MORROW Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke has grounds to challenge the city council’s order that he issue a written apology for criticizing the town’s economic development director, according to an attorney considered an expert on Georgia’s open meetings law.
The city council sent a letter to Burke Nov. 6, mandating he write an apology to Morrow’s residents, Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin, the council and city staff. The apology is for an incident from last month, where the mayor accused McLaughlin in a public meeting of charging a church an $80 permit fee for a Halloween event when he knew he lacked the legal authority to do so.
A complaint was filed against Burke because of the criticism.
The council’s letter suggests council members voted to order Burke write the apology, but they never took a vote in an open meeting on how to handle the complaint. So far, they have only dealt with the complaint behind closed doors, in an executive session held Monday.
“If they took action in an executive session, then that action is invalid,” said David E. Hudson, legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association.
Hudson said Burke or any resident of Morrow opposed to the council’s decision can challenge it in court in an effort to get a judge to “set aside” the mandate that the mayor must apologize for his actions. Anyone who wants to challenge decision in court has 90 days to do so, the attorney said.
“This action will stand unless someone challenges it,” said Hudson.
In addition to a likely violation of the state’s sunshine law, the council’s mandate that Burke write an apology also contradicts it announcement immediately after the executive session ended that the mayor’s fate had not yet been decided.
“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, as he read a statement to the public Monday night.
Burke said he was surprised when he received the letter because he didn’t know a vote on his fate had taken place and because Huie’s comment led him to believe a vote wouldn’t take place until next week.
“It obviously indicates a vote was taken outside of my presence Monday night,” said Burke. He added that he was also upset Morrow Downtown Development Authority Board President Myron Maxie — who is also a former mayor of Morrow — sat in on the council’s executive session. “He was providing accolades about Michael McLaughlin and going on about how great he was,” said Burke.
However, the mayor said he has gotten several phone calls of support from other groups: Morrow citizens and the mayors of three other Clayton County cities.
“I’m very proud of the citizens and my fellow mayors who have been calling me and saying ‘We support what you’re doing. Stand your ground,” said Burke.
Burke said he has not written a draft of the letter because attorneys with whom he has consulted have advised him to not comply with the council’s demands.
“They told me that I do not need to write that letter because it would show an admission of guilt, and they said ‘Why would you admit any guilt when you haven’t done anything wrong?’ ” said Burke. He added that his attorneys have advised him to talk with Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson about the council’s order.
Lawson declined to comment about the matter when she was asked about it on Thursday.
The council members could also each face criminal charges of violating the state’s open meetings law, said Hudson. The charge carries a $1,000 fine for the first offense, and a $2,500 fine for each subsequent offense.
But, more importantly, they have to face a city full of residents wanting to know why the governing body turned away from the repeated pledges of Morrow’s government to be transparent with residents and conduct their affairs in an open setting.
Transparency has almost been an unofficial slogan of city officials for the last year and a half, in the wake of the Olde Towne Morrow controversy. That scandal, where $13 million in tax dollars were used to build a commercial development behind Southlake Mall with virtually no revenues generated in the last five years, has resulted in criminal charges against former City Manager John Lampl.
Hudson said the council’s secret decision is “absolutely inconsistent” with the repeated assertions of transparency from city leaders.
“If you’re serious about transparency, you don’t take actions in private that should be done in public,” the attorney said.