Council overrides Mayor’s Veto

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Height, Zoning, Building, Restriction, Veto, Override, Fannin County, 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

Blue Ridge, Ga. – City Council voted to override the Mayor’s veto of new height restrictions to be placed on future construction in the Central Business District (CBD) of the City of Blue Ridge.

The most current ordinance that stood regarding building height placed the restriction at 60 feet. The new ordinance brings the height restriction down to 41 feet (35 feet with up to an additional 6 feet to act as a buffer for any mechanical components that accompany the building).

At the June 8, 2021 City Council meeting all council members voted unanimously in favor of the 35 foot height restriction in the CBD after the recommendation of 35 feet came from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Height, Zoning, Building, Restriction, Veto, Override, Fannin County, 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

The Gartrell Building is one of the taller historical buildings still remaining in the CBD.

Mayor Donna Whitener vetoed the council’s vote on this height restriction and released a letter to the public explaining her stance.

Among her reasons explained Whitener stated : 

“Two different Zoning Administrators have proposed numerous times to reduce the height on buildings in the CBD area to 45 ft. While I am not in favor of the 60 ft height, it is my opinion that the 35 ft suggestion might not be adequate either.”

During the July 13, 2021 City Council meeting, zoning was a major topic of discussion with the proposed Town Hall Meeting on the subject being canceled last minute due to lack of adequate notice.

Whitener expressed that the height restriction could devalue current properties and felt that council and zoning should seek further training and guidance on the matter before making such a drastic change to the ordinance.

“I really feel like it needs to be looked at and evaluated and we need to come up with a good number so that we’re not battling lawsuits,” Whitner stated of her decision.

“Our Zoning Administrators have both recommended 45 feet” Whitener added, “With that I also feel like if we are going to do a reduction we need to talk about mechanicals being on top. I do think you should have a parapet wall, as we’ve discussed a little bit.”

A parapet wall is an extension of a wall at a roof line. This is often used to hide rooftop mechanics for aesthetic purposes.

Overall Whitener proposed looking into making the ordinance reduction from 60 feet to 45 feet.

Council member Mike Panter addressed Cindy Trimble, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, asking her if her recommendation of 35 feet still stood after all that she had heard during the meeting.

“I still stand where we voted, 35 feet, plus the addition for the equipment,” Trimble replied, also stating that she felt the 6 foot addition would be enough to cover any mechanics on a roof.

Council Member Rhonda Haight brought an end to discussion saying to Whitener, “You’re more concerned about the values and properties downtown, not about the aesthetics and not about what the people want.”

Haight motioned for the veto to be overridden and council voted unanimously in favor, with Council Member Harold Herndon not present to vote.

RCut funding causes debate among City Officials

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The “look of impropriety” fueled debate over the City of Blue Ridge’s recent involvement in improvements to Highway 515.

Previously the University of North Georgia (UNG) had approached the city looking for help in obtaining funds to create an RCut in the median of Hwy. 515. This RCut would allow motorists to make a left hand turn off the highway and into the entrance of the campus.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, RCut, Fannin County, 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, University of North Georgia, John Kieffer, Senator, Steve Gooch, LMIG, grant, funding

Almost completed RCut on Hwy. 515 allowing access to the UNG campus.

GDOT (Georgia Department of Transportation) looked into the project and determined there was a need for the RCut due to potential traffic flow and for safety reasons.

“The developer couldn’t pull a DOT permit,” Mayor Donna Whitener stated as to the City’s initial involvement but clarified that the request for the RCut came from UNG.

Councilmember Nathan Fitts stated that he had no issue with the City being a vehicle for obtaining the permit but took issue with taxpayer dollars being spent on the project.

GDOT initially slated $150,000 towards providing the RCut this funding came through LMIG (Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant) and developer, John Kieffer put in approximately $48,000 towards surveying and engineering fees.

The low bid for the project came in at $220,978.61. UNG agreed to contribute $35,000 to the RCut project but this still left a shortfall of $35,978.61.

UNG approached both the City of Blue Ridge and the Fannin County Commissioners asking for funds to cover the shortfall but neither entity would agree to pay with local tax dollars.

“I’ve not even officially got word of that and I’m a councilmember. No one has ever given me notice,” Councilmember Rhonda Haight explained that none of the council was notified that funds to complete the project had been gathered and wanted an explanation as to where and how the funds came about.

The remaining funds came through another LMIG grant from GDOT in the amount of $35,000 and UNG made up the remainder $978.61.

Fitts conveyed his disappointment that the remaining funds came from taxpayers, even if at a state level: “This is a developer expense. It’s always been a developer expense and it is not right for the city taxpayers and in my opinion the state taxpayers to pay for a developer’s entrance.”

The developer is assumed to substantially increase the monetary value of the remaining parcels for sale by obtaining the RCut according to Fitts. 

“Me and Rhonda talked to Mr. Keiffer and said that on our watch we would not approve it through the city,” Fitts said, explaining that he didn’t feel tax dollars should be spent for the financial gain of a private developer and that projects of this nature should be at the developer’s expense.

Fitts stated that in private conversation the developer had initially said he would be paying for the expenses but that the narrative changed.

“The college did need it, but the conversation that was told to us was that he (Kieffer) needed help from us because he had lost money on that property he had sold to the college,” Fitts said of the ordeal adding that taxpayers should not be on the hook for a developer’s bad business decision.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, RCut, Fannin County, 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, University of North Georgia, John Kieffer, Senator, Steve Gooch, LMIG, grant, funding

Signage advertising remaining parcels for sell in the development.

“It is a look again of impropriety that the City keeps getting itself into, that we all the sudden are paying for a personal developer to have an RCut,” Haight added.

Evidence of the boost to property value and appeal can be seen by a recent sign placed that advertises the RCut coming soon as well as the remaining tracts for sale.

“Are we going to have to pay for all the developers from here on out?” Haight questioned if the City would be setting a precedent for future transactions, and added, “As a state taxpayer I’m a little appalled that my money went to pay for this private RCut.”

The second LMIG in the amount of $35,000 came from the state when Whitener spoke with state level representatives about the issue. This was done without council knowledge according to Haight and Fitts.

