’s Rural Center, was officially announced to open a North Georgia Office at Gilmer’s CORE facility during a ribbon-cutitng on July 24, 2019.

These announcements were applauded by those present and praised by the Chairman of the Gilmer Chamber, John Marshall, who said, “Mr. Speaker, once again you have proven yourself to be the very epitome of a stalwart and faithful advocate not only to your hometown and all the other communities in these beautiful North Georgia Mountains, but to each and every corner of the state of Georgia.”

President of the Gilmer Chamber, Paige Green also praised the facility as the realization of a dream for the community that has spread to benefit not only one county but something larger that now spans the region.

Today was a celebration of completing the first steps of a larger plan for the facility. Though it is now open, it is only the first phase of that dream. Director Sanford noted last year that the hopes for the facility include two more phases.

In Phase II, the foundation will continue renovation onto the second floor to open up a larger area for education and training in a 1,200 square foot space upstairs.

In Phase III, hopes for the CORE Facility could extend into the schools for things like STEM Classes, STEM Saturdays, or other forays into education connection. Consolidating resources for these could include shared STEM kits or a shared expense for a STEM subscription service involving 3d-printing necessary components. However, specific details into PHASE III have yet to be finalized.

Ultimately, the CORE wants to continue spreading and growing this larger community where possible. Opportunities that may come have yet to be revealed, but one ribbon-cutting today, one celebration, can lead to something bigger than imagining tomorrow.

Budget: Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Statements Audit

Community, News

The city of Blue Ridge audit has been reviewed by Welch, Walker & Associates and they found no issues or changes needed to be made in the report. This information is summed up from December 31, 2017. The audit was finished in June of 2018 and has been approved with no changes.

The auditors are looking at items like capital projects, funding, big downtown projects, and new water rates. The auditors judge the financial reports based on a three-tier system: the highest level is 3) Material Weakness (most serious issues), 2) Significant Deficiencies and the lowest level is 1) Management Comments—these aren’t even shared in the report as they are minute.

Findings found in the Blue Ridge financial report that are tested. There were three Significant Deficiencies findings within the Blue Ridge audit.

2015-01: “Lack of segregation of duties” and this is a very common finding in a ‘small-town’ community.  This just means that there’s only one person working in a position where mistakes can be made and there’s no additional person to go back and check over reports, data entry, etc.

2015-02: “Lack of contract for revenue transactions” a few years ago it was spotted that the franchise tax agreement between the tri-state EMC and the city of Blue Ridge is outdated and it’s not been renewed officially on paper. There are a few things that need to be updated within the contract and it needs to be signed by Tri-State EMC. This has been addressed and is something the city of Blue Ridge has been working on.

2017-01: “Rates were not calculating properly in the software” this is a new finding but has already been addressed and fixed. For the new water bills in 2017, the rates were not calculating correctly in the software but was fixed in May of 2018 while they were going over the audit. Since the amount of money was ‘material’ it needed to go in the report. The ‘material’ amount was 32,110.00 from 2017 and 12,850.00 from January-May of 2018.

The 2017-01 error was the city’s software error and will not be charged to the citizens of Blue Ridge.

Scearce refused to take polygraph in GBI Investigation- read full report

Election, Featured, Featured Stories, News, Politics

Blue Ridge Police Chief Johnny Scearce wants to be the next Fannin County Sheriff. He boasts of his law enforcement career of 35 years. You have seen the signs,  “Choose Johnny.”  His website is full of positive accomplishments, “Integrity & Experience – That’s the difference!” Scearce is planning to end hunger in Fannin County by planting a community garden using inmates. He wants to remove the county from the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway Drug Task Force.    Scearce claims his plan is to put his own trained agents to rid the county of drugs and use what’s confiscated from drug busts to benefit Fannin county. He has also promised that the Sheriff’s office will be transparent.

Transparency? Johnny Scearce convinced the Blue Ridge City Council to purchase a licence plate scanner. Scearce told the council about how much he could raise revenue with the scanner. Claiming it would pay for itself in a couple of months. The scanner cost approximately $19,000. Click here to watch the video of Scearce’s licence plate scanner presentation to the city council.

