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Morrow weighing councilman's removal hearing

The City of Morrow has taken the first step in possibly removing City Councilmember John Lampl. An ordinance has been introduced that outlines a procedure for conducting hearings for city officials the city council believes should be removed from office.

Last month, the council voted in favor of seeking a hearing to remove Lampl from office, after a city-authorized investigation determined he had created a "hostile work environment" for the city's finance director, Dan Defnall. The new ordinance was written City Attorney Laurel Henderson in response to the council's vote, because the city did not have an established process to conduct a removal hearing.

According to the ordinance, the Lampl situation is just a jumping off point for what is designed to be a long-term solution to the question of what the city should do in cases such as Lampl's. "It is the intent of this ordinance to serve as a general process for removal of all officials, subject to that action, as well as to govern procedures for the hearing of removal charges against Councilmember John Lampl," the ordinance states.

The Morrow City Council did a "first read" on the ordinance on Tuesday. No action was taken. Laurel Henderson said the city council is scheduled to vote on the matter at its meeting on Jan. 12.

"It will be a general ordinance that will be retained with the other city ordinances in the [city] code, and it would apply, not only to elected officials, but to officers who are appointed under the city charter, like the city clerk ..., city attorney, or similar officers," Henderson said.

If the council approves the ordinance, Lampl — who was just elected to the council in March of this year — will become the test case for how the system works.

In June, Dan Defnall filed a complaint with the city, accusing Lampl of "constant criticism, and comments" that "resulted in a harassing, and hostile, work environment."

The city council, in August, authorized an independent investigation to look into the complaint, and what should be done about Lampl, if the complaint was accurate. Last month, officials from the law firm of Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp and Wilson, LLP, which conducted the inquiry, told the council they found truth in the allegations.

The ordinance being considered gives the council and the mayor, the choice to either, serve as the city's hearing board, or to establish a three-member, independent, hearing board to preside over a removal hearing.

The ordinance stipulates that members of the independent hearing board must be licensed attorneys, or city managers, with at least 10 years of experience in city government, and no official ties to Morrow government. The amount of money paid to hearing board members has not yet been determined, Henderson said.

Lampl said he would prefer that his hearing be conducted an independent panel. "If I was given a preference to have somebody who doesn't have a particular stake in the outcome, that would be the preferable choice, because then they don't have any institutional knowledge," he said.

Morrow Mayor Pro Tempore Bob Huie said the council has not yet discussed Lampl's hearing, and is not leaning either way on who would conduct the hearing.

The ordinance would also allow any city official, who is the subject of a hearing, to have the right to be represented his, or her, own attorney, offer testimony and present evidence, and cross examine witnesses. Henderson would be allowed to act as the hearing board's legal advisor — if it needs her to do so. She said if the hearing board has attorney's on it, it likely would not need her to be its legal advisor.

If she does have to serve as the hearing board's legal advisor, then another attorney would have to be retained to prosecute the case for the city, she added. "I cannot be the hearing board's legal advisor, and prosecuting the case for the city," she said.

The hearing board is not bound to follow the same rules of evidence that would apply in a court of law, or equity, according to a copy of the ordinance, and it would have the authority to oust the city official who is the subject of the hearing.

"Where the hearing body determines, a preponderance of the evidence, that the official has committed the conduct as alleged in the notice, the decision shall be for removal," the ordinance states. Rather than requiring a unanimous decision, a simple majority vote is all that is needed to remove a city official, according to the ordinance.

If the hearing board decides to remove Lampl, he will have 30 days to appeal the decision in Clayton County Superior Court.