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

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, Georgia, Fannin County, Charter, Change, Election, Resolution, City Manager, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli

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”.

Charter changes and reopening of City playground

City Council, Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Citizens could see a change in the way the City of Blue Ridge is managed after the city council voted on charter changes that would allow for the hire of a City Manger.

According to council member Rhonda Haight, the move to a city manager or a full-time mayor has been discussed among councils for several years. Haight stated that when looking at projected growth of the city, citizens would benefit by “making sure someone is here full-time to answer questions”.

Many municipalities in the area have this form of government, council member Mike Panter cited the cities of Jasper and Cumming to name a few. Council members also pointed to an example in Fannin County of the County Chairman holding a full-time position to oversee day-to-day operations.

“The council still has control over everything, including the budget, hiring and firing of the city manager,” Haight explained of the proposed move, saying that the only difference would be that a City Manager would not be an elected official and would therefore be able to be held accountable for their job performance.

“We know there is a need for leadership,” Haight said, adding that while council members are currently overseeing departments, most members hold other full-time jobs giving them less time to keep track of everyday business. 

“Our job is really to set policy,” Council member Nathan Fitts stated agreeing with Haight : “I think there needs to be some accountability to the public and this is the only way we’re ever really going to get there.”

Fitts added, “I think this form of government takes power out of people who want to be in the position for power. The mayor doesn’t have power then. It puts the workload on someone who is being paid to do it.”

Council voted in favor, with Mayor Donna Whitener and Council member Robbie Cornelius absent, to send a Resolution to the Georgia State Legislature requesting that the city be able to move to a City Manager form of government.

The Resolution would need to pass on state level before any charter changes can take effect. 

If enacted, there would be a transition period of 1 year taking place in 2021, with the official City Manager style government going into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

The City Manager position would oversee and have executive power over all day-to-day activities including inner workings of all departments, tax collection, and grant availability.

CITY PLAYGROUND TO REOPEN

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Charter, Change, Election, Resolution, City Manager, Playground, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli

Council member Mike Panter going over his findings in a previous meeting regarding the city’s playground.

The City of Blue Ridge Street Department has been hard at work correcting the issue of drainage at the city’s playground.

With the corrections having been made, the council voted in favor of new padding and turf to be added and the playground be reopened to the public upon completion.

The issue of the drainage system was one that had previously halted some council members from moving forward with the new playground turf, concerned that there would be significant unforeseen expenses once corrections began to take place.

Panter, who wanted the playground corrected in a manner that would cut costs in the future, had been a strong proponent of moving to the padding and turf option rather than continuing with mulch.

“I do believe we have ample funding to do this at this point,” Haight said of moving forward with the project.

The company responsible for installing the padding and turf will have to do an initial inspection of the area and drainage system before their work would begin. The process is expected to begin as soon as next week.

Panter stated that he hopes the playground will be reopened by March 1, 2020, and could possibly be open sooner. Weather permitting and void of an unforeseen circumstance, once work has begun the process could be completed in as little as 3 weeks.

“It’s going to be done correctly. It’s going to be done right,” Panter said 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. The city could have to spend an additional $5,000 in this area.

Moving forward with work on the playground, at a cost of $60,743.75, was voted unanimously in favor with Cornelius and Whitener absent.

Haight announces intent to run for Mayor

City Council, Election, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Charter, Change, Election, Resolution, City Manager, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Charter, Change, Election, Resolution, City Manager, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli

Council member Rhonda Haight

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Rumors have already begun to circulate regarding who may or may not be running and for which seat they will seek in the 2021 Blue Ridge City Council / Mayor election.

One such rumor is that of current council member Rhonda Haight and her intent to seek the seat of Mayor in the upcoming election.

Haight confirmed with FetchYourNews that she does intend to qualify for the seat of Mayor next year.

Haight said that this is an option that she had contemplated for awhile, but recent city council meetings were what solidified her decision. Her hopes as Mayor would be to bring unity to the council so that city business could run more efficiently.

Council votes to stagger elections

City Council, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Charter, Change, Election, Resolution, City Manager, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli

Blue Ridge, Ga. – The Blue Ridge City Council made moves to bring about changes to the city charter which according to council member Rhonda Haight has not been updated since 1989.