“Thanks to Steve Gooch and GDOT. I really appreciate their help,” Whitener said, explaining that the state came in and saw a need for the RCut or would not have given the go ahead on the project.

Whitener also pointed out that LMIG funds could be used anywhere in the state.

“I’m glad that those state tax dollars are being allotted for our area,” Whitener stated, “It is going toward improving safety for the people driving down 515, one of our busiest roads.”

 

***Featured Image is sign placed by real estate agent representing the developer advertising remaining property and RCut

City Parking Contract to be investigated

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News

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.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, 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, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract, Cesar Martinez, Downtown Development Authority, Blue Ridge Business Association, Georgia Municipal Association, GMA, investigation

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.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, 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, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract, Cesar Martinez, Downtown Development Authority, Blue Ridge Business Association, Georgia Municipal Association, GMA, investigation

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.

Panter and Fitts give their opinion on recent affordable housing vote

City Council, Community, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Councilmembers Mike Panter and Nathan Fitts are sharing their reasoning behind a recent controversial vote on a proposed housing project presented by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

The following are direct statements from Panter and Fitts regarding their votes and opinions on the matter.

From Councilmember Mike Panter

Why I Voted No

To the Citizens of Blue Ridge, I have been asked multiple times sine May 11th, why I didn’t support the rezoning request and the affordable housing development with the Searles Foundation.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Let me begin by saying I do and have always supported the need for affordable housing in the City of Blue Ridge and Fannin County. However, just because you support something doesn’t mean you should automatically vote for something that is going to affect the citizens for the next 50 years. You must be able to support why you believe that this project is best for the city residents. Especially when over 100 citizens who live within a mile of the proposed project have signed a petition against the project.

When you stop and think about an additional 171 rental units being built and 200 additional automobiles daily, between two schools, on a heavily traveled road that has no traffic lights, turn lanes, street lights, sidewalks, roundabouts, any type of traffic study, or a 5-to-10-year strategic growth plan, it doesn’t make sense. You say to yourself there has to be a better location.

This project was started by the Haights on January 28, 2021. The variance application was not applied for until February 26, 2021. It was briefly introduced to the Council April 13, 2021 without any detailed information. It was presented to the zoning and planning board May 2, 2021 and to the council for final vote May 11, 2021. A lot of people didn’t understand that this was a land swap instead of a traditional purchase and sell. In my opinion both boards should have at least 30 days to research and verify their information before voting.

I was the only council member present at the one-hour meeting. Unlike other members of the audience, I was not allowed to speak or ask any questions because I am an elected official. Therefore, the majority of questions I would have asked were not addressed. One member of the Planning Commission was 30 minutes late to the meeting but still felt that they had enough information to make a motion to approve this 20 – 30-million-dollar project.

Is the Searles Foundation the right partner/developer for our city residents if we can only choose one?

  • Who are the partners that will be involved in the Searles Project?
  • Could the project ever be transferred or sold to another entity? What type of entity?
  • Who manages the project? Fairway Management Company? Haight House, LLC? Other?

Even though our current water and sewer is in good shape, the sewer plant was built 23 years ago and is currently in the design phase for a 5-million-dollar rehab. Can it handle another 171 apartments within the Mineral Springs area over the next 3 years?

What effect does President Biden’s 213-billion-dollar proposal for infrastructure and housing have on this project? Will the developer only allow current Fannin County citizens or will they be required to open up the development to qualified candidates within the state, southeast or country?

The following is a list of questions I have for the Foundation and Zoning Board.

  1. If we are going to have only one development within a 2-3 mile radius of the City, is this the best location?
  2. Will the current residents be forced to move?
  3. What is included in the rent? Water, power, cable?
  4. It has been stated that the Searles Foundation minimum rent is $600/month. The majority of residents are currently paying less than $300/month. Does their rent continue to stay the same?
  5. What out of pocket expense will the city residents and tax payers be responsible for?
  6. How do individuals with low to no income currently living in the woods behind businesses, cars, etc. afford the Searles Foundation project?
  7. What is the time period for construction?
  8. Will all of the trees be removed on the 15 acres?
  9. Will a center turn lane be added? If so when will the road be widened?
  10. Will sidewalks, traffic lights, streetlights or roundabouts be added?
  11. Who will be our new city residents? And can we have the answer to this question in a contract?
  12. Offering $40 thousand for road modifications at the end of Mineral Springs will by no means cover the expense. A traffic light and a roundabout would cost in excess of $100,000. Who pays the extra expense? City or County?
  13. Why is the Housing Authority pushing a 50-year contract when the current residents will be moved to the Searles project? There would be no need for this contract.
  14. Would the existing housing units be owned by the Haights and turned into personal rental income or torn down and developed into a trailer park?
  15. Can the Searles Foundation give us a plan or contract of what the current housing authority units will look like in 10 years?

These questions summarize why I requested an additional 2 – 3 days time before I was required to vote. How could I just vote Yes? I believe all of these questions need to be answered before a vote can take place which will affect our community for the next 50 years.

From Councilmember Nathan Fitts

I am extremely disappointed in some of our city elected officials and with the denial of the zoning for the affordable housing at the council meeting last week. To answer some of the outstanding questions I’ve heard and saw I wanted to outline the factual information as a council member. I know there have been some questions on why we didn’t table the vote for the rezoning.Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

First of all, I don’t know why we would have tabled the vote as that was one of the main objectives of the council meeting that was on the agenda. I am the council member who made the motion to APPROVE the zoning contingent upon all of the conditions that had been recommended to us by the Planning Commission and Zoning Board previously who had already heard the request. At a recent previous zoning hearing, the mayor actually violated the city’s meeting policy by allowing it to be tabled and when the question was raised at the meeting about the legalities of being able to table it, I was not willing to participate in anything other than what I knew to be the law and policy in place. Additionally, I had legal counsel who had advised me that we had to vote. Unfortunately, our city attorney was not present and was not available to provide legal advice at the time, so I made the motion and proceeded by the policy that was set for such which is that we were to vote immediately following the hearing. That rule is outlined on page 4 as Item 5 in the Meeting Rules of Procedures. Additionally, all council members had all of the information to review ahead of time. As a matter of fact, all of them had talked with the developer personally, got questions answered, and had from the zoning hearing time frame to the council meeting date to research and investigate any matters regarding this zoning request so a decision could be made the night of the hearing as required. There have been rumors that this hearing was “rushed” or “pushed” through in a matter of a couple of weeks, and I can attest to the fact that such statements are untrue. The amount of time for it was longer than what was required by law and this has been being discussed for many weeks. If there are any proven facts to the contrary, I have not been privy to it and have no knowledge of such.

