City officials meet with county, school representatives over construction projects

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Blue Ridge Mayor Donna Whitener and Utility Supervisor Becky Harkins sat down with officials from the county and the Fannin County Board of Education (FCBOE) as well as County and FCBOE Attorney Lynn Doss and engineers and contractors Tuesday, Dec. 19.

The meeting, as Harkins explained, was a pre-construction meeting that should have taken place before construction began on both the Fannin County Agriculture and Environmental Science Facility and the county’s public safety complex. The city requires a number of pre-construction items to be completed before a construction project is allowed to tap into city water lines. Harkins stated after former Director of Land Development Roy Parsons retired unexpectedly earlier in the year, the pre-construction meeting “fell off the grid (and) didn’t take place” before both entities began construction on their respective projects.

“Our agenda today is to get everybody the information they need in order move forward in a timely manner so that you can complete your projects on time and the lines are up to city development standards so that when you’re done, we can complete the process of taking those lines over, which was the desired attempt from the beginning,” Harkins said.

Harkins distributed a project checklist for everyone present, who included Fannin County Board of Commissioners Chairman Stan Helton, Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Robert Graham, Fannin County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney and Fannin County Schools Facility and Maintenance Director Danny Shinpaugh.

The most pressing issue on the checklist is receiving approval from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for the water main extension from Ada Street to Windy Ridge Road. According to Harkins, whenever the city or an independent developer extends a water line for which the city will eventually assume responsibility, the plans must be approved by the EPD as required by the state.

Part of the purpose of the meeting was to determine which entity – the school system or the county – would be responsible for submitting plans to EPD for approval.

Southern Architects and Engineers (A&E) is the engineering firm charged with the construction of the agriculture facility, and Michael Waldbillig, vice president of mechanical engineering for Southern A&E, explained the main extension from Ada will directly service the agriculture facility with the public safety complex line later tapping into the Ag building line at the first manhole after the extension from the existing city line.

Waldbillig inevitably agreed to send the plans for the extension to EPD since the immediate extension from the existing city line will be tied directly to the agriculture facility. Harkins also requested for the plans to be forwarded to the city for final review before Waldbillig sent the plans to EPD, which Waldbillig agreed to do.

Also, during the meeting, a meter vault located at the forthcoming public safety complex was discussed. It was revealed that an additional meter would need to be installed in the vault and the vault would have to be modified. According to EMA Director Graham, the vault, as originally designed, was not large enough to hold a fire line meter.

Graham confirmed that the modification of the vault would increase the overall cost of the public safety complex, but that the county would likely speak with representatives from R Design Works, the engineering firm that designed the public safety complex, and request that the firm cover the costs for the modification.

As far as any delays to the completion of the complex, Graham stated construction was still on schedule despite the need to modify the meter vault, and the projected completion date remains at the end of May 2018.

Regarding the continued construction of the school system’s agriculture facility, Gwatney and Shinpaugh both agreed that they did not anticipate any delays or additional costs to result from the city’s requirements concerning the water main extension and construction would continue as planned. Although the anticipated date of completion for the project is planned for sometime near the end of the school year, Shinpaugh did add that inclement weather in the coming months could be a factor in the construction process of the facility.

 

Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Johnson on BOC: ‘We’re going down a bad road’

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – In what Fannin County Post 1 Commissioner Earl Johnson described as a “bad nightmare,” the county Board of Commissioners addressed the notion of increasing the chairman’s spending limit from $4,500 to $25,000 during the commissioners meeting Tuesday, Nov. 14.

Currently, BOC Chairman Stan Helton is allowed to approve county expenditures less than $4,500 himself without the approval of either Johnson or Post 2 Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee. Expenditures greater than that amount require signatures from two of the three commissioners. The potential approval of the spending limit increase would have upped that amount to $25,000.

Helton cited Fannin County’s most recent audit, which listed the number of invoices needing Board approval as a “material weakness,” as a primary reason for the potential change in procedure. Helton also stated that about 400 checks this year have required Board approval. The chairman also read from the audit that “the approved purchase order policies and procedures are not being followed. Purchase orders are being obtained subsequent to the purchase.”

“In other words, we’re signing the checks after the fact,” Helton explained in his own words. In addition, he referenced surrounding counties – though no specifics were given – as other entities with higher chairman spending limits.

