The City of Athens has been named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit alleging retaliation for the expression of an individual’s First Amendment rights.
In a complaint filed last Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Glenn Whiting and his company, ARD Properties, are suing for First Amendment retaliation, violations of other state and federal law, and for declaratory and injunctive relief. In addition to the City of Athens, the city’s attorney, Chris Trew, and City Manager C. Seth Sumner are also named as defendants.
The complaint states: “Sumner, Trew, and other Athens City officials, have taken official actions, and have threatened to take further actions, against Mr. Whiting in retaliation for his recent expression of his political views at public meetings, as well as for expressing his political views via a display on the exterior wall of his building located at the corner of Jackson Street and Madison Avenue in downtown Athens.”
The 19-page complaint details a series of events occurring over several years for which Whiting claims he was retaliated against or threatened with retaliation after expressing his views in a public manner.
A key element of the complaint involves the theft of a vehicle from an Athens property owned by Whiting’s company. Whiting has expressed dissatisfaction on numerous occasions while speaking during public meetings of the Athens City Council with the way the case was investigated by the Athens Police Department. He also painted his complaints against city officials on the wall of his Downtown Athens property that faces Jackson Street.
The complaint alleges that “Sumner and other officials have displayed open hostility toward Mr. Whiting at Council meetings because of Whiting’s allegations regarding the City’s failure to investigate.”
The complaint later states: “During one particularly heated Council meeting Mr. Whiting was told that he would no longer be allowed to discuss at Council meetings the City’s failure to investigate the theft of Whiting’s car.”
The complaint then proceeds to outline several instances involving Whiting and various city officials that Whiting believes were retaliatory measures against him for expressing his views publicly.
The complaint claims city officials “intentionally deprived (Whiting) of his right to free speech by threatening to take otherwise unjustified regulatory actions and by taking otherwise unjustified regulatory actions, in retaliation for (Whiting’s) expression of his political opinions.”
According to the complaint, Whiting is seeking “a jury trial, for judgment in their favor and against the defendants, damages, including actual damages, punitive damages, and/or nominal damages; temporary and permanent injunctive relief; a declaration that the actions of defendants, as described herein, were and are unconstitutional and illegal, and that the same were in contravention of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights … (and) punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish said intentional acts and deter such conduct in the future.”
The lawsuit also asks the court, in the case of an affirmative judgment, to “reimburse for their reasonable attorney’s fees, expenses, and costs associated with the maintenance of this action, …”
In response to the lawsuit filed against he and other city officials, Sumner told The Daily Post-Athenian on Monday, “While I have not been served with notice of a lawsuit, I do realize that such has been leaked to the media and other public sources. Gathering from the conversations I’ve had with people who have looked at that document, the allegations in that document are false and we fully expect any such lawsuit to be resolved quickly in favor of the people of Athens.”
The full text of the lawsuit will be posted alongside this story on Wednesday afternoon at dailypostathenian.com
No major road problems have occurred yet in Athens and Etowah as rain continues in the area.
Last week’s heavy rainfall left several roadways and residential properties flooded with standing or moving water. With more rain coming in this week, local public works officials have noted that most problems are currently holding off.
Athens Public Works Director Ben Burchfield stated that they have had some temporary road closures in places this week.
“We have had some small, just kind of intermittent closures for Mayfield and Atlantic behind the Tennessee Wesleyan University’s gym,” said Burchfield. “The state has also had to have some intermittent closures. They put signage out for County Road 305 coming off of exit 52 because it always tend to get overwhelmed when you get a lot of water.”
He stated that apart from the temporary closures, they have not had any issues with the roads.
Flooding in town hasn’t been much of an issue during the past couple of days either.
“The main thing for us to make sure that we are responding to any complaints or calls where we have some of our storm water drains, inlets, things like that where things may have been clogged,” said Burchfield.
According to Burchfield, clogging of the drains and ditch lines are common.
“People tend to rake their leaves out pretty close to the road or they put them in the ditch in front of the house and sometimes they get swept down and bottle neck somewhere,” said Burchfield. “So making sure that we are on top of that is kind of our main focus outside of the roads to make sure that we’ve got everything flowing good.”
Burchfield gave some tips on how to prepare for further heavy rain predicted to continue through Thursday.
“Try to give yourself extra time when you leave the house,” said Burchfield. “Always make sure that you have alternate routes, especially if you leave in the morning and everything because you may not come back home until 5 o’clock and your usual route may not be available.”
Keeping track of what is around your property is another thing that he recommends to watch for.
“Be mindful of any storm water drainage that sits around your home,” said Burchfield. “Be mindful of the roof, inlets, drain downspouts, things like that. Just make sure that things are not going somewhere where they can accumulate and become a problem.”
He expects the next wave of rain to be harsher than what has recently occurred.