On April 4th. FetchYourNews.com did an open records request asking for licence plate scanner detailed reports. Chief of Police Johnny Scearce sent my request to city attorney David Syfan. Syfan has come up with several reasons as to why FYN can not see the reports. As of May 15th we have received no reports. If elected will Scearce purchase licence plate scanners for deputy cars. Will he scan every tag in the county? Transparency?

Scearce wants to pull out of the drug task force. On February 9th FYN sent the City of Blue Ridge the following open records request:   “Please provide the complete file of everything confiscated by the Blue Ridge City Police Department from 1/1/2008 – 2/9/2016.

Include all drug, property, cars, guns, EVERYTHING………… The complete file from confiscation to liquidation.” Once again city attorney David Syfan responded for Scearce. Syfan quoted a ridiculous amount of time to fill the request and it would cost hundreds and possibly thousands to fill the request. Poor record keeping should not cost citizens extra when making a request. Georgia open records laws say that they can choose to charge for records. As of May 15th FYN has not received anything from our request. One questions if Scearce won’t let us see the confiscated records of the city will he be transparent and show us what he confiscates within the county. If elected he wants to pull out of the Drug Task Force. The Drug Task Force has several layers of accountability when it comes to confiscated items.

Johnny Scearce spent most of 2005 as the center point, alleged suspect, of a Georgia Bureau of Investigations case. (Click here to read the GBI file on the case)

On October 26, 2004 Clifford Richard “Rick” Jones walked into BB&T bank in Blue Ridge and sat down at the desk of loan officer Rhonda Taylor and requested a loan using the name William James Prowse. Prowse “Jones” had no identification. This is where Scearce comes into the story.

The follow statements are taken from the GBI investigation. (Click here to read the GBI file).

This is where our story starts.

“On January 13, 2005 Special Agent J.K. Crook talked with Appalachian Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Cathy Cox-Brakefield regarding this case. Agent Crook was told that an inmate in the Gilmer County Detention Center, Rick Jones, gave information to his attorney that Blue Ridge Police Chief, Johnny Scearce, assisted him in obtaining a fraudulent loan with BB&T bank in Blue Ridge.”

“Special Agent J.K. Crook conducted an interview with Clifford Richard “Rick” Jones, Nick name “Yank”. Jones was incarcerated”

“Jones stated essentially the following. Jones applied for a $3,800 loan at BB&T bank in Blue Ridge. Jones knew he would not be able to get a loan using his real name and identification so he told the loan officer, Rhonda Taylor, that his name was William Prowse. Jones had taken Prowse identity and memorized his social security number and date of birth. Prowse had no knowledge that Jones was using his identity. Taylor requested an identification card on Jones under the name Prowse. He told Taylor that he had lost his licence. Jones told her that Blue Ridge Police Chief Johnny Scearce could vouch for him that he was Prowse. Taylor agreed to let Scearce vouch for him. Jones later went by Scearce’s office, called Taylor and then put Scearce on the phone to Taylor and had him vouch for Jones as Prowse. Scearce said to Taylor, “I’m sitting here with William Prowse.”

“Scearce told Taylor that he had known Prowse (Jones) for over twenty years. He told Taylor that Prowse had a nickname, “Yank”, and that Prowse played ball with Scearce. Scearce told Taylor that Jones real name was William Prowse”.

“Jones even obtained another $2,000 in the form of a cash advance. Jones fraudulently obtained a total of $5,800 from the bank with Scearce’s help.”

“On January 14, 2005 Special Agent J.K Crook conducted an interview with Rhonda Taylor.”

(Click here to read GBI report)

“ Jones represented himself as William Prowse to her in October 2004 and applied for a loan. He had no identification and said he lost his license. Taylor confirmed information received from Jones. Jones told Taylor that Blue Ridge Police Chief Johnny Scearce knew him and could vouch for who he was, she figured that if sceare could, that would be good enough for her. She would not question the Chief’s integrity.  Jones left the bank and a short time later she received a call from Jones. He was in Scearce’s office and put Scearce on the phone. Scearce vouched for Jones saying that his real name was William Prowse. Scearce said he had know Jones (Prowse) a long and had played ball with him.  Scearce called Taylor back later that day and told her her was not co-signing with Prowse for the loan.”