In follow-up interviews with both Sosebee and Johnson, neither commissioner could explain Helton’s reasoning for wanting to increase the spending limit as an effort to correct the audit deficiency. When reached for comment, Chairman Helton explained he felt a higher spending limit would increase payment efficiency and cut down 75 percent of the invoices that must be processed by commission approval. “The $4,500 spending limit creates a bottleneck of invoices that requires the county to chase down one of the other post commissioners for approval,” Helton said.

“I’ll just go ahead and tell you no,” Johnson said in the meeting after Helton asked the post commissioners for their input. “All these counties we’re comparing them to as well, the county attorneys work for the Board of Commissioners, so that’s how that kind of offsets that balance of power. If I have a problem or a question with an expenditure – if I’m in Pickens or Gilmer county – I can go to the county attorney … and I can get an answer that’s not biased. In Fannin County, our county attorney (Lynn Doss) still works for the chairman.”

Johnson later explained Pickens’ chairman spending limit is currently $25,000 and Gilmer’s limit is $50,000. He also referred to instances of former Chairman Bill Simonds overspending his limit, and when Johnson questioned Simonds’ ability to do this in the past, he said he did not receive a reasonable explanation from County Attorney Doss.

Sosebee agreed with Johnson saying, “I’m not for raising (the limit) at any level right now … Like Mr. Johnson said, this is Fannin County. We’re not in debt. Millage rate’s lower than any other county … We just went down this road (with the previous administration) and I don’t intend to walk it again.”

Sosebee also pointed out that in Helton’s campaign for the office, the current chairman advocated for controlling former Chairman Simonds’ spending limit.

Post 1 Commissioner Earl Johnson

Johnson added he was beginning to see a “pattern going in the wrong way” developing with too many “tweaks” during Helton’s administration, citing specifically the post commissioners’ commentary being taken off the agenda and Helton’s request for all comments to be addressed to him as stated on the commissioners meeting agendas.

The discussion quickly evolved into Johnson requesting moves be taken by the Board to allow Doss to represent the entire Board of Commissioners and not just the chairman. Helton explained he has encouraged Doss to communicate with the post commissioners and Doss said she had emailed both posts and had spoken with Sosebee about issues in the past.

Later, Johnson made a motion four times to take steps to amend the county’s structure to allow Doss to represent the entire Board, the first of which was seconded by Sosebee. Sosebee did not second any of Johnson’s subsequent motions after the chairman stated he had neither asked for a motion nor a second.

Helton resisted the motions calling his position the “most constitutionally weak chairman this county’s ever had” and added he was not in favor of weakening the position ever further. When the notion of evoking home rule was addressed, Johnson stated he would like to consult the county attorney on the matter but could not because she did not work for the full commission.

After Helton told the post commissioners the only motion he would entertain would be a motion to adjourn, the chairman made such a motion, but Johnson and Sosebee refused to second it. At this point, the meeting reached an impasse.

“To put this situation about changing the county attorney here on the spot like this is unacceptable,” Helton told Johnson. “Now we can sit here all night.”

Reconvening after a five-minute recess, Johnson said he wanted to make an example for everyone to see the “pickle” in which the post commissioners are put by not having the same level of legal representation from the county attorney that the chairman has.

“Everything’s about the chairman,” Johnson continued, “even our minutes. The only minutes that our clerk (Karen Jones) has recorded is what the chairman says … I do paving for a living and I don’t pave over a bad road. And we’re going down a bad road.”

Commission Chairman Stan Helton

After Helton again made a motion to adjourn, Sosebee seconded the motion under the provision that the county attorney issue be revisited at the next meeting. Helton agreed to this and the meeting adjourned.

Ultimately, no decision was made to increase the chairman’s spending limit, but Helton said he would personally examine ways to resolve the issue to comply with the standards of the audit.

Prior to this discussion, several items of business were addressed. Robert Graham, director of Fannin’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA), requested the purchase of a new ambulance for the county’s fleet. Graham informed the Board if the ambulance were ordered now, the contractor would honor the 2017 price of $124,280, which would result in savings of $4,000 to $5,000 for the county by not waiting until next year to make the purchase. Graham clarified the ambulance would be a second ordered ambulance after the county approved the purchase of a previous ambulance earlier this year. The Board unanimously approved the expenditure and Graham stated the county can expect the ambulance to be delivered by early February 2018. Also, he said the expenditure would come out of the 2018 budget.

