A large crowd of Morrow citizens attended Tuesday's city council meeting, some voicing support for the council, moreexpressing support for the mayor's leadership.
MORROW The Morrow City Council tried to keep a controversial and potentially illegal punishment of Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke off its meeting agenda Tuesday.
Morrow’s residents had other plans.
More than 50 residents attended, including several who said they came because of media reports that outline how the council may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it decided to punish Burke for criticizing Morrow Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin on Oct. 23.
Residents spoke both in favor of, and against, Burke in an issue that has city officials and citizens riled up.
“It seems like we’re becoming a little unhinged here,” said former Mayor Jim Millirons, who led the city for 16 years. He later added, to the applause of residents, “We’re getting a little dogmatic and ridiculous here.”
However, Dorothy Dean, a resident of the city for 11 years, publically told Burke she disapproved of his treatment of McLaughlin.
“To my dismay, you preceded with negative comments to a city employee,” she said. “I was and I continue to be deeply disturbed by your actions. I think it was unbecoming of leadership.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the culmination in a brewing feud between Morrow’s mayor, council and city department heads. A flap over permits issued by the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department has been the fuse that broke open the tensions in Morrow’s government.
Last month, Burke publicly criticized McLaughlin when his office tried to charge First Baptist Church of Morrow $80 for a permit to hold a Halloween event for children on church grounds.
Burke accused McLaughlin of knowing he lacked the legal authority to charge the fee. The city refunded the fee when it was revealed it had never been sanctioned by the city council.
Councilmember Larry Ferguson said Burke “may have embarrassed” McLaughlin with his comments and tried to distance the council from the mayor. However, he stopped short of outright criticizing Burke for his actions.
“He may have spoken his opinion, but it is not the opinion of the council,” said Ferguson.
McLaughlin has filed a grievance against the mayor for criticizing him in public. Documents acquired by Clayton News Daily show it is the second complaint he has filed against Burke since the mayor took office in January.
On July 20, McLaughlin sent an e-mail to City Manager Jeff Eady to complain about critical comments the mayor made about him during a county-wide economic development strategic planning meeting. In the e-mail, he said he’d had issues with Burke dating back to January.
McLaughlin told Eady the mayor’s actions gave him “great pause and concern for my personal future here and the ability to move forward in performing my responsibilities in a positive and successful manner.”
The council had announced last week that it would make a decision Tuesday about what to do with Burke. Councilmembers then sent Burke a letter the next day, announcing they had decided to order he apologize to Morrow’s residents, McLaughlin, the council and city staff.
That raised questions of whether the council violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it reached that decision. No public vote was ever taken, meaning the council likely voted to enforce the sanction during its Nov. 5 executive session.
The issue is now turning into a matter of attorneys offering dueling opinions on the legality of the decision.
David E. Hudson, legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association, said that it would be an illegal and “invalid” act by the council. Hudson is an attorney considered an expert on the Open Meetings Act and wrote a primer for Georgia journalists on revisions made by the Georgia General Assembly to the law earlier this year.
“It appears that the city council members did take action, either by express vote or forming a consensus in the closed meeting, to issue a letter to the mayor,” Hudson said. “Taking that action in a closed session would violate the Open Meetings Act.”
The council has retained an attorney, Chris Balch, to review the decision and give an opinion on whether council members violated the Open Meetings Act after Clayton News Daily questioned the legality of the council’s decision. Mayor Pro Tem Jeanell Bridges declined to immediately say how much Balch is being paid when asked about it after the meeting. “You’ll have to send that question to me in an e-mail,” she said.
Balch said he felt the council acted legally in its handling of the grievance.
“The meeting was called lawfully, and executive session was legal,” Balch told the council and citizens. “No unlawful action taken because there was no vote taken in public.”
However, the back and forth left a few residents scratching their heads.
“There was a copy of a letter in the paper that said a decision had been made, and now your attorney just said no decision has been made, so I’m a little confused about what’s going on,” said resident Ray Aballo.