MORROW Infighting between Morrow leaders has spilled over to the city’s residents, who have gone to war against each other over the activities of city government.
Citizens got into heated arguments with each other over the state of affairs in Morrow’s government during the public comment portion of a city council meeting Tuesday. Tensions flared and residents shouted at their neighbors who were addressing the city council, as well as at council members.
Tensions have been mounting in the city as a fight over permit fees has escalated into the council considering sanctions against Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke for criticizing Morrow Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin at an Oct. 23 council meeting.
“Whenever the subject of cities came up with my friends who live in other places, I always praised Morrow,” said Willie Folz, who has lived in Morrow for nearly 50 years. “Right now, I want to say I’m not happy with what you all are doing, and I’m ashamed to say I’m from Morrow.”
Reports by Clayton News Daily that the city council may have violated the Georgia’s Open Meetings Act during an executive session held Nov. 5 proved to be the source of the angst between residents and council members.
Council members met behind closed doors to address a grievance filed against Burke for his comments against McLaughlin, but they later came out into the open meeting and said no decision had been reached on sanctions against the mayor. The next day, the council members gave Burke a letter telling him they had decided he must apologize to McLaughlin, the council and Morrow’s residents for his comments.
The newspaper consulted attorney David Hudson on the matter, and he suggested the council violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, that forbids the hearing of evidence in a closed-door meeting. Hudson is a consultant to the Georgia Press Association and is considered an expert on Georgia’s Sunshine law. Council members would have to pay fines if they are found guilty in a court of law of violating the law.
The issue was enough to make Folz, an elderly man who requires a cane for support when he walks, move to the side of the public comment podium, and place his right hand on the side of the podium while he put his left hand on his hip.
“Are you gonna pay that fine?” said Folz as he looked at the council members. “If you don’t, then I’m going to file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office against each of you.”
However, resident Jeff DeTar lashed out at the newspaper and accused a reporter and an editor of being biased against the city.
The basis of DeTar’s accusation, he told his fellow residents, was that he saw a reporter writing a story about the council’s Nov. 13 council meeting on his laptop computer while the meeting was still under way.
He also accused the reporter and an editor who was also at the meeting of consulting an attorney by phone about the legality of the executive session during the Nov. 13 meeting.
“They’re just trying to sell newspapers,” said DeTar, who lost to Burke by one vote in last year’s mayoral election.
A group of four elderly women sitting near DeTar then cut him off, and in unison asked, “What proof do you have to back up what you’re saying?”
“I was at the meeting and I saw it with my own eyes,” DeTar said.
“We were here, too, and our picture was in the paper to prove it,” the women exclaimed.
City Councilwoman Jeanell Bridges admitted “some of what the newspaper printed was right,” but she didn’t elaborate on what she meant by that. She then added she felt the newspaper also printed some incorrect information about the situation in the city.
“The Sunshine Law has not been violated,” she said. “What was done was in order.”
But, Folz and other residents said they agreed with the conclusion that a violation had taken place after reading accounts of what had taken place in the city.
“I can’t imagine why you people did what you did,” Folz said. “Surely, you knew it was wrong. Even someone as simple minded as myself can see you broke the law. The newspaper didn’t print anything that was incorrect and you people — come next election — I hope to see some of you gone.”
Folz, and fellow resident Tony Shaw said they backed Burke in the battle between the mayor and the council. One resident who told the council she has a Morrow address but lives just outside the city limits even told the council she and her neighbors are tired of carrying the negative stigma created by political infighting in the city.
“The image of the city has a lot to do with the city’s employees and I think we have a mayor who is here to make a positive change for the city,” said Shaw, a 17-year resident of the city.