Fire and Rescue Chief Larry Thomas requested the purchase of a used fire engine for $45,000 to replace Engine 13. Thomas said officials from the Fannin Fire Department had inspected the used engine and found it to be in “sound order.” The incoming engine will be used as a frontline engine, Thomas said, and Engine 13 would then be used as a tanker. The funds for the expenditure will come from the department’s 2017 capital outlay and the department would have a $17,000 balance remaining, according to Helton. The purchase was unanimously approved.

Also, the Board approved and instituted ACCG as the cancer insurance provider for the county’s fire department. In May, Georgia lawmakers passed House Bill 146, which mandates that fire departments provide firefighters with insurance benefits should they contract cancer while as a result of work conditions.

Several citizens spoke in public commentary concerning issues with Fannin County Animal Control and the recent incident in which two German shepherds were inadvertently turned over to an individual claiming to be the dogs’ rightful owner but was not. For a detailed account, please continue to follow FetchYourNews for the story covering the public commentary.

Public Works Director and Fannin County Water Authority (FCWA) board member Zack Ratcliff requested the purchase of a used trackhoe excavator for the Public Works department that the FCWA is selling for $42,000. Post Commissioners Sosebee and Johnson both rejected the purchase.

“I feel like we’ve got enough equipment out there right now than what we’ve got people to run it,” Sosebee told Ratcliff.

“I, for one, don’t why the Water Authority is selling it to begin with. Secondly, I don’t think we need it,” Johnson stated.

Chairman Helton gave no indication as to his thoughts on the purchase.

For the Recreation Department, the Board approved a bid of $8,735 from Praters Flooring to resurface the gymnasium floor at the Recreation Center. Recreation Director Eddie O’Neal said the project is slated to start Dec. 13 and the gymnasium will likely have to remain closed until Monday, Dec. 18.

Project Chimps, which provides a sanctuary for retired chimpanzees used in private research labs, will receive 10 additional chimpanzees after the Board approved a permit allowing for the additional group. The chimpanzees are expected to arrive at the sanctuary by Dec. 12.

From left, Post 1 Commissioner Earl Johnson, PruittHealth Community Relations Representative Brad Watkins, Chairman Stan Helton, PruittHealth Community Relations Representative Amy Beavers, PruittHealth Administrator Kelly Floyd, PruittHealth Administrator Dana Cole and Post 2 Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee.

Representatives were present from PruittHealth of Blue Ridge for a proclamation declaring November to be Hospice and Home Health Month in Fannin County to encourage citizens to increase the awareness and importance of home health services both locally and nationally.

 

 

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Author

Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Commissioners Vote to Table Project Chimps’ Application to House 80 Chimpanzees in Fannin County

News

At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed  Project Chimps’ application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in its sanctuary in Fannin County.  The chimpanzees are to arrive in groups of nine to ten over the next year.  In all, Project Chimps will bring approximately 240 chimpanzees over a period of five years.

The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County.  According to Fannin County’s Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance:  “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within  Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application.  The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”

The Commissioners voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.

The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population.  New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.

Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application.  Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel.   Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney.  David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.”  Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting.  Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments to her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston.  Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us [the Commissioners] to vote.

However, during Public Commentary and Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with the organization and Fannin residents in attendance.

Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baeckler Davis, spoke second during Public Commentary.  She did not give her prepared presentation.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County.  She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents.  She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Ms. Baeckler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits.  On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.

Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge, was the first Fannin resident to speak.  He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps.  He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.

Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next.  She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent in “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.”  She finished with, “What is the big problem?”

Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road.  She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside.  Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps.  He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees.  His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.

No one spoke against Project Chimps during Public Commentary.

During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baeckler Davis and also gave comments about the project, even though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment, but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.

First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds.  The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps.  He said he understands that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 individuals that have a life span of 40-60 years. Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baeckler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants.  However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals, other non-profits, and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.

Ms. Baeckler Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees.  The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time.  The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time.  Later groups will move in as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years.  She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.

