Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Concerns about the past conduct of a former Morrow city manager, who is now an embattled member of the city council, are bringing a growing group of residents together to question his conduct, said leaders of the citizens coalition on Tuesday.
The residents have been going on "fact-finding missions," by filing open records requests with the city, to find out about spending habits, particularly on the troubled "Olde Towne Morrow" development, according to Paula DeTar, who leads the group with her husband, Jeff.
The couple said there were initially six people in the group, but that its membership doubled on Tuesday. The focus of the group's investigations, at this point, are the decisions that City Councilman John Lampl made when he served as Morrow's city manager, and planning and economic development director. Lampl was city manager until mid-2009, and planning and economic development director until March 2010, when he was elected to the city council.
"We're not politically inclined, but at this point, there's just so much stuff that he's done, inexplicably, unless he can answer our questions and give us some sort of explanation," Paula DeTar said.
Members call the group, "Morrow GA Citizens for Better Government," on Facebook. Jeff DeTar said the "Olde Towne Morrow" issue made some residents realize they needed to watch Morrow's city government more closely. City leaders have acknowledged there were several missteps, and possible violations of the city's fire code, when the city spent $12.38 million to build the development.
"We had no reason to believe anything was going wrong," Jeff DeTar said. "Everything was going swimmingly, and if you did come over to one of these meetings, you'd hear glowing reports by the city manager [Lampl at the time] and the council ... So, we're spoiled. Stay out of it. Leave it alone, things are working well. We've got our fireworks show every fourth of July, and everybody's happy ...
"So, we got lazy. We quit paying attention, and now, we're finding we made a huge mistake."
He said that while Lampl is the focus at this time, the group will eventually turn its attention to questioning the entire city council for not questioning Lampl's decisions in the past. The group had panned to question Lampl at a city council meeting on Tuesday, but he did not show up for the meeting. Jeff DeTar said the group still plans to confront him, however, at every future city council meeting "until we get enough answers."
Lampl's absence on Tuesday led a member of the citizens group, Morrow resident, J. B. Burke, to stand up and ask if there is a city policy that requires council members to tell city officials that they will not be at an upcoming meeting, with an explanation for their absence.
City Attorney Laurel Henderson explained to Burke that the city does not have such a policy, but she added, "It's something the council may want to consider."
Because another city council member, Mason Barfield, also was not present on Tuesday, the city council could not hold a formal business meeting where any votes were taken. As a result, city leaders only issued proclamations and gave presentations about city projects, before citizens were allowed to offer comments.
Barfield, who is also the athletic director at Clayton State University, had told the city council on March 15, that he could not attend this week's meeting. He explained that he would be traveling with the university's women's basketball team, to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division II Women's Basketball Tournament, in St. Joseph's, Mo.
City officials said Lampl did not give them an explanation of his absence. Lampl could not be reached for comment after the scheduled city council meeting. He is facing a possible removal from office, over allegations that he created a hostile work environment for the city's finance director, Dan Defnall. The city council voted last November to set up a hearing process to remove Lampl from office. A hearing had been scheduled to take place in February, but it ended up being postponed.
A more recent issue, however, has been the city's Olde Towne Morrow development, whose creation was overseen by Lampl. Among the multitude of problems with the project were the lack of a parking area, as well as the fact that feasibility, market and environmental studies, all common practice in retail developments, were not done before "Olde Towne" was built.
One of the biggest concerns, however, was the fact that the buildings at Olde Towne Morrow did not comply with the city's fire code for commercial buildings. City officials have previously conceded that the problems ultimately led them to shut down Olde Towne Morrow last December. They explained, last month, that the buildings used plastic pipes for their sprinkler systems, rather than metal pipes, as required by city code.
In an undated letter to city leaders, Morrow Fire Chief Mark Herendeen wrote that he and the city's fire marshall, Herb Jones, talked with Lampl about the need for "proper fire safety sprinklers" in the "Olde Towne" buildings.
"We insisted that each structure needed commercial grade systems installed to conform to our own city ordinance," Herendeen wrote in the letter. "John didn't care [about] the city ordinance, and stated that 'the city was exempt from following its own ordinance' ... We [Jones and Herendeen] knew that there really was not much we could do from that point on ...
"I knew that if I pushed any harder, that I would have been looking for another job, or life would have gotten a whole lot more difficult working for John," Herendeen added.
Paula DeTar said members of her good-government group are concerned about rumors that Lampl may run for mayor of Morrow this year, when the seat is up for election. She cited the Olde Towne Morrow issue, as well as the issues involving Lampl's alleged treatment of Defnall, as the basis of the group's concerns.
"We just really, really need to get this information out to the citizens of Morrow ..., " she said.