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Did Morrow officials mislead city council?

Morrow City Councilman Larry Ferguson questions the process through which multiple city-owned properties are expected to be sold. He said the council was misled by their planning and economic development director and didn't know the properties would be sold by auction.

Morrow City Councilman Larry Ferguson questions the process through which multiple city-owned properties are expected to be sold. He said the council was misled by their planning and economic development director and didn't know the properties would be sold by auction.

— The city of Morrow is facing a case of deja vu or it could be caught up in one big misunderstanding.

City Councilman Larry Ferguson accused Michael McLaughlin, the town’s planning and economic development director, of misleading the council Tuesday on how city properties were sold off. Ferguson said the council was led to believe the properties would be sold through a broker, but has learned they are actually being auctioned off — possibly for prices that are below fair market value.

He said that he believed City Attorney Greg Hecht may have been involved in the misdirect, too — but to a lesser extent.

While it’s a serious accusation, it has an added layer of depth because McLaughlin’s predecessor, John Lampl, was also once accused of misleading the council on economic development efforts. In Lampl’s case, it was the failed Olde Towne Morrow project.

“I think Michael could have stepped forward and explained what his intentions were and be transparent about it,” Ferguson said.

At the center of the debate is an intergovernmental agreement the city council reached in 2009 with the Morrow Downtown Development Authority, whereby several city-owned properties and businesses were deeded to the DDA to be sold off. Through his role as planning and economic development director, McLaughlin is also the authority’s executive director.

Among those properties was a car maintenance shop and four other shops on Ga. 54, which Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke said were the properties Ferguson was concerned about.

Burke said the broker hired by the DDA to help sell the properties urged officials to not reveal publicly what the shops fair market values were. However, he added that the four shops, located near a Wendy’s, had an estimated high end fair market value of between $2.6 and $2.8 million. He said the market value of the car shop was “considerably” less, but he wasn’t sure how much it was.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Ferguson said he felt he had been “left out of the communication loop.”

During the debate on the auction, Ferguson and City Manager Jeff Eady went back and forth about the possibility that the city could lose money through an auction. That’s because a buyer only has to offer the highest bid rather than meeting a set price.

“If you’re changing the values and going to auction, then you’re potentially losing money — does that make sense?” Ferguson said.

“Potentially, but not necessarily,” Eady said. “You could potentially lose money on any sale.”

While McLaughlin was not present at the work session, Eady defended the economic developer and the decision to put the property up for auction.

“The beauty of the auction is that it puts the property out there, so people know that it’s there,” Eady said. He later added the city didn’t have to accept the auction price if it didn’t like it.

“If you want to sell, you sell and if you don’t want to sell, then you don’t sell,” said Eady.

In response to Ferguson’s assertion that McLaughlin should have been more forthright about the process, Eady questioned whether the councilman directed questions or concerns to him in private. At one point, Ferguson argued McLaughlin couldn’t be questioned about it in public because he was rarely at council meetings lately.

“Have you stepped into Michael’s office?” Eady said. “He’s here and the whole idea is to communicate. He’s here and available every single day.”

But Ferguson said he also had qualms with the way Hecht presented the disposition of the properties to the council.

Although the DDA has its own board — for whom Hecht also provides legal advice — it is still a part of the city government and final approval ultimately has to be given by the city council to dispose of any property.

It is up to Hecht to present those requests to the council for approval, and Ferguson said he didn’t feel the attorney did a good job of presenting it to council members.

“It was introduced as a housekeeping measure, but it’s more of a material measure that could have been covered in greater detail,” he said.

Hecht said he has been having trouble getting a hold of council members to respond to their questions, and at one point said — through Eady — that he’d tried five times to talk with Ferguson about the auction issue.

He also told council members he was just doing the job he was told to do and that he “tried to do my best” to explain the plans to them.

“I’m not a policymaker,” Hecht said. “I’ve just been told to take errands.”

Eady, Ferguson, McLaughlin and Councilwoman Jeanell Bridges are expected to meet today at 5 p.m. at city hall to discuss the properties and the auction process. Bridges is a member of the DDA board.