What is most disappointing, and heartbreaking is that one of the biggest opportunities in the history of this county, in my opinion, for the local community was lost. The need for affordable housing is real and needed in a bad kind of way. The chance for us as the city council and as the community as a whole to help the “locals” was there and stripped away due to political and personal reasons in my opinion. I might also add from knowing all of the facts and information surrounding this project as a whole, I feel that was the reason and reason alone that the mayor voted no for the project is out of spite as one of the parties involved which is ashamed in my opinion. This was not about her and anything political this was about doing what is needed in the area and doing the right thing for the people, something the mayor has lost sight of over the last few years it seems. The reason the mayor publicly gave as she voted no was because she wished she just had some more information and had some numbers for the sewer. I know my jaw probably dropped open when that was the reason given because the mayor is or should be very aware of the city’s infrastructure information as it was her herself who just a couple of weeks ago quoted the exact information at a city council meeting and also as the previous zoning hearing for another developer that she was now acting like she didn’t know anything about and had questions regarding. Well for the record, the question regarding the sewer, was information that she knows and all of us know and have known. As I made the statement at the meeting, the sewer upgrades the city has to do regardless and already have planned to do. Below is a snapshot of our master infrastructure needs for both water and sewer which you will see both of the items in question on that the mayor didn’t know anything about or have recollection of. Perhaps she forgot this spreadsheet even existed because the Mineral Springs sewer and Aska pump station have been on a list for repair/replacement for quite some time and even talked about publicly in March when this information was provided to the public. The mayor herself even spoke about it at the infrastructure meeting we had in April but now a month later for this situation she knows nothing about it. Very interesting. I would highly suggest going back and watching the meeting or reading the minutes of the meeting on infrastructure and you’ll see her concerns stated for the denial were already addressed and she’s fully aware of that. Please listen to the meeting of the April 21, 2021 meeting and compare it to Tuesday night’s council meeting. One would think it was two different Mayors speaking at each meeting. One sounds highly educated about our sewer/water and the other she sounds like she has not clue as to what is going on with it and is confused with questions. So, what was the real reason??? Is she really just totally out of the loop and neglecting her job duties as CEO of the city or did she just use that as an excuse and play dumb so she could vote against it? Now that everything is being researched and dissected and she’s been caught in lie after lie, I would think she would have learned some valuable lessons, however, it doesn’t seem she has. Each of you can do your own research, watch and listen and you can make your own conclusion.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

The water and sewer departments are both departments in which I am over so I can speak with firsthand knowledge of these items. These have been planned to be done and are slated to be completed by 2022 regardless of if this project had gotten approved or denied. The Aska pump station already has a task release number and will be applied for through grant at the beginning of next year. The cost is around $1,000,000. The Mineral Springs storm water problem is estimated at $500,000. It too is slated to be completed and corrected by 2021, but we will know more actually next week. Matt Smith, the city’s engineer from Carter and Slope, said that next week we will run another camera and he thinks the lines will have to be replaced as they are too small. He feels the high end of the project is $500,000. As stated, this is all in the works to be completed according to the plan by 2021 and is and has already been planned. The grant for the Aska Pump station would actually benefit from showing that we could have been adding more customers to this area. It shows we will have more ability to pay for these upgrades. Regardless of the project going forward or not, these two things HAVE TO BE DONE! There is no way around it.

In my opinion whether it be that used for the excuse or something else, there was going to be an excuse to vote no because of the underlying motif behind the denial. I had calls from people prior to the meeting trying to get what the true facts were about this project and the developers behind it as people were stating that they were called from the mayor personally giving information and her opinion on the project that were not even factual and were discrediting parties involved and doing what she’s been known to do best which is creating “chaos” to push her agenda. In addition to a personal vendetta towards some of the parties involved she also has been at odds with and has a strong dislike for the director of the housing authority for years. As a matter of fact, the housing authority as of this very minute still doesn’t have a signed coop agreement from the city that has expired, and they’ve been working diligently on getting done for months and months if not well over a year as I’ve been involved the last few months. Every time we get everything done and ready to vote and sign off on it, there’s another hurdle thrown up or excuse to delay it even further. Again, all power plays and personal dislikes which are putting the citizens and public’s best interest in the crossfire which is shameful and disgusting. For those people who are living in the tents around town, in campers and in tractor trailers, the homeless, and those living with family members because they can’t find housing and affordable housing at that in this area, they are the ones that this effected the most. This could have made an impact on their lives and it was an opportunity lost and only for the reasons for the mayor to flex her muscles for political and personal vendettas. I want to thank all of those people who have put so much time and effort in trying to get affordable housing in this area. It is needed way beyond what most people who live locally even realize. I hope that we can all do our part to help those in need and that there will be a new solution for affordable housing at some point in the near future for the residents of this area.

Management of City Parking will not go out to bid

City Council, Development Authority, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, 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, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract, veto

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.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, 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, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

Payment kiosk installed by EPS for 24/7 collections.

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.”

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, 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, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

EPS signage located in municipal parking off of Mountain Street.

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.”

Council rejects rezoning request on affordable housing development

City Council, Community, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The proposed affordable housing project to be located on Mineral Springs Drive has come to a halt after a tie breaking vote denied the rezoning request put forward by the Beverly J. Searles Foundation.

Emotions were high in a full room as City Council listened to sides both in support and in opposition of the new project.

The crowd gathered at City Hall on May 11 showed overwhelming support of the proposed affordable housing project, where at the Planning Commission meeting held on May 4, citizens present then were mainly in opposition of.

Despite the opposition, the Planning Commission chose to move forward, recommending rezoning of the area from R2 residential to R3 high density residential, contingent upon suggestions made through the staff analysis.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Proposed plans of affordable housing development in City of Blue Ridge.

Among the supporters present at the City Council meeting were many who work directly with various charitable organizations in Fannin County.

