New leaders, challenge seen in second half of 2019

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A look back at the headlines in the second half of 2019

  • Rodney Black (right), who lives near the Georgia Renewable Power plant near Carnesville, tells GRP officials David Groves (right) and Ciaran McManus (center) about noise and smell problems at the plant during one of many Franklin County Commissioner meetings attended by the plant’s neighbors during the second half of 2019.
    Rodney Black (right), who lives near the Georgia Renewable Power plant near Carnesville, tells GRP officials David Groves (right) and Ciaran McManus (center) about noise and smell problems at the plant during one of many Franklin County Commissioner meetings attended by the plant’s neighbors during the second half of 2019.
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The second half of 2019 brought elections in Franklin County’s five cities.

Those elections brought a major change to the leadership of Lavonia.

A new mayor and two new council members were elected in the city.

Canon also saw a change to one of its council seats.

But the second half of the year also saw a new challenge for the county government in the way of complaints about noise and pollution from a newly opened power plant near Carnesville.

On a more positive note, the last six months of 2019 also saw another run the state championship game for the Franklin County Lady Lions softball team, which finished as runners-up.

Following is a look at the news that made headlines during the second half of 2019.

• July.

Lavonia City Councilman Courtney Umbehant resigned and announced that he would qualify to run for mayor of Lavonia in August.

Franklin County passed a new budget for 2019-20 at a total $14,583,049. The new budget is about $600,000 more than the version of the 2018-19 budget that passed this time last year. The county collected nearly $1.3 million more in revenue in 2018-19 than it originally thought it would.

While final plans and construction are still years away, preliminary drawings for a four-laned Georgia Highway 17 showed bypasses around both Lavonia and Canon.

Madison County Middle School Principal Chuck Colquitt was named the new assistant superintendent of Franklin County Schools.

Seven people – three members of one family and four construction workers – were killed in a multiple car accident on I-85. Killed in the accident were Christopher William Years, 33, Ashley Years, 34, and Luna Years, 3, all of Dallas, and Oswaldo F. Hi-Navarrte, 25, Noe Gutierrez Cerna, 39, and Eugenio Santoyo Serna, 36, all of Gainesville, and Alajandro Agis Perez, 52, of Norcross.

Carnesville and Franklin County lost two longtime community leaders – former School Superintendent Ed Bryant and Carnesville physician Dr. Robert F. Sullivan – within hours of each other. 

Lavonia Mayor Ralph Owens announced he would not seek reelection as mayor but would run for a city council seat.

Candice Paige Martin, a Martin woman who pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle in the death of her husband,  was sentenced to 15 years. She has to serve seven of the 15 years before she is eligible for parole.

It was announced that the Love Him Love Them Haitian Orphan Choir would not tour during the summer, despite plans to do so. Visas for the choir’s members were denied this year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security because some embassay staff left the country due to civil unrest in Haiti.

The Pro Watercross Tour returned to Tugaloo State Park near Lavonia.

The budget for Franklin County Schools for fiscal year 2020 has been approved, with total expenses in the new budget of $39.56 million, while revenue is projected at nearly $38 million.

• August.

An increase in the property tax digest from both economic growth and higher property values will boost property tax revenues for the county government and school system. The county’s tax digest – given to local governments – rose by more than $96 million. The growth was due to new businesses and homes and higher property values due to a revaluation of property done this year by the tax assessors’ office.

Franklin County commissioners and the board of education have both scheduled hearings on millage rates that would mean higher tax bills for some taxpayers.

There were 3,624 students enrolled to attend a Franklin County school as the school years began. Projected enrollments for each school were  1,096 students at Franklin County High School; 871 students at Franklin County Middle School; 501 students at Royston Elementary School; 583 students at Lavonia Elementary School; 288 students at Carnesville Elementary School-Primary; and 285 students at Carnesville Elementary School-Intermediate.

The Supreme Court of Georgia denied Brent James Shubert’s motion for a new trial. Shubert was found guilty Dec. 7, 2015, of malice murder, felony murder and concealing the death of another in the 2013 death of Bonny Anne Cooner. He was sentenced to life without parole after his conviction.

Franklin County Middle School officially opened a new a field house. All of the sports at the middle school will have equal access to the field house.

Franklin County’s new wastewater treatment plant opened. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for county officials, contractors and engineers was held at the new plant, located behind Carnesville Elementary School–Primary in Carnesville. The new plant cost an estimated $7.8 million.

Franklin County Schools Superintendent Chris Forrer announced he was interested in looking at becoming a charter school system.

An ethics complaint filed by Daniele Weaver of Royston against  commissioners, the county’s planning and zoning board, County Manager Elizabeth Thomas (as planning director) and planning board member Guerry Hall was dismissed by the county’s ethics committee. Weaver’s complaint was the first ever filed under the county’s ethics ordinance, which went into effect in 2011.

Both the Franklin County Commissioners and Board of Education voted last week to keep their millage rates the same as 2018. Maintaining the rates meant that any taxpayer whose property went up in value during this year’s state-mandated reassessment will see a higher tax bill.

Four of Franklin County’s five cities had contested races for city council and one a contested race for mayor.

In Lavonia, council members Harold Harbin and Courtney Umbehant ran for mayor. Current Mayor Ralph Owens ran for the Post 4 seat against newcomer Andrew Murphy. In Post 3, incumbent Eddie Floyd was opposed by Mary Lou Jackson. Former Lavonia Police Officer Michael Schulman was the only candidate to run in Post 1.

Incumbents Wayne Braswell, Lee Strickland and Keith Turman and newcomer Wesley Fricks ran for three seats on the Royton City Council.

Incumbents Wayne Sanders and Bobby Locke  and newcomers Joe Cairnes and Eli Brown signed up to run for two seats on the Canon City Council.

Incumbents Sid Ginn and Patsy Watkins were joined on the ballot by former Council Member Mike Barett in a race for two seats on the city council. Mayor Harris Little was unopposed.

Incumbents Bill Bell and Tommy Pritchett were the only ones to qualify in the race for two seats on the Franklin Springs Council.

• September.

Lavonia Police Chief Bruce Carlisle was in Atlanta to be sworn in to the Board of Public Safety as the representative for the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP).

A few Lavonia residents got together and worked to get more people to vote during this year’s municipal elections.

Mark Jerome of the Canon Fire Department told the city council  that a recent Insurance Services Office (ISO) inspection was completed and the city’s fire department’s rating improved from a rating of Class 6 to a rating of Class 4.

Mexican businessman Pedro Galvin and local officials broke ground  on the future location of Kool Farm LLC in the Central Franklin Industrial Park. Galvin announced plans to build a 65,536-foot facility to make cool cells for the poultry industry.

Wesley Fricks filed a challenge that says that Royston City Council Member Lee Strickland and wife Sheena do not actually live in the Royston city limits but in Madison County. Fricks and Strickland were both running for seats on the Royston City Council.

The Franklin County Board of Education approved the spending of no more than $25,000 in special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST V) funds for property feasibility studies to be performed on possible locations for a new Royston Elementary School.

A newly revamped sewage treatment plant began operation for the city of Royston.

Several citizens attended the Franklin County Board of Commissioners meeting to voice their concerns with the Georgia Renewable Power LLC (GRP) Biofuel Renewable Power Plant. The running theme among the concerns voiced during the meeting was the level of noise created when the plant is running.

According to the Georgia Department of Education’s website, 97.1 percent of Carnesville Elementary School-Intermediate’s third grade students scored as a developing learner or above on the Spring 2019 Third Grade End of Grade Mathematics Assessment.

The Franklin County School System cut the ribbon on the new College and Career Academy at the high school before an open house. The academy, built in two wings, includes new classrooms for all forms of vocational training. One wing includes space for agriculture and business classes, while the other is dedicated to heavier labs for automotive, welding, manufacturing, carpentry and other such training.

An attorney for Lee Strickland and his wife Sheena filed a response last week to a challenge to his residency, saying that the Stricklands “are residents of Franklin County, Georgia, and have been for the last 24 consecutive years and before and have had a constitutional right the last 24 consecutive years and before to vote in Franklin County, Georgia, and have exercised that right.”

Thirty students in the 10th through 12th grades at Franklin County High School began the Chick-Fil-A Leadership Academy.

The Georgia Department of Education  released the graduation rates for 2019, showing FCHS has a 90.7 percent graduation rate for 2019, which was down just slightly from 91.3 percent in 2018.

A Facebook post showing Dill’s Food City owner Tracy Dilworth removing Irish Spring soap from the shelves before the University of Georgia’s football game with Notre Dame brought national attention to Royston and Franklin County.

