0

Morrow refuses to release most city manager applications

City says state law prohibits disclosure, but GPA attorney disagrees

David 
Hudson

David Hudson

MORROW — Morrow officials have declined to release all applications submitted for the recently filled city manager position on the grounds that state law allegedly forbids the release of those documents.

However, a leading authority on Georgia’s open records law says the city is wrong.

A News Daily reporter submitted an open records request Jan. 20 to obtain all of the job applications. They are being sought so the education and career qualifications of other applicants can be compared to those of Ron Few, who was hired by the city council in a surprise move two weeks ago.

But City Attorney Destiny Washington said the newspaper can’t have access to those records in a Jan 24 response. In a letter, Washington explained the city’s stance that release of those records is “prohibited” under a section of the state Open Records Act.

Washington is a member of the Fincher, Denmark, Williams and Minnifield lawfirm, which was hired this month to be the city’s legal counsel.

“The release of most of these documents is prohibited by section 50-18-72(a)(11) of the Official Code of Georgia,” said Washington. “The only documents responsive to your request that are not exempt are the application materials and resume of Mr. Ron Few, city manager. These documents will be provided to you.

“Further, the city has created a compilation of the applicants, including the number of applicants and the race and sex, if known, for your review,” Washington added.

But the code section Washington cites does not expressly forbid release of those documents. Instead, it states local governments “shall not be required” to release applications for candidates who were not considered as finalists for an executive head position.

Georgia Press Association legal counsel David Hudson said the city should release all of the applications it received if there were not at least three finalists for the city manager position.

“Some governmental bodies are under the mistaken belief that they can have only one finalist and provide the information on just that one person. That is wrong,” Hudson wrote in an open records tip sheet for journalists. “[Code section] 50-18-72(a)(7) actually gives the local government a choice: It can provide the documents on three or more finalists, or it has to provide the documents on everyone under consideration.”

On Jan. 14, city officials announced they had received applications from about 42 people interested in the city manager position. Few was the only finalist named by the council at a meeting held that same day and his status as a top candidate was only announced minutes before he was hired.

However, the city still has an obligation to release information on other candidates, said Hudson.

“After the hiring has taken place, applications are still public records that are available upon request under the ORA,” Hudson wrote in an email Monday. “If a request was not made for records before the hiring, then the public agency did not have to provide records prior to the hiring or delay 14 days before making its decision.

“The city is wrong that it does not have to provide the documentation on other persons who applied or were considered,” said Hudson.

Few’s hiring has raised questions about search process used by Morrow officials. Half of the city council was caught off guard, and professed to not know who he was, when he was nominated for the city manager slot earlier this month. Becky Zebe, the city’s human resources director, was also caught by surprise and initially couldn’t recall if he’d applied for the position.

A copy of Few’s application, which was received through a separate open records request, shows he applied for the job two weeks before he was hired.

The new city manager was hired on a split vote and Mayor J.B. Burke had to cast a tie-breaking vote to bring Few in. Residents immediately expressed public outrage over the hiring. Meanwhile, some officials from other Clayton County cities have quietly expressed shock and confusion over the decision.

The city was technically still accepting applications for the position when he was hired. A copy of the job description, obtained from the Municipal Association of South Carolina website, shows the announced application period was not supposed to end until Friday.