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Packed audience presses Council, town manager on Gurley’s firing

South Boston News
At Monday night’s meeting of Chase City Town Council, town resident James Borowski received a Certificate of Appreciation from Mayor Eddie Bratton for helping save the life of a neighbor. According to the Mayor, Borowski was out walking his dog when he discovered a neighbor who had collapsed on the ground. Borowski quickly called 911. Investigator Michael Jordan and Police Chief Jay Jordan were the first to respond to the call. They provided appropriate first aid until medics arrived and transported the individual to the hospital. In commending all three men, Bratton said, “We offer our appreciation for a job well done, yet seldom acknowledged.” Above, from left: Mayor Bratton with Chase City resident James Borowski, CCPD Police Investigator Michael Jordan and Chief Jay Jordan displaying their certificates of appreciation. / February 13, 2019
The public packed the meeting room ahead of Monday night’s meeting of the Chase City Council, mostly to share their displeasure with the decision by Town Manager Angela Lawrence to terminate Jeff Gurley, former head of public works for Chase City.

Gurley led the public works department for more than 10 years until his ouster at the end of January.

In inviting members of the public to share their views about the termination, Mayor Eddie Bratton explained that by law, members of Council and town staff are prevented from commenting about the specifics of Gurley’s termination. The town’s attorney, Tessie Barnes Bacon, was at the meeting because of the sensitive nature of the subject, Bratton explained.

Gurley’s mother Sylvia opened the public hearing seeking answers to several questions — none of which she was told by the mayor could be answered as they involved personnel issues. Bratton did explain, in response to one question, that the town manager makes all decisions involving personnel.

Going without a response were Sylvia Gurley’s questions about why members of Council and the town were “against” her son,” and why was the town depriving her son of the “fringe benefits” she said he earned.

She then asked them to reflect on the way her son was fired. “Do you know how degrading it was for a policeman to come down with him while he stripped his truck? Do you know how degrading it is that there was a police officer at the town shop to oversee the cleaning out of his [Gurley’s] desk?” She asked if that was “normal” procedure, but again was told by the mayor he could not comment.

Also unanswered was Gurley’s question as to whether anyone defended her son during a closed session meeting. During that session, she contended, someone was allowed in the room who spoke negatively about her son. She ended her remarks by telling council members and the mayor, “thank you for nothing.”

Jimmy Clary presented Council Clerk Cynthia Gordon with a petition calling for a formal hearing to discuss Gurley’s termination. It was signed by 230 residents and business owners from the town. Clary said many citizens in town believe Gurley’s termination was “unfair and unjust,” and wondered if any member of Council spoke to town employees about Gurley or gave Gurley a chance to “defend his self” before his termination.

He criticized Council members for granting Lawrence the sole authority to hire and fire personnel. “It’s not smart in my opinion.”

Clary then asked Council members to answer if “Jeff Gurley’s termination was made in the best interest of the town or its citizens.” He called the decision “one of the worst things that could have happened to the town and its citizens.”

Close friends David Buchanan and Dianne Wilkerson and town staff who worked under Gurley’s leadership — Buttons Cox and Dakota Jones — spoke of his dedication to Chase City and his work ethic. Both Cox and Jones said they missed Gurley and asked Council to reconsider the manager’s decision to fire Gurley.

Wilkerson, after admitting that not even she knows “both sides of the story” surrounding Gurley’s termination, criticized Lawrence for preventing Gurley from “telling his side to any member of the council.” Buchanan attributed the firing to a personality conflict between Lawrence and Gurley, noting that he had seen Gurley’s personnel file, which contained nothing that would warrant his termination.

Local resident and retired school principal Pauline Keeton wondered whether the procedures for hiring and firing employees had recently changed or if that authority always rested with the town manager. She was told by Bratton that more than 30 years ago, the duties of hiring and firing shifted from council to the town manager — a fact strongly disputed by Gurley’s father, Carlton Gurley, also a former council member.

Carlton criticized the mayor for what he said was an improper shift of job duties from Council to the town manager, which he alleged did not occur until Angela Lawrence was hired in 2017. In response, Lawrence read Town Code section 2-2-3 written in 1984 which lists under duties of the town manager the ability to hire and fire.

Lawrence explained that the public perception, vocalized by many in town since Gurley’s firing, that the rules for hiring and firing were changed by her as part of a plan to oust Gurley sprung from a request made of Lawrence by Town Council for her to review the Town Code, Town Charter and Employee policies, and to recommend any changes where the three documents were inconsistent. The conforming changes were approved by Town Council in February and July.

Tempers flared throughout the meeting, but for the most part citizens were respectful in their pursuit of answers on why Gurley was fired.

Much of the criticism directed at Lawrence during the evening was that she “had not been [in Chase City] very long.” Steve Clark summed up the view of many Gurley supporters, saying, “We need to take care of our own.”

The most incendiary remarks of the evening were delivered by local attorney Kathy Keel, who criticized Lawrence for being a “come-here,” for renting and not owning a home in town, and for having no family in the area. She continued making allegations, telling those present that Lawrence “is gunning for Jay,” the town’s Chief of Police, and that Lawrence denied Gurley the opportunity to speak with members of Town Council. Furthermore, alleged Keel, Lawrence refused an invitation by Gurley to meet with town employees working at the town shop.

Keel’s ire was not limited to Lawrence. She blasted members of Town Council for “not having the guts to override our esteemed town manager” and chastised the mayor for telling her she had no right to speak at the meeting since she did not live in the town. Speaking after the meeting, Bratton denied making any such statement.

Of the nearly 20 people who addressed Council members on Monday, only one spoke against Gurley. Jerome Hargrove shared an incident where he claimed Gurley prevented Hargrove from parking his semi in a lot behind the Estes Center on Main Street. Hargrove accused Gurley of dumping mulch and then loads of concrete in the area where Hargrove would park to block him

Kim Holtz stood alone in her praise of Lawrence’s work as town manager. She equally praised Gurley. Her one complaint, which was directed to the audience, was their rush to protect the local boy while questioning and criticizing those who come to Chase City.

“What I do find personally offensive is pitting what I want to call the good ole boy versus the come-here,” she said. It’s due to this attitude that Chase City is struggling economically, she added.

“Make your opinions based on facts. Just because someone is not born here or bred here does not mean that they don’t care about their community.”

Robert Mead did not defend Lawrence by name, but instead spoke about the need for managers to follow stated rules and policies “to the letter.” He said he was the only person who ever had “the guts to fire anyone.” He fired two employees during his working year.

He also encouraged Lawrence and members of Council to “do your job and do it correctly. Don’t let others influence you.” For those who objected to Lawrence’s decision, he said, “there’s a crossroad up the street that’s never been blocked It’s a free ride out of town. Go somewhere else.”

Following the public comment, Bratton closed the public session without further comment, and without discussing the burning question of the evening, why Gurley was fired.

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