Blue Ridge, Ga. – The City of Blue Ridge parking continues to be a topic of discussion as accusations and controversy surround the management of the paid municipal lots.
Cesar Martinez, President of the Blue Ridge Business Association and Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, read from an incident report filed to EPS (Executive Parking Systems) from one of its employees.
The incident, which took place on Saturday, May 29, 2021 during the Arts in the Park festival, involved EPS charging motorists to park at City Hall.
“I was pretty appalled,” Martinez said of the filed complaint, “The verbal attack on the parking attendants on May 29th was reprehensible and unacceptable.”
According to the complaint, a parking attendant with EPS was confronted by Councilmember Nathan Fitts about the company charging and accepting cash to park in the lot.
The parking attendant claims that Fitts drove into the lot and became irate when discussing the issue, telling the attendant that the collection of money for this particular lot was not authorized and that Fitts flaunted his position of power with statements like “I’m the top of the food chain”.
Fitts denies these claims and states that he had four witnesses with him who are willing to testify in court that this was not what took place.
Fitts said that he went to City Hall after receiving numerous complaints from residents and business owners.
“It would have been nice if you (Martinez) and or the Mayor were going to make these decisions, that you notify us council members or got our permission so we could let our downtown business owners know this,” Fitts spoke directly to Martinez, “It is not up to you to run this town.”
According to Fitts, once in the parking lot to verify that motorists were being charged, he called Zach Wojohn, President of EPS, and placed him on speaker phone.
Fitts explained to Wojohn that business owners had been told that City Hall would be free parking for employees and asked who had given permission to charge for the lot.
According to Fitts, Wojohn replied, “I have the Mayor on my side. I don’t have to answer anything to you” and hung up on him.
“The parking attendants were just there to do their jobs,” Martinez spoke to Council, “They had no knowledge of anything Mr. Fitts was ranting about.”
Martinez went on to say that he felt Mr. Fitts owes many apologies concerning the incident.
Fees for parking at City Hall have been collected during major events for several years now and Martinez pointed out these fees were collected “without objection”.
“Festivals have always been where we charge for parking at City Hall. It’s been done several times and nobody, including yourself (Fitts), ever raised a word,” Martinez said, adding about the new concern over parking, “There’s one big thing that’s changed and that’s the toxic vendetta filled politics plaguing our city.”
The issue of City parking came to the table once again during the meeting with Fitts and Councilmember Rhonda Haight giving their legal findings regarding the City’s contract with EPS.
Recently Council voted to not terminate the existing contract with EPS and not utilize the sealed bid process, with the tie breaking vote being cast by Mayor Donna Whitener.
“The more and more I dig into this, the more and more I find that I do not have it in me for the City of Blue Ridge to get taken advantage of in any shape, form or fashion,” Fitts said of the current contract with EPS.
Fitts and Haight, who have spent over $20,000 of their own money seeking legal opinion, recently asked several questions of former City Attorney David Syfan regarding the current contract and the legalities of EPS collecting and keeping money from non-special event parking.
When asked his legal opinion on whether the process of the City’s parking management should go through the sealed bid process, Syfan quoted the City Charter and stated in a written statement, “The clear answer is that under Georgia law, Section 630. That does not allow the City to bypass the sealed bid process or the auction process.”
Section 630 refers to general contracts entered into by the City and Fitts explained that every other service with the exception of parking management has gone through the sealed bid process.
Syfan went on to point out that the wording of the second contract with EPS, which has never been approved, makes it evident that the company according to current contract is only to be paid a percentage of monies during special events.
Wording in the second unapproved contract, states that EPS would collect funds for day to day operations. This wording is added and not in the current contract with the City.
City Council never gave permission to EPS to collect funds on day to day operations according to Haight and Fitts.
“Since EPS has no valid contractual right to those funds, EPS should turn over to the City all of those funds that were not event related and that were received due to unauthorized use of City property,” Syfan stated in an email.
Haight reached out to the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) who agreed to review all evidence relating to the parking contract and advise the City for a fee of $1,500.
Haight expressed her feelings of allowing GMA to investigate the matter and felt the City would benefit from their unbiased opinion.
A motion was made by Haight to move forward with a GMA investigation and seconded by Councilmember Mike Panter. Council unanimously voted to move forward with the investigation.
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.”