from Staff Reports

With a new year peeking around the corner, it is time to look back on the year 2018. It was a year filled with exciting developments and controversies in around Fayette County. There are too many big stories to recap succinctly, so we offer some of the top headlines worth revisiting.

In mid-January, the County Board of Commissioners drew the ire of many when they decided to support the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). By a vote of 4-1, with Commissioner Charles Rousseau in opposition, the commissioners passed a resolution asking the state legislature to pass the “religious freedom” bill.

Commissioner Steve Brown admonished those calling the bill discriminatory, reading the wording of the bill as “the government has to show compelling interests for why its policies should override an individual’s religious freedom.”

The opposition expressed their fears that the resolution could give the appearance that the county approves of discrimination.

“This bill is just a way to use religion to discriminate against other people,” said Bonnie Williamson. “As long as you’re doing business with the public, everyone that’s a part of the public should be able to come in to purchase or do whatever is offered at the facility.”

The controversy was stoked again in December, with the commissioners again voted 4-1 to push ahead with the resolution, at which point it was revealed that the resolution was a factor in Fayette losing out on a major project.

Darryl Hicks, Board Chairman of the Fayette County Development Authority, warned the commissioners about potential consequences of supporting the bill. Shortly after Fayette passed the resolution, it was announced that Facebook had selected Newton County as the home for a data center that would represent an investment of $750 million over the next five years.

“We were a major contender in a project last year, in fact, we were first on the list for that project last year, and then we lost that project to a neighboring county,” Hicks recounted. “In that one project that we lost back last year, there were three reasons why we did not get the project, and one of the reasons was because of the RFRA resolution that was passed by this body.”

He did not specify what company was behind the decision, but Commissioner Charles Rousseau filled in the blanks.

“Many of you may have not known that. We have been told that we did lose the (Facebook campus) because of this issue that was being deliberated several months ago,” he said. “It was a determining factor.”

The City of Fayetteville rolled out their updated downtown master plan, offering up a clearer vision of their vision. The crux of the redevelopment will be a new city hall, slated for the land currently occupied by the Board of Education offices.

Another key component of the plan considers the roads themselves, tweaking them to be more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. Changes would be kept within existing right of way and would rely on taking some footage out of current car lanes to work.

On Glynn Street, the sidewalk in front of the businesses is currently nine feet wide. Those would expand to 14 feet. On the opposite side of the street, you would have a 10-foot bike lane and a 6.5-foot sidewalk. To accommodate the changes, the travel lanes would be narrowed from 12.5 feet to 10.5, and parking would only be allowed on the side of the courthouse.

Stonewall Avenue would reduce the travel lanes all down to 11 feet each to allow for a lane of parking and a bike lane. Lanier Avenue would also add parking and a bike lane.

Late in the month, Fayette County Superior Court Judge Fletcher Sams accepted a guilty plea from 69-year-old Michael Lamar “Mickey” Graves on one count of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his nephew, Jason Brett Graves, on February 20, 2016.

Mickey Graves was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is mandated to serve five years behind bars and spend the final five years on probation. He is also not allowed to harass or have contact with his family.

The murder case had been working its way to court for nearly two years. Mickey Graves initially shot Brett Graves with a .40-caliber semi-automatic handgun after a dispute at the family-owned Graves Used Cars and Parts junkyard.

He shot Brett Graves three times after firing one round into the floor of an office at the junkyard. They were engaged in a financial dispute regarding the selling of timber to pay off debts incurred from the business.

Mickey Graves alleged that Brett Graves charged at him with a screwdriver and that caused him to shoot him in the chest. After he shot him, he called 911 from a landline phone and requested help.

While on the phone, additional gunshots were heard over the line. The shots came after Mickey Graves said that Brett Graves attempted to come back after him. The Fayette County Sheriff’s Office arrested Mickey Graves and charged him with murder.

In February, the county’s 911 call center came under the microscope with allegations about an unhealthy work environment under 911 Director Bernard “Buster” Brown.

Former employees shared a history of accusations against Brown, including a documented February 2017 incident where Brown verbally assaulted and began to physically engage a 911 supervisor. He received a written reprimand for the incident. Commissioner Brown referenced an audio recording wherein Human Resources Director Lewis Patterson acknowledged the bad behavior of Director Brown with regards to work environment, and said he “was in the process of changing.”

Commissioner Steve Brown led the call for an independent investigation of the work environment at the call center, but Chairman Eric Maxwell and Commissioners Randy Ognio and Charles Oddo voted it down, saying they sided with current employees who lauded Buster Brown’s reformed behavior.