“On March 7th Special Agent J.K. Crook spoke to Fannin County Investigator Greg Newman regarding the case.”

(Click here to read GBI case)

“Investigator Newman talked with Johnny Scearce about the allegations made by Jones. Johnny Scearce told investigator Newman that he had talked to Rhonda Taylor at BB&T Bank in Blue Ridge but told her the man getting the loan was named Rick Jones. Johnny Scearce denied telling Ms. Taylor that Jones name was William Prowse.”

“On tuesday March 22nd GBI Special Agent in Charge J.A. Cagle transferred responsibility for the case to GBI Special Agent Kimberly Williams.”

(Click here to read GBI Report)

“On May 5th Special Agent Kimberly Williams and Kenny Crook of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office interviewed Johnny Scearce, the Chief of Police of Blue Ridge with regard to his involvement in the investigation.”

“Scearce stated that he had not seen Jones in a long time until he walked into Chief Scearce’s office about a loan. Scearce had only ever known Jones through playing softball together. Jones was said to have an alias name of “Yank”. Scearce stated Rhonda Taylor of BB&T Bank of Blue Ridge wanted someone to verify Jones identity. Scearce stated he had always known Jones as Rick Jones and also knew that Jones went by the name William Prowse. Jones was said to have offered Scearce $200 to verify who he was to Rhonda Taylor of BB&T. Scearce stated he did not take any money from Jones. Jones contacted Rhonda Taylor via telephone at the bank and Scearce told Taylor that he had played ball with Rick Jones for approximately ten years and knew him as Rick Jones. Because Jones was sitting in Scearce’s office, he was unable to tell Taylor about the additional information that Jones went by another name. Scearce stated he went out to his car and called Taylor back on his cell phone to tell her that Jones had also been using an alias of William Prowse and had been in jail. At that point Taylor made the comment that she did not know if she would give Jones the loan. Scearce stated he advised she could do whatever she needed to, but he was not vouching for Jones, simply stating who Jones was. Scearce also told Rhonda Taylor that Jones went by the name “Yank”.”

“When questioned further about the incident, Scearce stated he heard Rick Jones had been given loans by the bank and defaulted on the loans in the past. Scearce stated that information was hearsay. Special Agent Williams asked Scearce why the bank would not then recognize Jones if they had previously given him loans?”

(Click to read GBI report)

“Scearce explained the reason he knew Rick Jones also by the name William Prowse was because of a vehicle stop that was conducted by one of the Blue Ridge police officers some years ago in which Jones presented himself as William Prowse. When Scearce called to find out the specifics of the stop, he learned that the situation was actually Rick Jones’ car was being worked on at an automotive place in Blue Ridge and Frank Johnson found a William Prowse ID in Rick Jones’ car.”

“Special Agent Williams confronted Scearce with the information that loan officer, Rhonda Taylor, provided. Taylor said Scearce verified that the individual receiving the loan was William Prowse, not Rick Jones. Scearce was extremely upset and stated he would take a polygraph test.  Scearce swore that he never told Rhonda Taylor that Rick Jones was William Prowse. Scearce indicated that there may have been something that Taylor held against him from high school, but that the two had not had a problem otherwise as a motive for why she was saying that Scearce verified the individual receiving the loan was William Prowse.”

“Special Agent Williams then asked Scearce why he felt the need to call Taylor back and explain to her that Rick Jones also went by the name of William Prowse. Scearce just felt she needed to know the information. Special Agent Williams explained to Scearce that the loan was written in William Prowse’s name, so what he was telling law enforcement did not fit the story. Special Agent Williams tried to explain to Scearce that there would be absolutely no reason to bring up an alias from ten years previous if he did not have prior knowledge that the loan was being applied for in the name of William Prowse. In other words, if the scenario that Chief presented to Special Agent Williams was in fact true, he was the only individual that brought up the name William Prowse, which is the name that the loan was in. Scearce swore that he had not verified Rick Jones was actually William Prowse. Scearce said he told Rhonda Taylor that Rick Jones had an alias of William Prowse because Jones was “fishy” and he just needed to tell her that information. Continually Scearce said he did not think anyone knew Rick Jones as William Prowse.”

