The Statham City Council unanimously eliminated the position of city administrator and hired a new police chief at a called meeting Friday night, Jan. 3.

The council met with two new members, including a new mayor, who recommended both actions. The council held about a 20-minute closed session before the actions.

The council also elected Dwight McCormic the vice-mayor on a 3-2 vote. That vote was done by secret ballot. According to the state's open meetings law, that was an illegal vote. Secret ballots are not allowed under that law.

MainStreet Newspapers registered a complaint with Mayor Joe Piper and copied new council members, McCormic and city attorney Thomas Mitchell and asked that the vote be re-done publicly.

Joe Piper, the new mayor who took the oath of office Thursday morning, Jan. 2, recommended the elimination of the administrator position and Ira Underwood, a sergeant for the Auburn Police Department, as the new police chief.

Mai Chang, who was the city administrator, was not at the meeting. She was named administrator in early 2019 by former Mayor Robert Bridges after Michelle Irizarry, who had been the administrator for about a year, took another job. Chang was the Statham city clerk for about two years prior to being named administrator.

Allan Johnston had been the Statham police chief. He resigned that position in December and Officer John Wood, who was the assistant, turned down the head position after the council rejected a proposal to give him a year’s contract and guarantee him six months' salary if he were fired from the job without cause.

The council also agreed to take bids on converting the current city hall to administrative offices and the police department so that the Statham Public Library can be expanded. The library has a grant for expansion and is supposed to start that work April 1.

Piper said the city had one bid from "the previous administration." The bid was from Tarpley Construction.

The council agreed to take bids after Piper said the city only had the one bid and several people in the audience questioned the process.

Mike Holcomb, who said he has been a home builder and renovated numerous projects, including the Statham police department, said the work would only take a few days and could be done much more cheaply.

Holcomb said during the closed session that he would bid on the project, but he said it should include exactly what the council needs to be done.

Holcomb and another man said the area for the police department would need to be sealed off from the remainder of the building, including to the roof of the building, for security purposes.

City hall now has a drop-ceiling in the building and space is above the ceiling. Piper agreed that only the police should have access to its offices.

A rough drawing – that was Piper's characterization – accompanied the bid.

Piper said he recommended the single bid because of the time crunch.

"We're going to have to make a change on where we're going to have our police department," Piper said.

Council members Betty Lyle and Hattie Thrasher complained about the process. Lyle said she was "not given anything about it (the move)." Thrasher asked about a "Plan B" if the one bid were deemed inadequate.

Piper characterized the move as a "temporary" one until the council can decided on a permanent solution.

McCormic suggested the council hold a "public forum" to get comments from Statham residents.

New council member Gary Venable first made comments favorable to Piper's recommendation, but he later made the motion to take bids and asked any builder with an interest for a price.

According to the one bid, Piper said, the renovation of the current city hall would use the side door as the entrance to the police department and it would include a foyer for people to enter.

Codes would be required to go further in the police offices, he said. Piper also said a steel door is in the rear of city hall which would provide another entrance and exit for the police.

Under that plan, the city council meetings would be moved to the community center.

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