Ognio labeled the complaints as those of disgruntled ex-employees.

“I have a measurement of success when you have reprimands or whatever, and I measure that success by the results, and boy we’ve got really good results out of what was done, and the 911 center is in real good shape,” said Ognio. “I don’t see why you would do an investigation when what you have works so well.”

Eight months after alleged dysfunction was aired publicly, Buster Brown was out, resigning in October amid new allegations of abusive behavior towards employees.

Brown was placed back in the crosshairs when Mical Heminger, the husband of a 911 employee, went public with complaints over unfair scheduling practices and an aggressive conversation with Brown.

Heminger reached out to Brown to discuss a change in “on call” policy, and he recounted that Brown refused to discuss operations with a non-employee. Heminger then quoted Brown as saying, “Your wife told me no…no one tells me no.” Heminger told Brown he would go public with their conversation and said he would talk to Brown’s supervisor, County Administrator Steve Rapson, at which point Brown ended the call.

Heminger says that Brown then called his wife and berated her for having her husband call him, and said the new “on call” policy was because of her.

In March, Spring Hill Elementary got a scare when they were placed on an after-school lockdown following reports of an unidentified man on campus. It turned out the man was a math vendor who was able to produce identification by the Spring Hill front office. He was then directed to go to the county office.

Because of a camera limitation, there was no footage of him leaving the building, necessitating the lockdown and sweep by the Fayetteville Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office.

Facing a potentially escalating price tag, commissioners switched their vote and will again openly cooperate with GDOT on a safety project to build two roundabouts on SR 92. The county is set to be on the hook for the rising cost to move water lines out of the right of way (nearing $1 million), and commissioners hoped GDOT might listen and reconsider the need for the project at all.

Public Works Director Phil Mallon cautioned that GDOT could choose to move forward at a cost significantly higher for Fayette, and that was what was at stake.
Late in the month, the Fayetteville City Council approved revisions to the Pinewood Forest development agreement to allow for tiny houses and treehouses within the massive mixed-use development.

In late April, an annual proclamation issued for Confederate History Month by the County Board of Commissioners came under fire.

Following a pre-meeting rally in opposition to the resolution, speakers poured inside to plead with the commissioners to say no to the proclamation.

“You cannot say we’re going to love one another and embrace and have social justice equity and then turn around and we’re going to render a proclamation around treason and slavery. The two are not congruent,” said State Representative Derrick Jackson.

Ultimately, the Sons of Confederate Veterans withdrew their petition for the proclamation to a rousing ovation. Commissioner Charles Oddo announced as the meeting returned from a break roughly four hours in that he had a heartfelt conversation with one of the petitioners.

“He is deeply saddened, they all are, that this turned out the way it did. They never intended for this to happen,” said Oddo. “He is very, very emotionally frustrated. He wants you all to know this was not what they wanted, and he has asked me to announce that respectfully they are withdrawing their petition.”

On the heels of the county decision, early in May the the Fayetteville City Council voted to rescind the Confederate History proclamation it had issued April 19.

In June, a once hotly-contested piece of property met its new future when Fayetteville approved the rezoning of a small parcel on Veterans Parkway to be part of the Pinewood Forest development.

Once set to become the disputed The Overlook office building, the land will now become part of the parking lot for the planned Piedmont Wellness Center at Pinewood Forest. Eventually, it will be converted into a parking structure.

In late July, the county celebrated the opening of the intersection of SR 92 and Veterans Parkway and Wentbridge Road, a project 14 years in the making. The project comes in at roughly six miles, with most areas two lanes and some areas four lanes. It was funded mostly from SPLOST dollars.

“It was known as a road to nowhere, and for the past few years it has been the road to nowhere because you couldn’t go anywhere on this end,” said Chairman Eric Maxwell. “Some times it takes a long time to get things done, and I’m glad it got done.”

Even before the project was complete, came cries for a safety fix at the intersection.

“The new configuration has motorists backing up on Westbridge, causing extensive delays getting across and or thru the intersection safely,” said Commissioner Charles Rousseau. “Without some kind of traffic device or the return of the turn lane, I’m fearful we’ll see an increase in accidents.”

Because it involves a state road, the county must depend on GDOT to determine in a light is the right fix.

“The decision is ultimately out of our hands,” said Public Works Director Phil Mallon.