After a four-hour hearing, the Franklin County Board of Elections and Registration voted 3-2 to dismiss a challenge to the residency claim of Lee and Sheena Strickland in Royston and their ability to vote in the city. 

• October.

Residents in the area around Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) demanded answers and expressed frustrations to the Franklin County Board of Commissioners. Noise levels of up to 190 decibels have been reported, along with reports of soot and strong odors.

Nekita Beasley Eppes was honored by the Carnesville City Council when the council approved renaming King Street to Nekita Beasley Street.  

Franklin County firefighters took part in a Power Plant Hazard Awareness Training class held at the Carnesville Fire Station.

Franklin County Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers (YF&R) Chairman Will Cabe was a finalist for the 2019 Georgia Farm Bureau (GFB) YF&R Member of the Year Award. The award recognizes a member who has an impact on his/her local area and who encourages, educates and leads other young farmers and ranchers. 

Jonah Gilbert and Joe Mitchell were joined by their families and Emmanuel Bass Fishing Coach Pam Martin-Wells when they each signed to be a part of Emmanuel’s inaugural Bass Fishing Team. 

Indian Creek was polluted by runoff from GRP. Residents and county officials notified the Georgia Environmental Protection Division after residents in northern Franklin County found stinking, black water and dead fish in the creek. It was determined that the pollution came from runoff from fire suppressing efforts at the new energy plant on Highway 198.

For the third straight meeting, angry residents addressed the Franklin County Board of Commissioners regarding the noise and pollution from GRP.

Local pastor Justin Lee Baskins, 37, of Carnesville was killed after a motorcycle he was driving struck a deer. Both Justin and his wife, Sara Baskins, were thrown from the motorcycle when it struck the deer. Sara Baskins reportedly suffered minor injuries. 

The first Lavonia Renaissance Festival exceeded the expectations of its organizers, Barbara Busby and Vivian Young. An estimated 4,000 people attended the festival, held at Lavonia Memorial Park.

Franklin County Middle School student Jordis Haselden was recognized by the Franklin County Board of Education for being one of 130 Georgia middle and high school students chosen to be on the State School Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council. 

The Ryan Swails Insurance Agency donated $1,500 from Country Financial to the Royston Police Department.

The Franklin County High School Marching Pride Band competed in the Georgia Contest of Champions at East Jackson High School in Commerce. The band performed its 2019 halftime show “The Unfamiliar Road.” The band scored excellent in every category: color guard, majorettes, percussion, drum major and band/overall. The Marching Pride finished second in its class for band/overall and majorettes and third in color guard, percussion and drum major. 

The Franklin County High School fast-pitch softball team won its third region championship.  Along with three region titles, Franklin began play in the state tournament for the 10th consecutive season. During that run, Franklin has made the Sweet 16 five times, the Elite Eight three times and won a state championship last season.  

Operators of GRP energy plant near Carnesville apologized for recent pollution of Indian Creek and said they are working to prevent it from ever happening again. County officials toured the plant.

Athens Physical Therapy held its ribbon cutting at its new location on Highway 17 in Lavonia. 

The Lavonia Chamber of Commerce held a forum for candidates for the offices of mayor and city council.

The Franklin County School System moved along with narrowing down the location for a new Royston Elementary School.  

Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies found a large amount of illegal drugs after stopping a bus on I-85. Deputies conducted a traffic stop on a motor coach bus on I-85 for a traffic violation, a press release from the sheriff’s office said. During the search, three suitcases were located that contained 61 pounds of THC candy and 15 pounds of marijuana. The owner of the drugs was not found. 

Holly Evans, a senior at Franklin County High School, was crowned 2019 Homecoming Queen during the halftime of the Lions’ game with East Jackson at Ed Bryant stadium. 

Franklin County Elections Supervisor Gina Kesler demonstrated new state voting equipment that will be used beginning in 2020. Voters will fill out a ballot on a touch-screen machine similar to the ones being used currently. That machine will then print out a ballot that will have to be scanned in order for the vote to be cast. 

Franklin County High School walked away with the Region 8-AAA One Act championship Monday with their production of “Godspell Jr.” It is the fourth region title in in the past six years for the FCHS theatre program. Jayce Kimsey was named Best Actor in the region. Riley Whitworth and Matt Pressley were named to the All-Star Cast.