“At the conclusion of the interview with Scearce, he asked Agent Williams what would happen. Special Agent Williams advised Scearce that she would complete the investigation and provide the findings to the District Attorney’s office for a decision as to whether or not it would be presented to the grand jury. Scearce seemed to be very upset over the matter.”

(Click here to read GBI report)

“Once the interview with Scearce concluded, Special Agent Williams and Investigator Kenny Crook met with Cliff Stitcher of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office in Fannin County. Special Agent Williams and Investigator Crook relayed what had been told to them during the course of the interview with Johnny Scearce. Stitcher advised Williams and Crook that Scearce had come to him with letters from Rick Jones a while back and told him exactly the opposite. Scearce said he called the bank and proclaimed that the individual in his office was William Prowse. It should be noted that the individual who was arrested in relation to a crime with the loan in question is Rick Jones. Stitcher had concerns that Scearce told him exactly the opposite of what he had told investigators that day.”

“It should also be noted Special Agent Williams was advised the following day, May 6th, that Johnny Scearce had filed a formal complaint with BB&T Bank, whom his brother was president of, against Rhonda Taylor. Williams learned the information from District Attorney Joe Hendricks. District Attorney Hendricks was concerned because the incident happened in January of 2005, which allowed Scearce plenty of time to make a formal complaint against Taylor prior to investigators speaking with him. Hendricks felt that the act may possibly fall under influencing a witness.”

(Click to read GBI report)

“On May 17th Special Agent Kimberly Williams interviewed Greg Newman. Investigator Newman advised Williams that recently, the bank investigators had talked with Johnny Scearce and Rhonda Taylor. Apparently, Scearce made comments that they cannot prove he called Rhonda Taylor and vouched for Rick Jones as William Prowse. Scearce supposedly made comments that it was his word against hers, and who were they going to believe, the Chief of Police. Scearce apparently volunteered to take a polygraph.”

“Tuesday May 17th special agent Kimberly Williams interviewed Rhonda Taylor, a bank loan officer for BB&T Bank. Taylor stated essentially the following:

On Wednesday May 11th 2015, BB&T corporate security arrived at the bank in Blue Ridge to talk to her and Johnny Scearce. Corporate security took it upon themselves to put the two face to face. The corporate security officer was Gabe Parks. Parks stated he wanted to put the two together and try to close the gap.  Taylor advised special agent Williams she had learned through corporate security they had become involved and put the two face to face at the request of the District Attorney’s office. Also present during the interview was DA’s investigators Kenny Crook who said the DA’s office had not made such a request. Investigator Crook simply tried to find out if a complaint have been filed against Taylor.”

“Taylor stated that she felt very intimidated during the meeting with Scearce because he essentially called her a liar, and was very upset. According to Taylor, she had not felt scared or intimidated since, however, the two individuals being thrust together to talk about a different version of what happened was very uncomfortable. Taylor stated that recently, Mike Scearce, Johnny Scearce’s brother, had become the city executive BB&T Bank in Blue Ridge. Taylor actually told investigators that she was unaware that Johnny Scearce  had lodged a complaint but thought that made sense based on the actions of BB&T corporate security.  It was stated that neither she nor her husband had any problems with Scearce in high school or since.”

“During the meeting with corporate security, Scearce that stated that Rick Jones was a “maggot” and would not let Jones use his phone. He said he did not call and say that Rick Jones was William Prowse. Scearce said the individual he was vouching for was Rick Jones and also mentioned that Rick Jones had offered him $200 to vouch for him with Rhonda Taylor. Scearce stated that he did not need the money. Taylor then told Scearce that he was being loud and she did not appreciate him calling her a liar. Scearce said that he did call Rhonda Taylor back and that was when he told her the individual was also known as William Prowse.”

“Special agent Williams asked Taylor to  remember what had originally been said during the loan application process. Taylor stated  the individual now known as Rick Jones came to BB&T bank and claimed he was William Prowse. Jones filled out a hand-written application and provided all appropriate information, however, did not have a picture ID. The loan was for $3,800.  Initially, the individual claiming to be Prowse stated that he lost his identification in the truck and went outside to look. When the individual came back, he said he must have left his identification at home. Taylor told Jones also known as Prowse that he could go to the State Patrol Post to  get another identification. Jones stated that his wife would have to mail him a birth certificate so he could obtain his identification. Jones then left the bank and called back, with Chief of Police Johnny Scearce on the telephone. According to Taylor, Jones also known as Prowse called on the telephone but was with Scearce. Scearce was on the phone and verify that the individual in his office was William Prowse and also stated his nickname was “Yank”.  Scearce then called back minutes later to tell Taylor that he was not co-signing on any loan with the individual. Taylor explained that she simply needed to verify the individual’s identity which was William Prowse. At that time, Scearce told Taylor that Prowse also goes by the name Jones, but his real identity was William Prowse.”