“Without a stable place to call home, it is very difficult for working families to show up for work consistently,” Sherry Morris, Executive Director of Fannin County Family Connection, said of situations that she encounters daily, “I know it seems unbelievable but national statistics show that impoverished citizens work an average of 1.4 jobs. That’s right, it takes a great deal of working hours at service wages just to be poor. Let’s be a caring community and give a hand-up to our citizens.”

Philip Searles, President of the Beverly J. Searles Foundation, was also in attendance to give Council and the public a brief overview of the intended affordable housing units. 

Searles took the time to address several of the concerns that had been brought to his attention during the Planning Commission meeting.

Of these concerns, Searles addressed specifically the danger of the intersection at Mineral Springs Drive and Aska Road stating that his foundation was willing to work with the county and offer $40,000 towards a solution to the area, such as a traffic signal.

Searles also addressed nearby residents’ concerns of increased crime once the units were occupied. According to Searles, the units would not be available for occupancy to anyone with a previous felony that is on record. Searles also stated that he had spoken with local law enforcement on the matter.

His foundation proposed that they would install a vehicle tag reader at the entrance of the complex. This reader would have a direct feed to law enforcement and police would be able to monitor whether any vehicle entering the premises is connected to an active warrant.

“I’m not expecting this to buy you all or make you all want me here, I get that, but I want to let you all know that I hear you all and I’m trying to do what I can,” Searles turned and spoke to a group of would be neighboring residents who had expressed concerns during the Planning Commission meeting.

Residents from neighboring properties still spoke in opposition and expressed concerns over the City’s infrastructure as well as decreasing property values.

Council Members discussed their concerns over the project, with Council Member Nathan Fitts stating that his main concern would be with the added traffic to the area.

Council Member Mike Panter questioned Searles over recently passed Federal legislation allowing for Federal Housing to be filled with persons outside of the general area. Searles assured Panter that this would not happen due to the need for the housing in Fannin County.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Affordable Housing, Beverly J. Searles Foundation, Philip Searles, Housing Authority, Traver Aiken, HUD, Family, Senior, Age Restrictive, Mineral Springs Drive, Fannin County, 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, Planning Commission, Family Connection, Sherry Morris

Crowd storms out of City Hall after rezoning request is denied.

Traver Aiken, Manager of the Blue Ridge Housing Authority, explained that the demand in Fannin County is great for this type of housing. All of the Housing Authority units are currently occupied and according to Aiken there is a waiting list of approximately 70 applicants.

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not ready to make a decision,” Panter stopped Council Member Nathan Fitts before a motion was made to vote, “We just got the report from the Planning Commission today.”

Discussion began of the legalities of tabling the rezoning request.  Tabling would allow Council Members more time to research the topic. 

With no clear guidance on whether delaying the vote was within the legal powers of the City Charter, Fitts motioned to accept the rezoning request with prior contingencies in place.

Council Member Rhonda Haight recused herself from the vote as she is the current owner of the property located on Mineral Springs in which the affordable housing complex would be built.

Council Members Nathan Fitts and Herald Herndon voted in favor of the rezoning request and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius voted against.

Mayor Donna Whitener cast the tie breaking vote in opposition of the rezoning request: “I don’t think anybody here is opposed to affordable housing but I just think that if we had had some more information, it would have been a little better. I would have liked to have known what this number is for sewer, so I vote no.”

 

Featured Image : Crowd gathers at City Hall for Council meeting regarding rezoning request for affordable housing development

The Blue Coyote faces alleged ordinance violations

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, City, Blue Coyote, Alcohol, Licenses, Closed, Hearing, Court, Council, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Municipal Judge, Robert Sneed, Petition

Blue Ridge, Ga. – City Council met Friday, April 30, 2020 in a special called meeting to appoint a Hearing Officer that will oversee a case involving the possible “suspension and revocation of an occupational tax certificate allowing for the sale of alcoholic beverages”.

Blue Ridge Municipal Court Judge Robert Sneed will be put in place as the hearing officer.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, City, Blue Coyote, Alcohol, Licenses, Closed, Hearing, Court, Council, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Municipal Judge, Robert Sneed, Petition

City Council meets to instate Hearing Officer.

Council members were unable to speak on the specifics of the case, with Mayor Donna Whitener telling press, “All questions on the matter will have to be directed to the hearing officer.”

The case is presumably involving the City of Blue Ridge vs. The Blue Coyote, a restaurant in the Commercial Business District of Blue Ridge.

Recent events at the Blue Coyote have caused complaints from citizens, along with allegations of the establishment being in violation of numerous sections of the City’s Alcohol Ordinance.

One issue that has been discussed on previous occasions, not only of the Blue Coyote but of neighboring businesses, is violation of the noise ordinance due to live amplified music. The Blue Coyote, however, has not received a citation from the City on the matter.

The most recent issue that could be cause for the hearing involves an altercation that took place between patrons of The Blue Coyote. That altercation which took place in April continued outside of the establishment onto City property according to sources.

Currently several businesses in Fannin County are supporting a petition that is circulating to save The Blue Coyote from possible penalties of the hearing. 

The hearing is set to take place in May but could see delays if requested by either legal party.

Sneed will ultimately decide the fate of the establishment. If found to be in violation of the City’s Alcohol Ordinance, several possibilities of penalties are on the table for The Blue Coyote. These penalties range from a fine, to a probation period where no other violations may occur, to the possible revocation of the occupational tax certificate allowing for the sale of alcoholic beverages.

 

Featured Image courtesy of Fannin County Chamber of Commerce website.

Blue Ridge playground reopens to the public

City Council, Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – After much wait and debate, the playground at Blue Ridge City’s downtown park is officially reopen for public use.

Several council members, Mayor and members of the city’s Street Department  met at the park on Thursday, April 22 to commemorate the reopening.

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, Park, Playground, Open, Angie Arp

City’s playground with newly installed padding and turf.

The park had been closed for several months after Council Member Mike Panter discovered that certain aspects were not in safety compliance and needed to be addressed.

“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 in a past meeting, defending his stance to close the park, “I know I did the right thing.”

The park was initially in compliance upon original renovations, headed by former council member Angie Arp, but issue arose over lack of upkeep following these renovations. 

