COVINGTON, Ga. – The weeklong controversy over who’s responsible for Spillers Park reached a new level Thursday evening when County Commissioner J.C. Henderson brought his complaints about the park to a Covington City Council town hall meeting.
The debate about the park sparked late last month with a video posted on Facebook by Henderson critical of Covington for conditions in the park. Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said earlier this month that the park was the responsibility of Newton County.
The park had been closed earlier Thursday after Newton County workers removed mulch which earlier had been spread in the park was determined to be inappropriate for playgrounds. A press release from county Public Information Officer Bryan Fazio late Thursday afternoon said the county is in communication with Covington to find the best path forward for the park, along with the Newton County Recreation Commission.
Waving a handful of documents he said showed that the park belongs to the city, Henderson said, “It was a discussion and I think the papers got hold of it and said ‘Well, it’s a county park.’ Well, we looked the deeds up, in fact, we looked the deeds up before we started talking, and that piece of property deed says the City of Covington.”
Henderson also complained about the mulch that had been removed earlier.
“We also noticed that they came out and took pictures of the mulch being spread. We had said before, not trying to be disrespectful to anybody, it was the wrong kind of mulch. We said it. And the reason we said it is because we, too, are in government and we, too, love the people and we want to do what’s right for the people, especially our children and our seniors. In this particular instance, it was our children.”
Henderson, a member of the Newton County recreation board until recently, said there were pieces of wood in the mulch a child could have put in his mouth and ingested.
“I’m sure there were good intentions,” he said, “No doubt about it. But sometimes, you have to rely on your people who work for you and know what’s best and ask them what direction you need to go in.
“I would like to, or at least the Board of Commissioners and this board to work together and let’s put up a real nice park for those children in that community. They deserve better. “
Fazio said the mulch Henderson objected to had been placed in the park by Newton County. He said the piles of the mulch were placed in the park in late March at the request of a Covington City Council member in anticipation of the city’s clean-up day April 21.
According to Fazio, the county delivered the mulch in “an effort to be supportive of clean-up efforts and be an active partner with our municipalities.”
Johnston said the time for looking backward and finger-pointing was past.
“I don’t have any desire to look back and ask any questions about why things are the way they are. It is what it is,” he said.
“I am aware we have the deed on that park. I’m aware we have the deed to Conyers Gym. I’m aware we have the deed to City Pond Park. I’m saying, with all that being said, whether it’s the Rec (Commission)’s responsibility, or whoever it is, I actually don’t really care, J.C. What I care about is right now, we’ve got a situation we should all really care about. And we’ve got to figure it out for the good of the whole community. It’s not for the good of J.C. It’s not for the good of Ronnie Johnston. It’s the good of the whole community.”
Johnston told Henderson the Covington Square is a great example of city and county collaboration.
“The City of Covington asked the county to lease us the Square,” he said, “And guess what — you’ve got the deed on the Square. So we lease the Square from you to give us the opportunity to invest money back into the Square for the good of the community. I’ve had people make fun of me for that. How stupid is that? I’m taking city money and helping improve county land. You know what I say to that, J.C.? I say, ‘So, what. It’s best for the community.’”
Johnston said a park on Emory Street is in worse shape than Spillers Park.
“As a Rec Board commissioner — or used to be — y’all used to have a conversation about another park we have in the city that’s actually in worse shape, in my opinion, right now. Emory Street, South Street. It’s terrible. Are we trying to hide that? No, we’re not. Do we need to move forward? Absolutely. Do we need to sit here and figure out a way to shame people into it, and those kind of things or say why hasn’t the rec department done their job or the mayor doesn’t care. That ain’t going to get us anywhere. That’s going to cause more division in our community. The city of Covington wants the same things you want but we’ve got to work together.
“It’s time for some leadership to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Throwing arrows is not going to get us anywhere. You know what people do if you throw an arrow? I’m a human being. I get down in my bunker and say ‘Let’s go.’ That’s stupid. Is that what we’re really supposed to be doing for this community right now?”
Henderson, a BOC member for 21 years, said as bad as the Emory Street park is, the ground covering is better than the mulch placed at Spillers Park.
“It’s better material, it’s old material on the ground for kids to play on to keep from choking, keep from sliding down and hurting himself. Now you could have called me when they put all this stuff out there. If you would have called me, like you said, I was on the rec commission for 20-something years and did several parks, we would have had this conversation then naturally, I would have said that’s the wrong kind.”
