A judge encouraged attorneys for suspended Gordon Mayor Mary Ann Whipple-Lue and the group trying to oust her to seek a compromise before an all-or-nothing court ruling.
Witnesses testified Tuesday during a hearing in which the Concerned Citizens of Gordon sought to extend a temporary restraining order against the mayor that would last until a disposition is reached in their lawsuit.
Robert Reeves, a Superior Court judge in the Middle Judicial Circuit, said he would issue an order before Whipple-Lue’s suspension ends Aug. 2 if both sides are unable to reach an accord. Reeves was appointed to the case after judges in the Ocmulgee Circuit, which includes Wilkinson County, disqualified themselves.
If a trial is held, it will likely be in late September or early October.
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On Tuesday, City Council member Terry Eady testified for more than two hours, detailing the mayor’s alleged illegal voting practices.
Gordon’s charter only allows a mayor to vote in ties, in employee disciplinary matters and when an issue involves a city officer. Whipple-Lue cast the deciding vote May 21 to fire City Attorney Joe Boone when there wasn’t a tie, Eady testified Tuesday.
She also cast a vote to hire a new city attorney when there was no tie, he said.
Eady testified that he found a letter in the mayor’s email from April 1 in which the new city attorney, Ronnie Jones, confirmed his acceptance of the mayor’s job offer long before council members first considered hiring a new lawyer.
Wayne Kendall, Whipple-Lue’s attorney, objected to the introduction of documents from the mayor’s email account, contending that Eady had committed a crime by accessing her email.
Eady said he used the mayor’s computer because he’s also mayor pro tem, doing city business and fulfilling open records requests filed by his lawyer and the media seeking information from the mayor’s city computer.
Eady also identified documents entered as evidence that Whipple-Lue had hired an auditor, putting the city on the hook for more than $40,000 without council members appropriating funds or the auditor presenting a “letter of engagement.”
While he said the auditor was paid a $10,000 retainer, the other invoices haven’t been paid.
Auditor Bill Baskett testified that the mayor contacted him in January with concerns about the city’s finances.
“If anything funny was going on, she didn’t want it to carry over into her administration,” he said. “She just wanted a clean start.”
Baskett said he met resistance from the city attorney and city clerk when he asked for records needed to perform the audit.
He said he discovered a $37,000 discrepancy between what the city had paid to Georgia Power and what the utility company says it received between October 2012 and January 2014.
Baskett admitted he hasn’t seen the canceled checks to determine if the funds entered into the city’s computerized accounting system matched and if the checks were written to Georgia Power -- or someone else.
Baskett said he has noticed other transactions that need investigation.
When questioned by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Devlin Cooper, Baskett said he has stopped work on the audit because he hasn’t been paid.
“I don’t work for free,” he said.
During his closing argument, Cooper said Gordon has had an annual audit and forensic accounting for years.
Baskett was the sole witness for the mayor’s side.
Whipple-Lue attended Tuesday’s hearing and sat quietly beside her attorney. She hasn’t attended any other hearings pertaining to the lawsuit, which alleges malfeasance and that Whipple-Lue violated the state’s Open Meetings Act multiple times since she took office in January.
Jonathan Jackson, director of the Wilkinson County Development Authority, testified Tuesday that he called the mayor earlier this year to reserve space at the city depot for an event. As part of the conversation, the mayor placed Jackson on speakerphone.
After his conversation with the mayor had finished and she believed she’d hung up the phone, Jackson said he overheard her talking with three council members.
Jackson said he recognized the council members’ voices and heard them talking about the police chief, city engineer and city attorney. He said he listened for about 10 minutes.
Georgia’s open meetings law prohibits meetings of a quorum of council members without providing public notice.
Eady testified Tuesday that Gordon’s charter defines a quorum as four members of the council, which includes the mayor and council members.
Eady said city employees’ morale has improved during the mayor’s suspension and he fears she might enter the city into illegal contracts, threaten employees’ jobs or do other harm if she is reinstated.
On the eve of the first restraining order, Whipple-Lue called Eady to inform him of a new policy locking the city fuel pumps for refueling at any time other than Monday through Friday during the first eight hours of the day, he testified.
The decision was made without consulting Eady, who also is the city’s volunteer fire chief, or the police chief, he said.
During Kendall’s closing argument, Reeves expressed concern that the fueling policy could be a public safety issue.
Kendall said there have been allegations that people have stolen gas through unauthorized access to the pumps.
“The mayor’s intent was to put some controls in place,” he said.
Eady also testified that city volunteers have been alienated and the part-time Better Hometown director quit soon after Whipple-Lue drilled out the locks to their building and changed the locks.
He said the mayor called a Better Hometown meeting just before the lock changing incident and didn’t provide prior notice as required by law. The group receives state funding.
Gordon’s Easter egg hunt was canceled after a check wasn’t signed in time to reimburse Better Hometown for repairs the city had agreed to fund, Eady said.
“Nothing could be signed without the mayor’s permission,” he said.
The city’s Fall Line Festival, held annually in October, has been canceled for this year because Better Hometown hasn’t been able to secure vendors and sponsors, he said.
The Georgia Municipal Association will no longer offer Gordon insurance because the city has been deemed too high a risk. A letter mailed in March notifying the city of its non-renewal cited “apparent dysfunction among the elected officials ... which has created conditions that increase risk of loss to the city beyond acceptable levels.”
Eady said the city still hasn’t been able to obtain liability insurance for police officers and its public officials due to the high premiums it’s being offered.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.