The Franklin County Junior Varsity Lions wrapped up their 2019 season with a 42-14 victory over East Jackson High School in Commerce. The JV Lions finished the year with a 6-1 record. Their only defeat was a one-touchdown loss at Hart County. 

The FCHS Girls Fastpitch softball team fell 2-1 to Ringgold in a close championship game for the State AAA Title. The final two games were played on the Lady Lions’ home field due to torrential rains in Columbus. 

• November.

Lavonia elected Courtney Umbehant as its first new mayor in 30 years, replacing retiring Mayor Ralph Owens. Andrew Murphy and Michael Schulman were newly elected to the city council. Incumbent Eddie Floyd retained his seat. Royston reelected council members Keith Turman, Wayne Braswell and Lee Strickland for new terms. Canon voters elected newcomer Eli Brown and reelected incumbent Bobby Locke. In Carnesville, incumbents Sid Ginn and Patsy Watkins were reelected to their council seats. 

Franklin County High School will remain in Class AAA. The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) released its reclassification lists for the 2020-22 school years. Franklin County High School reported 1,093 students to the GHSA and four students from outside the district. The reclassification count of 1,097 left FCHS in Class AAA.

The Franklin County Lion cross-country team finished 19th in the Georgia Class AAA State Cross Country Championships in Carrollton. The Lions qualified for the state meet for the first time in at least 12 years with a third-place finish in the Region 8AAA meet. 

A county idea to ask voters to approve a sales tax for road improvements was met with mixed reactions from Franklin County’s five city mayors. County Manager Elizabeth Thomas met with the mayors at Carnesville City Hall to outline the idea behind the tax and ask for the cities’ support. 

Patsy Watkins was honored by Franklin County School Superintendent Chris Forrer and the board of education for being named a Pioneer in Education by Pioneer RESA. 

The Franklin County Middle School FFA chapter was recognized in the 2019 National Chapter Award Program from the National FFA Organization. The program recognizes outstanding FFA chapters from throughout the country that actively implement the mission and strategies of the organization. 

County Clerk Elaine Evans filed a complaint with the Franklin County Board of Ethics after a  meeting in her office wit Commission Chairman Thomas Bridges and Airport Authority Member Bill Flowers about airport financial records. Both Bridges and Flowers denied any breach of ethics.

During a Franklin County Board of Education’s work session, it was announced that the Franklin County School System, Ferst Readers of Franklin County and St. Mary’s Sacred Heart Hospital have joined forces to encourage childhood literacy in the county. 

The Franklin County School Board worked to cut its budget deficit. Superintendent Forrer informed the board that the system had eliminated $525,000 from the budget by not filling five certified and five classified positions that had become available. Other savings would also be realized from billing Medicaid for some of the funds spent for students who qualify for speech, occupational and physical therapies. 

Franklin County High School hosted the first annual J.B. Bearden Border Wars Tournament in Carnesville. The Franklin County boys’ team took home the tournament’s first-place trophy.

FCHS Senior Jaden Cheek signed to play softball with the Clemson Tigers. Senior Kalyn Jinks signed to play softball for Reinhardt University. 

The Franklin County High School Competition Cheerleading Squad qualified for the state’s Sweet 16 finals in Columbus. The FCHS squad competed against 21 AAA schools at sectionals and qualified among the top nine teams that made it to state. In the finals, Franklin finished 13th out of 28 AAA schools. 

The Franklin County High School Lady Lions volleyball team honored its players and celebrated its season at a recent banquet. The two-year-old program picked up its first varsity win in history this season. 

An early morning fire destroyed a popular restaurant near Canon. Firefighters were called to Sunny Side Up Cafe on Highway 17 near The Creek Church. It took firefighters from the Canon and Royston fire departments, with help from Sandy Cross firefighters a few hours to douse the flames.

• December.

Acting on a proposal by Tax Commissioner Bobby Martin, Franklin County Commissioners voted unanimously to begin the process to double the county’s homestead exemption for senior citizens. 

Franklin County Commissioners moved ahead with a plan to ask voters to approve a one-cent sales tax for road projects. Commissioners voted to negotiate an agreement with the county’s five cities on a way to distribute funds from such a tax. If the county and cities reach an agreement, commissioners will meet again to vote to call for an election in March. Commissioners are seeking a special purpose local option sales tax for transportation projects (T-SPLOST). 