“Because of what occurred, Taylor indicated that she was written up in her personnel file and the President said that they are not going to reinvestigate the matter due to Corporate Security’s recent interest. According to Taylor, the bank’s policy on loans is each person has a set approval rate. They can singularly approve loans. The tellers and the loan officers are to know their customer,  have proper identification, and an application. The particular loan in question was an unsecured loan and it met within the limits of what Taylor could approve without another individual’s approval.”

“According to Taylor, Scearce had come into the bank on April 25th to apply for a personal loan. The Chief had no problem and vocalized no problems with Taylor at that time.”

(Click here to read GBI report)

“On May 18th Special Agent Kimberly Williams and District Attorney’s Office investigator Kenny Crook interviewed Rick Jones.

Jones stated that he offered to pay  Johnny Scearce $500 to vouch for him as William Prowse. Scearce told him he did not want the money, however, if he ever needed anything, he would let Jones know. Jones indicated that he was strung out or under the heavy influence of methamphetamine at the time, and if Scearce had been any friend at all, he would not have agreed to contact the bank in effort to help him facilitate a loan.

Jones stated that he went to Scearce’s office at the police department. Scearce spoke with Rhonda Taylor of BB&T and told her that William said he was having a hard time getting a loan with no identification. At no time did Jones hear Scearce make any statement about his true identity, which was Rick Jones, to Rhonda Taylor. Although Scearce did tell Taylor he knew Jones  as “Yank”.”

“On Friday July 8th Special Agent Kimberly Williams contacted Gabriel Parks of BB&T corporate security. Parks handles investigations within the BB&T Banks. Williams asked Parks if he was involved in a confrontation between Rhonda Taylor and Johnny Scearce. Parks advised he conducted an interview between the two after receiving information that Scearce made allegations against Taylor for lying. According to Parks, Johnny Scearce called his brother after the GBI interview and advised him that Rhonda Taylor was lying about Scearce vouching for Rick Jones to BB&T Bank. The original investigation was completed by Parks, but when the new allegation against Taylor arose, Parks decided to interview Taylor again. Parks also thought it would be  a good idea to have Scearce present.”

“Special agent Williams explained that the District Attorney’s office was very concerned, as was Williams that the bank personnel had been manipulated by Scearce into confronting Taylor. Williams advised Parks that the confrontation between Scearce and Taylor was intimidating at best. Parks admitted putting the two in a room together with probably not a good idea, but was a decision he made. Parks indicated Scearce ranted and yelled about Taylor lying and Taylor never lost her composure. Taylor even confronted Scearce about what he told her, which was that he, said the individual, was known as William Prowse. Taylor never wavered despite how mad Scearce got.  Parks stated he used all of his interview techniques on Taylor and she consistently told the same version of what happened.”

“Parks thought that it was odd Scearce would go to such lengths to convince everyone that he did not vouch for Rick Jones as William Prowse. Scearce said that he told Taylor the individual was Rick Jones.  Taylor stated what Scearce said was not true, Scearce actually said the individual was William Prowse. Taylor did not change her version at all. Scearce got loud and animated in the interview.”

“Scearce also volunteered he thought Taylor had problems with him because in the past she quoted him a very high interest rate on a small loan. Parks indicated the interest rate was not controlled by Taylor, and it usually was controlled by the applicant’s credit history. Parks was at a loss as to why Scearce would think Taylor had anything against him at all.”

“Parks admitted he would not have been involved the second time had it not been for Scearce’s complaint to his brother, Mike Scearce.”

