Recreation and the civic center dominated the conversation during a called meeting of Thomaston City Council last Friday to discuss the future of joint projects with Upson County.
At more than $541,000 proposed for 2023, the Thomaston-Upson Recreation Department accounts for more than half of the city’s participation in funding joint projects, which remain unresolved since the previous agreement expired Dec. 31, 2022.
Council approved a new agreement, but did not approve the accompanying budget.
Mayor Pro Tempore Doug Head expressed disappointment Friday morning in management of the recreation department and the facility.
“The issue is the recreation department and management of the department,” Head said. “We represent our citizens and we want [recreation] corrected. How do we do that to protect our citizens who feel that, half the time, they can’t even find the person who’s running the place?”
Recreation Director Shaka Johnson recently dismissed Athletic Superintendent Jeff Middlebrooks, a 34-year employee who also represents District 2 on the city council. Head said he received a call from a concerned resident following Middlebrooks’ termination.
“Every time I went out [to the civic center], the person who was there was Jeff,” Head said the caller stated. “And Jeff is the one who always gave us help. Jeff is the one who continually told us, ‘I’m here if you need me; let me be your contact point.’
“Jeff may not have been the manager, but he took that responsibility,” Head continued. “He did what a good boss would want their employee to do: Represent us in the best possible way.”
Middlebrooks alleged he was targeted by Johnson and said he plans to retain an attorney to appeal his termination. However, he told The Upson Beacon last week he “doesn’t want his position back.”
“We’re getting nothing done and the problem seems to have grown worse this week,” Head stated. “It’s blown up in a way that we had no knowledge of. The bad thing is that something major has blown up and the management problem has not been corrected.
“Do we not have to do something? Shouldn’t we feel compelled to answer to our citizens and… get this fixed?” Head asked council members. “Recreation is meaningful because it’s people and their children. It [improves] quality of life. Something has happened and it hasn’t even come close to addressing the issue. It’s almost a distraction.”
City Manager Russell Thompson said he “specifically asked not to be involved for obvious conflict reasons” with Middlebrooks’ dismissal from the recreation department. But City Finance Director Lonnie Joyce said Thompson should have been informed of joint project developments.
“For me, living here, it was pretty disappointing in the last week, the lack of discussion with our city manager, concerning the issues at a couple of our joint projects,” Joyce said. “That was a problem to me. [The county] could pick up the phone.”
In addition to Middlebrooks’ termination, 18-year employee Donna Auth resigned under pressure from her position as director of the T-U Senior Center, another joint project.
While considering whether to continue participation in joint projects, council members asked Thompson to explain the alternative.
“If you’re out, you’d have to grant [the county] the authority to provide services and tax city residents,” Thompson said. “You would allow them to tax your citizens for whatever they decide is in the best interest for the provision of that service.
“But [the city] owns half of the [civic center],” he continued. “If you’re out, [the county] should buy it or rent it from the city.”
Thompson asked council members a direct question: “How many people have received complaints about the recreation department?” Everyone at the table, including Mayor J.D. Stallings, raised a hand.
Thompson then asked a hypothetical question: “If I asked the same question about city management and your response was the same, would you do something about [me]? Why would this be any different?”
Mayor Stallings and several council members suggested hosting a town hall meeting in April to gauge public opinion of the recreation department.
Head and Councilman Don Greathouse suggested the city contribute enough funding to the T-U Development Authority to cover salaries for 2023, citing recent successes and ongoing prospects. According to the current agreement, city and county funding of the authority is at the discretion of each board.
Members of the city council and Upson County Commission met Tuesday night to discuss joint projects, now called the “Master Services Agreement.” Coverage of that meeting was not available at press time.
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