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Effort to hire former rec director Turner as county manager fails
  • Updated

COVINGTON — Despite legal advice that a vote to hire an interim county manager would not be allowed under Newton County’s charter, two commissioners voted Tuesday night to hire a former county employee who left amid controversy more than a year ago.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson and District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders voted to bring back former recreation director Ternard Turner for the position, even though Turner abruptly resigned in August 2020 after he and other Recreation Department employees received illegal bonuses that they were later directed to repay to the county.

The motion made by Henderson, which came after a nearly one hour closed session discussion and seemed to surprise some of the commissioners, failed by a 3-2 margin after District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason asked County Attorney Patrick Jaugstetter to explain whether or not the vote would pass legal muster.

Jaugstetter said that the county’s charter provides for the chairman to submit a list of qualified candidates for county manager to the board and for the board to make a selection from that list. Jaugstetter said, in his opinion, an interim county manager would also be covered under that requirement. He said if the board were to approve Henderson’s motion to hire an interim county manager, he would advise Chairman Marcello Banes to veto it.

Following that advice, Mason voted along with District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards and District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan to oppose Henderson’s motion to hire Turner.

After the meeting, Edwards said Jaugstetter’s interpretation of the county charter is a point of contention for the Board of Commissioners.

Tuesday night’s closed session was called to discuss personnel issues related to a 3-2 vote earlier this month not to renew County Manager Lloyd Kerr’s contract. Mason, Henderson and Sanders voted in favor of the non-renewal.

Tuesday night’s meeting did nothing to address the fact that, unless further steps are taken, Newton County will be without a county manager as of Jan. 1, when Kerr’s contract expires. Kerr has said he will not continue to work for the county without a contract.

Following the meeting, Edwards said the commissioners are making plans for management of the county.

“We have put legal steps in place to search for a county manager,” Edwards said.

Chairman Banes has stated his support for renewing Kerr’s contract, citing several circumstances that could leave the county without leadership at that position at a critical time.

Banes provided a memorandum to fellow commission members Tuesday, noting that the county has been without a full-time county attorney for two months. The county has received no applications for the position.

He also noted that several key upcoming items will need to be addressed by the county manager, including budgeting for fiscal year 2023, negotiations over the Local Option Sales Tax distribution with the county’s municipalities, a review of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax allocations, and development of the county’s transit plan.

“Based on our form of government, without a county manager in place, the county’s operations will not have any supervision,” Banes wrote in the statement. “To expect to have a qualified candidate for the county manager position or an interim county manager position in place by Jan. 2, 2022 ready to continue the daily duties of Lloyd Kerr is not realistic. To ensure that our county’s operations continue seamlessly through the transition that the majority of this board has decided, there must be a transition in place. It is my opinion that this transition must include the continued employment of Lloyd Kerr as county manager.”

Banes proposed two options for a transition — extend Kerr’s contract for a year while creating a deputy county manager position or extend Kerr’s contract for a year and open a search for county manager candidates no later than Jan. 15 to find qualified candidates.

Olde Town auto shop changing hands after 40 years

When Jack Fantauzzi opened Jacks’s Auto Repair on Main Street in Olde Town Conyers 40 years ago, he wondered if he’d made a big mistake.

“I moved here from Florida, was looking for a place to start over,” said Fantauzzi. “I went to work in the garage of the local Ford dealership and worked there two months, and then I heard this place was available on Main Street and I took it.

“When I brought my tools in here and looked out the window, I said, ‘My God, what have I done? There’s no traffic here. What am I going to do?’ Nobody knew me, and the ones who I did talk to said, ‘You ain’t from around here, are you?’ But it didn’t take long for people to figure out I could repair cars.”

And while there’s no telling how many cars Fantauzzi repaired in Olde Town, he won’t be doing it for a living anymore as he has decided to retire and sell the shop.

A certified master mechanic, Fantauzzi recalled that when he opened his one-man gas station and repair shop, there weren’t a lot of places to have foreign cars or vehicles with diesel engines fixed, and it didn’t take long for customers to find him.

“They soon found out I knew what I was doing,” he said. “And little by little, and after about four years of coming in here at 8 a.m. and leaving at 11 p.m. working by myself, I got established and people started bringing me cars and it took off from there. And I started meeting everybody in town. I don’t believe there’s a person right here in Olde Town Conyers that I don’t know.”

