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Johnson City slow to offer insight into Haven of Mercy shut off attempt

Johnson City provided little new information Monday about why it attempted to shut off power at the Haven of Mercy homeless shelter last Friday.

The city did provide a copy of an order issued by Chief Building Official Jeff Canon, which repeats a section of city code that states the chief building official has the authority to disconnect power and other utilities if they pose a danger to inhabitants.

The order asks that service be disconnected from the property, located at 123 W. Millard St., until it’s cleared by a city inspector.

Reached Monday afternoon, Canon directed a Johnson City Press reporter to the city’s media relations department.

The Press requested an interview with a city official on Monday morning and asked for more information about a fire code enforcement inspection that the Haven of Mercy passed on Tuesday, July 13 — days before the city attempted to shut off the shelter’s power.

An attorney representing the homeless shelter, Devon Muse, provided the Press with a copy of the inspection report on Friday.

The city did not provide any context Monday about the inspection report, and no one at the city was made available Monday for an interview. City spokesperson Ann Marie French said Development Services Director Preston Mitchell would, however, be free to speak on Tuesday.

The city has a policy in place, which wasn’t strictly enforced until at least several months ago, that requires media outlets to coordinate interview requests through the city’s communications department. The Press has previously been able to reach out to city staff directly without coordinating through a city spokesperson.

On Friday, the city asked BrightRidge to shut off power to the Haven of Mercy’s main building, but BrightRidge said employees were denied access. A BrightRidge truck did appear at the property on Friday around 5 p.m., but the vehicle eventually drove away without disconnecting power.

Muse said power remains on at the Haven’s main building as of Monday. He and Haven of Mercy owner Grant Rockley said no one denied staff access to the building on Friday.

In a statement last Friday, the city said it had received an anonymous complaint that the Haven’s owner had disconnected power to the building’s annex weeks ago and that there had been at least one fire in an electrical panel. Rockley said there has not been a fire in the panel.

Muse and Rockley said three members of city staff — Canon, Assistant Fire Marshal Lori Ratliff and Development Services Manager Dave McClelland — did stop by the homeless shelter on Monday to inspect the panel.

The property appears on the agenda for the Johnson City Board of Dwelling Standards meeting at 6 p.m.Thursday.

A notice sent to the shelter says the board will consider a petition declaring the property unfit for human occupation. The board will hear evidence to that point, and if it’s worthy of followup, then schedule a public hearing for a later date.


Haven of Mercy has been in an ongoing dispute with the city over building code violations, which the city has said increase the risk of injury and fire at the homeless shelter.

In January, the Board of Dwelling Standards initially voted to temporarily close the building while the owners made repairs. Among other violations, a closure order issued by the city said permits were needed for a kitchen hood, an electrical sub-panel behind the kitchen and interior electrical issues in the basement and throughout the building.

After a legal tug-of-war with the property owner, the board ultimately opted to rescind its order to vacate in February and heard testimony from shelter residents during a called meeting on March 11. The board continued the issue to a meeting on March 25, during which they set capacity limits on the building. Since then, the board has been receiving regular progress updates.

Occupancy at the homeless shelter has been cut in half while repairs are completed, and there are now about 35 residents living there.

Eagle Scout project intended to remind community of forgotten heroes

ELIZABETHTON — Seth Whitehead, 14, is working on a project that is not only important in his own life, but also should have an impact on the community.

It is a project he is undertaking as a key part of his effort to become an Eagle Scout. Even more important, his project is designed to help a community remember four young men who died while working to defend the town of Hampton from a forest fire on Jenkins Mountain on Feb. 27, 1954.

Whitehead said the four who were killed include 15-year-old Robert Simerly, a volunteer with the Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department, and three employees of the Tennessee Division of Forestry: Herman Carden, Kenneth Pierce, and Jerry Woods. All three were 19 years old. Somehow, most people in the community have no knowledge of the tragedy, and Whitehead wants to change that by leading an effort to raise funds to purchase a memorial for the four young men.