In particular the park’s mulch had become compacted over the years and no longer met safety standards to provide ample padding.

“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 had previously explained.

City Council voted for the long lasting synthetic turf and padding option, presented by Panter, to cover the park’s grounds and the City of Blue Ridge Street Department worked diligently to correct any drainage issues in the area. 

“It’s going to be done correctly. It’s going to be done right,” Panter had stated of moving forward with the padding and turf option.

The city has also received approximately $19,000 from a private donor for shades to be installed at the park. These shades will be installed on the playground’s existing equipment.

“The shades have been ordered,” Panter said, “And as soon as they arrive they will be installed.”

Arp also stopped by the park to see the latest in renovations and commented, “It is really nice. I’m glad that it will be opened back up in time for the children to really use when school lets out for the year.”

Call for investigation into City delinquent tax matter

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, 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, Sunshine Law, City Charter, Finance Director Alicia Stewart, Delinquent Taxes, Investigation, Tracie Jo Bracken, Audit Engagement Partner, Welch, Walker and Associates

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The May meeting of the Blue Ridge City Council could see a motion to investigate uncollected taxes with the blame being laid on Mayor Donna Whitener and Finance Director Alicia Stewart.

Council Member Rhonda Haight read from a prepared statement during the April meeting. Haight wanted to go on record to clear her name of any matters relating to the delinquent taxes owed to the City.

“I do not want to be associated with delinquent taxes,” Haight stated adding, “I had no knowledge and most of the council members did not.”

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, Sunshine Law, City Charter, Finance Director Alicia Stewart, Delinquent Taxes, Investigation, Tracie Jo Bracken, Audit Engagement Partner, Welch, Walker and Associates

Haight goes on record about City’s uncollected taxes.

The issue of delinquent taxes haven been seemingly swept under the rug was brought to the public’s attention late last year after Council Member Mike Panter attended a City Finance meeting.

Records showed that the City had not pursued collection of these taxes from as far back as 2010.

Panter estimated that in previous years the collection rate sat somewhere around 60 percent and currently he estimates the collection rate to be between 85-87 percent.

Haight questioned, “Why was the city council not told about this? I’ve gone over 10 years of budget that I have on file. It’s not in a budget.” 

Panter did counter this statement later in the meeting by saying that the financial meeting that he attended was held annually and that a council member had always been present during these meetings.

Haight reached out to Tracie Jo Bracken, Audit Engagement Partner with Welch, Walker and Associates, to try to find answers as to why council was never made aware of the issue.

According to Haight, Bracken stated that the issue of uncollected taxes “was not pinpointed and not included as an item of concern in the budget” but that Braken had discussed the matter in exit interviews with the Whitener and Stewart and had recommended Fi. Fa.

“Fi. Fa. is a tax lien or writ, authorizing the Sheriff or Ex-Officio Sheriff to obtain satisfaction of unpaid taxes by levying on and selling the delinquent taxpayer’s property.”

In order to pursue Fi. Fa. council members would have to grant approval.

Haight went on to cite sections of the City Charter, specifically Section 2.2 and 3.2. 

According to Haight, “Under Section 2.2 the Charter states that the Mayor is to submit the council at least once a year a statement covering the financial conditions of the City and from time to time such information as the City may request” and under Section 3.2 “the neglect to perform duties is cause for removal”.

Haight claims there is cause for Whitener to be removed by not disclosing relevant information to council and not fulfilling her duties to uphold the Charter shown by example of the City not having a Treasurer.

Haight suggested hiring an independent consultant to look into the matter and also suggested putting standards into place so that this would not occur in the future.

Council Member Nathan Fitts shared his opinion as well, “I think personally that somebody should be accountable for this. I think the Financial Director and Mayor should be accountable for it. I think the public expects the council to do something over it.” 

Fitts went on to say that he personally believes that the Mayor should resign over the issue. Fitts would like to put to vote the investigation of the matter not only for accountability to the public but to also show which council members “are supporting what’s right and what’s wrong”.

FYN spoke with Whitener, who was not present at the meeting during the discussion of delinquent taxes.

Whitener said there were a number of considerations to look into when going over the delinquent taxes and gave the example of businesses who had gone out of business but had failed to remove themselves from the digest.

“We’ve been within our range,” Whitener said, explaining that municipalities have a range of projected collections.

“I hate it. I hate it for the people of Blue Ridge,” Whitener replied when asked about the latest allegations and arguments. “Their worries are not who likes who. Our citizens deserve to have a community where they feel like they can approach their leaders and be able to get good answers. We’re here to serve. We’re not here to fight.” 

Fitts goes on record with Mayor’s alleged violations

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Council Member Nathan Fitts is going on record with alleged City Charter violations and State Law infractions committed by the Mayor and certain Council Members.

At the March 9th City Council meeting Fitts made the public aware that Mayor Donna Whitener and Council Members Mike Panter and Robbie Cornelius had been served with an Ante Litem notice on his behalf.

This legal notice comes after Panter presented a censure against Fitts, which ultimately passed. Panter, Cornelius and Whitener voted in favor of the censure while Council Members Rhonda Haight and Herald Herndon voted against.

During the March meeting Fitts briefly explained the Ante Litem notice and stated that the censure was an attempt to silence him from exposing the wrongdoing of the Mayor and Council.

Fitts went on record with some alleged violations during this meeting and FYN has obtained a copy.

***FYN is publishing the alleged violations as presented by Council Member Nathan Fitts. These accusations have not been verified.***

Alleged Violations of Mayor and Council as presented by Council Member Nathan Fitts

Mayor Donna Whitener: 

2011 – 2019 Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations – These are just a few that’s been put together that have happened during the 12 years the Mayor has been in office.  There are more to come as time allows as there is an extensive history of violations of both state and local laws. 