In addition to automobile repairs, Fantauzzi was a confidant to his clients, many of whom he’s worked with for years. And he admitted that leaving the business – and his many customers – leaves his emotional gas tank a bit empty.

“Slowly but surely, I gained the trust of the people that lived in Conyers,” he said. “Getting ready to close now is a sad thing for me, and some of my customers – some of my older customers have been here 30 years and some of them are now widows – and they say, ‘What am I going to do now, Jack?’ And I say, ‘You’re going to call me and we’re going to talk about your car and we’ll get through this and don’t worry about it. If you break down anyplace, I will come and start your car.’”

He added that he’s sad to leave Olde Town because deep down, he just loves cars and loves to work on them.

“I’m a workaholic,” he said. “I love working and coming in here. There isn’t anything I don’t know about these cars. It makes me kind of mad in a way. I wish, upon death, I could take my brain, with all I’ve learned, and give it to another person.”

Although his early years were spent working alone, Fantauzzi has had a number of employees through the years, many of whom learned valuable lessons under their mentor.

“I have one young man working with me right now,” said Fantauzzi, who began working in auto repair when he was 16 years old. “It was usually a two-person shop. A lot of young men have walked in here and spent time working, and one man spent 16 years here. When they came in they weren’t really top-grade mechanics, but when they left they were top techs. They learned a lot, and I was fortunate that I could show them how and let them work.”

Fantauzzi’s planned last day was Friday, Nov. 12. He said he sold the shop – lock, stock and barrel – to a man in Covington who intends to keep the name and the phone number.

A Conyers resident for some four decades (his sister and brother also live in Rockdale County), Fantauzzi said the primary reason he’s retiring is to tend to his wife Cyrilla, who is in poor health.

“I need to take care of her now,” he said. “I’ve got to meet my obligations.”

Fantauzzi also hopes to further explore his love of photography.

“I’ll go home and pick up my camera and hopefully I’ll get some good pictures,” he said. “I’ve done a bunch of weddings and birthday parties and events, and I hope to be able to more stuff along that line. I’ve almost got as much money invested in photography equipment as I do tools. Photography has always been my second love.”

One final thought he shared about leaving his business in Olde Town Conyers.

“Just put in there that I’m thankful for my customers of 40 years. And I’m going to miss them all.”

Prescribed burn slated for Big Haynes Nature Center
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CONYERS — Big Haynes Nature Center, a community wetlands and recreational site at the Georgia International Horse Park, has partnered with the Georgia Forestry Commission and Georgia Prescribed Fire Council to complete its first controlled burn designed to have long-lasting ecological benefits for the conservation site.

Earlier this year, Bald Rock Meadows, situated on the northern side of the Nature Center, was successfully burned, but the wetlands area could not be included due to the ground being too moist, a frequent challenge of a very wet environment. The 26-acre prescribed fire is scheduled the week of Nov. 29, depending on weather conditions. Completion of this project is a critical step of a 10-year Forest Stewardship Plan, and both areas will continue this practice on a two- to three-year rotation.

In 2019 to 2020, Mincy Moffett, a former restoration botanist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, helped lay the groundwork for the upcoming burn. While working with the Nature Center staff to identify key plant life in the wetlands ecosystem, he noted, “The Big Haynes Creek Nature Center contains high-quality wetlands surrounded by a recovering oak/pine/hickory forest. It provides a wonderful opportunity for education, recreation, and inspiration. However, the presence of invasive plant species threatens to degrade this valuable resource and must be addressed.”

To avert any further destruction, he suggested that the Nature Center work with the Georgia Forestry Commission to develop a strategy, and a prescribed fire was prioritized.

“Prescribed fires are a management tool in natural areas and state parks to improve habitat for wildlife by restoring woodlands and wetlands,” said Georgia Forestry Commission wildfire specialist Marcus Beasely, who will lead the burn operations. “This practice will decrease the accumulation of litter, and increase the biomass and stem densities of some wetland plants generally considered less desirable for wildlife. A controlled burn will reduce the amount of fallen branches, understory growth and dead trees that accumulate naturally and from storm events. By decreasing the amount of available fuels, prescribed fires reduce the chance for a potentially destructive wildfire to occur.”

In addition to the fuel reduction benefits, removing dead vegetation through fire also reinvigorates vegetation for wildlife. Burns increase the amount of open water, providing increased and more navigable areas for waterfowl and aquatic animals to feed and rear their young. Historically, native species that live in wetland areas have adapted to periodic fire, and now, even depend on it. As Big Haynes Creek Nature Center is home to literally hundreds of native and migratory wildlife, upkeep of the wetlands’ natural habitat is critical.