“Nothing currently exists for these brave men who died protecting our community,” Whitehead said. “I do not want my generation and future generations to forget the sacrifice of these brave men who died protecting it.’’

To raise the money for the memorial, Whitehead has been preparing to host a car show at the State Line Drive-In on U.S. Highway 19E in Elizabethton on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The registration fee is a donation to the planned memorial.

Whitehead certainly understands the dangerous role that members of the Tennessee Division of Forestry play during forest fires. His father is Capt. Greg Whitehead, a fire investigator with the division. But he and his dad were like most in the community, unaware of the tragedy from nearly 70 years ago. That is, they were unaware until another Division of Forestry member, James Heaton, told them the story.

Heaton said he had been seeking to make the public aware of the four young men since he learned the story back in 2005. He received a key piece of advice in 2018 — he learned that other memorials to fallen firefighters were the result of Eagle Scout projects. It was especially good advice because “we had a potential Eagle Scout in house.” He told Seth about the tragedy and about his desire to see the men remembered. Seth was eager to devote his Eagle Scout project to the effort and Heaton has become a project coach.

Whitehead has been involved in Scouting nearly all of his life, starting as a Cub Scout back in elementary school. He went through all the Cub Scout ranks and then joined the Boy Scouts. He is now a Life Scout in Troop 516 in Elizabethton, under the direction of scoutmaster Ricki Dykes. Whitehead is a recent graduate of T.A. Dugger Junior High School and will be a freshman at Elizabethton High School when the new academic year begins next month.

Greg Whitehead said his son has learned a lot of valuable lessons from trying to create a memorial for the heroes. “He has learned about finances and businesses,” Whitehead said. When they decided to raise funds through a car show, they planned the logistics and Seth went door-to-door to businesses to get door prizes. They contacted the Carter County Car Club and the other car clubs in the region, inviting them to participate.

Money raised by the Eagle Scout project will be used to place a group of stone monuments located at a piece of ground at the Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department. That parcel of land provides a view of nearby Jenkins Mountain and the spot where the four young men died. “The monument will honor the bravery and valor of all four of these fallen heroes,” Whitehead said.

The memorial will consist of two stone monuments, four smaller foot stones, and one informational stone. The first will be a stone bench engraved with the names and ages of the fallen firefighters, plus the name and date of the fire. This monument will also have the logos of the Boy Scouts of America, the Tennessee Division of Forestry, and the Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department, along with the words engraved “Seth Whitehead’s Eagle Scout Project (date), Troop 516, Elizabethton, TN.”

The second monument will be placed approximately 3-5 feet from the bench and will be a slanted stone monument with an outline picture of Jenkins Mountain that the bench is facing. An “arrow” will mark the spot where the tragedy took place. It will include a quote from Isaiah 6:8 “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send and who will give for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me,” engraved in honor of the young men who went that day to protect the community.

The four footstones with the names of each firefighter will be placed directly in front of the slanted stone monument, along with an information stone about the fire.

Greg Whitehead said the monuments are expected to cost around $5,000. He said 100% of the proceeds will go to the project and if more money is raised than is needed for the memorial, he said the additional money will be contributed to the Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department.

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Washington County school officials seek public comment on relief funds

Officials with Washington County Schools are holding community meetings this week to get input on how to spend new money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Jerry Boyd, the county’s director of schools, said his system is expected to receive $11.9 million in the latest round of allocations from the federal pandemic relief fund.

“These funds may be used for one-time expenditures and should primarily focus on supporting students’ academic needs in order to accelerate learning after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Boyd said in a statement posted on the school system’s website at wcde.org. “These funds may be spent over the next three years.”

As part of the application process to receive those ESSER 3.0 funds, Boyd is holding three community forums to hear ideas from the public.

“I would appreciate the opportunity to engage with members of our community as we work together to complete the application and district plan for these funds,” Boyd said.

Boyd kicked off the community meetings on Monday with a session held in the little theater at Daniel Boone High School. A second forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the little theater of David Crockett High School.

