City council meeting packs crowd as residents and PETA voice concerns over primate breeding facility

Published 4:51 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Bainbridge City Council Chambers were packed full for Tuesday night’s meeting. Once the seats were filled, citizens took to standing down the sides of the aisles and out into the hallway. All had gathered to hear People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argue against the incoming primate breeding facility being built by Safer Human Medicine, as well as to voice their own concerns.

PETA was not the first item of business however. Following the invocation and pledge, three city council members, those being Roslyn Palmer, Don Whaley and Kregg Close, were sworn back in with their oath of office. After the council members were sworn in, the council voted to approve the minutes from last month’s meeting.

After this, the council opened the floor to allow visitors to speak. Mayor Reynolds emphasized that the primate facility was not a city project, and that the Development Authority of Bainbridge and Decatur County was primarily responsible for the project, though the City Council, along with the Decatur County Commissioners, Decatur County Board of Education, and Decatur County Board of Tax Assessors did approve the facility’s 10 year tax abatement plan.

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Dr. Lisa Jones-Engel, a PETA primate research advisor with years of prior experience in primate research, took to the podium first to speak. She began by emphasizing her credentials, saying, “I present this to you, because I want you to know, I know monkeys. I know the primate importation industry, and I know the public health risks that are inherent when we import and use monkeys for experimentation.”

She argued that the effectiveness of vaccine trials with monkeys was lacking, and criticized Safer Human Medicine’s approach to the local government.

“I’m here today after reviewing hundreds of pages of public records, that including emails, spreadsheets, confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, presentations, promised permits, contracts proposed, revised and signed, and the one thing that is consistent in all of these documents is that Safer Human Medicines blew into this county,” Engel said. “They postured, they beat their chest, they made outrageous and misleading promises that they will never be able to keep, they coached folks about how to respond to questions, and over the next four months, they manipulated and bullied officials.”

She went on to bring up the prior record of Safer Human Medicine’s founders, specifically with companies like Charles River Laboratories and Envigo, that are currently being invested by federal authorities for various infractions, and also raised concerns over the potential for the monkey’s waste to contaminate the environment. The crowd applauded Dr. Engel’s speech.

Several other members of the community took to the podium to speak, addressing various concerns over the facility. Some raised moral concerns over the primate’s eventual fate to be used in lab testing, with Yvena Merritt saying, “How can you in good conscience allow a facility that breeds monkeys for science labs, where the specter of cruelty looms large, to take root in our community?”

One resident took to the podium, arguing about the practical concerns of escape and storm risks. “I’ve spent over a decade chasing wind, chasing rain, chasing storms, tsunamis, hurricanes. And I’m sure the council, or the county, has been told, ‘Oh we’re gonna have buildings that’s gonna stand up to a Cat 3, a Cat 2.’ We weren’t gonna have 100-year flooding one year after another, and we had that,” he said. “And I can assure you, there’s not a building, there’s not a cage… that are gonna stand up… I’ve seen packs of dogs, and I’ve seen primates on islands in the Pacific, that are loose, and you won’t catch them.”

Next, Linda Miller spoke. Miller lives near the facility, and stated that her property value would decrease as a result of the facility, and also raised criticism over the background of SHM. “I don’t truly think all the facts were put out when the decision was made. That would be my question to y’all, were y’all aware?”

Several more members of the community spoke. Nobody from the local government or SHM spoke at the meeting about the facility, though copies of an open letter to the community from Safer Human Medicine were provided at the meeting; this letter can also be found on the Development Authority’s website.

Following the public comment session, the council heard an issue regarding the business license for Off The Hookah smoking lounge. The business has been closed for some time due to legal issues regarding the owners, and the business’s alcoholic beverage license was denied renewal at last month’s city council meeting.

The owners presented a dismissal of felony charges, but there was an issue raised with the documents presented to renew the license, with the council contending not all documentation required was presented. Some of the council members also brought up noise complaints filed against the business. The owners requested that the matter not be pushed back another month; after a back and forth between the council and the business owners, with Bainbridge Public Safety also speaking about the noise complaints, ultimately the issue was pushed back to next month’s meeting, until the owners could provide the documentation required by the council.

After this, Council Member Close was re-appointed to the position of Mayor Pro-Tem.

Next on the agenda, three municipal officer positions, namely Municipal Court Judge, Municipal Court Solicitor, and Municipal Court Public Defender, were up for re-appointment. Josh Bell was re-appointed to the position of Municipal Court Judge, Benjamin Harrell was reappointed to his position as Municipal Court Solicitor, and Eric Gay was reappointed as the Court Public Defender.

Next, the county heard a request for a street closure from the Mardi Gras Society of Southwest Georgia, requesting closure for parts of Water, Bruton, Hatcher, and Broughton Street, as well as the Boat Basin Circle on Thursday, February 8, from 6:00-8:00 PM for a 5k and fun run and golf cart parade. This request was approved.

The next item on the agenda was a consideration of budget amendments, put forward to comply with the annual audit. The council voted to accept the amendments.

The council then heard a resolution for the creation of a youth council; according to city manager Chris Hobby, this “would take the place of what we have been doing for the last 25, 30 years with student government.” This youth council program would be modeled after the one in Dublin, and would have a member of the council chosen to act as a liaison between the city council and youth council. The resolution was approved, and the youth council is set to begin with the next school year.

Mayoral appointments were next on the agenda. These appointments included McKenzie Conder for the Historic Preservation Commission; Scott Ewing for the Planning Commission; Ashley Kinchen for the Board of Health; three candidates for recommendation to the Hospital Authority’s consideration, Annalee Yarbrough, Elizabeth Simmons and Chris Hobby. These were approved.

Next, the council was presented with a bill from the Georgia Municipal Association for worker’s compensation insurance, in the amount of $344,861. They were also presented with a bid from Quality Fence Company, LLC, in Colquitt for an 8’ privacy fence at the transfer station, in the amount of $45,159. Both of these were approved.

Following this, the meeting was adjourned.