  • After being elected to office in November 2010, she immediately implements insurance compensation for herself and the council members, without council approval. This was a violation of the City Charter; a year later she voted on her own re-zoning request that made her resident legal for her to hold office. Until she cast the tie breaking vote, Donna Whitener didn’t have a legal residence to even hold the office of Mayor. She illegally ran for office and after winning illegally held the position, due to the fact her residence wasn’t zoned to allow her to live above her furniture store. Mayor Whitener’s tie breaking vote she cast was a conflict of interest and was an unethical action, which could have been called null and void according to law. Her unethical action was cited by an investigation propertied by the council in her second term, due to her continued illegal actions.
  • Mayor Donna Whitener spends and gives away Hotel Motel Taxes illegally during her first 4-year term as Mayor. A portion of Hotel Motel tax is restricted by law and can only be given to C-6 Non-Profit Organizations; Mayor Whitener gave thousands of tax dollars away illegally to non-profit organizations, of whom some were friends or acquaintances of hers. Misuse of tax dollars is a violation of state and local laws and warrants not only removal of office but possibly more drastic consequences.
  • Mayor Donna Whitener violates the city charter and her oath of office and neglects her duties as the mayor. As mayor, she is to preside of the meetings meaning: to exercise guidance, direction, or control, to occupy the place of authority: act as president, chairman, or moderator. She is to make sure the meetings are run correctly according to the meeting policy set forth by the council and the governing laws of the state and it is her duty to make sure all state and local laws are adhered to.  She is not authorized or allowed to make up her own laws or ignore the city charter.  Not one time in her 12 years as mayor has the mayor conducted the meeting in accordance with the councils meeting policy.  The mayor is responsible for following all policies and to make sure the meetings are conducted professionally. Mayor Whiteners neglect conduct meetings by policy and her neglect to follow state laws and the city charter since her first days in office has caused years of unproductivity, chaos, arguing, division, taxpayers money wasted and shame and embarrassment to the city and county.

2020 Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations

  • February 5, 2020:  Violation of Charter and Sunshine Law:  On February 5, 2020, a Special Meeting was called to vote on Annexation.  Nathan Fitts and Rhonda Haight attended in person.  They were the only two council members present.   Both questioned the validity of the meeting since the third member joined by phone. Mayor Whitener assured them both that this was a legal meeting, but this was false information.  According to the Sunshine Law and the City Charter there was no quorum present; therefore, the items voted on were in violation of state and local law. Mayor Whitener not only lied to the council about details of the annexation, but she also lied about the legal process, all in an effort to press the annexation through for her own personal political agenda. After Nathan Fitts and Rhonda Haight found out Mayor Whitener had lied to them, they also discovered the mayor had made promises to developers and others to push the annexation through.
  • February 11, 2020:  Violation of Charter:  Mayor Whitener proposed a retaining wall replace the deck on East Main Street; however, she didn’t have quotes for the council to approve, so the city council voted to table proceeding with project until quotes were provided. The mayor abused her authority, blatantly defying the council’s vote, stating that she was going to tear the deck down anyway.  With no idea of what the project would cost or if the city could afford the project, the mayor had workers tear the deck down before quotes for the project had been received and ignored orders of the council not to move forward with the project until quotes came in. Mayor Whitener destroyed City Property without authorization and council approval. (See attached Meeting Minutes) (This is on audiotape). The mayor’s actions constitute abuse of power and violates her duty of office.
  • May 2020:  Violated Civil Rights of Councilman Nathan Fitts: Mayor Whitener tried to force an investigation through fabrication of lies submitted to Home Depot, even after being told by Home Depot there was no issue.  Mayor Whitener abused her power by directly trying to force actions by attempting to have the Blue Ridge City Police engage in actions that was not warranted by law. It took the Chief of Police to stop her attempts by telling her he would not allow her to use his department to pursue her attacks on a council member and that it would be liability to the city if she continued trying to pursue a case without cause.
  • October 20, 2020: Violation of City Charter:  Mayor Whitener violated the City Charter by allowing items to be added to the agenda after the meeting was called.  The Charter and state law states NO ADDITIONAL ITEMS can be added to a Special Called Meeting Agenda.  Mayor Whitener allowed Council Member Mike Panter to speak for 10 minutes on a topic that was not on the Agenda, even after being warned that it was illegal.  In fact, she admitted she forgot to add it and permitted Panter to speak anyway.  (See Meeting Minutes) Both Whitener and Panter violated the Charter and state law.  At the time of the violation, they were both notified and told they were in violation and they both ignored the council member siting them and illegally proceeded the meeting as they had planned.
  • October 20, 2020:  Georgia Open Meetings Act Violation: Mayor Whitener violates state law and her oath of office by allowing Council Member Mike Panter to violate the state meetings law and the city charter in a special called meeting she presided over. The mayor has an obligation to uphold the city charter and state laws and she willingly ignored her duty, by allowing Panter’s misconduct and local and state law violations.
  • December 2020: Violation of City Charter: Mayor Whitener violated the city charter by not disclosing the sale of her parking lot and using inside information for personal financial gain.  Elected official prohibitions are mandated by the charter under Section 2.16. (a)(1), (a)(3), (a)(5), (a)(6), (b), (c). that any elected official that engages in personal business transactions with city employees or anyone in a contract with the city, disclose their intentions to the city council and the public at a public meeting with the item clearly stated on the agenda and the disclosure must be recorded and kept on file with the city clerk. Mayor Whitener failed to disclose the sale of her personal property to a company in contract with the city, to the council in an open meeting as prescribed in Section 2:16 of the city charter.  Mayor Whitener violated the city charter by participating in a matter related to a contract or negotiation that she benefited from financially as specifically prohibited under Section 2.16.a.6.
  • January 9, 2021:  Violation of City and State Zoning Meeting Policy:  Mayor Whitener violated the city charter and local and state zoning meeting laws by allowing Council Member Mike Panter to violate the zoning laws himself. The zoning meeting law mandates the council vote on a rezoning request immediately after the hearing and Council Member Mike Panter made a motion to table the vote till the next meeting.  Mayor Whitener failed to inform Council Member Mike Panter that his motion violated the law; the mayor and the other council members that voted in favor of Panters motion should have known the law regarding zoning hearings. They either did not know the law or they ignored it.  The mayor also allowed the vote to be delayed again in the February meeting, with Council Member Mike Panter leading the charge to put the vote off again and Council Members Cornelius and Herndon voting with him. The mayor should know the laws and her duties and should have corrected the illegal actions and behavior, however, due to possible political alignment and close friendship she allowed Council Member Mike Panter to violate the law.
  • February 2021: Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts Fourth Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence.  Under the laws of the United State Constitution due process is required and even after being put on notice by Councilman Fitts, Councilman Fitts personal attorney and the City Attorney, the mayor allowed such action and furthermore, she cast a tie breaking vote for said “censuring” which his illegal and not allowed under the City of Blue Ridge’s charter.  Additionally, they manipulated the agenda for the February meeting in efforts to try to publicly humiliate and embarrass councilman Fitts.  Their direct premeditated actions prove they have set out to try to harm him, discredit him and using tactics that are defamation of character and illegal under the law.  Lastly, they not only have harassed Councilman Nathan Fitts by making up a stream of lies and events over the last year on him, none of which have turned up to have any validity, proof, or substance.
  • February 2021:  Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts First Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence with the same conditions as outlined above.
  • February 2021:  Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts right to vote as an elected official and councilman stating he couldn’t vote on the “illegal” censure vote and did not allow him to vote.  The mayor was the tie breaking vote, but she had not only a conflict of interest with her obvious vindictive behavior towards him over the last year or so but also, she voted on her own zoning which is clearly a conflict of interest but uses her abuse of power to manipulate the outcome to her needs.

