Whitehall News

Mayor won't waver on July 4th carnival

Some say city shouldn't 'give in' to violent element, but police, fire officials agree event is unsafe

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LORRIE CECIL/THISWEEKNEWS
Kids enjoy the Frog Hopper ride during the city of Whitehall's July Fourth festival last year. A midway packed with rides and games has been a hallmark of the weeklong celebration for years, but police officials say it's no longer possible to provide a safe environment during the event.
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Whitehall Mayor Kim Maggard sent a clear message during last week's City Council meeting that she will not be swayed from her decision to uncouple the city's Fourth of July carnival and fireworks, but added she is open to alternative suggestions.

Officials from the Whitehall divisions of fire and police backed up the mayor's decision to cancel the current format of the carnival, providing vivid accounts of the melee that unfolded July 3 at John Bishop Park in the minutes before the scheduled start of the city's fireworks.

Twenty-seven people were detained and 10 arrested in connection with fights that caused fleeing patrons to scatter, running through carnival rides and breaching a fireworks perimeter, delaying the start of the show.

"I'm standing firm on my decision not to keep the carnival and the fireworks on the same night," Maggard said during the Aug. 19 council meeting.

While there was consensus that safety is the No. 1 concern, it was accompanied by messages that the city should not concede to people responsible for instigating the unrest at Bishop Park.

"Ending the carnival is giving in to the problem, not finding a solution, (and it) tells the bad elements, 'We quit -- you win,' " said Richard Hoge, an Elbern Avenue resident.

Cheryl Ritz, who lives on Beechbank Road, appealed to city officials to find other venues.

"Instead of throwing our hands in the air, let's keep our tradition. Don't let (non-residents) win," said Ritz, referring to reports that nearly all of those detained in the melee live outside Whitehall.

But city officials said alternative sites were explored and none were proven viable, while reiterating that the mayor's decision was not simply a reaction this year's incident.

Police Chief Richard Zitzke, a 34-year veteran of the force, said arrests have been made every year in the recent past, but conditions have further deteriorated each of the past several years.

"I'm opposed to having the carnival at the same time and place as the fireworks. It's a recipe for disaster," Zitzke said.

Whitehall Lt. Tracy Sharpless underscored the risk for violence at the carnival, telling council members he had not permitted his family to attend the carnival on fireworks night for about the past eight years.

Sharpless said the July 3 incident was not isolated but rather had evolved.

"It's not a safe environment," he said.

Sharpless described a tangible sense of foreboding in the daytime July 3 as what he described as loosely gang-affiliated teens gathered at the park throughout the day and afternoon before the fireworks.

"The carnival provides a stage ... the tension is building (and) when the lights go out, the chaos begins."

Sharpless told council members the city simply doesn't have the resources or tactical advantages to control the event.

"We can't provide a safe environment. (The public) is at risk and I don't want that on my conscience. ... We don't have the resources to ensure your safety," said Sharpless, whom Councilwoman Karen Conison later called out for publicly stating he did not allow his family to attend the carnival.

Councilman Bob Bailey asked if checkpoints could be instituted and fences installed, but Sharpless said it would take nearly the whole department to make it effective.

"Unfortunately, we're outnumbered," he said.

Zitzke, alluding to European soccer riots, said fencing the park would get "someone killed."

Councilwoman Leslie LaCorte, citing the tradition of the carnival, challenged city officials to find an alternate site.

Zitzke said Whitehall Community Park is too close to Port Columbus International Airport to stage fireworks there, and that the size of the shells would need to be drastically reduced if Whitehall-Yearling High School were to be considered.

Ultimately, a different section of Bishop Park was found to be the safest place for fireworks. Next year, the fireworks will be launched from the far north end of the park, providing police with better lines of sight for crowd control during the show.

Maggard said she is open to having a carnival on the day or days prior to the fireworks, but not on the same day, whether the show remains on July 3 or is moved back to July 4.

"There was never once any consideration of canceling the fireworks," said Maggard.

Bailey and Councilman Chris Rodriguez each said they supported the mayor's decision for the overall safety of the city.

Problems July 3, and in previous years, are not contained to Bishop Park, police said.

"Over the past four to six years, we have had quite a bit of trouble after the midway clears," said Zitzke. "It spills over into the rest of the community."

He said police identified a large group of teens apparently dropped off at the park July 3 without transportation home.

The group waited at the Great Eastern Shopping Center for a bus that never came and reportedly caused several acts of vandalism before police ushered the group into Columbus, Zitzke said.

One of the teens was said to have a gun, he said.

Five officers from Reynoldsburg helped Whitehall quell the post-fireworks problems July 3.

Maggard said she shared the community's feeling of frustration and loss, but added the carnival is not the city's truest tradition.

"Our tradition is the fireworks (and) The Star-Spangled Banner, the pageants, the Easter egg hunt and Halloween Walk," said Maggard, referring to annual events organized by the Whitehall Community Celebration Association.

But Leo Knoblauch, president of the association, said the carnival is a tradition and reiterated his disappointment in the lack of involvement of the group before Maggard rendered her decision.

Councilman Wes Kantor concurred.

"We can't give up to these thugs. (The carnival) is a tradition," said Kantor, while backing Sharpless' decision not to take his family to Bishop Park on fireworks night.

Kantor said he hopes city leaders and the community will establish an alternate site or schedule to allow the carnival to continue.

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