'Olde Towne' looms over Morrow mayoral race

Morrow residents will choose a new mayor next week, for the first time in 16 years, with a controversial retail development serving as the backdrop for this year’s election.

Hotel manager Joseph “J.B.” Burke, 61, and avionics technician Jeff DeTar, 59, face off in the city’s only contested seat on the Nov. 8 municipal ballot. They

are running to replace outgoing Mayor Jim Millirons, who has led Morrow since 1996.

Both candidates said they decided to run because of the controversial Olde Towne Morrow development. City leaders shuttered the development nearly a year ago, because of a variety of issues, including the fact that the city spent $12.3 million to build it, another $637,934 to operate it in its first year, but saw it only generate $9,921 in revenues in its first 12 months.

It has also been revealed that there were a variety of other problems with Olde Towne, including some city code violations, and a lack of proper planning.

Burke and DeTar were both outspoken critics of the development, posing questions about its creation to city leaders at Morrow City Council meetings, in the months before either qualified for the mayoral race.

“I would say it’s the most pressing issue in the city right now, because of the budget constraints it has created,” said DeTar, who has lived in Morrow for 28 years, and has been involved in several community groups over the years, including the Special Olympics, school band and chorus booster organizations, parent-teacher groups, Girl Scouts, and the March of Dimes. He and his wife, Paula, have five children, and three grandchildren. He works for Precision Electronics, LLC.

Burke has lived in Morrow for five years, and he said he has been actively involved in the neighborhood watch group for his neighborhood, even going so far as relaying information he learned about Olde Towne Morrow to some of his fellow neighborhood watch members. He manages Comfort Inn and Suites, in Stockbridge, and McDonough. He previously managed a Comfort Inn and Suites, in Morrow.

Burke has spent the last two weeks at Grady Memorial Hospital, recovering from injuries he sustained, last month, in an automobile accident.

The two mayoral candidates pledged transparency in city affairs on Monday, if elected to office. “It’s 100 percent information flow, and then transparency that we need,” DeTar said.

Olde Towne, however, has been a dark cloud hanging over Morrow. The problems with the project came to the media’s attention earlier this year. It ended up being a major factor that was repeatedly brought up in a hearing in April, to remove former City Councilman John Lampl from office, on charges that he had created a hostile work environment for the city’s finance director, Dan Defnall.

Lampl had been Morrow’s city manager, and later, the city’s economic development director, during Olde Towne’s creation and for some of its operation. He was removed from his council seat, because of his treatment of Defnall.

Burke, and DeTar, said a spirit of transparency in government would be the key to moving the city past the “Olde Towne” issue. They praised city leaders for taking steps, which they said, have begun the creation of that atmosphere.They pointed the finger of blame at Lampl, not Millirons or city councilmembers, for “Olde Towne’s” problems.

“They were hoodwinked,” said Burke. “All of the rules, regulations and policies were already in place to prevent this from happening, but they were not adhered to by the city manager at the time [Lampl].”

DeTar added: “In my opinion, the mayor and council should be the last line of defense against this sort of thing happening, and Lampl found out how he could get around that, and that’s the problem.”

Burke said citizens have to be able to trust the city’s government, citing that he has to have the same kind of trust in his employees to manage the two hotels he runs. He expressed faith in steps city officials have taken to move the city forward, and said he wants to continue programs and initiatives already put into place under Millirons’ watch.

“These people are a team, and I believe in what their goals are,” Burke said.

DeTar said his No. 1 priority, if elected, would be to deal with budget issues, and replace old and worn-out fire trucks and police cars. He added that he wanted more park space in the city.

DeTar and Burke said they also want to focus on attracting more businesses to the city. They said city officials were already on the path to drawing in more businesses by becoming more business-friendly in recent months. The candidates said they want to continue that trend.

“Attraction and marketing,” DeTar said. “That’s the main thing we have to do to attract new businesses.”

Burke said attracting new businesses will, in turn, generate additional revenues for Morrow, and help the city deal with its budget issues. He said he believes the Morrow Tourism and Business Association is doing a good job. “They are, essentially, our own chamber of commerce,” he said.

Morrow has two other seats on the city council up for election this year. Incumbent City Councilmember Jeanell Bridges, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Senior Construction Analyst Larry W. Ferguson, are unopposed in their bids.

Ferguson, a political newcomer, and a 37-year resident of the city, will replace former Councilman Mason Barfield, who stepped down last month, two months before his term was set to expire, to move to his hometown of Hahira, Ga.

“I want Morrow to be a place that is economically successful, a safe place with little crime, and a place where kids can be safe,” Ferguson said.

Morrow City Clerk Evyonne Browning, said Ferguson is scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 22, at the Morrow City Council meeting, to fill the remainder of Barfield’s term, before beginning his own four-year term in January of 2012. The soon-to-be councilmember was originally expected to be sworn in at a council meeting on Nov. 8, but that meeting was canceled, she said.

Bridges, who is seeking re-election, could not be reached for comment.