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Morrow city manager hiring raises questions

New Morrow City Manager Ronnie Few talks to Becky Zebe, the city’s human resources director, after he was hired in a surprise move by the City Council on Tuesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

New Morrow City Manager Ronnie Few talks to Becky Zebe, the city’s human resources director, after he was hired in a surprise move by the City Council on Tuesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

MORROW — The Morrow City Council narrowly hired a city manager this week, despite the fact half the council members indicated they had never heard of him beforehand.

Ronnie Few was selected to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations, but his hiring divided the four-member council and Mayor JB Burke had to vote to break a tie. Council members Jeanell Bridges and Larry Ferguson voted against the hiring while questioning Few’s qualifications to hold the position.

“Who is he? What are his qualifications?” Bridges asked of new councilman Chris Mills, who made the motion to hire Few.

Few’s hiring was part of a shakeup of city government that also saw City Attorney Greg Hecht replaced by Steve Fincher.

The selection means a process the city already had in place to vette candidates for the position has been thrown out the window. Interim City Manager Chris Leighty told council members earlier in the evening that 42 people had already applied to replace former City Manager Jeff Eady.

The plan had been to gather applications and the council would have decided how to narrow down the list of candidates once new council members took office this week.

But the hiring also raises several questions not the least of which is how and when Few was interviewed for the position.

Bridges and Ferguson were taken aback by the surprise move. Meanwhile, the two councilmembers who voted to hire him, Mills and fellow newcomer Hang Tran, didn’t officially take their seats until after they were sworn in at the beginning of the meeting.

The position wasn’t originally on the meeting agenda, but Mills made a motion to add it to the list of annual appointments. Like the hiring itself, the move to add the position to the agenda was met with a 2-2 vote and Burke broke the tie by voting to add the position to the agenda.

And there was little discussion about Few’s qualifications to be city manager.

“He is qualified and has the experience to hold this position,” Tran said.

“What are his qualifications?” several residents shouted out.

Few, who was in the audience, initially didn’t stand when a council member asked if he was present. It wasn’t until another council member said he was present that he stood up so residents could see who he was.

But when Few did stand up to face the council, he didn’t have a lot to say when Burke offered him the chance to share his credentials with the full council.

“I will be glad to share my qualifications with you after you take your vote,” Few said.

Afterward, Burke said Few’s career before coming to Morrow was mainly spent in the fire services and that he has no prior city manager or county manager experience. Few previously worked for the fire departments in Augusta, Washington D.C. and Demopolis, Ala., Burke said.

Past media reports indicated there were controversies in his past, including a grand jury investigation in Augusta.

In a July 10, 2002 article, The Augusta Chronicle reported that a special grand jury questioned Few’s leadership of that city’s fire department in a presentment that accused him of running that department — in the newspaper’s paraphrased terms — with “a total disregard for city policy and procedure.”

However, there was no indictment.

Few had already moved on to the Washington D.C. fire department by the time the presentment came out. He was later hired to run the Demopolis Fire Department in 2007.

On Dec. 4, 2012, The Demopolis Times reported that city’s council voted 4-2 to not re-appoint Few as their fire chief. The Times quoted Demopolis Mayor Mike Grayson, who voted to not re-appoint Few, as saying the fire department was routinely over budget during Few’s first three full years with the city and that he felt the department needed a “new direction.”

Burke said he voted to hire Few based on conversations he had with a former Demopolis mayor and a Richmond County commissioner.

Burke said those officials told him the past allegations against him were racially motivated. The former mayor and county commissioner were particularly complimentary of him, he said.

“They said if you can hire him, then you need to get him,” Burke said.