Councilman Kenneth Morgan said he had concerns about the park before he was elected to the council.
“Since I’ve been on this council, I have talked about the park at Nelson Heights and the park at Harristown. While I know something needed to be done, when I came to council, I found out at that point that those were county parks. The city may own the deed, but it was up to the Newton County Recreation Department to keep those parks up. That was their responsibility,” he said.
“So if there is a failure in that park, in the way that it looks, the first thing that should have happened, as an elected official, 21 years of service to the community, there was always a diplomatic way to do things. I have been here for three years and you are my commissioner and I’m a city councilman and in the three years I have been here, you have never reached out to me about that park.
“You have never said Mr. Morgan, can you as a councilman work with me as a commissioner to help do something for this park and this community. All we have to do, Mr. Henderson, is have a conversation. But when you do things that are unprofessional and pointing fingers about who to blame and who not to blame, the only people who suffer from things like that are the constituents.”
Councilman Josh McKelvey, another former member of the Recreation Commission, said an oral agreement between the two governments gave responsibility for the park to the rec commission.
“If you look back in history, that park in particular, there was a verbal agreement between the City of Covington and the recreation commission to take care of that park,” he said.
Henderson interjected saying the intergovernmental agreement did not include the park.
“We had took over all the parks,” he said, “Over a few years, with all the money we had to spend so we said the least they could do was to what? Keep up two parks.”
Johnston told Henderson, “All I want to say is this: Really what is going to help me get more cooperation out of the city of Covington if you’re going to keep playing this way?”
Henderson said he made the video for the kids. When asked to yield the floor, he responded, “I can’t come up like any other citizen and this is a town hall meeting and speak?”
Johnston said, “We’ll let Mr. Henderson say his piece and we will not have any other discussion to counter what Mr. Henderson is saying and we’ll go from there.”
When Henderson asked if any of the people photographed spreading the mulch had any children the question elicited a response from the audience.
After Henderson finished, Councilwoman Susie Keck said, “I feel like I started this controversy, just trying to do the right thing. I was riding around, I saw Spillers Park and on the sign it said, ‘Newton County Parks and Recreation.’ I sent (Board of Commissioners Chairman) Marcello (Banes) an email asking him to put down some mulch. And I sent an email to (Covington City Councilman) Anthony (Henderson) asking him if he and his friends could spread the mulch.
“I wasn’t trying to start any kind of business like we have right now between the county and the city. And you’re making the right choice to come and speak to us in person. We need to stop what’s starting to happen and outside this room, we need to sit down and stop all of this political baloney that’s happening.”
Local resident Aaron Brooks approached the lectern and the heated dialogue continued.
Brooks: “I just have some questions I’d like to ask.”
(To Anthony Henderson) “Did you move any of that mulch on that park?”
Henderson: “Sir, no sir.”
Brooks: “J.C. Henderson, did you move any of that mulch in that park? Other than complain did you do anything in that park, because myself and 12 other people, white, black, Republican and Democrat worked our a---s off. So don’t get up here and act self-righteous and (to Anthony, prompting him to stand) and you don’t sit there and act self-righteous.”
Voice from the crowd to Johnston: “You need to call him to order because that ain’t right…”
As Johnston banged his gavel and police Chief Stacey Cotton took a position near the podium, Brooks continued: “My 65-year-old mother got there and moved mulch that was put there by the county.”
About the time the meeting was set to devolve into bedlam, Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams seized control of the chamber.
“Hey, hey, hey,” she said. “You all are not doing this right. All you’re doing is feeding the fire of the people who want this city divided. Now if we’re doing this for political reasons, we’re not benefitting this city at all. It doesn’t sound like anyone is really interested in what they need to be interested in. We’ve got more fish to fry.
Williams, a retired educator, continued, “We’ve got a lot of things going on in this city — some are good things, some are bad things. Like the mayor said, we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to stop putting ourselves first. We’ve got to put the Lord first. We’ve got to put others and then ourselves. There is going to be conflict all the time between cities and counties, any elected officials because everybody has got a different idea of how to do it. We all have different philosophies about what to do.
“At the end of the day, if you’ve got the same goals in mind, you want to reach the destination, then you work together. But if you’re trying to make this into a political issue, then it’s not going to work. You need to hold hands and come together because it’s not going to work the way you’re doing it.
After the applause died down, Johnston moved the meeting onto a different subject — Christmas lights on Emory Street.
Managing Editor Jackie Gutknecht contributed to this report.