MARY ANN ANDERSON
The fight for a former Hazlehurst police officer to get his job back took a hard hit during last Thursday’s regular monthly meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council.
Chris Morrison was fired in late October after charges of simple battery, a misdemeanor, and violation of oath of office, a felony, were levied against him following an active shooter incident earlier in the month.
During Monday night’s workshop of the city council, Morrison made an impassioned appeal to the council to be reinstated to his job as police officer, a position he’s held since January of 2011, but during the closed session of Thursday’s meeting, the council denied his request.
Both meetings were held before the full council, with Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth attending Monday’s session by telephone.
Morrison, in presenting the timeline of events that led to his termination by Police Chief Ken Williams, said that he was the first to respond to a call in which an armed male, in an “unprovoked attack,” had shot a woman with a rifle. In the ensuing moments afterward, and before the suspect was apprehended and arrested, Morrison questioned another man, with whom he allegedly had words that led to a physical altercation. Morrison stated he believed he was acting “under the color of law” by questioning the man, but in the end the altercation led him to be placed on administrative leave from the police department.
The matter was turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for review and subsequently to Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, who had the felony charge of violation of oath of office brought against Morrison.
Morrison had asked that during the course of investigation that he be allowed to laterally transfer to the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Fire-Rescue. But he and Mayor Bayne Stone could not come to terms with the salary and benefits portion of the agreement that City Attorney Ken W. Smith had drawn. Stone said that during their meeting that Morrison had “stormed out” of his office and also noted that he learned only later that Morrison had recorded their conversation without his knowledge.
To end his appeal, which at times with Stone became heated and occasionally profanity-laced, Morrison said that he wanted only “fair treatment,” and that he wanted to “prove” his innocence.
Later in the Citizens’ Comments portion of the Monday night workshop, Officers John Lee and Ben Glosson offered support to Morrison, with Glosson stating that he has “never known a better officer” than Morrison.
Stone, clearly frustrated with Morrison, explained that the decision of the council would have to be made during Thursday’s regular session of the city council. After closed session in the regular meeting, Morrison’s appeal was denied.
Stone also seized an opportunity at Monday’s meeting to lament at length about the condition of Hazlehurst’s hotels, which, in his words, are “nasty” and “filthy,” so much so that potential guests are eschewing Hazlehurst and instead getting rooms in places like Vidalia and Baxley.
“We work every day as hard as we can trying to the building the city and do everything we can to grow it and do good,” Stone said, his anger visible, specifically referring to new restaurants, water lines and the overpass on Hollingsworth Boulevard.
City Clerk Vernice Thompson interjected, saying that she is a member of the Hazlehurst-Jeff Davis County Board of Tourism, and that she would like to see local business leaders and elected officials get together with the Board of Tourism, which is chaired by Jim Sewell, to voice their concerns about the condition of the hotels.
Ward 2’s John Ramay asked Stone if the hotels were being inspected, and he said they were.
As a matter of record, Health Inspector Oscar Hulett of the Georgia Department of Public Health gave each of Hazlehurst’s three motels a 100 rating during his latest inspections, including on Sept. 8 of America’s Best Value Inn and Jameson Inn and Suites and on Aug. 11 of Western Inns and Suites.
“We’ll have to work on it and do the best we can,” Stone ended the discussion.
In other business during Monday’s workshop, the council approved a low bid from L&L Utilities Inc., for work related to upcoming fire hydrant replacement. And then, in the Citizens Comments section of the meeting, the council heard an update from Fire Chief Charles Wasdin on the upcoming ISO audit for the fire-rescue department, discussed the need to have representatives from each of the city’s four wards on the zoning board, and talked at length but made no formal motion about deeding a portion of an alleyway between Hinson and Railroad Streets to its adjoining landowners.
In other action during Thursday’s regular meeting, Wasdin led a brief badge pinning ceremony instilling Captain Dustin Atkinson as training officer over the fire-rescue department, a move that prompted a standing ovation.
Afterward, Smith also read a number of resolutions, all of which passed unanimously, including the passing the 2020-25 Hazard Mitigation Plan; dissolving the Joint Development Authority of Hazlehurst, Lumber City and Telfair County and disbursing its remaining funds among the three entities; creating one housing authority known as the Hazlehurst Consolidated Housing Authority from the Hazlehurst and Lumber City authorities; and amending the ordinance for use of public parks.
Stone also briefly informed the council that the preliminary groundwork has been laid for the widening of US Highway 341 and State Roads 19 and 27. He also outlined other road safety issues that are needed from approximately Miller Street to the Hazlehurst Bypass at Hollingsworth Boulevard, noting that two Road Safety Audit meetings are scheduled for November 30 and December 4 at City Hall.
Before going into closed session to discuss Morrison’s reinstatement, the council also approved the annual Christmas parade route; travel and expenses for Thompson to attend an advisory retreat in Athens from Dec. 2-4; and the monthly check register, departmental reports, and water and sewer adjustments.
The next workshop of the Hazlehurst City Council is Monday, Dec. 14, with the next regular meeting on Thursday, Dec. 17. Both meetings are at 6 p.m. at City Hall.