Athens' July Fourth fireworks display snagged by lawsuit; solution in works

Council to review options Wednesday for replacement show

Residents in Athens, Tennessee, will hear the city's plan Wednesday to hold a Fourth of July fireworks display after all.

Officials recently discovered the event was not included in this year's municipal budget.

"When the city found out that there was no fireworks in a budget meeting three weeks ago, I personally started calling the pyrotechnic companies," Athens Vice Mayor Larry Eaton said. "There was a lot of public outcry for fireworks."

City leaders on Wednesday will discuss alternative ideas to revive a fireworks show, Eaton said.

The 2022 pyrotechnics display used 10-inch fireworks shells that required a safety area too large to allow the general public into Athens Regional Park, the city's traditional display site near Interstate 75, according to Eaton. The display's on-site audience was limited to city officials and employees and their guests.

The idea for this year is to downsize enough for everyone to enjoy the show and to find other ways to fund it, Eaton said.

"They dropped it to a 6-inch shell, so access to the park is available to all citizens," Eaton said Tuesday in a phone interview.

The final plan would depend on what Athens City Council members agree on Wednesday, the vice mayor said. Eaton acquired a map of danger zones from a pyrotechnics company to provide to fire and police for planning purposes. City leaders will have to let the company know what the plan is by June to secure the date for a July Fourth celebration, Eaton said.

Officials are studying funding sources, Eaton said.

"We're getting donations from city businesses, and also we're looking at some money through the hotel-motel tax," Eaton said.

The cost of a 20-minute display using 6-inch shells is estimated at $45,000, based on a quote to the Athens Park Foundation from Pyro Shows Inc., the vice mayor said. The quote included a map of Athens Regional Park showing enough space to house a large number of public spectators on the five baseball fields and adjacent spaces at the park.

A federal lawsuit over last year's fireworks display was filed in January by Athens resident Glenn Whiting, who obtained a ticket to the 2022 event through Athens City Councilman Dick Pelley, according to a Whiting's complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

Documents


Whiting's 19-page federal suit alleges First Amendment retaliation, defamation, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress and names the city of Athens, former City Manager Seth Sumner, former Mayor Bo Perkinson, Fire Chief Brandon Ainsworth and 13 city employees and individuals.

Sumner resigned in November after the August 2022 election when Perkinson and former Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller lost to current Mayor Steven Sherlin and Eaton. Incumbent Pelley was voted back to his post.

Whiting's suit seeks $1 in nominal damages and unspecified punitive damages.

In his suit, Whiting contends Sumner, Perkinson and Ainsworth made false statements about him to members of the community, city employees and elected officials, knowing the statements were false.

According to the suit, Whiting entered the 2022 Fourth of July venue with a ticket provided by Pelley so he could use video to document what happened at the fireworks show.

The allegedly false statements consisted of assertions by the trio that Whiting intended to video record children at the 2022 fireworks show for prurient purposes.

The suit alleges employees were encouraged by Sumner, Perkinson and Ainsworth to "harass, intimidate, threaten and assault" Whiting when he showed up at the fireworks event, the lawsuit claims.

The city in its April 12 answer to Whiting's complaint denied any of Whiting's constitutional rights and freedoms were violated and specifically denied any Athens officials instructed city employees to harass, assault or defame Whiting, according to court documents. The city is represented by Dan R. Pilkington, from the office of Watson, Roach, Batson & Lauderback in Knoxville.

The city and other defendants deny there was a conspiracy or that any assault occurred. The defendants said Whiting continued to record families and children throughout his visit to the park, and multiple people repeatedly asked him not to record them, documents state. Regarding other exchanges between Whiting and city officials and employees, the defendants stated they would rely on what Whiting's video showed and how it was interpreted by the court.

Any damage Whiting allegedly suffered from the airing of the video and the comments made was not at the hands of the defendants, the answer contends.

"The plaintiff himself caused the video to be published to social media and, to the extent he alleges any damages as a result of the publication of that video, those damages were caused by his own actions," the defendants state in their answer.

On Tuesday, Eaton, who filed suit against the city and Sumner in 2022 prior to being elected, said he couldn't talk about the pending matter involving Whiting.

"Really, I don't need to be saying anything about the suit, but as a city councilman and vice mayor, we want to make sure the fireworks are happening for our city to ensure a great family event where everyone can enjoy a great Fourth of July for our country," Eaton said. "It's going to happen."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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