Whitehall News

Mayor pulls plug on July 4th midway

Carnival is 'magnet' for trouble, Maggard says; decision leaves some council members frustrated

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Whitehall's Fourth of July carnival -- the four-day extravaganza of carnival rides and games that traditionally leads up to the city's annual parade and fireworks show -- will not be held next year.

Citing the carnival as a "magnet" for troublemakers, Mayor Kim Maggard said she simply cannot again provide a stage for the melee that occurred July 3 at John Bishop Park.

Maggard, who said she consulted with numerous city officials, including Police Chief Richard Zitzke, Fire Chief Preston Moore, Safety Director Chuck Underwood, Service Director Ray Ogden and Parks and Recreation Director Steve Carr, announced her decision at the Aug. 12 meeting of City Council committees. The ruling drew criticism from a majority of council members.

Maggard said she is open to consider alternatives, up to and including alternate sites and dates for similar activities, but added she sees no way for the carnival to continue at Bishop Park or in its typical form.

"It was scary for people, for our citizens, and I never want that to happen again," said Maggard, who attributed the pandemonium just before the fireworks were scheduled to begin July 3 to visitors from Columbus who purposefully chose to come to Whitehall "looking for trouble."

Twenty-seven people were detained and 10 were arrested, Whitehall police Lt. Mark Newcomb said.

In addition to the 27 people detained, an unknown number of people fled the scene after being involved in fights.

The fighting is believed to be connected to gang activity, Maggard said.

Four officers were treated for minor injuries, Newcomb said.

"Children were separated from parents and a person was knocked out of a wheelchair," Maggard said.

The start of the fireworks show was delayed as a result of the incident.

After consulting with safety department officials, Maggard said it was determined the carnival's midway was the attraction for would-be troublemakers.

Some council members disagreed.

"That little festival wasn't hurting anyone," Councilwoman Leslie LaCorte said.

Councilwoman Karen Conison also questioned pinning the blame squarely on the carnival.

LaCorte and Conison both said they support Maggard's reason for making changes to the carnival, but believe alternatives have not been explored.

"For the first three days, there are never any problems," LaCorte said. She said that indicates to her the fireworks are equal to the carnival as an attraction.

"I want everyone to be safe, too, but we are taking away from our citizens. No, it's just one more thing our citizens won't have," said LaCorte, adding she is particularly bothered that Whitehall's residents are being made to pay for the actions of others.

"The city shouldn't be punished," she said.

According to police records, only one of the 27 people detained resides in Whitehall.

LaCorte suggested not holding the carnival the same night as the fireworks, but Maggard indicated reluctance on the part of the company staging the carnival to close it on a day it traditionally makes the most money.

Carr said he supports the mayor's decision.

He said he and Ogden met with Maggard after she had consulted with the city's safety department officials.

"I don't know how anyone can consider what happened and not see a need for a change," said Carr, adding the decision should not be a "political football."

He said his part-time employees were in a dangerous situation, as was the public.

Regarding alternate sites for a carnival, Carr said Whitehall Community Park is not optimal because of the lack of off-street parking and inadequate pedestrian access.

"The mayor and I have well-known differences, but I agree with her decision not to have the fireworks and the carnival together," he said.

Leo Knoblauch, president of the Whitehall Community Celebration Association, said he also understood Maggard's concern and the root of her decision, but added he is frustrated the decision was reached without advance input from the association, whose members plan virtually every facet of the weeklong July 4 event.

Knoblauch, who did not attend the Aug. 12 council meeting, said he met Aug. 5 with Maggard, but "it was already decided there would be no rides and no vendors."

"I asked for a meeting where I thought we would discuss what happened and what we can do to prevent it from ever happening again," but that wasn't the case, Knoblauch said.

"I asked her, 'So, you've already decided?' and she said, 'Yes,' " said Knoblauch, who in turn notified celebration association members Aug. 11.

Knoblauch and Conison, also a member of the association, said its members will discuss alternatives and do not rule out the possibility of proposing other options to Maggard or appealing her decision.

While the origins of the festival are not clear, LaCorte, Conison and Knoblauch all said it has been held at what is today Bishop Park for at least the past 40 years.

The location of the fireworks will be changed next year in reaction to the incident, Maggard said.

The launch site will be moved to the far north end of the park because it was determined to be a safer site, allowing police better views of the park's expanse, Maggard said.

Other components of the city's July 4 celebration, such as the parade and pageants, are expected to continue next year.

Maggard said she understands the tradition of the carnival, but as mayor, "part of my job is to ensure the safety of our citizens, just as I would my family," she said.

"But I'm willing to listen to any ideas (for an alternate) family-friendly event."

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