Jennifer Bexley is director of the Georgia International Horse Park.

“Our primary goals are to slow the spread of invasive Chinese privet, open areas for new growth and enhance the wetlands and wildlife habitat,” she said. “The burn will also improve access and aesthetics of the trail system, which are important to all our visitors. We’re very pleased to have the expertise and input of our partners to launch our long-term plan, which will allow this very special community greenspace to thrive.”

Georgia Fire Council personnel, all of whom have undergone training and met national wildland firefighting certification standards, will conduct the upcoming prescribed fire. GFC staff have already begun clearing vegetation and creating natural firebreaks on parts of the Blue Trail and throughout the Purple Trail, the heart of the wetlands. Several structures, including a wildlife observation boardwalk, canoe launch, pavilion, and interpretative signage will also be protected a day or two prior to the burn. A key factor in their preparation is that they are doing this with very little to no carbon footprint.

Prior to any controlled burn, wind speeds and direction, air temperature, relative humidity, and fuel moisture levels are considered.

“Their expertise will allow them to manage the burn safely, and to prevent fire from escaping into adjacent properties and to minimize the effect of smoke in nearby residential areas,” said Bexley.

For general safety, the Nature Center will be closed to the general public from early morning to sunset on the day of the burn, and the Rockdale Fire Rescue team will also be on-site.

Covington Police arrest suspects in spate of drive-by shootings
  • Updated

COVINGTON — Officers with the Covington Police Department are confident they have solved several drive-by shootings that occurred in the city since Nov. 18.

Capt. Ken Malcom said several arrests have been made in connection with at least four drive-by shootings, including juveniles as young as 14. No one has been injured in the incidents.

According to police, the first in the series of drive-bys occurred Nov. 18 at a residence on Thrash Street. Malcom said the 911 Center received multiple calls about the shooting, and officers began looking for a vehicle involved in the incident. Officer Matt Holbrook spotted a vehicle matching the description on Washington Street, and officers conducted a traffic stop.

Officers spotted a pistol in the backseat of the vehicle and, while securing the gun, discovered a rifle and another pistol.

“There were seven people inside the residence at the time of the shooting, and two of them were young juveniles,” said Malcom. “It was the grace of God that no one was injured as a result of the reckless act.”

The CPD also made arrests in connection with three subsequent drive-by shootings that were reported Sunday night involving a stolen vehicle.

According to the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, a Ga. Highway 81 resident reported he had security camera video showing two men breaking into his wife’s 2015 Chevrolet Traverse and stealing the car early Monday morning, Nov. 22.

Later Monday afternoon, an NCSO deputy spotted the vehicle on Ga. Highway 36 and attempted to make a stop. The vehicle fled into the Covington city limits and crashed into a Bobcat that was being used for roadwork at the intersection of Puckett and Laseter streets.

Malcom said the CPD responded to the scene because authorities had information linking the stolen vehicle to drive-by shootings that occurred in the city the night before. Malcom said several occupants of the car jumped out and fled when it wrecked. The CPD took three male suspects into custody, all of them juveniles. Malcom said the driver of the vehicle was 14.

“The arrests (Monday) were the result of good work by the Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the Covington Police Department working together to apprehend these young offenders,” said Malcom.

The juveniles are suspected of being involved in at least three drive-by shootings Sunday night at residences on Walnut Street, Greenway Land and Brown Bridge Crossing.

Malcom said police recovered shell casings in the stolen vehicle as well as a handgun they believe was used in the drive-by shootings.

“We do not believe this was an organized gang activity,” said Malcom, “but some of the individuals involved in the arrests over the last week do have known gang associations.”

The names of the juveniles are being withheld due to their age. The suspects arrested in the Thrash Street drive-by shooting are:

♦ Jamond Dionte Bloodshaw, 22, 661 Greenview Ave., Conyers, charged with seven counts of aggravated assault;

♦ Deshawn Larry Grayson, 22, 395 Linkmere Lane, Covington, charged with seven counts of aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during commission of a crime, and probation violation; and

♦ Keith Parker, 21, 7183 Puckett St., Covington, charged with seven counts of aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during commission of a crime, and receipt, possession or transport of a firearm by a convicted felon or felony first offender.

All three suspects are being held at the Newton County Detention Center without bond.