At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran dry.

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next.  His line of questioning was about the health of the animals.  First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa.  Then he questioned about what kind of biomedical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did not answer this questions.  But, she did say that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans.  Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines.  She said Project Chimps’ application contained a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations.  She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.

Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.”  He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting.  He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote.  He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.

In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed. Then in early May, newswire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County.  This was publicized by other media outlets.

Project Chimps' team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps’ team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 300 attendees and was well-covered in local media.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

FetchYourNews also asked Marie Woody, the Chief Land Development Officer for Fannin County, when she was able to officially inform the Commissioners about the arrival of Project Chimps.  Ms. Woody said that Project Chimps delivered their building permit application in late afternoon on Friday, July 15th and she informed Commission Chairman Bill Simonds and County Attorney Lynn Doss on Monday morning, July 18th.

Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns.  First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in?  He also wanted to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them.  Another concern is what biomedical tests the chimps were involved in and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space.  He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision.  He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.

FetchYourNews reports that the facility Project Chimps owns was donated by Dewar Wildlife Trust, which ran the facility as Gorilla Haven. It housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri.  The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees.  Security walls and fences from the gorilla facility remain.  There are is no publicly available record of Gorilla Haven’s gorillas transmitting illness to humans in Fannin County, nor is there any record of escape.

Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again.  He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.”  He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down.  My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”

 

Fannin County Board of Commissioners Meeting, August 9, 2016 

 

 

This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps.  In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management and Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps.  Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.

 

This article has been updated from the previous version published on August 13.

 

 

 

 

Author

Commissioners Vote to Table Project Chimps’ Application to House 80 Chimpanzees in Fannin County

News

At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed  Project Chimps’ application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in its sanctuary in Fannin County.  The chimpanzees are to arrive in groups of nine to ten over the next year.  In all, Project Chimps will bring approximately 240 chimpanzees over a period of five years.

The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County.  According to Fannin County’s Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance:  “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within  Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application.  The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”

The Commissioners voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.

The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population.  New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.

Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application.  Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel.   Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney.  David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.”  Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting.  Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments to her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston.  Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us [the Commissioners] to vote.

However, during Public Commentary and Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with the organization and Fannin residents in attendance.

Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baeckler Davis, spoke second during Public Commentary.  She did not give her prepared presentation.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County.  She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents.  She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Ms. Baeckler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits.  On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.

Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge, was the first Fannin resident to speak.  He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps.  He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.

Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next.  She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent in “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.”  She finished with, “What is the big problem?”

Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road.  She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside.  Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps

Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps.  He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees.  His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.

No one spoke against Project Chimps during Public Commentary.

During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baeckler Davis and also gave comments about the project, even though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment, but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.

First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds.  The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps.  He said he understands that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 individuals that have a life span of 40-60 years. Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baeckler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants.  However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals, other non-profits, and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.

Ms. Baeckler Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees.  The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time.  The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time.  Later groups will move in as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years.  She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.

At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran dry.

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next.  His line of questioning was about the health of the animals.  First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa.  Then he questioned about what kind of biomedical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center.  Ms. Baeckler Davis did not answer this questions.  But, she did say that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans.  Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines.  She said Project Chimps’ application contained a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations.  She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.

Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.”  He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting.  He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote.  He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.

In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed. Then in early May, newswire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County.  This was publicized by other media outlets.

Project Chimps' team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps’ team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 300 attendees and was well-covered in local media.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

FetchYourNews also asked Marie Woody, the Chief Land Development Officer for Fannin County, when she was able to officially inform the Commissioners about the arrival of Project Chimps.  Ms. Woody said that Project Chimps delivered their building permit application in late afternoon on Friday, July 15th and she informed Commission Chairman Bill Simonds and County Attorney Lynn Doss on Monday morning, July 18th.

Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns.  First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in?  He also wanted to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them.  Another concern is what biomedical tests the chimps were involved in and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space.  He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision.  He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.

FetchYourNews reports that the facility Project Chimps owns was donated by Dewar Wildlife Trust, which ran the facility as Gorilla Haven. It housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri.  The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees.  Security walls and fences from the gorilla facility remain.  There are is no publicly available record of Gorilla Haven’s gorillas transmitting illness to humans in Fannin County, nor is there any record of escape.

Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again.  He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.”  He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down.  My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”

 

Fannin County Board of Commissioners Meeting, August 9, 2016 

 

 

This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps.  In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management and Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps.  Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.

 

This article has been updated from the previous version published on August 13.

 

 

 

 

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Commissioners Vote to Table Project Chimps’ Application to House 80 Chimpanzees in Fannin County

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At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed  Project Chimps application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in Project Chimps’ sanctuary in Fannin County.  The chimpanzees are to arrive to sanctuary in groups of nine to ten over the next year. The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County.  According to Fannin County’s  Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance:  “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within  Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application.  The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”

The Commissioners did not vote against the Project Chimps’ exotic animal application; they voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.

Project Chimps is at the former Gorilla Haven facility which housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably, Atlanta Zoo’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri.  The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees.

The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population.  New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.

Sarah Baekler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Sarah Baekler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps

Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application.  Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel.   Sarah Baekler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney.  David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.”  Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting.  Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston.  Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us to vote.

However, during Public Commentary and Commissioner’s Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with organization representatives and Fannin residents in attendance.

Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baekler Davis, spoke second during Public Comments.  She did not give her prepared presentation.  Ms. Baekler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County.  She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents.  She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.

Ms. Baekler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits.  On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.

Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge.  He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps.  He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.

Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next.  She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent about “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.”  She finished with, “What is the big problem?”

Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road.  She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside.  Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management

Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management

Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps.  He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees.  His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.

During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baekler Davis and also gave comments about the project, though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.

First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds.  The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps.  He said that the life span of chimpanzees is 40-60 years and that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 chimpanzees to Fannin County.  Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baekler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants.  However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals and other non-profits and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.

Ms. Baekler-Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees.  The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time.  The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time.  Later groups will move as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years.  She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.

At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran out.

Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next.  His line of questioning was about the health of the animals.  First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa.  Then he questioned about what kind of bio-medical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center.  Ms. Baekler Davis said that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans.  Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines before they can leave New Iberia.  She said Project Chimps a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations.  She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.

Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.”  He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting.  He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote.  He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.

Project Chimps' team meets with Fannin County EMA.

Project Chimps’ team meets with Fannin County EMA.

In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports that in early May, news wire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County.  This was publicized by media outlets.  Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 100 attendees and was well-covered in local media.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

Open House attendees listen to Ms. Baekler Davis describe the facility.

 

Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns.  First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in?  He also wants to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them.  Another concern is what the chimps were tested for and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space.  He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision.  He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.

FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed.

Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again.  He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.”  He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down.  My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”

The Commissioners will reconsider the application at their August 23rd meeting.

 

This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps.  In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Sarah Baekler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps.  Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fannin Board of Education Issues “Bathroom Policy” as Georgia Joins 11-State Lawsuit Over Transgender Bathrooms

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The decision about transgender bathrooms in Fannin County schools has been taken out of the hands of the Fannin County School Board. On May 25, Georgia, along with 10 other states sued the federal government over the federal guidelines that directed school to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker facilities that match their gender identities.  The other 10 states in the lawsuit are from all over the county:  Texas, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Maine, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Utah. On Friday, Kentucky joined the lawsuit. North Dakota’s Attorney General said he would like North Dakota to join the lawsuit and probably more states will follow. The federal departments that are defendants in the lawsuit are the Department of Education, Department of Justice, United States Equal Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor.

The original eleven states say that they are bringing the lawsuit against the federal government because:

“Defendants [the federal government agencies] have conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the county into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights… Absent action in Congress, the States, or local communities, defendants cannot foist these radical changes on the nation.” (click here to read the lawsuit)

Georgia and the other states filed the lawsuit in response to the May 13, US Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter sent to schools across the nation.  The letter’s purpose is to provide information and examples about how school districts across the nation provide bathrooms and locker room facilities for transgender students.  The letter also states that the federal government will evaluate other schools’ transgender policies and actions using the example school districts as a guideline. (click here to read the “Dear Colleague Letter”)

Along with the letter, the federal government sent a 18-page description of programs different schools and school districts throughout the United States have in place to accommodate transgender students.  The description covers 20 local and state school districts.  (read guidance programs described in the Department of Education’s “Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students”)

On May 25th ,the same day Georgia joined the 11-state lawsuit against the US Government, Fannin County Board of Education sent a letter to Fannin County parents. (read Mr. Henson’s letter here)  The letter begins with quoting Georgia Department of Education’s belief the federal governments’ actions regarding accommodations for transgender students are an overreach of the Executive Branch of the Federal government.  It goes on to quote Georgia’s Superintendent of School Richard Woods, who says, “I do not believe a student of another gender should use a restroom or locker alongside students of the opposite sex.”