“Monday July 11th Special Agent Kimberly Williams and District Attorney’s investigator Kenny Crook  went to the Blue Ridge Police Department. Williams and investigator Crook were there to meet with Chief Johnny Scearce regarding a polygraph examination. Chief Scearce admitted he agreed to take the polygraph examination during the original interview regarding this case. Scearce indicated he was still willing to take a polygraph examination. Williams advised Scearce that she scheduled a test for him on Wednesday July 20th at the GBI office in Cleveland, Georgia.”

“Scearce asked if Rhonda Taylor would also be taking a polygraph examination. Williams advised that at that point she had only scheduled an examination for Scearce. But after Scearce took his test she would approach Taylor about taking a test if need arose. Scearce asked if he would fail the polygraph because he was nervous. Williams explained that the instrument utilized during the examination would measure his breathing rate,  heartbeat, and other physiological reactions for indication of deception.”

“Scearce again told investigators that Rhonda Taylor was lying. Scearce indicated he told her on the telephone that the loan applicant was Rick Jones also known as “Yank” and said he called her back later to tell her he was also known as William Prowse. Scearce also told investigators he thought Rhonda Taylor had a problem with Scearce because she would not give him a loan for $3,000. Taylor insisted the loan amount had to be $3,500 and she quoted him an 18% interest rate. Scearce said the corporate security person said that was ridiculous when Scearce told him about the personal loan situation.”

“On July 20th Agent Pamela Rushton met with Johnny Scearce at the GBI Region 8 office located in Cleveland, White County, Georgia. The purpose of the meeting was to conduct a polygraph exam concerning allegations that Mr. Scearce had assisted Rick Jones in defrauding BB&T Bank. During the pre-test interview, Mr. Scearce stated essentially the following:

Mr. Scearce was located at the Blue Ridge Police Department in October 2004 when Rick Jones came into his office. It should be noted Mr. Scearce is the Chief of Police of Blue Ridge, Georgia. Mr. Scearce barely recognized Mr. Jones because it had been some time since he had seen him. Also Mr. Scearce stated it appeared Mr. Jones had lost a lot of weight. Mr. Jones stated he did not have an identification on him and the bank would not give him a loan. He asked Mr. Scearce to contact the bank and inform them of his identity. According to Mr. Scearce, Mr. Jones offered $200 to call the bank. Mr. Scearce stated he declined the money, however, he  did contact Rhonda Taylor at the bank. He informed Ms. Taylor that he had “Yank” also known as Rick Jones sitting in his office. He disclosed to Ms. Taylor that he had known Mr. Jones for the past ten to fifteen years.”

“When Mr. Jones left, Mr. Scearce stated he re-contacted Ms. Taylor at the bank to inform her that Mr. Jones had stolen identity of a William Prowse. According to Mr. Scearce, Miss Taylor expressed concern whether she should give the loan to Mr. Jones. At this time Mr. Scearce stated he did not want to continue with the pre-test interview for the polygraph exam.”

“ Mr. Joe Hendricks, July 28th, 2005. Please do not hesitate to contact my office if you have any questions concerning this investigation. Sincerely Special Agent Kimberly Williams.”

“Thursday, January 13th 2005, Georgia Bureau of Investigations Region 8 Cleveland was requested to investigate allegations of party to the crime of fraud and identity theft by Blue Ridge Police Chief Johnny Scearce. Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Joe Hendricks made the request. Special Agent J.K.  Crook responded to the request.”

(Click here to read GBI report)

Several questions remain unanswered as to why this did not go before the grand jury, why was Chief of Police Johnny Scearce not indicted and face trial for this alleged crime?

Usually when law enforcement officers are under investigation and refuse to take a polygraph examination,  it is grounds for dismissal.  Why didn’t the Blue Ridge City Council terminate Chief of Police Johnny Scearce in 2005 for refusing to take a lie detector test?

What happened to this investigation? Why did it end so abruptly? Why did District Attorney Joe Hendricks not prosecute? Let’s not forget the City of Blue Ridge is currently under investigation now and the next section of the report from Jarrard & Davis is due at the end of this month.  Wonder how the Blue Ridge Police Department will make out in the investigation.   Could the current DA reopen the case?

 

Mayor Donna Whitener 7/1/16

GMFTO

Blue Ridge City Mayor Donna Whitener sits down on GMFTO to discuss the city, park, and recent investigations.

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