Originally created 01/03/01

Board fires city finance chief



After emerging from a nearly two-hour-long closed session Tuesday, Augusta commissioners ousted city Comptroller Lon Morrey.

The unanimous vote confirmed what the finance department head said Monday he already suspected: that less than three years after his hiring, his job would be in jeopardy before the full commission at its Tuesday meeting.

Mr. Morrey, who sat stone-faced in the commission chambers when the vote came, declined to comment but said he had retained attorney Mike Brown to represent him.

City Attorney Jim Wall said the firing was legal.

"He serves at the pleasure of the commission," Mr. Wall said.

Mr. Morrey was hired 2.5 years ago, after a nationwide search for a city comptroller lured him from his job as partner with a Washington accounting firm.

But recently, his department has come under the attack of the city's external auditors - Cherry Bekaert & Holland - for poor record-keeping. No illegal activity was detected in the 1999 audit, and Mr. Morrey attributed bookkeeping problems to several unfilled vacancies in his office and a newly implemented accounting software.

Some commissioners declined to comment, but those who did go on the record about Mr. Morrey's termination cited the audit results as evidence of mismanagement.

"There were no personal, negative feelings there," Commissioner Willie Mays said. "They've needed changes in that department for a while."

Mr. Morrey will be compensated for his accrued vacation time, but his termination was effective as of Tuesday afternoon, the city attorney said.

Prior to firing Mr. Morrey, the commission approved a consent agenda, which included a recommendation to reorganize the finance office. The revamped department eliminates the comptroller position and replaces the slot with a city finance director, a move that is expected to improve accountability and strengthen internal controls in the department.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham had openly opposed the reorganization and said he still does, although he voted for the it as a part of Tuesday's consent agenda. He declined to comment on his vote to terminate Mr. Morrey and said his vote to approve the reorganization was an oversight.

After voting to end Mr. Morrey's employment, the commission - on the advice of counsel - went on to approve motions to remove his name from city accounts and to conduct a cash audit of finances.

"It's for his protection, as well as ours," Mr. Wall said.

The finance committee will discuss the appointment of an interim finance director Monday.

"It's obvious that Mr. Morrey had lost the confidence of the mayor and the commission," Mayor Bob Young said. "His performance, particularly since the absence of (former City Administrator Randy Oliver), was less than we had expected of our comptroller."

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.