COVINGTON, Ga. – An event organizer told the Covington City Council at its Nov. 13 meeting her event was treated unprofessionally by Chamber of Commerce President Ralph Staffins when he ordered her to shut down some of her vendors.
Rebecca Larson, organizer of the Oct. 20 Witch’s Night Out, told councilmembers Staffins also violated her permit when he ordered her to shut the vendors down.
“I hold a yearly event, it’s been happening for five years, it’s called Witch's Night Out and Moonlight Dash,” she said. “I put in my permit application months and months ago. It was approved. One of the questions on the permit application states that vendors on site will not be in direct competition with stores around the square.
“On my permit application I hand wrote ‘Not intended to compete, but what is not allowed?’ At no time was I responded back to. Main Street never questioned the vendors that I would have there. We had done it for four years in the past and once I got the approval for the permit, I went on business as usual. I set up my vendors, I set up my event, everything was as it had been for the last four years.”
Larson said shops on the square had made her feel welcome with some donating door prizes for the event.
“The entire atmosphere is very friendly and very fun. Just clean wholesome fun,” she said.
Larson said that all changed this year.
“At about 3:30 in the afternoon, while my husband and I were setting up the run route, I received a call from Ralph Staffins and he said that I needed to get back to the square immediately that I was in violation of my permit,” she said.
“Ralph told me that I was in violation of my permit for the non-competition on the permit. I tried to explain to him that nobody ever said what was not allowed and since we had done it for four years previous to this I assumed everything was ok.
“He then proceeded to walk through one by one to each of my vendors pointing out what wasn’t allowed and not in a discreet way, so there was no hiding the fact that he was there to shut down some of my vendors. I asked Ralph for 30 or 40 minutes so that I could clear the square of all my runners, get my run started and then I would talk to those vendors and shut down them down and then when runners got back, the vendors would be off the square and it would be a whole lot less chaotic. And he said no.
“I feel that there was no professionalism on Ralph’s part, there was no leniency and he went back on what was on my permit. I was not in violation of my permit at that point, he violated my permit that was approved.”
Mayor Ronnie Johnston apologized to Larson for what happened.
“I am fully aware of the incident you’re talking about,” he said. “As the mayor, I’m going to apologize for the inconvenience and all the things that happened. We are looking into this overall situation and we continue looking and making sure that our policies are consistent because we do love festivals, we like all of this activity.
“Be patient with us. I kind of look at this as a learning curve for us as well. We continue to work to hopefully get it right every time.”
In the immediate aftermath of the controversy, Staffins met with downtown merchants to apologize for what happened at the event. He told The Covington News at the time the chamber will be reviewing its permit policy.
“We want to make sure that we’re doing the best thing for Covington and downtown - the vendors, the merchants, everybody,” he said. “We’re going to look at what the permit actually needs to have in it to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The council will hold a 5 p.m. work session at in the conference room at City Hall Monday, Nov. 26, to talk about the Covington-Newton Chamber Strategic Plan. Council members will also offer comments.