Collector Herb Bridges shares a laugh with Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau Interim Executive Director Frenda Turner at the Arts Clayton Gallery in August. Bridges’ unexpected death a little more than a month later sent shock waves through Clayton County. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — Clayton County had many more stories in 2013 than those included in the Clayton News Daily’s Top 10.
The county was bursting with many more stories that showed life in the community. There were some controversies, some tears, some joys and some big opportunities for economic development throughout the year.
Audiences around the world even got to see Clayton County International Park digitally enhanced to look like Hawaii on the big screen when “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” opened in movie theaters.
But without further adieu, here are some of the other stories that made an impact in Clayton County during 2013.
Major change in county government
New Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner began his administration with a bang in January when he successfully pushed through the ouster of County Manager Wade Starr.
On just his second day in office, Turner got enough votes on the commission to terminate Starr’s employment and eliminate the county manager position.
Turner then pushed through the new positions of chief financial officer and chief operating officer as the county’s form of government swung from a strong manager format, to a strong chairman approach. He was able to push through all of these changes with a series of narrow 3-2 votes.
But Starr didn’t stay out of the headlines for long.
By the end of the month, he was hired by the Clayton County Housing Authority Board as an independent contractor to learn how to run the authority from outgoing Executive Director Linda Valentine. In March, he was named interim executive director and he was later named the permanent director in May.
Morrow hires Greg Hecht as city attorney despite low evaluation scores
Morrow officials began 2013 by interviewing and grading candidates to replace City Attorney Laurel Henderson in January.
Among the candidates were Forest Park City Attorneys Robert Mack and Joe Harris, Jonesboro and Lake City attorney Steve Fincher and Morrow Downtown Development Authority Attorney Greg Hecht. The candidates underwent public interviews during which they were graded by Mayor J.B. Burke and members of the City Council.
When the scores were tallied, Fincher had the highest score. Hecht had the lowest grade, but the council hired him for a one-year term anyway.
Georgia Archives supporters march on the state Capitol — again
State legislators came back to the state Capitol for the start of their legislative term in January and were greeted with what had become a familiar site.
Supporters of the Morrow-based Georgia Archives where protesting on the steps of the Capitol. Although Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative leaders had already reached a deal to transfer the archives from the Secretary of State’s office to the University System of Georgia, the move had not yet been made official.
And supporters wanted something else from legislators as well: More money for the archives.
Supporters protested at the Capitol on the opening day of the legislative term, chanted slogans of support and held up signs for legislators to see.
The legislature approved the transfer and agreed to set aside enough money in the state budget to expand the archives’ days of operation from two days a week to four. The expanded weeks officially began in July.
Morrow residents fight threat of eminent domain
Families at Regal Forest Apartments in Morrow protested proposals to condemn their apartment homes last spring. Attorneys representing the owner of the apartment complex argued against the local school board’s reported attempt to take the property through eminent domain in order to build a permanent facility for Elite Scholars Academy charter school.
Months later, the issue appeared to have dissolved and officials have said they are still searching for a permanent home for the charter school.
CPR, AED training now required in Georgia high schools
Georgia Senate Bill 212 went into effect last summer, requiring that training for ninth through 12th-grade students be part of schools’ existing health and physical education courses. The bill, co-sponsored by State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), passed Georgia’s House and Senate by overwhelming majorities in March.
Jonesboro High returned to state mock trial competition
The mock trial team at Jonesboro High returned to state competition last spring, falling short of the state title. The team placed fifth in the Georgia High School Mock Trial Competition but most of the 16-member team returned in August to pursue state and national status as it has in years past.
Michael McLaughlin abruptly quits as Morrow’s economic development director
The public battles between Morrow Mayor J.B. Burke and Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin had been an ongoing saga in the city for months.
That is what made McLaughlin’s resignation in May such a head-turner. The battles between McLaughlin and Burke culminated in late 2012 with the city council violating Georgia’s open meetings law while mulling how to punish the mayor for publicly criticizing the development director.
In May, McLaughlin quit a week after Councilman Larry Ferguson raised questions about whether the council was being mislead concerning a property sale in which McLaughlin was involved.
Since then, the city has not replaced McLaughlin. Instead, his duties have been dispersed among other city employees.
