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Commission chairman defends firing of Lovejoy mayor

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell defended the firing of a county inspector, after a civil service board ruling overturned the termination. He hinted he will push for an appeal.

The Clayton County Civil Service Board ruled that the county was wrong to fire Joe Murphy, a county building inspector, who is also private electrical contractor and the mayor of Lovejoy.

The board reinstated Murphy to his previous civil service ranking last week, and granted him back pay.

Bell, in a statement released by his office, said the commissioners would closely review the ruling, and repeated his arguments for firing Murphy.

"The actions of the department head in terminating Mr. [Joe] Murphy were clearly appropriate," Bell said in a statement. "The governing body will review the [Civil Service Board's] findings and respond accordingly."

Bell cited Murphy's admitted violations of county policy as justification for the November firing. The county originally alleged 11 instances where Murphy inspected work or oversaw the inspection of work, as a county official, which he had done as a private contractor.

Murphy and his attorney, Steve Frey, said the evidence in many of those instances amounts to information missing from files, an absence that could only be construed as damning evidence if the chairman had already decided to fire Murphy.

Murphy admits he did violate the county policy against conflict of interest three times, however. Bell points to Murphy's admissions, in his statement, as justification for the firing.

Murph didn't appeal the firing on the grounds he was completely innocent, though, according to his attorney. He appealed with the argument that while he did violate the county's code against conflict of interest, he should have been suspended, not terminated.

"There was never an issue of whether he did it or not," said Steve Frey, Murphy's attorney. "The board's order will go to the punishment and will substantially say that the punishment was over the top."

Frey argued that the actual violations were really minor cases, where Murphy plugged something in, as an electrician and then signed off on a document as a county official. Frey said Murphy's bosses should have called him in, repeated the policy to him, and suspended him.

The county's attorney argued that Murphy's behavior undermined citizens' trust of county government and Murphy's best defense was long-standing tolerance for a culture of graft. "Just because that's the way its always been done doesn't make it right," Pam Everett said during closing arguments.

She showed reprimands and memos dating back five years, and argued that Murphy knew and ignored the policy.

If the Board of Commissioners appeals the case, it will go to the county Superior Court. According to state law, there are six grounds for appeal, including arguing that the civil service board acted beyond the scope of its authority and arguing the ruling is "clearly erroneous."

The board is scheduled to send off its written report on the ruling next month.