A petition reportedly signed by 135 people within a mile of the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) Plant on Highway 198 was presented to Franklin County Commissioners. Petitioners are seeking county-funded tests of their wells, that the county enforce a nuisance law regarding noise and an exemption on all property taxes until the plant is shut down. 

Commissioners asked County Attorney Dale “Bubba” Samuels to look into an ordinance to prohibit the burning of municipal solid waste, construction and demolition waste, farm waste, chicken manure and household trash. Commissioner Eddie Wester, who suggested the ordinance, said the GRP plant went from burning clean wood to creosote-soaked wood. 

Royston Police Explorer Post 103 competed in Gwinnett County’s eighth annual Law Enforcement Competition, held at the Gwinnett County Police Training Center. Explorers Dylan Vining, Dane Willis, David Shevlin, Andrew Herrin, Justin Lemus and Jonathan Lockhart, along with Landon Graham participated. The Royston Explorers placed first in physical training, second in Unknown Trouble and third in Cell Extraction. 

Emmanuel College celebrated its Centennial.

Franklin County Commissioners unanimously declared the Georgia Renewable Power plant near Carnesville a public nuisance and will take its case to Magistrate Court. The vote by commissioners came after months of complaints by neighbors of the plant about noise and bad smells and the pollution of a creek by runoff. Citizens from the area around the plant applauded commissioners numerous times for their action.

FCHS Senior Alexandria Henry was crowned Miss Echo 2019. Henry also won Miss Congeniality.

The Franklin County Ethics Committee dismissed a complaint filed by the county’s clerk against the chairman of the Board of Commissioners Thomas Bridges and Bill Flowers, a member of the airport authority. While finding there was not enough evidence of an ethics violation, members of the ethics board did suggest an apology to Evans and a meeting to work out differences between county officials and the airport authority. 

Carnesville Elementary School-Primary was named a Distinguished School. The list of distinguished schools was released by the Georgia Department of Education for the 2019-20 school year. The Distinguished Schools designation recognizes the highest-performing Title I schools in Georgia. 

Lavonia City Manager Charles Cawthon was named the recipient of the Georgia Mountain Regional Commission's Appointed Official of the Year Award at the group's annual meeting.

Daniel Tompkins addressed the Royston City council to seek approval to begin construction for a gardening plot next to the library. The garden will be accessible to all and will serve as the hands-on classroom for the Curious Gardeners group. The council voted unanimously to approved the request.

Franklin County Lion senior Micah Roebuck was honored for scoring his 1,000th point in a Lion uniform. Roebuck got his thousandth point in a game against Morgan County. 

GRP was served with a notice of violation by the Franklin County Manager Elizabeth Thomas. The county gives GRP 30 days to meet noise, emission levels. 

Royston Elementary School principal Susan Boswell announced her retirement.

Two rooms full of new voting equipment were delivered to the Franklin County Board of Elections and Registration office in Carnesville. The new equipment will be used for the first time in March for the Georgia Presidential Preference Primary. 

Franklin County Lady Lion Jayden Gailey has been named the Class AAA Softball Player of the Year for the second straight season. Gailey was joined in All-State honors by teammates Jaden Cheek, Sarah York and Kayleigh Fowler. Cheek was named to the first-team All State as an infielder. Fowler and York were named second-team All-State. 

Franklin County Lion basketball senior Titus Brown was honored to celebrate scoring his 1,000th point during his high school career. Brown got his 1,000th point during a 19-point performance at Jackson County High School. 

Franklin County Lion cross-country team member Gracie Woods was selected to the All Northeast Georgia Region Cross Country team. She was one of 17 runners in all of Northeast Georgia recognized and is the first cross country runner from FCHS to ever receive this honor for her accomplishments during the 2019 cross country season. 

The Franklin County Lion 4x400 meter Class AAA state champions were honored with a ring ceremony prior to the boys’ basketball game with Monroe Area in the Lions Den. The 4x400 team of Everett Haselden, John Clayton Reed, Titlan Wells and Josh Beasley won the state championship with a time of 3:23.03. 

FCHS Senior Kaleigh Fowler signed a scholarship to play softball for the Emmanuel College Lady Lions. 

Steve and Angela Whidby completed the adoption of six siblings who had been in foster care with the family since 2017. The adoption was the largest in county history.

A building housing the Norris Tax Service and a wholesale flooring company was destroyed by fire. The building was located on Highway 17 just south of Lavonia. The cause of the fire is undetermined.