ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Steven Henry speaks in 2020 at Park Place Restaurant in Fort Oglethorpe.

A Ringgold, Georgia, resident is suing representatives of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners after he was kicked out of their meeting in May 2021.

George Battersby is alleging his First Amendment right to petition his government was violated when former commission Chairman Steven Henry had Battersby escorted out of the meeting after he accused Henry of corruption for approving housing developments by his campaign donors during public comment time.

"This case is about the fact that people have (the) constitutional right to petition their government for grievances, and elected politicians and employees can't just have people thrown out of public meetings when giving public comment," Alex Johnson, Battersby's attorney, said. "Especially when bringing up topics that may be uncomfortable for politicians to hear."

In the exchange before Battersby was escorted out, Henry said Battersby was breaking the rules but didn't specify which ones.

Approved in 2020, the commission's public comment rules require a five-minute time limit, require the speaker to sign up before the meeting and bar obscene or profane language and "personal threats, attacks or personally abusive comments."

At the time, many Catoosa county residents spoke out against passage of the rules, including Battersby.

(READ MORE: Citizens not happy with Catoosa County public comment requirements)

In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press soon after the incident, Henry acknowledged that many of his contributions came from people in the construction and development business, but said he was elected to the commission because they feel he has integrity and is honest. He also denied he shows favoritism to anyone.

When asked this week about the lawsuit, filed May 9, Henry responded with a brief statement by text.

"This is a political witch hunt," he said. "The allegations are ridiculous and false."

In video of the incident, Henry interrupted Battersby and said he would have to leave the meeting if he continued to "lie."

"You are afraid because this is the truth," Battersby responded. "It is corruption, and that's what I'm after."

Henry said Battersby needed to talk only about county business and that if Battersby was going to lie and make allegations, he was going to be escorted out. Battersby said he was exercising his First Amendment rights; Henry responded that he was breaking commission rules.

"And I'm very sorry that the truth bothers you. And what I read was the truth," Battersby said. "You have involvement in the Vineyards"

"Sir," Henry said to a sheriff's deputy, "take him out. He's not going to sit up there and if you want to talk about county business, you're welcome to."

Then the deputy approached and stood next to Battersby at the podium before following him off camera.

Battersby said Henry used his influence to do a favor for a friend and campaign donor, businessman Emerson Russell. In January 2021, the board approved a variance to allow an addition to the Vineyard subdivision and a new development off Swanson Road in Ringgold. Battersby said the Vineyard variance was approved even though a local fire department recommended it be rejected.

The lawsuit also describes how Henry appeared on a talk show the week after the incident where he and Long said they discussed how they could ban Battersby from future meetings. Also on the talk show, the lawsuit stated, Henry was unapologetic and said he would kick Battersby out of the meeting again if he disagreed with his facts.

This spring, Henry resigned from the commission to run for the state Senate.

When asked about the county's position, spokesman John Pless responded by email, "Catoosa County government disagrees with the allegations in the complaint. We have no further comment."

(READ MORE: Catoosa County Commission chair has resident escorted out of meeting; man alleged conflict of interest)

Johnson said the commission rules were incorrect, and the lawsuit claims county officials violated Georgia's open meetings laws and free speech protected by the First Amendment and Georgia's constitution.

"They didn't like what he was saying, and therefore, they were shutting him down, interrupting and then throwing him out of the meeting," Johnson said. "And they aren't allowed to do that. That is a clear bit of the Constitution."

Battersby said county commissioners, including Henry, receive campaign donations from homebuilders, and he said he thinks that's influencing their decision-making regarding building projects. "It's happened time and time again," Battersby said.

"No matter who's there in opposition, who from the public is there, the particular builders always win. And the people lose," Battersby said.

After he retired, Battersby said he got more interested in politics and started going to commission meetings. Over the past five years, he said he's been to every meeting except two — one absence was due to overseas travel, and the other was because his dog died.

"I was asked to join a watchdog group several years ago, which I belong to, Battersby said. "And we monitor all we can, we're very big on public records. It's where we get all our information. Campaign disclosures, and looking at invoice credit card stuff. I was pleased to join the watchdog group, then I got hooked on it."

The group doesn't have a name, but at 71, Battersby said he is the baby of the group — most members are in their late 70s. One woman has been doing watchdog advocacy for 37 years, he said. They most often share their findings at commission meetings, he said.

On Nov. 6, Battersby signed the papers to sue county officials. He said he's never sued anyone before, but felt so strongly he couldn't let this pass. Battersby said it has nothing to do with the state Senate election. Johnson said it took a while to file the lawsuit because his "small constitutional-focused legal practice" has been busy.

"I want justice, and I want a jury trial, and the jury will decide what kind of justice it is," Battersby said.

He also said this has nothing to do with Henry's bid for higher office. Last fall, when he signed the papers, Henry hadn't announced his decision to run, Battersby said.

There's no solid timeline on the case. Johnson said it's a shame that taxpayers could have to pay for an elected official's decision, and it would be better if they were personally liable.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT