GILMER, Ga. — The Ellijay City Council met Oct. 18 to make a decision regarding the proposed test period for closure of parking on the downtown roundabout. Reese Sanford spoke for the Downtown Development Authority, and gave the council the DDA’s new recommendation.
Sanford addressed the council saying, “As requested at the downtown traffic workshops [that] city hall had this summer, the DDA’s been doing due diligence on the roundabout parking.” Sanford noted that the DDA recommendation is a product of consultation with the joint development authority, the police department, the city council, and local business owners.
He explained that the consideration first arose as a way to improve public safety in the downtown area, citing three incidents on the roundabout in the last year: “Third party reports have suggested that the traffic congestion downtown is a long term business risk. The easiest solution is to move parking away from traffic and away from the pedestrians.” He also mentioned that the DDA has already requested more signs to direct visitors to safer parking locations, like behind Dalton State College. However, when he went to check, Sanford says, “Of 230 [parking spots], only 32 were in use. If we can guide cars to this lot, we can alleviate a lot of our issues.”
The DDA, as Sanford brings up, had previously published a recommendation to shut down all roundabout parking; however, “as a result of the September town hall, we have revised our original proposal … and this is the result of the community input we received at this meeting.” Sanford then explained the revised proposal: “We will not touch the nine spaces, which includes the one handicap space, on the north side of the roundabout … Our revised proposal is to barricade parking on the nine spaces on the south side of the roundabout, and the parallel spaces on River St., just after River Street Tavern. The businesses in these areas are supportive of it, and are very interested in seeing what they can find in the trial period.”
Sanford noted that parking is not being reduced, only reallocated. He says the period might even increase business activity, suggesting that outdoor dining, artists, or walking tours could occupy the new space: “If this test period goes well, and leads to a desire for a long term change, paving over the spaces is not the only solution.”
Sanford finished, “We are proposing a test period from Oct. 23 to Jan. 2. The spaces will be blocked off 7 days per week.” He says then the DDA will host another town hall, and convene to settle on a final opinion to present to the city council.
After his presentation, the council members took the opportunity to raise their concerns. Kathryn Lancey spoke first, wondering why the DDA revised their original proposal. Sanford responded, “Why force an experiment on some people, when there’s others that are offering their space?”
Tom Crawford brought up the community saying, “I’m kind of astonished that you’re making a recommendation after the town hall was a resounding ‘no.’” Sanford replied by mentioning that not all citizens go to town halls and the businesses are willing, but Crawford continued: “If you’re gonna do a test period … why on God’s earth do it at the busiest season of the year?” Both Sanford and the council members discussed these concerns, but ultimately decided to close parking.
When time to vote on the issue, Kevin Pritchitt asked to amend, saying, “I make a motion to [limit the] downtown parking elimination test for River St. only.” The motion was unanimously passed, and the parking spaces on River St. are planned for closure beginning Oct 23.
Blue Ridge, Ga. – Tempers flared again as Blue Ridge City Council voted on whether it would be in the City’s best interest to put the management of municipal parking out to bid.
In a second Special Called Meeting held on Friday, May 21, 2021, Council Member Nathan Fitts proposed that the City release Executive Parking Systems (EPS) from their current contract managing the City’s parking and put the duties of parking management out to bid.
Fitts stated his reasoning for his proposal was that by not placing the service out to bid there was a look of impropriety in allowing the contract to continue without any competition and that EPS was in violation of the terms that had been agreed upon.
“The fact that this agreement only applied to special events is further confirmed by the audio of the City Council meeting in October 2019 when the council voted on this issue,” Fitts said, explaining the breach of contract.
According to Fitts the agreement with EPS was for the company to handle Special Events parking only, not day to day collections that the company is currently providing.
Council Member Rhonda Haight played audio clips from a previous meeting between City Council and the Downtown Development Authority where Fitts does clarify that EPS would be used for Special Events only.
Fitts said that EPS continuing to collect money for parking that was not from Special Events was in fact illegal.
Fitts stated, “The council has a duty to the citizens to immediately stop these unauthorized funds that are being collected by Executive Parking.”
During discussion, fellow Council Member Mike Panter referred to an email sent by City Attorney James Balli that stated “In this instance, the parking contract is not required to be submitted to the sealed bid process”.
The current contract between the City of Blue Ridge and EPS states of parking that EPS will furnish duties “as needed or requested by the City” and that EPS would collect “20% of the Net Operating income from each event, which is the total income made per event minus EPS employee expenses”.
EPS had presented the City with an updated contract changing the wording of these two statements to duties furnished would be “24 hours a day/7 days a week/ 365 days a year” and collecting “25% of the Net Operating Income each month from all City Properties, which is the total income made per month per location”.
The updated contract, however, was never approved by council.
“I know what the contract says,” Mayor Donna Whitener expressed when questioned if she understood the contract, “It says as needed and you all needed it.”
Fitts responded to Whitener saying that her opinion is invalid, “You have a conflict of interest because you sold them a piece of property. You’re in violation of the Charter.”
Shelli Wojohn, General Counsel at Valet Vault & Executive Parking Systems, also spoke up saying, “An event is every time we operate as per stated in the contract.”
“So every day is an event in Blue Ridge?” Haight questioned WoJohn.
As the meeting began to unravel, Whitener tried to adjourn but Haight said adjournment would not take place since a motion had already been made and the Council was in the middle of a vote.
Cesar Martinez, Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, was asked his opinion since he had been present throughout much of the discussions related to the City’s parking.
“In my opinion, and I am not a lawyer,” Martinez responded, “When we let them put the parking meter up in the city municipal lot that was under the request of the City. They were doing it as needed and requested by the City.”
Panter and Council Member Harold Herndon voted against putting the service out to bid.
“They’ve done a good job. There was a need. Income has been good,” Herndon explained his position, “I don’t think the City at this time of the year can afford a delay or holding up services for any length of time.”
During fiscal year 2020 the City made $65,116.87 in revenues collected by EPS.
With two opposing votes (Panter and Herndon) and two in favor (Haight and Fitts), a tie breaking vote was cast by Mayor Whitener against bidding out parking management. Council Member Robbie Cornelius was not present for the meeting.
Haight went on record that she felt the Whitener’s vote was a direct conflict of interest due to a real estate transaction between the Mayor and EPS.
Haight also stated of EPS continuing to collect revenues everyday and not just for Special Events, “Right now in my opinion they (EPS) are taking money that doesn’t belong to them and that’s theft.”