Tension mounts in Gordon amid allegations of misconduct

awomack@macon.comFebruary 8, 2014 

Tension has been building in the small town of Gordon since a new mayor took office barely a month ago.

It has prompted heavy attendance at City Council meetings, as well as complaints to the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws. Residents there have formed a group, Concerned Citizens of Gordon, with an aim of ousting the new mayor, Mary Ann Whipple-Lue.

And the city attorney recently chided her and council members in a letter, saying that recent allegations could result in “legal consequences” for the city if found valid.

Time will tell if the uproar is justified or if it’s mostly the result of frustration over how new leaders are forging a different direction for the small town of about 2,000.

The racial composition of elected leadership shifted in November’s elections. Whipple-Lue, a black woman, unseated a 12-year white incumbent, and the once predominantly white City Council is now made up of four black members and two whites.

Only weeks into the new administration, four city employees filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the mayor was guilty of racial discrimination.

There have also been contentions that Whipple-Lue has participated in gatherings that violated Georgia’s open meetings laws and that she tried to make changes without City Council approval, in violation of city ordinances and the city charter.

It’s not uncommon for such clashes to erupt after an election, said Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association.

“It happens every election cycle,” she said. “It’s just everybody finding their place in the new dynamic.”

That’s why there’s a state mandate requiring that newly elected officials attend training, she said. The classes cover the basic laws and regulations that officials should be familiar with, ranging from financial dealings to the state’s open meetings and open records law.

Although the training is required by law, the mandate doesn’t designate a penalty for officials who don’t attend.

“In the school of hard knocks, you’re going to learn stuff,” Henderson said. “This shortens that learning curve.”

Whipple-Lue was elected Nov. 5 after defeating incumbent Kenneth Turner by 40 votes. Two black city councilwomen -- Doretha Whipple and Barbara Towles -- also were elected.

Soon after taking office, Whipple-Lue, Whipple and Towles tried to change police dispatchers’ work schedules without a full council vote, said Terry Eady, a white city councilman who also serves as the city’s fire chief.

As part of the attempt, there was a threat to fire the police chief, he said. The issue sparked controversy in the community and “a lot of people got upset.”

The Telegraph obtained a copy of a letter written by City Attorney Joseph Boone, sent to the mayor and council members, addressing several allegations that “may result in legal consequences” to the city if found valid.

The letter mentioned assertions that the mayor had hired her husband as her chief of staff, against the city’s anti-nepotism rules, and that she had violated the state’s open meetings law.

On Friday, a Telegraph photographer spotted the mayor and three council members in the mayor’s office. The photographer was asked to leave the City Hall lobby, but before doing so he could hear the mayor on speaker phone instructing other people to report to City Hall.

No notice was posted for a Friday meeting of the Gordon City Council. It takes four council members to constitute a quorum in Gordon. Georgia law requires 24-hour notice of any meeting, and any action taken in violation of the open meeting law is not binding.

Gordon police received a call about noon Thursday about an alleged illegal meeting at City Hall, according to a police report.

When an officer arrived, he found the mayor, her husband and three council members meeting behind a closed door, according to the report.

The city attorney’s letter cited an article in the Wilkinson County Post as the source of another allegation, that the city clerk was instructed to give Whipple-Lue her keys to cabinets that contain personnel files and other records.

The city charter designates the clerk as the records custodian, who must be able to testify that the records have not been compromised, according to the letter.

The letter also referred to a prior letter written to Whipple-Lue and council members in which Boone offered legal assistance.

Boone said he couldn’t comment on the prior letter -- or any other communication he’s had with the mayor and City Council, citing attorney-client privilege.

Multiple attempts to reach Whipple-Lue last week were unsuccessful. Whipple declined comment.

Councilman Freddie Densley, reached by phone Friday, said “on the advice of our attorney, we’ve got a gag order on us not to talk about the situation.” The gag order pertains to the mayor and council members, he said.

Boone said Friday afternoon that he didn’t know anything about a gag order and that he doesn’t have the legal authority to impose one. Only a judge has that power.

Attempts to reach the remaining three city council members were unsuccessful.

While Whipple-Lue is new to the mayor’s office, it’s not her first job as an elected official.

Before launching an unsuccessful bid to unseat state Rep. Bubber Epps in 2012, she served two terms on the Wilkinson County Board of Education.

The Nov. 5, 2013, election that put Whipple-Lue into the mayor’s office still is under investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State. The probe was launched after allegations surfaced that unqualified voters received illegal assistance in casting ballots in the election.

The investigation still is ongoing and could take six months, said Jared Thomas, a spokesman for the secretary’s office.

Turner, the 79-year-old former mayor, said he’s lived nearly all his life in Gordon, and he can’t remember tension ever being so high at City Hall.

“One of the strengths the city of Gordon has had during my lifetime is good race relations,” Turner said. “I’m worried at this point that the things that are happening may cause a division, and that would be the real tragedy.”

He said there also seems to be a sense of confusion in the air.

Residents “have never seen this type of governance before,” Turner said.

He said he offered three times to help Whipple-Lue in her transition into the mayor’s office.

“To this day I’ve not heard a response,” he said.

Eady said part of residents’ ire stems from Whipple-Lue’s seeking guidance from outside advisers, one of whom is Henry Ficklin, a former Macon city councilman.

“People just don’t look at that really good, bringing in somebody from Bibb County to a small city like Gordon to help out,” Eady said.

Lifelong Gordon resident Alicia Floyd, 48, is a member of the newly formed Concerned Citizens of Gordon group.

Members are gathering money to hire a lawyer in hopes of filing a court petition to remove Whipple-Lue from office.

She said she feels like the city has been turned “upside down” in recent weeks.

“Our city has never been split before,” Floyd said. “We’re at the point where we don’t know what to do.”

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service