Abrupt resignation catches DeKalb by surprise

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With reforms in store for DeKalb County, some high-ranking officials have decided it’s time to retire.

Take Morris Williams, who spent 17 years working for the county and ranked just two levels below interim CEO Lee May. He was chief of staff to the Board of Commissioners, then became the deputy chief operating officer over public works and infrastructure, including the water department.

On Tuesday, he abruptly quit. No two weeks’ notice. No explanation. Even May was caught by surprise, his spokesman said.

Williams retirement (1)

I reached out to Williams by email this morning, seeking more explanation. So far, no reply. I tried his cell phone, but his mailbox was full. Then I got a call back from his cell phone, and the caller hung up after I identified myself.

His exit came on the day the Legislature approved creating a financial watchdog for the county and requiring it to have an independent ethics commission. And it’s been less than a week after former state Attorney General Mike Bowers launched an investigation into corruption in DeKalb County, at May’s behest. There’s no evidence that either has anything to do with why Williams left.

Williams did write this to Channel 2 Action News’ Richard Belcher late Tuesday:

“Please have your station state that I retired and not resigned (sic) … After 17 plus years of service I decided to retire and pursue other interest (sic).”

The same day he made his departure, longtime Community Development Director Chris Morris announced her retirement, too. She gave five weeks’ notice.

Community Development Director Chris Morris, who has been with the county for 38 years, announced her retirement on Tuesday.

Community Development Director Chris Morris, who has been with DeKalb County for 38 years, announced her retirement on Tuesday. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Last month, her department played into an AJC/Channel 2 investigation that found an invalid, possibly forged legal document allowed a DeKalb County official to double as a county contractor, winning $1 million in federal stimulus funds to rehab foreclosed homes.

Morris, the investigation found, was among the bid committee members who questioned how that could be allowable, given that the county’s ethics code forbids the county government from doing business with its own members. At the time, though, no one questioned the validity of the legal document purporting to be from DeKalb’s Ethics Board.

County spokesman Burke Brennan said Morris contemplated retiring last year, but she was talked out of it. Having been with DeKalb for 38 years, she’s reached a point in the pension program when she can earn almost as much money by not working as she can working, he said.

Brennan said her retirement letter coming in on the same day as Williams’ letter was “kind of a fluke.”

Morris retirement

She’s not the only department director on her way out.

A month ago, Watershed Management Department Director James Chansler turned in his retirement notice, after spending less than two years working for DeKalb. He’ll stay on part time until June, Brennan said.

Chansler told me last month that he simply wanted to hang it up after more than four decades of working for city and county governments. He said it had nothing to do with any of DeKalb County’s internal problems. Chansler has been working with an outside consultant to improve department efficiency, such as cutting down superhuman overtime hours clocked by some supervisors and crew workers, also spotlighted by an AJC investigation.

Chansler retirement

Watershed, of course, was the focal point of a special grand jury investigation that found a culture of corruption in DeKalb, leading to the indictment of suspended CEO Burrell Ellis. Ellis is accused of shaking down contractors for campaign contributions and interfering in the procurement process.

The special grand jury recommended criminal investigations of at least 11 people besides Ellis, including his campaign manager and his predecessor, former CEO Vernon Jones, which it suspected of theft and bid rigging. Another was the former public safety director, accused of smothering a detective’s probe into watershed contracts.

None of the 11 has been charged.

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