By Joel Hall
Clayton County officials are taking a hard-line stance after reports surfaced of an underground "Freaknik" party apparently scheduled this weekend at the Tara Center in Jonesboro.
Local officials said they will adopt a no-tolerance policy toward the party, which reportedly has targeted local high school students.
Clayton County Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas said the county would not allow Freaknik to come to suburban Clayton County.
"We became aware of the efforts of some to organize this event through complaints brought to our attention by various parents in the community who have come across fliers that had been distributed to their children," Cohilas said. "The major concern is that they are talking about a high school bash and they specifically name every high school in Clayton County. Activities normally associated with Freaknik have led to some questionable behavior, even when engaged in by adults, much less trying to induce underage children to attend, so that gave rise for concern."
Cohilas, along with officials from various agencies, held a joint press conference on Thursday morning at county police headquarters in Jonesboro, to address the teen party at the Tara Center and several other recent events at the center reportedly organized by the same promoter.
The Tara Center's primary owner, Lee Scott, attended the press conference. He said he has had no contact with the organizers of the teen Freaknik party, or any of the teen parties mentioned by authorities on Thursday. He said he built the Tara Center in the early 1990s and has rented out the facility since then for weddings, sweet-16 parties, and other private events.
At the press briefing, officials questioned whether Scott has been using the facility as an event center without a business license to do so.
"I accepted no money, I issued no contracts [for the party purportedly scheduled for this weekend]. I think this is a teenager ... maybe he [the promoter] wants to be in college, so he is promoting the same kind of event," Scott said.
Scott said he operates the Tara Center as "a landlord" and argued that he did not need a business license to operate because he is simply renting his personal property.
"I don't operate any business there," Scott said. "I have a 'for rent' sign out there. If I buy a house, do I need a license to rent the house? I am just renting. It's up to the tenants to get a license. We have a zoning permit for general business."
"In order for events of this nature to take place, a promoter or property owner would have to make application for a special-use permit," Cohilas said. "There have been no applications made by anyone, and there have been no preparations made to provide any kind of safety."
Cohilas said promoters of the party had used social media, such as MySpace, to reach out to students, and linked the promoters to fliers advertising other teen parties at the Tara Center on March 12 and April 2. He said none of the organizers had applied for a special-use permit, which he said was required in order to put on such an event.
In recent weeks, City of Atlanta officials have been on high alert against the resurgence of Freaknik, an unsanctioned, college spring break, popularized by predominantly black students in the 1990s.
Clayton County Interim Police Chief Tim Robinson said several stabbings, shootings and large-scale fights have taken place in recent years during teen events held at the Tara Center, including an incident on March 27, in which police reported that an 18-year-old black male was beaten by a crowd. He said police will not allow any Freaknik activities to take place at the center, and warned that authorities would cite or arrest willing participants.
"The purpose of this meeting is to inform our parents of our high school students, and actually the students themselves, to not participate in this unsanctioned event," Robinson said. "We simply will not allow this illegal event to take place, and we have plans in place to quickly resolve any issues that may arise."
Renee Jenkins, assistant supervisor of permits and licensing for the Clayton County Community Development Department, said the county has no business license on record for the Tara Center. She said Scott would need a business license to use the building as an event center.
"No persons, corporation or entity has applied for a license there since 2005," Jenkins said. "If they are renting it out, they should have a business license. If he is going to use his own property as a profitable business, he does have to get a business license."
Scott, who in the past has run unsuccessful political campaigns against Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson, said he is the target of political revenge. In 2008, Cohilas was the campaign manager for Herbert Adams, Jr., a former candidate for district attorney in Clayton County, who ran against Scott's wife, former District Attorney Jewel Scott.
Jewel Scott's law office, The Scott and Turner Law Group, LLC, operates out of an office at the Tara Center.
"This is politics as usual," Lee Scott said. "They try to soil your name, but the voters see through this. These people want to be in charge, they want to be in control, and they will do anything to do that."
Lee Scott said he had no plans on running in any elections, but suggested the Freaknik press conference may have been a "preemptive hit" to discourage him from doing so.
Cohilas denied that the press conference was an attack on Lee Scott and said the Tara Center's connection to him became apparent in the county's attempt to stop the Freaknik party. He said Lee Scott still has a "burden to have a current business license for the entire building."
"He [Lee Scott] confirmed to me this morning that he was using the place for assembly," Cohilas said. "To be in compliance with the law, if you are owning a property where you are leasing it out for events, you need to have a valid business license. Our records show that they do not have a valid business license. If it is determined that there is a business license violation, he will be treated as everyone else is. No one is above the law."