Towards the end of the letter, Fannin Schools Superintendent Mark Henson states, “Fannin County will maintain restrooms and locker rooms for the 2016-2017 school year which are based on birth sex rather than gender identity.  Alternate restrooms will be provided for any transgender students we may have enrolled next year.”  Mr. Henson affirms that all current board members and staff support the Board of Education’s decision.  Mr. Henson ends his comments about transgender bathrooms saying, “At the same time, we will continue to support ALL students in our system and protect each student’s personal right to a free, safe public education and the respect that each individual deserves at all times.”

Georgia started openly moving towards it opposition of the Federal government’s position regarding transgender bathrooms House Speaker David Ralston’s letter to Senator Isakson and Perdue on May 12th.  Speaker Ralston wrote the letter on behalf of the citizens of Fannin County.  In it Speaker Ralston says “the federal government is dictating to our locally-elected Board of Education with regards to the policies they enact in a way never seen before.” Coincidentally, May 12th , the day of Speaker Ralston’s letter, is also the day the Board of Education listened to 2 ½ hours of public opinion about transgender bathrooms.  At the end of the public comments section, Fannin County Attorney Lynn Doss, stated the school system’s opinion that forcing transgender bathrooms is government overreach and encouraged people to speak to their elected officials.  (watch Ms. Doss’ comments here) The School Board echoed Ms. Doss’ comments during their comments at the end of the meeting.  School Board Member Terry Bramlett said the people at the meeting tonight should share the same level of passion with representatives in Washington.  He encouraged everyone to write to state and national officials whose duty it is to make legislation about transgender bathrooms.

On May 17th, State Senator Steve Gooch told the Helen City Commission that we’ve asked the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general to take a strong stand against the Federal government’s position on transgender bathrooms.  That same day, Governor Nathan Deal issued a statement reading:

“Until Congress acts, I assure the citizens of Georgia that the offices of the governor, attorney general and state school superintendent will work cooperatively to protect the interests of Georgia’s children from this abuse of federal executive authority.”

Deal also asked Superintendent Woods to provide uniform state-wide guidance to Georgia schools in regards to accommodations for transgender students.  May 20th, State School Superintendent Richard Woods sent a sort of “Dear Colleague” letter to Georgia Superintendents.  In it, Mr.  Woods uses the same language as Speaker Ralston’s letter.  Mr. Woods says that the federal government’s guidance letter is an overreach of the Executive Branch of the federal government.  The letter goes on to state Mr. Woods’ opinion about transgender bathrooms.  He says, “I do not believe a student of another gender should use a restroom or locker room alongside students of the opposite sex.” The letter also promises that if the federal government brings a lawsuit against any school district, the state of Georgia will “take appropriate action.” (read Superintendent Woods’ letter here)

Later this week FetchYourNews will speak with Mr. Henson about how Georgia’s joining the 12 state lawsuit affects Fannin County School Systems’ potential financial liability in regards to accommodating transgender students.

 

See Related Posts:           “Fannin County Board of Education Hears Public Comments About Transgender Bathrooms in Fannin Schools”

 “Fannin Board of Education Workshop:  Middle School Principal, Lunch Prices, Buses, Rain Barrels and Bathrooms”  

“Fannin Board of Education: Superintendent Henson Will Follow US Law Regarding Transgender Bathrooms”

“Fannin County Schools’ Bus Driver and Pastor, Larry Williams, Says Job Never Threatened”

 

 

See Related Videos:   “Fannin County Board of Education Public Comments Concerning Transgender Bathrooms”

 “Fannin Board of Education: Superintendent Henson Will Follow US Law Regarding Transgender Bathrooms”

 

 

 

 

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