Council, tea party leader argue over apology need
by DAVID DAVIS, Managing Editor
The Cleveland City Council became embroiled in a 40-minute argument Monday with Bradley County Tea Party President Donny Harwood over who should apologize for deceiving the public. In the end, neither side admitted wrongdoing.
Harwood approached the Council during the regular voting session regarding what he viewed as an action taken by the Council that impinged on party members’ freedom of speech.
The resulting exchange centered around a flier distributed in June by the local tea party and subsequent action taken by the Council on June 18.
“On June 18, I witnessed first-hand the Cleveland City Council and its Mayor Tom Rowland display behavior uncharacteristic of a free republic bound to the U.S., the state constitution and the city charter. With this most recent breach it is safe to say our first amendment rights are imperiled in Bradley County,” he said. “There is still egregious legislation on the books today that has yet to be reversed that limits our freedom of speech.
“Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, with a unanimous resolution vote of 7-0 by this Council ordered an investigation using police force to essentially hunt down, arrest and expose members of my Tea Party group as we made efforts to inform the community of horrendous plans for their community, thus criminalizing our free speech.”
Rowland said Monday there was no resolution. It was simply a vote taken after he expressed his opinion at the June 18 Council meeting that whoever anonymously distributed the flier should be publicly identified.
The anonymous flier was in neighborhoods south of the old Whirlpool Plant in downtown Cleveland. It warned homeowners of the impending loss of their property rights, if they did not immediately act. The flier stated 300 homes were targeted for demolition and redevelopment.
“I think this is a very cruel hoax on the citizens of our community. This is sneaky. It’s deceitful. I don’t like it and I don’t like my citizens to be in fear,” the mayor said in June.
He said then it was a gray area as to whether or not an actual crime was committed by distributing fliers containing false information about the future of the area and “whoever wrote this should be exposed to the public and to those people who called Greg (Planning Director Greg Thomas) with fear in their hearts. They ought to know who wrote this.”
The Council voted 7-0 to request the city attorney, police and district attorney’s office to fully investigate the matter to determine if any laws were broken and try to uncover the source of the flier. The matter was investigated. It was determined no laws were broken and no further action was taken.
“I think this flier is very inciting and I don’t find anything, other than some terminology here and there, that’s even true,” Rowland said during the June meeting. “We formed the Southside Development Committee, but that would do nothing but increase values in that area by getting rid of the blight in our city and enhance the value of the property around it.”
Harwood said Monday the flier contained truthful and accurate information based on the last known public meeting where the information was provided.
“The white paper draft plan is the last known information available to the public in a public setting,” he said. Since that time, he said the plan was changed in a private setting.
Thomas said in a June 17 interview the white paper was written by a Knoxville-based planning consultant and it was handed out to the public in April during a three-day planning workshop at Bradley Square Mall. Thomas said that was the first time he saw the white paper and subsequently, he requested that section be deleted. There have been no public meetings since April.
“The bottom-line answer is the city is not going to run in and take anybody’s property,” he said in June.
Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Economic Development Doug Berry said in July references to 300 houses came when talks first began with Whirlpool about replacing its century-old manufacturing facilities. The company wanted to remain in the downtown area where there is historical linkage because it is a big issue for a company to break that attachment.
“When we first sat down with Whirlpool, they told us they needed to develop modern manufacturing facilities, that the inefficiencies of these historic plants were so great it was having a bottom-line effect on the company,” Berry said. “They told us they would prefer to do a rebuild in the area of their existing plant. Their first request of me, as a representative of this community, was to provide them a redevelopment option for them to put two half-million square foot buildings in this corridor.”
Berry said during the July MainStreet Cleveland luncheon that such a redevelopment project has never happened in Cleveland. Ultimately, keeping the plant in its historical location would require the use of eminent domain. Berry said he expressed his concern to the company, but agreed to analyze what it would take to put a million square feet in the neighborhood. In order to do that, he said it would require buying all of the property between Plant No. 3 and Ocoee Street, all the way to Plant No. 2.
“That’s 300 lots. That’s where the 300 number came from,” Berry said. “I then sat down with the company and explained that I did not think this was a viable option because this community has not been through the process and has no history of ever having used eminent domain as part of its economic development program. When you hear about the 300 homes that are going to be taken and bulldozed, that number actually has basis, but it’s not fact in the conclusion of those statements,” he told MainStreet members.
Rowland asked Harwood on Monday if he had apologized to the 300 homeowners.
“They were alarmed that their houses might be taken when that’s not a fact,” the mayor said.
Harwood said, “There is nothing for us to apologize for.”
Rowland said, “You should go back and apologize to those people whose lives you have upset. Would you do that or not? We have not stopped your free speech. You have passed leaflets out since then and during that time you haven’t been stopped. We wanted to know who was doing it so you would know what you are passing out is not true. There is nothing true about it. This Council has not voted on it and you know good and well where it started — when Whirlpool said what if we build down there, it was said you might have to buy 300 houses. Period. Where did Whirlpool move to? That was irresponsible —”
“Well, the information —,” Harwood said.
“Listen to me!” the mayor demanded. “The only people I’ve talked to were in tears because somebody put some kind of information out that has no facts to it at all and if you’re man enough, you’ll go down there and tell them that you were wrong.”
The remainder of the argument centered mainly around Harwood and Tea Party member Dan Rawls asking Council members why they did not appear at a Tea Party town hall meeting to discuss the issue. Councilman Bill Estes, who represents the 2nd District, was the only councilman who accepted the invitation.
In return, Councilman George Poe asked Harwood why he didn’t attend a Council meeting months ago if he had questions.