AG’s office gets 'extraordinary' number of complaints about Gordon operations

awomack@macon.comMarch 1, 2014 

Gordon_Ga_Mayor

The city limits of Gordon near Ga 18.

WOODY MARSHALL — wmarshall@macon.com Buy Photo

Turmoil in Gordon has reached the state capital, with an “extraordinary” number of open-meeting-law complaints sent to the state’s top prosecutor.

The state Attorney General’s Office gave Gordon Mayor Mary Ann Whipple-Lue and council members a Friday deadline to respond to allegations levied against them. As of late Friday, the mayor and four of the six council members had responded, either denying that they participated in illegal meetings or claiming ignorance of the law.

In a Feb. 27 memo to Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter, the mayor mentioned a meeting with Ritter scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday in her office.

The Telegraph obtained a copy of a Feb. 21 letter addressed to the mayor and council in which Ritter wrote that “the nature and number of the open government violations that have been addressed to this office regarding the City of Gordon are extraordinary.”

He went on to say “if we were to proceed to litigation or prosecution, we would expect substantial fines to be levied against the mayor and each council member who participated in these alleged violations should they prove to be true.”

Ritter acknowledged that the alleged violations may be a result of officials not knowing the law, but he added, “I am assured by others this is not the case but that they are willful.”

Attempts to reach the mayor and council members, aside from Councilman Terry Eady, were unsuccessful last week.

In February, a council member told The Telegraph that the mayor and council were under a “gag order” and couldn’t talk about the political controversy.

Contacted Friday, Eady said only a judge can impose a gag order.

“The mayor has told me repeatedly, on several occasions, ‘loose lips sink ships,’ ’’ he said.

Richard Clark, a 16-year Gordon resident, filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office via e-mail on Feb. 9.

Clark’s complaint alleges that Whipple-Lue won in an illegal election, is trying to fire white city employees, is holding illegal meetings, has tampered with city files, named her husband chief of staff, and has had family members apply for jobs to fill future vacancies.

Reached by phone, he said he’s personally watched Whipple-Lue and several council members go into the mayor’s office without a scheduled meeting.

“We just can’t let this happen,” Clark said. “As citizens, we’ve got to do it. Nobody is going to do it for us.”

Alleged illegal meetings

Gordon city attorney Joseph Boone wrote to Ritter Feb. 14, at Ritter’s request, providing information about goings-on in Gordon.

The Telegraph obtained a copy of the letter, which details the following:

• Between Jan. 6 and Feb. 3, council members Doretha Whipple, Barbara Towles and Terry Reese “met on a regular basis, either individually or as a group” with Whipple-Lue and her advisers in the mayor’s office without publishing an agenda or 24-hour notice of the meetings, and without taking minutes.

• On Jan. 17, four to five council members, Whipple-Lue and the city clerk met in the mayor’s office from about 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eady, who wasn’t a part of the gathering, learned of it and went to city hall. The building was locked. When he was allowed inside, he found the group discussing city business. Again, no notice or agenda was posted, and minutes weren’t recorded.

• An overflow crowd went to city hall Jan. 21 for a council meeting. The police chief told the mayor he had safety concerns, showed her a portion of the open meetings law and tried to move the meeting to the city hall annex. Residents went to the larger venue, but they were told several minutes later by loudspeaker that “by order of the mayor” the meeting would remain at city hall. Many people were unable to attend the meeting.

• At a Feb. 3 council meeting, Whipple-Lue and council talked about adding more members to committees -- which at the time were made up of single council members -- for concern of violating the open meetings law. Additional council members were appointed to the Streets, Public Safety and Finance committees.

In his letter, Boone said he wasn’t present at any of the alleged illegal meetings. He cited the public domain and the media as sources of his information.

He said he has advised Whipple-Lue and council members of the importance of the open meetings law on “several occasions” and has given them copies of the law.

‘Just a lot of street talk’

In her memo to Ritter, the mayor said her election had generated “tension” and “hard feelings” in the community.

She said there’s never been a quorum of council members in her office, and she denied allegations that she hired her husband as a city employee.

Whipple-Lue wrote that Clark’s statements are “uninformed” and that his complaint is “filled with so much racial venom, twisted truths, outright lies, that I will only keep him in my prayers.”

She said she requested a copy of the city charter from the city clerk and city attorney. When she received one, pages were omitted.

Before she took office, she said she found many 55-gallon plastic bags filled with shredded documents. That spurred her request for an audit, which she said she has met “extreme resistance” and caused an “uproar,” according to her memo.

In a two-sentence letter, Councilman Freddie Densley wrote that he hasn’t participated in illegal meetings, but that he has witnessed violations and the hostile treatment of the city clerk.

In their letters, newly elected councilwomen Whipple and Towles deny knowingly or willfully participating in illegal meetings.

Whipple wrote that rumors have caused residents to become “convinced” that the city’s newly elected leaders “have a hidden agenda to divide the city along racial lines.”

She said leaders are trying to unite Gordon and that Clark’s allegations are “part of the resentment and anxiety that is expected when there is a change of political power in a city with Gordon’s history.”

Towles wrote that Clark’s complaint is “just a lot of street talk and each time it is repeated, it gets worse.”

Although Whipple acknowledges that there’s an appearance of an open meetings violation, claims of illegal meetings have no merit.

She said the mayor and new council members didn’t know how to operate a government and council members met in the mayor’s office to read the city charter.

Whipple described Boone’s letter to the Attorney General’s Office as “unsettling” and not containing a complete picture. She said the new council members were afraid of incurring a $200 charge by calling Boone for legal advice.

The Jan. 17 meeting was in response to a request from the city clerk to allow her to catch up on a backlog of bills and other work. No city business was discussed, Whipple wrote.

“There has never been a vote taken in any administrative session in the mayor’s office to my knowledge,” she said.

City of ethics

Eady, who denies participating in illegal meetings, alleges that Whipple-Lue and some council members have tried to skirt open-meeting-law requirements by holding private meetings with fewer council members than a quorum, which would be four members.

“All of them may not be there at the same time,” Eady said Friday. “They go in. They talk with the mayor and they discuss city business and then they make some decision based on what they all talk about.”

One example that’s causing ire in Gordon is a $10,000 payment to an auditor made after council members voted down a motion during a Feb. 17 meeting to amend the budget.

Eady said he opposed spending the money, and no exact amount was discussed during the meeting.

Two days later, the auditor was at work in city hall, he said.

On Feb. 20, two council members and the mayor signed a paper instructing the city clerk to sign the check, Eady said.

A purported copy of the check obtained by The Telegraph bears the signatures of Clerk Towana Brown and Councilman Thomas Smallwood.

When residents clamored for a copy of the check and invoice, the invoice was dated Feb. 7 -- 10 days before the auditor was chosen for the job during a public meeting, Eady said.

In his letter to the Attorney General’s Office, Eady also alleges that the mayor and four council members traveled from city hall to Gordon Bank to sign signature cards together.

He closed his letter saying, “We are a city of ethics, but we are not acting like it.”

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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