Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke sits alone at the city council dais while the council weighs the possibility of punishing him on Tuesday. The mayor is in hot water over his criticism of the town’s economic development director.
MORROW The Morrow City Council is poised to punish Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke for criticizing the job performance of Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin. However, the council itself may have broken the law when it heard complaints against city official in a closed-door meeting.
A grievance has been filed against Burke — possibly by McLaughlin — and the city council dealt with the complaint behind closed doors Tuesday night. Burke criticized McLaughlin Oct. 23 for charging First Baptist Church of Morrow an $80 permit fee to let the church have a “Trunk-or-Treat” event on Halloween. The city refunded the fee when officials couldn’t find proof they had the legal authority to charge it.
What will come from this week’s closed-door meeting remains to be seen. The council wouldn’t say what it’s decided — if it has even decided Burke’s fate. The council could censure Burke or it could go further and kick him out of office.
“The results of the executive meeting are not finalized, but the results will be announced at the Morrow City Council meeting on Nov. 13,” said Councilman Bob Huie.
In the last couple of weeks, the situation in Morrow’s government may have reached a figurative “critical mass” point, with Burke openly critiquing McLaughlin over a brewing permit fee issue Oct. 23. The mayor got an icy reception from the City Council after those remarks. A split between the mayor and council was already rumored to exist.
The grievance is shrouded in mystery because city officials refuse to say what accusations have been made. That puts the city in the precarious position of running up against the state’s open-meetings law, which mandates “a meeting may not be closed when evidence or argument is presented on a personnel matter,” according to David E. Hudson, counsel for the Georgia Press Association.
Hudson’s legal opinion regarding Official Code of Georgia Annotated 50-14-3(b)(2) came following major revisions to the state’s open meeting legislation passed in April.
The code specifically states that the exemption to the open meeting act that permits executive session, or closed door meetings, does not apply to “the receipt of evidence or when hearing argument on personnel matters, including whether to impose disciplinary action or dismiss a public officer or employee or when considering or discussing matters of policy regarding the employment or hiring practices of the agency.”
City Clerk Evyonne Browning said accusations will be made public at the Nov. 13 council meeting.
Officially, city officials won’t confirm a grievance has even been filed against Burke, but several signs point to him being the subject of the complaint.
After the Oct. 23 council meeting, Clayton News Daily filed an open records request for any complaints filed in the last two and a half years against McLaughlin, Burke, the city council, City Manager Jeff Eady, former councilmen John Lampl and Mason Barfield, and former Mayor Jim Millirons, in light of several ongoing controversies involving the city.
Browning told the newspaper the only officials grievances have been filed against in the last two and a half years were Burke and Lampl, who was kicked off the council last year.
The statement in the meeting agenda that the grievance stemmed from critical comments made against a department head Oct. 23 also points toward Burke. The mayor is the only elected official who made alleged disparaging remarks about a department head at the meeting.