Morrow City Councilman Bob Huie reads a statement concerning an investigation into Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke’s behavior on Monday. Huie said no decision was made about Burke at the time. However, a Nov. 6 letter suggests the council had already voted in secret before he read the statement.
MORROW The Morrow City Council may have violated Georgia’s open meetings law when it apparently voted behind closed doors to order Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke to apologize for criticizing the city’s economic development director.
The city council met behind closed doors for an hour and a half Monday night to discuss a grievance filed against Burke for criticizing Planning and Economic Director Michael McLaughlin’s handling of a permitting issue involving a church event during the council’s Oct. 23 meeting. Council members claimed when they came out of executive session that they would not decide the mayor’s fate until next week.
However, Clayton News Daily has obtained a letter dated Nov. 6, which suggests the council violated state law in its inquiry and lied to the public about it afterward. The letter is signed by council members Jeanell Bridges, Bob Huie, Larry Ferguson and Virlyn Slaton.
“After meeting with you during an executive session, the council has come to a unanimous decision on appropriate action for this unacceptable conduct and clear violations of the city charter and city ethics code,” said the council members in the letter.
“The council members have unanimously agreed to call for a written apology addressed to the citizens of Morrow, Michael McLaughlin, the city council and the city staff concerning your statements made during the Oct. 23, 2012, council meeting.”
If the council reached its decision through a vote, the polling was not done in an open meeting. The council met in executive session to discuss a grievance against Burke but claimed to have not reached a decision on the matter when it came into open session on Monday night. No vote was taken, and council members said they would take up the issue at their Nov. 13 council meeting.
However, the letter was written the day after the executive session was held, which means the council likely voted in the closed-door session if any vote to punish Burke was taken at all. No public meeting of the council has been called to take place since the executive session.
The city’s legal counsel, Laurel Henderson, did not attend the council meeting on Monday.
Georgia’s open meetings law, also known as the sunshine law, requires all evidence against a public official be presented in an open meeting and that all votes be taken in open public meetings. Each official can be charged with a criminal offense and face a $1,000 fine for the first violation and a $2,500 fine for each subsequent violation. The city can’t pay the fine for the council members if they are found guilty of violating the law.
The council has mandated Burke submit a rough draft of his letter of apology by the end of this week. He must send it by e-mail to City Clerk Evyonne Browning, according to the letter.
“We will review and approve your letter of apology prior to its reading and require that you have the first draft of this letter ready for our review by noon this Friday,” said the council members in the letter.
They added a threat that “failure to adhere to this request, and any future misconduct, may be cause for this council to take stronger action against your inappropriate conduct.”
Burke could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Transparency is a big issue in Morrow. City leaders frequently state their desire to cultivate and embrace a culture of openness and transparency. This attitude stems from the embarrassment the city suffered when news that its Olde Towne Morrow was created in a flawed and potentially illegal way broke last year.
In the wake of the Olde Towne controversy, council members apologized for not conducting their affairs in a more open fashion and pledged to be more transparent going forward. That was approximately a year and a half ago.
Ironically, the council touts the importance of transparency in its letter to Burke.
“The citizens of Morrow deserve transparency,” the council members said. “Therefore, we believe they also deserve a full and open apology for your recent misconduct which is unbecoming of a city official and does not serve the city of Morrow, its businesses or citizens well.”
Because of the possibility that a vote took place, Clayton News Daily requested a copy of the minutes from the meeting. Browning said the meeting was a legally-held executive session in the city’s opinion because “there was no evidence or argument presented.”