Pair convicted in Alabama man’s death
Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Deborah Benefield told two convicted killers they’d have to look elsewhere for leniency as she sentenced them to life without parole in April.
“My goodness, my goodness,” she said. “Leniency? Leniency? There’s not an ounce of leniency in either defendant’s body. There was no concern from either one that the victim was a fellow human being. I’ve not seen a bit of remorse. All I’ve heard are lies and trying to get out of it. They’ll have to go elsewhere to ask for leniency. It won’t come from this court.”
Benefield sentenced Chaz Ballard and Singlee Soun to life without parole plus 30 years. A jury convicted the pair last month of shooting to death James Johnson, 27, of Mobile, Ala., in February 2011. Johnson’s parents, Gill Johnson Jr. and Dede Icard, and only sibling, Gill Johnson Jr., attended every day of the trial and made impassioned pleas for life without parole for the men.
“I have so much hate in my heart,” said Gill Jr., “I hope and pray to my God every day that I can forgive them. I hope they think about this every day and never see the outside of a jail cell and that they ask for forgiveness.”
His father took the stand and got choked up talking about the loss of “my baby son.”
“He’d worked hard since he was 12 years old and worked for everything he had,” said Gill Sr. “For these two guys who stepped out of bounds and wanna take shortcuts, that’s what they know. My son never had a record of violence or drug dealings.”
Man convicted in teen’s rape, murder
Caffian Hyatt sobbed angrily in court in April as she confronted the man who killed her daughter and left her body undetected in the woods under a mattress for seven months.
“What gives you the right to do that?” said Hyatt, her voice rising as she fought back tears from the witness stand. “You took her from her family. She was loved. I loved her, I wanted her, she wasn’t just here. She was my gift from God. You never gave her a chance to survive, to learn to drive, to get a job, graduate high school or college. What makes you God?”
Marshae Hickman, 21, sat unmoved and showed no reaction as Hyatt berated him. Hickman was convicted in the death of Candice Parchment, 15. He and Jermaine Christopher Robinson were also convicted of trying to rape Parchment in January 2010 before she was killed three months later.
Hickman was sentenced to life without parole.
Robinson was not charged in the murder but defense attorney Ashley Palmer made no secret of her belief he was involved. Palmer became emotional as she addressed Chief Judge Deborah Benefield to ask for leniency for Hickman, noting that she, too, is a mother.
“I would ask that you consider a life sentence with parole because there are still many unanswered questions,” said Palmer. “Jermaine Robinson plays a large part in this, I think. I maintain that he had some involvement although he wasn’t charged. There’s still more that took place.”
Prosecutors Mike Thurston and Bill Dixon presented evidence to show Hickman killed Parchment out of fear she would report him for trying to rape her.
Bonuses given to school district employees
Clayton County Public Schools employees were given a penny-on-the-dollar bonus this year.
The school board approved the one-time, 1-percent bonus to all employees, when officials determined the board would receive $11.37 million more in revenues than initially anticipated. The bonuses are expected to cost the district more than $2 million, and will push deficit spending to nearly $5.8 million this year.
Basketball courts’ future in doubt as Lee Street Park planning begins
Shortly after Jonesboro officials began holding public input meetings on the future of Lee Street Park in June, the question became whether the popular basketball courts would remain.
An initial survey showed respondents favored eliminating the courts, but supporters of the courts came out in force over the next couple of months and continued to push for them to remain. By the time plans were unveiled in October, a citizens committee formed to compile proposals for the park had decided to keep the courts.
A general overview plan has been adopted by the Jonesboro City Council, but construction on the renovations is expected to begin next year after city officials pick a more detailed plan.
Mary Byrd quit as termination threat loomed
As the county’s senior services director, Mary Byrd usually wasn’t at the center of many controversies. At least, that’s the way things looked until July rolled around and she was placed on administrative leave without pay for what Turner described as “withdrawal discrepancies.”
Even Turner said he was surprised when an audit raised issues with the handling of some of the senior services department’s money.
Within days, Byrd was arrested and charged with forgery and bribery.
Within a month, she had quit her job. Turner said she quit just before the commission was set to deal with her employment. She was likely facing termination, he said.
Forest Park settles with former councilwoman for $35,000
Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart denied knowing about a $35,000 settlement with former Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams before she made an appearance at an Aug. 5 meeting.
