More than 100 people packed the basement meeting room at the Archives Tuesday night for the Thomaston City Council meeting. The main topic they were there for was the vote on the Lake Thomaston Park. After one person spoke in favor and three spoke against the park, the council voted 5-0 in favor of spending $800,000 on a pavilion with attached restrooms and a boat storage building with a roof doubling as a stage for an amphitheater. Council members J. D. Stallings, Patsy Perdue and Doug Head said they voted for the park since the majority of constituents they heard from were in favor of it.
Prior to hearing public comments on the park, Mayor Hays Arnold recused himself from the meeting. Mayor Arnold owns 47 acres of land adjacent to the park, and at least one citizen had expressed concern of a conflict in interest if the mayor participated in discussions and votes on the park. Mayor Hays said he was recusing himself to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
“I am recusing myself because of some feeling that – although legally we could find no reason that I should – the fact that my family has owned land for over 100 years that is adjacent to the lake that Thomaston Mills built and we redid, in order to avoid any impropriety or appearance of impropriety, that’s the reason for my recusing myself,” said Arnold.
Mayor Pro Tem Doug Head presided over the rest of the meeting. Four people signed up to speak at the meeting and each was allowed five minutes.
The first person to speak was Thomas Skurja, Director of Residential Services at The Gilmore Center. Skurja spoke in favor of the park, stating it gives The Gilmore Center’s clients opportunities for recreation they do not have now.
“The Gilmore Center believes and supports the Lake Thomaston project, because we’re able to use that as a marketable tool to market our community, whereas now we’re lacking in those budget-friendly recreational opportunities. We support the idea of the ongoing parks projects, support the ideas of better parks, upgradable parks, and parks that offer amenities and services and recreational opportunities that do not exist in the City of Thomaston today.”
Debbie Lord, a resident and local business owner who spoke out against the park at the last council meeting, also spoke against it Tuesday night.
“Recreation is a joint project between the city and county. Shouldn’t you be working toward a common goal in fixing what we have before you put a new park in, like the pool, for instance, or finishing your projects at the Greatest Generation Park, maybe take the recreation that we have and give it a little facelift, make it assessable to all children, rather than building an expensive park that no one can really afford?” she questioned. “You guys think you can afford it, but the problem is that property owners can’t afford it. It has nothing to do with what you’ve banked through the years. You’ve cut our services, you’ve cut law enforcement down to the bare bones.” She asked that the community be allowed to vote on the park.
Dennis Boyt was another resident speaking out against the park. He said his main concerns are public safety, the utility rates, and the park.
“This weekend, July 4th, the biggest weekend the city has, the water fountains at Greatest Generation Park are closed,” he said. They closed during the day, they work one Saturday, closed the next Sunday. Now we’re going to take on a bigger project that is 20 times bigger than the Generation Park that only has six fountains, so whose going to run that? Who is going to run public safety? You have to have police officers there; we only have two after eight o’clock. This weekend we had a drive-by shooting again and another robbery. We’ve got all this money in escrow, sitting over here from the utilities, but we’re not hiring anybody. We’re basically hiring you to steal from us.”
Michael Mitcham was the final person speaking. He said he grew up in Thomaston and after college came back to live here in the house that five generations have lived in and raise his family, but does not feel safe here now.
“I was told as recently as last night that there is no new surge in crime activity and no one is in any sudden danger. Yet since January of this year, there have been three home invasions involving firearms, six armed robberies, three reports of shots fired at homes or businesses, one armed car jacking, and now a drive-by shooting this past weekend on Short E. Street,” Mitcham said. “I don’t know about you, but this is not the Thomaston I was born and raised in, and it’s not the Thomaston I want to raise my children in.
“I have very little confidence that with the current staffing that the police department can protect us,” he added. “There is a big difference between nice to have and need to have. This lake park is a nice to have, but it is not a priority right now. In my estimation, an accelerating crime rate will do more to deter industrial prospects than this park will ever do to attract them.”
Following the comments, Council member Patsy Perdue made a motion to approve the funding for the Lake Thomaston Park project. Council member J. D. Stallings seconded the motion, then requested discussion of the issue.
Stallings told the crowd that he ran for office on a policy of voting the way the people of his district wanted him to vote. Stallings said he has heard from many of his constituents on both sides of the park issue, but that he has heard four times as much positive thoughts about the park as negative ones, and said that was why he was voting for it.
The vote was called for and was 5-0 in favor.
Following the vote, Perdue stated that she had no one from her district speak to her that was against the park, and that’s why she voted for it. Mayor Pro Tem Head also stated that the responses he heard about the park were 2 to 1 in favor of it.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.