published Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Cleveland mayor, Bradley County tea party chief defend roles in flier dispute

Donny Harwood of the Tea Party of Bradley County, Tenn., left, debated Mayor Tom Rowland, right, Monday on the truthfulness, or lack of it, in a flier the group distributed to a Cleveland neighborhood in June.
Donny Harwood of the Tea Party of Bradley County, Tenn., left, debated Mayor Tom Rowland, right, Monday on the truthfulness, or lack of it, in a flier the group distributed to a Cleveland neighborhood in June.
Photo by Randall Higgins.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Mayor Tom Rowland says the city has no reason to apologize for asking for a police investigation into who was distributing fliers to south Cleveland homes in June.

The fliers, which stated the city was planning to use eminent domain to take more than 300 homes in the name of development, were untrue, Rowland said Monday.

It is the Tea Party of Bradley County that needs to apologize for upsetting families, some of whom have lived in their homes for two generations or more, he said.

"They were in tears," Rowland said.

At Monday's City Council meeting, a lively, but civil, debate took place between council members and members of the Tea Party of Bradley County. In the end, the only common ground was that no one will apologize.

Donny Harwood, president of the Tea Party of Bradley County, said his organization has no reason to apologize, either. At the time they were distributed, the fliers were true, according to the latest public information, he said. It is the city that needs to apologize for intimidating the group's members and seeking to deny them their right to free speech, he said.

The call for an investigation aimed to "essentially hunt down, arrest and expose members of our tea party group as we made efforts to inform the community of horrendous plans for their community," Harwood said.

"This flier contained truthful information based on the last known public meeting," Harwood said. The "white paper" on which the flier was based later was changed, he said.

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"We haven't stopped your free speech," Rowland told Harwood.

"Have you passed any leaflets out to apologize to the 300 homeowners that this was not true?" he asked Harwood.

Rowland said the investigation was only to determine if laws were violated, and since none were the point is moot.

"If you are man enough, you will go down there and apologize," he told Harwood.

"There is nothing for us to apologize about," Harwood responded.

The group, he said, held a town hall meeting to seek explanations but only one councilman, Bill Estes, attended. Other council members, and Rowland, said they got the invitation after the meeting was held.

Tea party member Dan Rawls said that isn't true because he sent the registered letters.

Councilman George Poe said he got a late invitation to a meeting to discuss something he had no intention of doing anyway.

"We couldn't afford to buy 300 houses in the first place," he said. "We have never talked about what we are accused of."

If Harwood's group was so alarmed, Poe said, they should have come to the council first with questions.

Rowland and Poe said they have not read the "white paper" from contracted consultants on which the flier was based. Harwood said the paper was handed out during a three-day public planning meeting at Bradley Square Mall.

Councilman Richard Banks, who said he has read the white paper, told tea party leaders they took the "300 homes" statement out of context. The original question was what would happen in the community if Whirlpool stayed in its old location, he said.

Consultants said that up to 300 homes might have to be seized through eminent domain to accommodate the company's expansion there. But Whirlpool moved to its new Benton Pike site.

It was only a "what-if" discussion, Rowland said.

"There is nothing for us to explain, because there was nothing to it," he said.

Contact staff writer Randall Higgins at rhiggins@timesfree press.com or 423-314-1029.

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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