Lockhart and the council allowed Williams to take the floor and speak at length about her issues with the city over the years and begging to be allowed to run for office. Williams was ousted from office in July 2011. Under the terms, she is not allowed to run for five years.
Lockhart went on to accuse former City Manager John Parker of orchestrating the settlement without the knowledge of mayor and council.
“Did anyone on this council agree to a settlement or authorize a settlement?” said Lockhart at the Aug. 19 meeting. No one spoke. “Nor did I. I knew nothing about it until she told us.”
Lockhart threatened legal action against the insurance company for authorizing a settlement without permission from the city. However, it is not known if the insurance company has explained the settlement.
Parker has denied approving the settlement and city officials have refused for months to provide documentation that would answer the question of who authorized the settlement.
School district offers free meals district-wide
The school district implemented the Community Eligibility Option for free meal reimbursement program through the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 this school year. The program targets low-income students and allows students district-wide to receive breakfast and lunch free.
The reimbursement is worth about $12 million, the cost to feed the district’s 52,000 students.
A ‘true southern gentleman’ passes away
Anyone who has ever visited the Road to Tara Museum in Jonesboro has seen Herb Bridges’ collection of “Gone With The Wind” memorabilia.
That’s because everything on display at the museum came from his collection. He had also opened a temporary exhibit of handmade movie posters from the old Loew’s Grant Theater at the Arts Clayton Gallery in August.
He was in high spirits at the opening of the movie poster exhibit and he was looking forward to an expansion of the permanent exhibit space at the Road to Tara Museum that opened in November. It was to feature the character portrait roundels from the 1939 premiere of “Gone With The Wind,” which were one-of-a-kind items in his collection.
That is why his death in September sent shock waves through the Clayton County community. When the roundels were unveiled last month, Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau officials dedicated the museum’s display in his honor.
Forest Park Parks and Recreation turns 50
Parks and Recreation Director Elaine Corley was also honored in September for being with the department for its entirety. Hundreds of families turned out for the all-day event.
Corley said she remembered when the department was forced to entertain youth with simple activities because of economics.
She joked that not much has changed.
“We’re doing old-fashioned games like we did in the beginning when we didn’t have much money,” she announced from the stage. “Much like now.”
Mayor David Lockhart presented Corley with a proclamation in recognition of her 50 years with the city and declared Monday “Evelyn Elaine Corley Day.”
There was talk months ago that Corley might retire this year. Not so, she said.
“As long as I’m having fun and the people are happy. I’m hanging in as long as they’ll let me hang in,” she said.
Walker resigns midterm, replacement named
Clayton County Chief Magistrate Daphne Walker quit just months after being re-elected unopposed to a third term to take over a nonprofit agency that helps domestic violence victims. Walker was elected the county’s first black chief magistrate in 2004.
Wanda Dallas was appointed to replace Walker and took office in October. Dallas got her undergraduate degree in communications and journalism from Georgia State University and her law degree from University of Tulsa Law School. She was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1994.
Her background includes senior assistant district attorney in Fulton County, chief judge in Riverdale Municipal Court, adjunct professor, associate Fulton County Juvenile Court judge, staff attorney in Fulton County and was labor relations manager in the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office at the time of her appointment.
Dallas is also a volunteer in her community and church. Her interests include Rotary Club, Boys and Girls Club, Destiny Family Services and Children’s Ministry leader at Word of Faith Family Worship Center.
Elite Scholars Academy is a Georgia School of Excellence
Elite Scholars Academy, a public start-up charter school in Morrow, was recognized this fall as a 2012 Georgia School of Excellence.
The award is given through the Georgia Department of Education and identifies the highest-achieving schools in each of the state’s 14 congressional districts. It is based upon performance on the state’s 2012 College and Career-Ready Performance Index scores.
Morrow, Lake City and Forest Park join forces for economic development
A year of planning came to a head in October when officials from Morrow, Lake City and Forest Park announced plans to create a massive economic development opportunity zone encompassing the three cities.
The project, known as the TriCity Opportunity Zone, was given the green light by the councils in the three cities over the following month. Officials from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government are working with municipal leaders to put together an urban redevelopment plan to submit to the state Department of Community Affairs.
The Department of Community Affairs must approve the plan before the opportunity zone can become a reality. If approved, any business that moves into the zone, as well as existing businesses that create at least two new permanent jobs, can be eligible for $3,500 in tax credits for each new position created.