Councilman Mike Panter: 

             Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations

  • October 20, 2020: Mike Panter violated the City Charter by not following the agenda and talking and acting out of turn from the filed agenda.  He ranted for over 10 minutes on a subject matter that still isn’t even understood the purpose.  The Charter states NO ADDITIONAL ITEMS can be added to a Special Called Meeting Agenda.  He was notified and told he was in violation and he ignored such and continued his rants instead of following the process required by law.   
  • October 20, 2020:  Mike Panter violated state law and his oath of office by his misconduct and misbehavior.  As the charter plainly states the oath of office is taken to uphold local and state laws.
  • Violated the Opens meeting Act by not following the agenda set forth.
  • Violated the rezoning meeting policy and state zoning laws making a motion to table the vote after the hearing. He again the second time violated it again when the vote wasn’t taken at the next meeting after being table the prior month. The mayor should know the laws and should have corrected this illegal behavior, however, due to political and special treatment she allowed Mike Panter to violate the policy.   old him he couldn’t do that, but she didn’t so she is actually in violation of the meeting and zoning laws as well.
  • Violated council orders and a council vote by giving approval for paying 4 V Ranch without approval from the council.  Even after he was notified, he was in violation, he still continued forward and paid it without approval.  Being within his budget did not make it alright, regardless of if you are over the department or not, council decision and votes are not at the liberty of one council member to make the decision as set forth by the city charter.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts Fourth Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence.  Under the laws of the United State Constitution due process is required and even after being put on notice by Councilman Fitts, Councilman Fitts personal attorney and the City Attorney, the mayor allowed such action and furthermore, she cast a tie breaking vote for said “censuring” which his illegal and not allowed under the City of Blue Ridge’s charter.  Additionally, they manipulated the agenda for the February meeting in efforts to try to publicly humiliate and embarrass councilman Fitts.  Their direct premeditated actions prove they have set out to try to harm him, discredit him and using tactics that are defamation of character and illegal under the law.  Lastly, they not only have harassed Councilman Nathan Fitts by making up a stream of lies and events over the last year on him, none of which have turned up to have any validity, proof, or substance.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts First Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence with the same conditions as outlined above.  February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts right to vote as an elected official and councilman stating he couldn’t vote on the “illegal” censure vote and did not allow him to vote.  The mayor was the tie breaking vote, but she had not only a conflict of interest with her obvious vindictive behavior towards him over the last year or so but also, she voted on her own zoning which is clearly a conflict of interest but uses her abuse of power to manipulate the outcome to her needs.
  • Failed his obligation of the city charter under Section 2.17. Removal of officers – Under (a) it states that the mayor or councilmember, or other appointed officers provided for in the charter, SHALL BE removed from office if one or more of the following causes which those are listed in items 1-6.  This section doesn’t give the councilmembers options as to if they “want” to remove another elected official from office it says they “shall” and mandates for it to be done to uphold the charter.  Has allowed the mayor to intentionally violate state and federal laws without any type of reprimand, recourse or public call to action directly violating his obligation to the people of this city and the oath of office he took.

Councilwoman Robbie Cornelius:

            Georgia State Law and City Charter Violations

  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts Fourth Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence.  Under the laws of the United State Constitution due process is required and even after being put on notice by Councilman Fitts, Councilman Fitts personal attorney and the City Attorney, the mayor allowed such action and furthermore, she cast a tie breaking vote for said “censuring” which his illegal and not allowed under the City of Blue Ridge’s charter.  Additionally, they manipulated the agenda for the February meeting in efforts to try to publicly humiliate and embarrass councilman Fitts.  Their direct premeditated actions prove they have set out to try to harm him, discredit him and using tactics that are defamation of character and illegal under the law.  Lastly, they not only have harassed Councilman Nathan Fitts by making up a stream of lies and events over the last year on him, none of which have turned up to have any validity, proof, or substance.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts First Amendment Right under the United States Constitution by allowing on a vote of censuring without cause or evidence with the same conditions as outlined above.
  • February 2021 – Violated Councilman Nathan Fitts right to vote as an elected official and councilman stating he couldn’t vote on the “illegal” censure vote and did not allow him to vote.  The mayor was the tie breaking vote, but she had not only a conflict of interest with her obvious vindictive behavior towards him over the last year or so but also, she voted on her own zoning which is clearly a conflict of interest but uses her abuse of power to manipulate the outcome to her needs.
  • Failed her obligation of the city charter under Section 2.17. Removal of officers – Under (a) it states that the mayor or councilmember, or other appointed officers provided for in the charter, SHALL BE removed from office if one or more of the following causes which those are listed in items 1-6.  This section doesn’t give the councilmembers options as to if they “want” to remove another elected official from office it says they “shall” and mandates for it to be done to uphold the charter.  Has allowed her personal friendship and obligations to the mayor to take precedence over her judicial duties for the city by allowing the mayor to intentionally violate state and federal laws without any type of reprimand, recourse or public call to action directly violating his obligation to the people of this city and the oath of office he took.

Fitts pursues legal action against censure

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, 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, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The recent censure of Council Member Nathan Fitts could lead to legal proceedings that would cost the taxpayers of Blue Ridge.

