MOUNT VERNON — It’s not that the purchase of parking meters and parts by Mount Vernon Police Chief Mike Merrilees and then Cpl. Robert “Kit” Morgan at a city auction was illegal or against city policy, it was what happened next that continues to leave the perception that Merrilees and Morgan put their own self-interest ahead of public trust.
The duo joined forces to purchase two lots of parking meters and parts at the May 8, 2010, city auction. The purchase totaled $442.50 and included approximately 500 parking meters.
After the auction, instead of removing the meters from city property as stated in the auction rules, the two law enforcement officers left the meters in the impound lot where they were sold for nearly six months.
“I thought we could sell a few individually and I knew they had some scrap value — everything metal does,” Merrilees said. “We actually — Kit Morgan and I — thought if they go cheap they would be worth messing with. If they don’t go cheap, it’s not worth messing with because they are heavy, they’re dirty and they’re a pain. I sorted through them once before and I know how dirty they can get.”
The chief of police told the News he thought they could sell the meters for $5 or $10 each and did so until interest seemed to wane.
“I know we didn’t want to sell them for five years selling one a week,” he said. “I don’t know. It was a mess. I wanted them out of there. I wanted to get rid of them. I didn’t take anyone down there and ask for a price.”
Jeff Grandstaff of Ross Bros. Salvage told the News he did go down to the impound lot, at the request of Morgan, to evaluate the meters and parts to determine a scrap price. Because of the time that has elapsed, he could not confirm whether or not he visited the impound lot before or after the auction. He did say that he had several phone conversations with Morgan regarding scrap metal prices and that Morgan argued with him over price.
“We weren’t working on some wealth of secret information,” Merrilees said. “Just like any auction, I was pretty sure they were worth more than I was bidding. Period. If it wasn’t worth that, I wouldn’t bid it.”
Merrilees said he and Morgan, while off duty, loaded the remaining meters and parts into a box to sell for scrap, but could not say when that happened. “They were there a while,” he said.
According to Grandstaff, Morgan sold three boxes for scrap on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010. Total weight of the three boxes was 4,750 pounds. Grandstaff paid 40 cents a pound and wrote Morgan a check for $1,900.
While researching through MVPD payroll records, acquired through a public records request, Morgan was working as the administrative supervisor at the time, working 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday and did not take any vacation, sick or comp time during the pay period. Ross Bros. is open 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The News was unable to confirm if Morgan was on city time when he sold the scrap.
Morgan was working in the capacity of the administrative supervisor’s position while former Sgt. Mark Perkins was deployed with the Ohio National Guard.
Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis said he was made aware after the auction that Merrilees and another officer purchased parking meters in bulk, but he had no idea Merrilees and Morgan were storing and selling meters out of the impound lot.
“I never thought we were storing personal property of any type or personal materials or whatever,” Mavis said. “I don’t know there is any particular policy but I don’t know that we ever thought we needed one.”
The city uses the impound lot to store vehicles that have been towed for various reasons, and charges $12 a day for storage.
The News spoke with Mavis on Friday regarding the auction and the use of the impound lot to store the purchased items. In that conversation, Mavis was asked if the combination of Morgan’s purchase of a vehicle while in impound, the disagreement between Merrilees and a local tow truck operator over a motorcycle, and the unapproved use of the impound for storage presented a perception to the public that Merrilees and Morgan felt they could do whatever they wanted, regardless of whether it was right or wrong.
“Well, I think when you hold a public leadership position, I think you are subject to more serious and critical review for your actions, however legal something may be, I think that we all — and this is something I preach — that we in public positions of leadership have to be seriously concerned about the perception that the public has of whatever actions that we are undertaking,” Mavis said. “So, if the actions are thought to be unusual, or unfair or not appropriate, then I think you have to continue to review those.”
The Bureau of Criminal Investigations, in conjunction with the Ohio Ethics Commission, has agreed to open an investigation into Merrilees and Morgan’s conduct at the request of City Law Director Chip McConville and Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher. The request followed the launch of a News investigation of Merrilees and Morgan.
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