MORROW — The Morrow City Council got an earful this week from residents upset over leadership changes and unexpected appointments that were pushed through Tuesday via several split decisions.
Many of the residents who attended the council meeting were angry about the decisions to replace City Attorney Greg Hecht with Steve Fincher and to hire Ronnie Few as city manager, even though half of the council didn’t know who he was. They were also angry about a proposal to hire a lobbying firm the chairman of the Clayton County Democratic Party runs outside of his party responsibilities.
Nearly a dozen of them were angry enough that several of them spent nearly a half hour taking Mayor J.B. Burke and Council members Chris Mills and Hang Tran to task over the changes.
“I am flabbergasted at what I just observed,” said Rose Nelson, a 15-year resident. “I want to know if there’s any way citizens can do anything to rescind some of the things I’ve heard tonight. I want to see this city continue with very highly qualified individuals to lead us on throughout the 21st century, but I just wanted to voice that I am truly flabbergasted.”
Few’s candidacy raised red flags with residents after Human Resources Director Becky Zebe said she wasn’t familiar with him or his background. She checked the list of applications received after the meeting, at the request of a Clayton News Daily reporter, and confirmed that Few had submitted his resume.
She couldn’t confirm when he submitted it though.
He was not interviewed by the full council before he was hired.
A search of news reports from places where he previously worked, including Augusta, Washington D.C. and Demopolis, Ala., show he has been involved in some scandals throughout his career.
Reports from The Augusta Chronicle show he was investigated by an Augusta grand jury who ultimately accused him of mismanagement of the city’s fire department, but he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing. Articles that ran a decade ago in The Washington Times show he and some of the top chiefs he brought in to that city’s fire department were investigated on allegations that their resumes contained inaccurate information.
He resigned from the Washington D.C. fire department while that investigation was still underway, according to news reports.
In December 2012, The Demopolis Times reported that city’s council voted 4-2 to not reappoint him as their fire chief. At the time, the city’s mayor cited a desire for a “new direction” and overspending during Few’s first three years with the city as part of the basis for the decision.
“I think the appointments that have been made will be bad for the city,” said longtime Morrow resident Danny Rudd, a former council member and mainstay in the audience at council meetings. “I hope things will turn out better for the city, but I’m doubtful.”
Clayton County School Board member Charlton Bivins also questioned Few’s appointment while saying it should have been vetted more thoroughly and publicly before coming up for a vote. Bivins said issues with the qualifications of some school system employees hired by the school board in the past helped contribute to the district’s accreditation loss in 2008.
“As a present elected official, I don’t know what to say about what just happened,” said Bivins. “New members of the council, you have an obligation as an elected official to your citizens and to your constituents as to why certain decisions are made.
Bivins later said, “This could probably be the worst decision you two have made in your very early elected careers.”
Burke defended Few’s hiring saying his references spokes highly of him and his ability to cut budgets.
“I did a background check on Mr. Few,” said Burke. “I spoke to the Richmond County chairman and I spoke to the [former] mayor of Demopolis, Ala., and they said, ‘If you can get this man, get him. I highly recommend him. He is commendable. He has integrity. He is a leader.’ “
“One was in Alabama and one was in Georgia,” Burke added. “Two totally different conversations and it was like, ‘Wow this is great to hear.’”
When Burke was asked the next day about the controversies in the new city manager’s past, he said they’d talked about it. Few and his references told him they were racially motivated, said Burke.
The mayor also said Morrow had to act quickly because Few had already received a job offer from a large northern city which he would not identify on the record.
He also said Tran and Mills wanted to replace Hecht because of how he placed in the council’s scoring of city attorney candidates a year ago. He finished last in the points standing while Fincher had the highest score.
For his part, Hecht offered praise for Fincher in a note he slipped to a News Daily reporter after the meeting.
“Steve will do a great job. He was my partner for 10 years,” said Hecht.
Proposed lobbyist salary challenged
Rudd also criticized the proposal to hire Thomas as the city’s lobbyist at $42,000 per year. That proposal died later when no one on the council would second Mills’ motion to approve it.
Had the council approved Thomas’ hiring, he would have represented the city’s interests at the state Capitol during the Georgia General Assembly’s 40-day session, which began Monday.
Rudd questioned whether the city should spend that much money on a lobbyist when employees haven’t gotten raises in years.
“I’ve been a resident here for the last 48 years and this was a real dark night for the city of Morrow,” said Rudd. “We’ve got a bunch of dedicated people here who are public servants that don’t draw very much of a salary. They haven’t had a pay raise in about five years and you could hire a man who would draw about the same amount that they make in a year for 40 days of work.”
Lack of knowledge of player a concern
Jan Master, whose neighborhood was annexed by Morrow a couple of years ago raised concerns about the fact that Mills had some board and municipal court appointments pulled from the agenda before making a motion to hire Few.
“We’re talking about putting that person on a contract without ever being interviewed,” said Masters. “I have worked for 38 years although I’m now retired, and I never got a job without submitting an application and resume and then being interviewed, sometimes two or three times before I got the job.”
Dorothy Dean, another resident and longtime mainstay at council meetings, asked Mills why he didn’t get to know city employees better when he ran for office last year, but his quiet response to Dean was inaudible.
At times throughout the meeting, it was difficult to hear what Mills and Tran were saying. Some residents tried a couple of times during debates on agenda items to get council members to speak up, but they would be met with Burke banging a gavel and calling for order.
However, resident Marvin Chisnell called council members out during public comment for not speaking loud enough that residents in the audience could hear the discussions taking place.
“I don’t know anything that was voted on because people are up here whispering and we can’t hear what was going on,” said Chisnell.
Residents question mayor’s wisdom
She then turned her attention towards Burke and chastised him for voting to replace Hecht and to hire Few.
“I know you’re exercising your rights to vote, but I want to say that I’m disturbed sir by your votes,” said Dean.
Dean was one of a few residents who stood before the council and expressed their disappointment in Burke. At a reception for the new and outgoing council members after the meeting, some residents talked about the possibility of starting a recall effort.
Other residents, including a couple who supported Burke during battles he fought with the council in 2012, talked about finding someone to run against him next year.
One person who is already making plans to run against Burke is Jeff DeTar, who lost to Burke by one vote in the 2011 mayoral election and who also lost to Tran last year. After his last bid to win an elected office in Morrow came up short, DeTar had said he wouldn’t run for another office.
However, he said Tuesday that he was moved by the events that transpired at the meeting to challenge Burke again and planned to immediately begin work on his campaign.
“After tonight, I’ve got to,” he said.
But Burke did have one supporter who defended him to residents. Tony Shaw chastised his neighbors for not questioning the closed door meetings and secret decisions made by the council to punish Burke in November 2012 for criticizing a former employee.
Shaw also endorsed some of the changes made by the council while claiming that some residents couldn’t get responses from city employees in the past.
“Maybe it was good for some of the city, depending on who you knew or who you didn’t know,” said Shaw.