The final hearing will begin at noon Thursday in the conference room of the Washington County Department of Education Central Office, 405 W. College St., Jonesborough.

In addition, the school system has posted a questionnaire on its website asking community stakeholders to rank a list of priorities for spending the ESSER funds. Those proposals include spending money to:

• Provide “high quality instructional materials and resources” to meet the academic needs of students.

• Provide “additional staffing in order to reduce class size and offer more intervention services.”

• Provide heating and air upgrades to facilities.

• Provide “Washington County teachers with additional professional learning supports and opportunities to accelerate student learning and close achievement gaps.”

Responses to the online survey must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Boyd told members of the County Commission’s Budget Committee last week that federal regulations require the school system to use at least 20% of its ESSER funding to address student learning loss during the pandemic.

He said the school system has decided to earmark half of its federal relief funds for issues involving academic learning loss, with the remaining dollars going to other needed projects.

Multiple special meetings raise possibility Baby Doe lawsuit settlement in works

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Thursday for the damages trial in the Sullivan Baby Doe opioids lawsuit. But that might not be necessary as multiple, if not all, local governments involved as plaintiffs in the case appear to be rushing to consider a potential settlement.

Kingsport City Manager Chris McCartt confirmed to the Times News the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen “will consider a resolution regarding the opioid litigation” at its meeting Tuesday, although that resolution had not yet been added to the agenda.

“More information regarding the matter will be available at that time,” McCartt said, after conferring with an attorney before going on the record about the issue.

The Bluff City Board of Mayor and Aldermen announced a special called meeting, set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, with one agenda item: discusssion/action on “settlement of opioids lawsuit,” presentation by Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus.

That meeting announcement and agenda were faxed to the Times News about 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Earlier in the day:

• An “emergency meeting” of the Washington County Commission “to consider settlement of a pending litigation matter” was announced. It is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday.

• The Sullivan County mayor’s office announced that the Sullivan County Commission’s Executive Committee will hold a public meeting “to review pending litigation” at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. That announcement noted the committee will exclude the public for a portion of the meeting.

State law allows local governing bodies to meet behind closed doors to discuss litigation, but votes on what action to take must be conducted in public.

On Monday evening, the Greene County Commission met in closed session prior to its regular monthly meeting. Earlier in the day 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Dan Armstrong told the Times News he intended to attend the closed session to discuss an issue, but he wasn’t sure it would become an action item on the agenda. Armstrong said he couldn’t stay long in Greene County because he had to be in Hamblen County later in the evening.

During the Greene County Commission’s regular meeting, under “old business,” the 16 commissioners present voted to accept the county attorney’s recommendation on a claim number, a move not listed on the agenda. There was no discussion prior to the vote and no details to identify the claim in question.

The Sullivan Baby Doe lawsuit was originally filed on June 13, 2017, by the district attorneys general of Tennessee’s First, Second and Third judicial districts in Sullivan County Circuit Court in Kingsport. The complaint originally listed prescription opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, L.P. and its related companies, along with Mallinckrodt PLC, Endo Pharmaceuticals, a pill mill doctor and other convicted opioid dealers as defendants.

As part of the national scrutiny brought to bear on opioid producers and distributors, due in part to Sullivan Baby Doe’s arguments, Purdue and Mallinckrodt have declared bankruptcy, with claims proceeding against them in related courts. Endo remains the only active corporate defendant.

In April, Sullivan County Chancellor E.G. Moody granted a default judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor; imposed sanctions for defendant Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.; and reserved issuing a final judgment pending the damages trial, which is scheduled to begin July 26.

After the lawsuit’s initial filing, local governments replaced the district attorney generals as the official plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs are seeking $2.4 billion in compensatory damages, and punitive damages above and beyond that amount.

Unless a settlement agreement is reached, a jury will determine the amount of damages plaintiffs will receive.

Kingsport Times New staff writer Matthew Lane contributed to this report.