COVINGTON -- City Councilman Mike Whatley criticized local media for coverage of the council's planned retreat to Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa, saying it has been divisive to the community, at a council meeting Wednesday night. Whatley also said much of the public has a misperception of the purpose of the retreat.
"The city is on a great course and I hate to see one word or the media take advantage of that and try to make the council and mayor divisive. We need to work as a unit and we need to work as a whole whether we agree or not agree," he said.
Whatley served on a committee appointed by Mayor Kim Carter to recommend a location for the retreat. The committee also consisted of Councilwomen Janet Goodman and Ocie Franklin. Though Brasstown was not the cheapest option available, Whatley said the committee "picked that particular place and time with all of the information that was given to us. At the time that was the best decision we could have made."
Whatley said he's been to Brasstown 20 or 25 times on training seminars and it's an outstanding facility for that purpose.
"That's the reason (former Georgia governor) Zell Miller built the thing. He didn't build it for a resort. He didn't build it for a spa. He built it for conferences and meetings and retreats," he said.
Whatley acknowledged the council could have saved a few dollars by making another choice, "but at the same time, we can spend $16 million or $20 million and nobody blinks an eye. And then we spend $5,000 or $4,000 on a retreat to do good work for the citizens of the community and we get criticized like we're a bunch of self-centered, self-seeking bunch of people that only want to go somewhere and let the city pay for it. That's wrong. That's dead wrong."
Whatley said he wanted to educate people who don't understand what a retreat is, adding that he's been on many during his business career.
"I know what a retreat is. It means to go somewhere in a neutral position and work as a unit," he said, adding that people have been writing in to the newspapers about "what they know absolutely nothing about."
"I got tired of rocks being thrown at my fellow councilmen and myself. I've got thick skin. You can throw rocks at me as long as you tell the truth. But when you start throwing them at people doing their best -- and it ain't for the money -- doing the best job they can do for the citizens of this community ... like the Bible says, he who is without sin cast the first (stone)," he said.
"This is my opinion. To me the media, whatever it is, a newspaper, radio, television ... the way the world situation is in, the way the country situation is with the economy, (the media) ought to be emphasizing some of the good things happening in the community to bring the community together. All this has done has made a mountain out of a molehill and got people in the county that don't even know what the heck they're talking about ... don't even know what a retreat is, making it divisive, like we're up here thinking we're better than everyone else," he said.
Whatley said he considered asking the council to reconsider and hold the retreat at the local FFA-FCCLA Center "to settle everything down," but he did not make that request Wednesday night.
Following Whatley's comments, Councilmen Chris Smith said that the vote on where to hold the retreat came before he took office, but that he had a problem with the fact that the council took the high bid and did not keep the retreat local.
"People are so upset about losing their houses and losing their jobs and they're seeing this as something we're throwing in their face ... I'm going to go on the retreat because it was voted on prior to me being here, but I'm going to pay my way. The city is not going to pay it, because I can't do this. It's just not right," he said.
Councilman Keith Dalton also said he will pay his own way.
"I said from the get go, I just don't think with the current economic times -- and if things were different I might have a different attitude about it -- but with things the way they are, I just don't see spending the extra money," he said.
The retreat will take place March 18-20 at Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa in Young Harris. The cost to stay at the hotel is $109 per room per night, not including meals or any other reimbursements. The city is also paying $5,000 to the facilitator, Centre for Strategic Management in Conyers.
Previously, the city's personnel director, Ronnie Cowan, said the mayor and six council members, the city manager and at least three department heads are expected to attend. He said Wednesday night that he does not yet have a total cost estimate on the retreat. Cowan said that the Brasstown Valley option was the middle-priced option of the three out-of-town locations looked at by the committee, with Callaway Gardens being the highest at $149 per room per night and a facility in Unicoi State Park the lowest at $75 per room per night.