“The next system that is anticipated to come through Wednesday into Thursday is going to be more severe,” said Burchfield. “When I say severe I mean more thunderstorms or wind, so we are trying to be mindful and prepared for that. We are going to be more cognizant of trees and things like that because the ground is already saturated and they are more likely to get blown over.”
Etowah Public Works Director Gary Hicks also stated that his department has been working hard to maintain roads due to the recent weather.
“Before it started becoming a torrential downpour the roads looked pretty decent,” said Hicks. “After the rain hit we had some flooding in some areas and our publics works guys were right on top of it and they stayed on top of it ever since.”
Hicks warned the citizens of Etowah to try to keep any objects that could obstruct or clog water drainage away from draining areas.
“It is going to overload our canal system,” said Hicks. “All we can do is keep our basins clean, warn the citizens about throwing debris in the ditch lines … that is about all we can do.”
He also reminded people of basic safety measures should they drive during bad weather.
“Whenever we have roadblocks, don’t go around them,” said Hicks. “There is a reason why we do have roadblocks and people just continue to drive through them and that just makes the situation worse.”
He recommended for citizens to remain home during bad weather should that be an option.
“Depending on where you live in the city we have some trouble spots,” said Hicks. “We are watching them very closely and doing everything we can to keep everything flowing as it should be.”
Today marks the first day of early voting for registered voters for the March 3 presidential preference and county primary election in both McMinn and Meigs counties.
Early voting will last until Feb. 25.
Times available to cast votes will be Monday, Wednesday and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 8:30 a.m. until noon.
Precincts for McMinn County are City Park School, Etowah Community Center, McMinn Central High School, Englewood School, Rogers Creek School, Riceville School, Calhoun School, Niota School, Ingleside School, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, McMinn County Courthouse, North City School, Jones Chapel Family Life Center, E.K. Baker School and Mt. View School.
Polling locations for Meigs County will be Meigs South Elementary School, Decatur Municipal Building, Meigs County Courthouse, Meigs North Elementary School and Ten Mile Community Center.
Voters in McMinn will be able to vote for property assessor in the Republican primary between incumbent Keith Price and challenger Chuck Burris.
There will also be a question on the ballot in March as to whether or not McMinn County will pre-empt the recent sales tax increase in Athens, a question that will be voted on by voters outside of the City of Athens only.
Athens passed the sales tax referendum in August of 2019 and it increased the local option of the sales tax from 2% to 2.75%.
The official ballot for McMinn County will state this to voters: “Shall Resolution No. 19-110 passed by the McMinn County Commission, which increases the local sales tax rate from 2.00% to 2.75% and results in an increase in funding to local public schools per state distribution, become operative?”
The choices will be “for” or “against.”
Candidates for the Republican Party in the presidential primary are current President Donald Trump and challengers Joe Walsh and Bill Weld.
The Democratic Party candidates on the ballot are Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Debal Patrick, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.
The Meigs County ballot will feature the same presidential primary options, along with a Republican primary for property assessor with incumbent Billy Breeden facing challenger P.J. Hackney.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett expressed in a recent news release how early voting can be advantageous.
“Interest is high as voters prepare to select leaders across all levels of government for the November ballot,” said Hargett. “Voters can take advantage of early voting since it offers voters the opportunity to find a convenient time and location to cast their ballots.”
Voters should remember to bring valid photo ID with them such as a drivers license (even if it is expired), however items such as a college student ID are not acceptable.
The contract negotiation process has begun for the potential new director of Athens City Schools.
During Monday night’s regular meeting, the Athens City School Board voted unanimously to suspend their search for a new director and begin contract negotiations with Robert Greene, who has previously served in that capacity.
Greene would replace Dr. Melanie Miller, who succeeded him, should the negotiations produce an acceptable contract.
The board voted to have Chairman Mike Bevins (or a designee of his choice), new Board Attorney Bridget Willhite and Supervisor of Finance Traci Bryant begin negotiations with Greene and then the contract would come back to the board for a final vote once it is finalized.
Miller announced in October of 2019 that she intended to retire effective June 30, 2020. She has served as the director of schools since June of 2014.
If Greene is hired, he would take over the job on July 1. Greene is currently the director of Dayton City Schools and has also served as ACS director from 2010-2015 — being succeeded by Miller — and as superintendent of Meigs County Schools from 1981 to 2007.
In between his stints at the two local school systems, Greene served as the state’s assistant commissioner of education and deputy commissioner of education.
Greene earned an Ed.S. from Tennessee Technological University, a master’s degree from Union College in Kentucky and his bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Wesleyan College (now University) — in recent years, he was named a J. Neal Ensminger Distinguished Alumnus by the Tennessee Wesleyan Alumni Association.
Prior to becoming a superintendent, he was a school principal in Monroe County and a teacher and coach in Monroe and Meigs counties beginning in 1972.