In early August, Fayetteville approved the rezoning needed to kickstart a massive mixed-use development. Combining five parcels on roughly 145 acres, the Folia Crossroads community will mix together single-family housing units, condominiums, office, commercial, a 125-room boutique hotel, and an urban farm. The residential section of the development calls for 265 units on at least 4,000 square feet in the northern portion of the property, with many of the units overlooking Lake Bennett. Roughly 40 percent of the land will be retained for open space, to including walking and hiking trails and an urban farm.

In late September, Fayetteville approved a rezoning request that paved the way for the proposed Awkward Brewing microbrewery across from city hall. The 1,071 square foot garage on the north side of the property would be divided in half, split between a tasting room and a microbrewery. The plan would include a tasting room and outdoor areas with seating, games and recreation.

To comply with the noise ordinance in effect daily from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., the proposed hours it would be open to the public are Thursday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

An Atlanta man was back in custody and facing additional charges after a daring attempted escape at the Fayette County courthouse. Ronard K. Neal, Jr., 24, made an effort to flee, but Fayette County Sheriff’s Deputies and Fayetteville Police Officers teamed up to take him down.

Neal was in the court room of Judge Fletcher Sams, having not shown up the day before on theft and fleeing from police charges. After his hearing with Judge Sams, Neal was to be taken into custody. He was lead into a side hall to the holding cells where he pushed off the wall and struck a deputy before running away.
He burst through the door into an adjoining court room where court was also in session and headed towards the doors in the back. Surveillance video showed a man in the room trying to get in his way, but Neal bowled over him and out of the room, damaging the doors as he exited.

The chase spilled into the hall where a deputy pulled Neal to the ground by the arm before he broke away and headed down the stairs. Fayetteville Police officers happened to be entering the building at the same time and saw Neal crawling under the turnstile and heading out the exit doors.

Neal was tackled just as he exited the front doors of the court house and pinned down by both deputies and Fayetteville Police officers in pursuit.

In October, Transit X brought their proposal for a privately-funded, fully-autonomous commuter pod system to a meeting of the Fayette County Transportation Committee. The early estimate within Fayette County would be for a 43-mile network of elevated tracks with service to 140 stops, offering stops within a 10-minute walk for 75 percent of the county’s population. Pods would be summoned by the riders and travel non-stop to their destination at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour within the county and up to 135 miles per hour along highways.

Transit X pledges that the project would be 100 percent privately-funded, both in building the system and in future upkeep, and local municipalities and right-of-way owners would receive 5 percent of gross revenue, estimated to be about $6 million per year over the first 10 years.

The longterm goal is to have all of Metro Atlanta connected. Preliminary conversations have been held with nearly every county in the metro area, and Henry County has already signed up, with a pilot program in development.

No formal action was tied to the presentation. For anything to move forward, one of the municipalities would have to formally recommend doing so and ask that the county work on a Memorandum of Understanding with Transit X.

Considering quality of life versus maintaining relaxed enforcement, commissioners debated the merits of banning parking vehicles on the lawn, ultimately voting to leave it an option for unincorporated residents.

In late October, Peachtree City celebrated the completion of the Lake Peachtree Spillway, a project years in the making.

In early November, commissioners voted to follow the Transportation Committee’s recommendation to delay roundabout construction at the intersection of Antioch and Goza for six months to see if the temporary four-way stop measures are sufficient instead. The intersection was thrust into the spotlight in fall 2017 when area residents pressed the county to finally fix the crossroads that had become increasingly dangerous. A roundabout was chosen as the end game, with a four-way stop as an interim fix.

On an election night that saw historic turnout, Roy Rabold won the open Board of Education District 2 seat. Drew Ferguson (U.S. House District 3), David Scott (U.S. House District 13), Marty Harbin (State Senate District 16), Valencia Seay (State Senate District 34), and David Stover (State House District 71) all won re-election.

Edge Gibbons won County Board of Commissioners District 3, vacated by Steve Brown, in the primaries and faced no opposition in November.

Commissioner Charles Rousseau and Board of Education member Leonard Presberg were both unopposed in the primary and the general election.

Both Fayetteville (63 percent) and Peachtree City (73) approved the Sunday Brunch Bill, allowing restaurants and bars to begin selling alcohol at 11 a.m. instead of 12:30 p.m.

In late November, the City of Fayetteville announced they would not be changing their official flag. Residents were asked to look at six Fayetteville flag designs, including the existing design, and decide which one they preferred to see flying over the City. The current design, in place since 2002, was the winner with 31 percent of the vote.