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, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Feb. Zoom City Council meeting in which Panter brought forth the censure of Fitts.

Fitts’ personal lawyer and previous City Attorney for the City of Blue Ridge, R. David Syfan, sent an Anti Litem Notice (intent to sue) to those members of council, including the Mayor, who pursued and voted in favor of the censure.

“Honestly I sit here as a council member embarrassed to even have to discuss these items,” Fitts said informing the public that an Anti Litem Notice had been sent.

Among those to receive the notice were Mayor Donna Whitener, Council Member Mike Panter and Council Member Robbie Cornelius.

Fitts claims that there has been a series of harassment leading up to the censure in an attempt to silence him for bringing alleged wrongdoings by the Mayor and Council to light.

Through this harassment, Fitts says that he has had to defend his name and reputation over “falsified information”. Fitts stated that the council needs to focus on the City Charter and the law and quit pursuing personal vendettas.

“Not one piece of evidence. Not one fact. Not one incident that can be proven has still to this day come out,” Fitts said of the censure and added according to the City Charter, “You don’t need to censure me. Remove me from office but you better prove I did something wrong.”

Fitts spoke before the vote of censure that took place during the Feb. Blue Ridge City Council meeting. It was during this time that he read a letter from his attorney, Syfan, stating that the censure would not only be violating the City Charter but also Fitts’ civil rights.

The Anti Litem Notice reiterates this stance stating:

“The due process requirements of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution would require appropriate advanced written notice of the alleged violations, and evidentiary hearing in which the alleged evidence of the alleged violation could be presented, and which would allow the accused Councilmember to have the ability to be represented by an attorney at the public evidentiary hearing and have cross examination of witnesses, and review any documentary evidence.”

The Anti Litem Notice goes on to cite the Georgia “Whistleblower Law”, stating that Fitts brought to light the actions of Council Members and Mayor and that the censure is an attempt at retaliation.

“At the very least they acted negligently in attempting to impose injury upon Mr. Fitts,” states the notice, “and in the context of the whole situation, they also acted maliciously and oppressively.”

The letter asks for the council to “rescind the censure motion and publicly apologize” and states several times that Fitts does not wish to proceed with the lawsuit unless necessary.

Council and Mayor have been given one month to rescind the censure and the issue is expected to be addressed at the next Blue Ridge City Council meeting to be held on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

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, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

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, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

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, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

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, Lawsuit, Anti Litem, Whistleblower

Mayor asked to return key to City Hall

City Council, Election, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Mayor Donna Whitener was asked to turn in her key to City Hall as council members expressed their concerns over the upcoming election.

“With all that has been going on over the past couple of months, which the public is just now starting to find out about, to be very honest, I don’t know that I feel comfortable with the election that is coming up and not having an unbiased party being over the election,” Council Member Nathan Fitts expressed his feelings on the upcoming election.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Election, 2021, Qualifying, November, 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

Haight requests that Whitener return her key to City Hall during the election period.

Council Member Rhonda Thomas and Fitts both agreed that having outside municipal counsel handle any election related events would be in the best interest of not only the candidates but the City as well.

This proposition comes with the consideration that current City Attorney James Balli is hired to represent City Council members, many of whom will be running in the upcoming election, and therefore might have a biased conflict of interest in any election related matters.

Haight suggested approaching the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) attorneys and getting their legal opinion on the matter.

Fitts agreed with Haight’s recommendation stating, “I know too much. I know the history of the last election. I know things that went on and I do not feel comfortable with it.”

With the request for an outside legal counsel, Haight also requested that the Mayor return her key to City Hall during the election period.

“None of us have keys except for the Mayor and I don’t feel like she should have a key to this building during that election time,” Haight said adding that she doesn’t want any possibility of wrongdoing to occur and jeopardize the election process.

“I have no problem with that,” Mayor Whitener responded to Haight’s request but did point out that there have been emergency occasions when she (Whitener) has had to access the building.

One thing that all council members and mayor did agree upon was to look into third party handling of future elections.

Fitts pointed out that the staff of City Hall, who currently handle city elections, is “put in the middle of way more than they should be”.

While some council members felt it was too late to seek outside handling of the 2021 City Election, they did agree to pursue this route in the future.

The General Election is set to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 with voting at City Hall. Polls open at 7 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m.

Criminal threats precede discussion of proposed Code of Civility

City Council, 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, 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.”

City Council and Mayor seats open in 2021 General Election

City Council, Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, Election, News
Blue Ridge city council candidates

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The City of Blue Ridge is gearing up for the 2021 General Election. All Council seats and the seat of Mayor will be on the ballot.

In a brief teleconference meeting held on Jan. 20, 2021, Council (Nathan Fitts and Mike Panter absent) along with Mayor and City Attorney passed the Resolution Qualifying Fee and did a first reading of the 2021 Election Ordinance.

A second reading of the 2021 Election Ordinance will take place at City Council’s regular monthly meeting scheduled in February.

Qualifying fees for the open seats are $252.00 for seat of Mayor and $180.00 for a seat on City Council.

Qualifying period for those wishing to run in the 2021 City of Blue Ridge General Election is as follows:

“Monday, August 16, 2021, and will continue from day-to-day through Friday, August 20, 2021.  The hours of qualifying each day shall be from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. August 16-19, 2021 and 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. August 20, 2021 (except for a one hour lunch break beginning at 1:00 p.m. each day).”

Each position is to serve a four year term beginning on Jan. 1, 2022 and ending on Dec. 31, 2025.

These terms, however, are subject to change due to a recent resolution passed by City Council wishing to stagger the election in the future. Staggering of the elections would eliminate all seats becoming open during the same election period.

The Resolution of Qualifying Fee states:

“The terms of the Mayor and each Councilmember are subject to any change imposed by a new City Charter providing for staggered terms of election or general state law.  Notice is herein provided that the City Council passed a resolution on November 30, 2020”

The General Election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 with voting at City Hall located at 480 West First Street, Blue Ridge, Ga. 30513. Polls open at 7 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m.

The last day for voter/elector registration to vote in the 2021 General Election is Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. 

Open seats in the 2021 General Election are as follows with current incumbent listed:

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

Zoning request for Hastings Development tabled

Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
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

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”.

Back to Top