While it has been discussed in previous years, council members voted unanimously to begin the process of staggering elections for city council and mayor.

Currently all five city council seats, along with mayor, go up for election simultaneously after a four year term. This leaves the possibility of all seats being filled with newly elected officials at the same time. Council members agreed that not having an experienced member to guide newcomers is a vulnerability for the operations of the city.

“I can’t name another city who does it like we do,” Haight said of the city’s current election practices, “Even the county, they stagger their terms.” 

While all changes to a city’s charter must be passed on the state level, council members voted in favor of sending a Resolution to the capital for consideration. 

This resolution would stagger the terms of council and mayor in the following manner by dividing seats into two elections. One election would be for Mayor and council seats 2 and 4. Another election would be for council seats 1, 3 and 5. The elections would take place in off years of each other.

Council member Mike Panter also presented the idea of reducing the council size altogether: “Looking at where we are growing, with our budget, how our budget’s grown over the last five to 10 years and how projected growth is, I’m not sure that we shouldn’t go to three council members, a mayor and then a city manager.” 

Panter cited the Fannin County Board of Commissioners (BOC) as an example, stating that the county budget is almost $5,000,000 more than the city budget and that the BOC is able to operate with two part time commissioners and a full time commission chair.

“I think that it would put more responsibility on the councilmen,” Panter said of switching to a three person council.

Council member Nathan Fitts said that he while he mostly agrees with Panter, he had spoken with a few citizens and had not found anyone in favor of the major change: “Citizens need input on that.” 

“We have a hard enough time just meeting with five and that is an issue,” Haight shared her opinion on the reduced council and explained why she felt the change would not be good for the city. 

Haight said there are many times where items need to be discussed between meetings and with the current five member council, council members can reach out to each other to talk about issues: “If you have only three you can’t do that because then you’re breaking the Sunshine Law”

The Georgia Sunshine Law states that members of a board (or council) cannot speak privately to one another if a quorum (majority vote) is present. With the five member council this means that three members would have to be present in the discussion to violate the Sunshine Law. 

With a three member council, however, two members constitute a quorum meaning that members of a three person board may not speak on official matters outside a public meeting.

Haight feels that a better alternative would be to keep the five member council but move the city toward a City Manager style of government or compensate the seat of Mayor to a full time position.

“City manager government is the most prominent form of government according to GMA (Georgia Municipal Association),” Haight said of the suggestion, pointing out that a city manager would be trained to supervise departments and all working aspects of the city. This would free up council to vote on decisions without having to oversee individual departments.

Mayor Donna Whitener suggested a town hall meeting to get citizen input on these proposed changes. 

Haight pointed out that 2021 would be an election year so the changes need to  be “done quickly” adding, “That’s why I don’t even know if we have time for a town hall meeting. Even if we have a town hall meeting they don’t understand the inner workings like we do.”

Haight made a motion for the City Attorney James Balli to draft a Resolution for the City of Blue Ridge to move to a City Manager form of government but the motion failed with council members Robbie Cornelius, Harold Herndon and Mike Panter in opposition.

Arguing erupts over City Park playground

Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Blue Ridge, Ga. – It was clear from the onset of the Blue Ridge City Council meeting that tensions were high between fellow council members Rhonda Haight and Mike Panter.

During approval of the minutes from a Special Called Oct. 20, 2020 council meeting Haight made the motion to accept the minutes but with it being noted that Panter had brought forth non agenda items at this meeting and that this was illegal according to the Open Meetings Act.

During this meeting Panter asked to speak and used this time to point out the history of dysfunction within the city council.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

View of playground in City Park showing height of slide.

Mayor Donna Whitener pointed out that it was a council member who had made the request for this for the time to speak.

“It doesn’t matter if it was a council person,” Haight responded to the Mayor’s comments, “I’ve never been allowed to do that.” 

The motion to accept the minutes with the added note passed 3-2 with council members Robbie Cornelius and Panter opposing.

Contention didn’t stop there, as Haight then moved to have the agenda amended, moving Panter’s line item (Presentation of playground and Purchase) from Action Agenda Items to Purchasing Approvals.