Jeff Eady leaves Morrow for Forest Park
Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady celebrated 30 years of employment by the city in August, and at the time he had no plans of leaving anytime soon.
Two months later, in October, he confirmed that he had been offered and had accepted the position of public works director in Forest Park. He left for his new job the week of Thanksgiving, and police Chief Chris Leighty took over as interim city manager.
A search is already underway to find someone to replace Eady, but the exact parameters of how the next city manager will be chosen is not expected to be decided until two new council members take office in January.
Charter school approved by state commission in Clayton
Thrice denied by the local school board, the Utopian Academy for the Arts founding board eventually got the OK to establish in Clayton County. The State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia unanimously approved the board’s start-up charter petition back in October.
Artesuis Miller, the founder and chair of the school’s founding board, expects to open the school in Riverdale next fall. The school was proposed to accommodate as many as 300 students in grades six through eight in year one, adding more students in subsequent years.
Georgia State Fair returns to Hampton
This was the second year officials with Georgia State Fair has pitched tents, set up rides and wheeled in food trucks on the grounds of Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton.
The air was fragrant with sweet smells of caramel apples, cotton candy and funnel cakes and the savory scents of corn dogs, barbecue and cheese steaks in October.
In contrast, the pungent odors of cattle, sheep and goats wafted from the free petting zoo. Unusual additions to the fair this year are Capuchin monkeys racing each other on rescue dogs, sea lions showing off their aquatic skills and bears wrestling.
Families from all over the region brought their children to enjoy the offerings and said they look forward to next year’s fair.
Clayton County hits the big screen in “Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
Locations around Clayton County had been used in movies before, but “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was the highest profile film to be shot in the county.
Although the filming took place at Clayton County International Park’s The Beach in 2012, the movie was released in November. The Beach was used for scenes involving a large cornucopia set. It was digitally altered to resemble Hawaii in the film.
Target announces plans to leave Morrow
Target’s announcement in November that its Morrow location was one of four across the nation slated for closure Feb. 1 trickled out at first.
Perhaps because of the small number of stores slated for closure, it took a couple of days for the news to leak out. However, once Clayton News Daily broke news of the planned closure, it spread like wildfire with residents expressing their disappointment about it on Facebook.
A month later, the topic remains hot on the lips of residents.
But even as Target was getting ready to close shop, the county had some positive economic development news to tout. Appliance retailer h.h. gregg announced it was going to spend $16 million on a new distribution center in Ellenwood, and Briggs Equipment opened a new $7 million facility in College Park.
Clayton County jury convicts gang members in murder
A Clayton County jury took about 75 minutes to find three defendants in a murder case guilty on all 19 counts in November.
Clayton County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Katie Powers said prosecutors are pleased with the decision.
“The swiftness of the verdict demonstrates that Clayton County citizens will not put up with gangs coming into the county and picking people to rob and murder without regard for human life,” she said.
Kyshawn Williams, 22, of Atlanta, Larry Eugene Lupoe, 27, of Forest Park and Jacobey Sean Carter, 25, of Lithia Springs were convicted in the shooting death of Tavares Moses, 31, inside a cheap motel in Forest Park. Testimony showed that they also robbed three other men in the same room and even went through Moses’ pockets as he lay bleeding from five gunshot wounds.
Forest Park police take over State Farmers Market
Council members voted in November to accept nearly half a million dollars to fund police presence at the State Farmers Market.
The city agreed in July to provide officers to the 160-acre wholesale and retail center just off I-75 in Forest Park for the first time in 25 years. During that time, the state funded its own police department.
Forest Park police Maj. Chris Matson told council members that the $460,470 state appropriation will fund four officers, equipment, training, seminars, education incentive and weapons and ammunitions.
Matson said cars have been furnished but they have to be re-decaled to reflect the Forest Park Police Department. More than half the money, about $233,000, will pay for overtime, he said.
Debate stirred over proposed SPLOST-funded civic arena
The year is ending with a debate over whether the SPLOST set to go before voters next year should pay for the construction of a $35 million civic arena.
The facility has been requested by Clayton County’s Economic Development Department and supporters argue it is a risk worth taking to spur development in the county. Opponents argue other issues, such as sidewalks and public safety should be given a greater priority.