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Athens, TN council lights fuse for Fourth of July fireworks display

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: A 20-minute, $45,000 Fourth of July fireworks display for residents of Athens, Tennessee, was approved by a

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: A 20-minute, $45,000 Fourth of July fireworks display for residents of Athens, Tennessee, was approved by a 4-0 vote, despite a pending lawsuit over the 2022 display.


Officials discovered there was no funding for the display in the city’s budget less than a month ago and responded by quickly seeking a way to fund a celebratory fireworks show, according to Athens Vice Mayor Larry Eaton.


“The $45,000 will come out of the budget until we do have some donors who are going to be coming forth, and once they give us the money, it will go back into the budget,” Eaton told fellow council members at a meeting Wednesday, when the 2023 display was approved.


Councilman Jordan Curtis wanted more details about plans made for the fireworks show with such short notice before he cast a vote.


Athens Finance Director Mike Keith said LaFollette, Tennessee-based Pyro Shows Inc. is the designated vendor for the show and plans from the past are being used for the 2023 show.


“We as staff have discussed the logistics of doing the fireworks show. We have pulled plans from prior years — 2019 was the last year before COVID hit — so that is the show that is being presented as far as the type of shells,” Keith told the council of the city’s last fully public display.


The size of the fireworks shells to be used was decreased from 10 inches to 6 inches for 2023 to reduce the safety area so the public can attend, Keith said.


The unanimous vote was 4-0 because Councilwoman Frances Witt-McMahan was absent from Wednesday’s meeting, but Eaton said Thursday she made him and other council members aware of her support for the display.


Insurance coverage for the show is in place, and the maximum capacity for spectators at the show will be determined by a full parking lot, Athens Mayor Steve Sherlin told council members.


“The park will be open to the public,” Sherlin said. “As far as capacity goes, as soon as there’s nowhere else to park, they’ll close the park.”


Sherlin and Keith said concessions will be open for spectators prior to showtime at sunset, or around 9-9:30 p.m.


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 2022 display’s on-site audience was limited to city officials and employees and their guests.


A federal lawsuit over the 2022 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 Whiting’s 19-page federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.


Whiting’s 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.


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 defendants also deny there was a conspiracy or that any assault occurred, and stated in their response they would rely on what Whiting’s video showed and how it was interpreted by the court.


Eaton said Thursday in a phone interview the cost of the show will initially be covered by the city’s general fund, but donations will offset some or all of those costs.


If donations come up short, Eaton said the city will cover the gap, and if donations exceed the cost for this year’s show, the extra money will go toward 2024’s Fourth of July display.