Haight stated that according to the city charter and for clarification in minutes that the item should be moved: “Are we going to be purchasing?”

Council member Nathan Fitts backed Haight stating, “If we’re going to go by procedures, let’s do it correctly.” Fitts added that everyone needs to get on the same page.

“An action item can be an action item where you are taking action on something and a purchasing approval,” City Attorney James Balli clarified whether the item had to be moved. “Legally you can do it under either one.” 

The motion to move the item passed with only Panter in opposition and council member Harold Herndon expressing his opinion that it didn’t really matter.

Panter had previously presented to the public his research and opinion on the route that should be taken when considering reopening the City Park’s playground area.

During his presentation at the current meeting Panter reiterated that his concern is with safety and the lack of upkeep the city has done in maintaining the playground area. 

Panter advocated for using rubber padding in lieu of mulch and stated that while the initial cost would be over $60,000, the benefits of not having the upkeep of mulch would save the city money in the years to come.

“We had two grants of over $150,000 offered to the city,” Panter stated of the park’s history, “We got zero because we couldn’t make a decision.” 

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Panter presenting his research and findings into reopening the City Park playground.

Arguing among council and mayor erupted over who had been previously responsible for the decisions made about the park and playground.

“Ms. Whitener went down to the park yanked all the equipment out and left it totally blank,” Haight said of the park’s two year saga of renovation between 2015 – 2017.

Haight acknowledged that there was a grant for $120,000 to be used in the park but that the grant was for a botanical garden and not for the playground. 

Mayor Whitener retorted to Haight, defending the landscaping that began but was later removed, “You were moving the park to the other side.” 

“And yes I did want it to go at the other end but it was too late at that point,” Haight responded to Whitener’s remark.

One thing that the two did agree on was that $12,000 was spent during this time on sod that was later removed and a sprinkler system.

Conversation became more heated when Whitener pointed out that council member Haight’s husband had been involved with the park at that time. Haight acknowledged that her husband had volunteered some of his time but was not involved in the ultimate decisions that were made.

“I think you’ve told so many lies over the years, you don’t even know what the truth is,” Haight spoke directly to Whitener.

Fitts tried to steer the conversation back to addressing the playground as it is today instead of discussing the history: “We need to do what is best for the citizens right now. What would it take to get the park open to code?”

Cornelius finally made a motion to purchase the turf option presented by Panter, stating that the problem should just be fixed rather than “putting a band-aid on it”. The motion, however, failed to pass with only Panter and Cornelius voting in favor.

“I’m not interested in taking the liability and doing that,” Panter said when suggested that the city use mulch for now.

Haight responded to Panter,  “Just because we voted you down, you don’t want to participate even though you’re over the park?”

“I’ve done my job,” Panter responded “You do your job. I’ve done mine.”

Haight motioned for $10,000 to be spent in bringing the playground up to code with the use of mulch and to address drainage issues in the area. This motion passed 3-2 with Cornelius and Panter in opposition.

Planning, Zoning and Project Manager Jeff Stewart agreed to take on the project of the City Park playground and will oversee the steps necessary to reopen the playground to the public.

The Maze of Answers That Answer Nothing : City of Blue Ridge

Citizens Speak, Downtown Blue Ridge, Opinion

Remember the days of old when you went to the Fair and visited the House of Mirrors.  You made your way through the maze looking at the confusing, funny and often times distorted reflections.  It was something fun, amusing and sometimes challenging to go through that maze.  Yet, why are those childhood memories suddenly replaced with the challenge of the maze citizens find themselves in while trying to discover answers to questions from government.

I recently attended the City of Blue Ridge’s Town Hall on Annexation.  I was called to the podium and quickly voiced my concerns to the Council as you only have two minutes.  After I went through the questions, I was told to leave a copy and they would respond.  A week later that response arrived.

My first question was why are developers ‘driving the bus’ with annexation?   I’m not certain how the response was even relevant to the question, but it basically said the expansion of new business and developments in the designated area would create the need for city services. OK, but what I asked was why are developers leading all these efforts.

One developer initiated the discussion on annexation in 2017 and later brought in a few others who wanted it. Four developers discussed their plans at the City Council Meeting on May 19.  Now the City has confirmed there are 10 interested in annexation.  Since we now know what the developers want, it would be nice if the City would share what their vision is for Blue Ridge.

We need to know, with certainty, that the City has development plans, zoning and land use protocols in place.  What is even more important is those plans should have been developed with input from the public and be accessible for public review.

The City is embarking on an attempt to secure rights to portions of two highly trafficked roadways, one of which is scheduled for a significant expansion, but what are their plans for the area?  If the first developer who spoke at the May 19 Council meeting is any indication — hold on — because their plans look more in line with Gwinnett County than Fannin.

My next question focused on the public and what they wanted for their community.  I was told that the majority of letters and conversations the City received had supported annexation.  The majority of letters?  Where are those letters?  Better yet, if there was such overwhelming support, why would three Council members suggest they needed to get input from the public and County Commissioners and ask to schedule the Town Hall?

One Council member told me it was uncertain how they could move forward when the majority who spoke opposed the annexation.  It is disappointing the Council did not include any information concerning annexation at its most recent meeting (June 9).  From what I’m told from the County ‘nothing more has transpired’ with regard to meeting with the Commissioners.  We also know a letter was sent to Speaker Ralston asking him to hold off on the Annexation Resolution unless the City advised otherwise.  So what is the status of the annexation and why is the Council now silent?

Probably the key question in everyone’s mind is what is the total cost for the annexation.  While this question has been asked numerous times and the response varies only a little, it remains vague and unknown.  Here are the responses I’ve received so far:

— We’re only annexing the road and right of way – there is no cost

— Some things are paid by GDOT at no cost

— Minimal costs for legal fees and an ad for the newspaper

— The cost is minimal compared to the revenue that would be generated

We still have no clear understanding of what the cost will be and continue to be told there is no cost and they will apply for a grant.

Impact studies are important for any city considering a change in zoning or an annexation.  What will the impact be on existing infrastructure? How many car trips in and out of these large developments will impact existing roads and neighborhoods?  Has the City analyzed what spare capacities their systems have and when they will need to be increased?  Are there any backlogs in maintenance to existing systems and if so what is the financial burden of those backlogs?  What is the impact to a current homeowner who could very well see their taxes increase?  Noise impact?  Quality of life impact?  The list goes on.

No one knows, but the response said that GDOT makes the decisions for the roads, traffic lights, access lanes, etc.  Yes, GDOT is responsible for the road, but they are not responsible for zoning, land use, what current systems can handle, current debt load and an understanding of what the citizens want their community to look like.  This, again, is where developers are leading the parade and the City has willingly joined it.

I asked about sewer treatment because this falls in the category of impact when looking at infrastructure.  I’ve heard there are some concerns with the facility.  I’ll quote the response:

“The 22 year old sewer plant has been experiencing problems with repair cost.  There is a need to comply with NEW EPD regulations, temperature control, belt press, dehydrator and various other issues to keep the plant operating efficiently.  A Grant/Loan was applied for to correct these issues in the amount of $5M and has been awarded in the past few weeks.  A portion of these upgrades is funded by a Loan requiring a payment to be offset by current customer rate increases or by adding NEW customers.”

My question to citizens is, did you know the City made a commitment to a loan that will come from either current customer rate increases or adding new customers?

With the first developer stating his is a twenty-year plan, at what point will they be adding new customers to share the load?  Does the developer pay a connection fee and then the new home owner assume the role of ‘new customer’?  What happens if something goes wrong with the development and the City’s outlay is not matched and exceeded by that magical anticipated revenue?  Based on their response – customer rate increases.

The financial part remains a ‘smoke and mirrors’ situation.  For as many times as citizens have asked what is the cost, what is the financial impact, the response remains “there is no financial burden to taxpayers”.  The City states “The proposed annexation would increase sales tax dollars for the City and County and NEW sewer revenue for the City.”  I have yet to figure out how those sewer lines will suddenly appear in the dirt and who will pay for them to be placed there.

There is one question that haunts me trying to get through this maze – What if?  What if these developments are not quite as successful as they are being marketed?  Any challenge to the economy or the housing market will greatly impact the success or failure of development plans.  Blue Ridge markets itself as a place to slow down and relax.  What happens when you build high density, new urbanist developments?  Will tourists be drawn to the same crowded developments and traffic they have where they live now and want to escape from?  I don’t think so.

