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Former Gretna City Administrator Colleen Lawry was not mentioned often Thursday night during a public forum, but her spending practices were sharply criticized by a group of mayoral candidates.
“I know that in the last several weeks the faith that you have in the City of Gretna and the elected officials has been shaken,” Mayor Sally McGuire told an audience of about 200 people gathered at the Gretna American Legion.
“We feel (Lawry) made bad decisions and has jeopardized the integrity of all elected officials and the remainder of the city staff. We want to move forward from the past and create a good future for the city.”
The forum, sponsored by the Gretna Breeze and held at the Gretna American Legion, featured all four candidates for mayor. The top two vote-getters in the May 15 primary will advance to the November general election.
Earlier in the day, Lawry walked out of the Sarpy County Jail, declining to comment after being charged with felony theft of between $500 and $1,500 from a senior citizens fund. If convicted, Lawry faces up to five years in prison.
Lawry used a debit card to spend nearly $1,000 of the senior citizens fund on purchases from Walmart, Victoria's Secret and Gretna Wine and Spirits, according to prosecutors.
Last week, State Auditor Mike Foley issued a report highlighting accounting and spending irregularities by Gretna officials, particularly Lawry.
This week, McGuire fired her.
In a civil discussion, the candidates trying to oust McGuire suggested that Gretna needs new leadership and that the best solution is to clean house, starting with McGuire.
“Everything considered, Gretna needs new leadership, plain and simple,” said challenger Andy Harpenau. “City Hall needs to be accountable.”
He said the activities of city officials have lacked transparency. He said citizens are told they must pay high fees to obtain city records, and in some cases, the records then are not provided at all.
Harpenau said he has tried, on multiple occasions, to obtain City Attorney John Green's itemized bills for the legal fees he has charged Gretna, but the records were not turned over.
He vowed to provide citizens with more financial accountability and a friendly government. “Change needs to come to Gretna and it needs to come quickly.”
Mayoral candidate Jim Timmerman said it is obvious that residents need more accountability from the mayor, the City Council and city officials.
Harpenau ripped the city's current website, saying it's rarely updated and contains little information of use to residents. He said it's a sign of the culture and lack of openness that has been pervasive under McGuire and Lawry.
McGuire told the audience that Foley's report “was a good audit” that raised a number of concerns that she and other city staff are now trying to address. She emphasized that Lawry had been fired and that the city was now in the process of conducting a more extensive audit of its finances.
Timmerman said the city needs to hire staff who can restore trust and confidence and bring open government back to the citizens.
Candidate Kip Edmonds said Lawry's actions have harmed Gretna's image across the region.
“Our reputation (has been) tarnished by people who we placed in positions to protect our interests. It will be a blemish on our community for a long time.”
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