Official’s sudden exit catches DeKalb by surprise

The abrupt resignation of one of DeKalb County’s top officials has caught commissioners by surprise.

Morris Williams, who spent 17 years working for the county and ranked just two levels below interim CEO Lee May, suddenly exited on Tuesday.

He left offering little explanation and no two weeks’ notice.

“Please accept this as notice of my retirement, effective March 24, 2015,” Williams’ letter to May said. “My last day of work will be today.”

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

Both resignations came as the county is poised for reforms.

It was Tuesday that 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 since former state Attorney General Mike Bowers launched an investigation into corruption in DeKalb County, at May’s behest. Both an FBI probe and a District Attorney’s Office inquiry into the county government are continuing.

There’s no indication that any of those were related to the long-time employees’ departures.

Williams 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. Williams said in an email to Channel 2 Action News 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).”

Williams did not respond to an email from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking more explanation. A call to his cell phone was returned, but the caller hung up when a reporter identified himself.

His departure is the one raising the most questions among commissioners.

“Obviously, something’s going on,” Commissioner Kathie Gannon said. “I don’t think today was the day Morris suddenly decided he’s going to go fishing.”

Less of a surprise was the impending retirement of Chris Morris. County spokesman Burke Brennan said she 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.”

Her department played into a recent AJC/Channel 2 investigation that found an invalid, possibly forged legal document allowed a DeKalb County official to double as a county contractor, despite ethics rules to the contrary. Morris, the investigation found, was among the bid committee members who questioned how that could be allowable. The District Attorney’s Office is looking into the issue.

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

Chansler told the AJC last month that he just wanted to retire after more than four decades of working for city and county governments, and 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.

Commissioner Nancy Jester, elected to represent north DeKalb last year after ex-Commissioner Elaine Boyer pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks, said she wonders if Chansler was somehow prevented from making needed changes.

“All of these things seem to be intersecting right now,” she said. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Watershed 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 other people, none of whom has been charged.