An additional impact is what happens when a high-price development is built in close proximity to average priced homes for the general population.  When I asked if people would be able to afford their taxes due to the impact of high-priced developments nearby and increases in assessments, the response was “the impact is unknown at this time.”

Annexation is often thought of as a quick fix to bring in revenue without really doing all the math.  I’m not convinced the math has been done.  I also remain steadfast in my concerns for how these decisions will impact taxpayers.  The fact most of these discussions were done without any public knowledge sends a clear message and one of concern.  Why would a City not want public input and support so the project is a win for everyone.

My last question asked what possible impact could the thoughts of the citizens have on the Council when most had already expressed their strong support for this annexation in the May 19 meeting.  The project manager encouraged me to reach out to the Council members to determine their position on annexation.  He did say he supported the annexation based on economic progress and job creation.  He also said the City has zoning and any development would have to adhere to those guidelines.  It should be noted that the developer who first sought this annexation chairs the Planning Commission and also sits on the Zoning Board of Appeals.  Since I have found no published minutes from either of those Boards, I can only wonder if he was or will be involved in anything regarding the review of and decision making with this annexation.  Speculation, of course, but a real concern.

The closing comment from the project manager was “It is imperative that the growth along those highways have regulations to protect adjoining neighbors and maintain the beauty of our community.” Why was that not the focus and commitment spoken by every Council member and the Mayor?  It should have been the first comment made.  It should make me feel more comfortable, but a few questions earlier he said “the impact (on surrounding neighborhoods) is unknown at this time”.

The fact that impact is unknown is what just turned this maze into a house without an exit, when/if they move forward with annexation, there will be no way to escape whatever consequences may result.  Annexation is a critical decision and one that should not be made hastily.  I certainly hope the City will step back, get the public involved in developing a future plan, include the County and work together for a better tomorrow.

I want to close by saying I know our elected officials have an enormous responsibility, but I also strongly believe in public input.  I don’t want to see a community lost to the direction of developers while the public is pushed to the sidelines.  I hope our elected realize there are citizens who are knowledgeable and they should not be dismissed.  If they are so quick to buy into a developer’s pie-in-the-sky projected revenues, then why not give equal time and respect to the average citizen.

Donna Thompson

Blue Ridge, GA

Delinquent Taxes Plan For Blue Ridge City Council

City Council
Taxes

 

Last night, the Blue Ridge City Council came up with a course of action for the unpaid property taxes, business licenses, and alcohol licenses in Fannin County. The Missing taxes had gone unnoticed until this point; some being over 8 years old. 

Delinquent Tax Plan

The council has hired an “Outside Source” to gather the list of names and businesses with unpaid taxes to send them a letter. These individuals will have a period of ninety days to pay their balances. Then, their names will be published in the paper. residents will also have lean on their property with the intent of selling it if the taxes aren’t paid. Letters will be mailed out as soon as the outside source has the list. According to Council member Mike Panter, it should roughly be by 15th of June. Property owners would have the fee for the outside source stacked onto their balance.

What if It can’t Be Paid Immediately?

Panter took into consideration some residents may not be able to pay the taxes immediately and said, “Let’s Say that their tax is $1,200 and they want a payment plan; they can take that 1,200 and pay it over a twelve month period. The council is willing to work with the residents in the city to get their taxes paid.” The payment plan would be voided if a resident missed or was late on a payment.

Some businesses are no longer open in Blue Ridge, but are still open in other cities; they would still have to pay their owed tax. 

As for business licenses, Panter states, “There are businesses that have 15 employees that are only listing two. They aren’t paying exactly what they should be paying. The biggest issue we have is that we have businesses that have only paid their business license twice in the last 5 years. Yet, they are still in business.”

Council Member Nathan Fitts asked, “How did we miss the property taxes and the business license?” 

Councilwoman Robbie Cornelius said, “It should have been done in the review.” 

The council also voted last night to grant the DDA 1% of Hotel/Motel tax effective immediately. They plan to raise this to 2% in the future.

 

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