It’s no secret that LaFayette has struggled for years under poor leadership. Lack of vision, lack of ethics, and derisive attitudes have done much damage to the Queen City, and are the main reason this Web site exists.
In January the city had opportunity to wipe the slate clean and head in a better direction. Dysfunctional City Manager Johnnie Arnold was fired last fall, and the city elected two new people (plus a returning figure) to its council. New leaders made promises of transparency and reform, and have taken a few steps to remove the rot – but one recent incident highlights how little has been done, and how far the city still is from being properly run.
As previously covered, LaFayette Firefighter Johnny Stephens, Jr. was fired on March 8th after ignoring direct orders from his supervisors three days earlier. He was asked by LPD Chief Tommy Freeman (shown above) and Assistant Chief Bengie Clift to install an outdated police radio in a Public Works pickup truck, per the request of newly appointed Public Works Director Mark White. Stephens had installed several radios in the past, but this time refused to do it because his own pay had been cut and the department was paying another employee extra to do the same job.
A special council meeting was held on March 20th to review Stephens’ firing and consider his request to be reinstated. Mr. Stephens, who represented himself, admitted he had a bad attitude due to his cut pay and never installed the radio – but also said he never told the chief “no,” just repeatedly asked “why” it was his job to do the installation.
- “Basically I just wanted a reasoning why – why was it in the scope of my job description ..I feel like I was taken advantage of for my knowledge of working on cars.” -Terminated Firefighter Johnny Stephens, Jr.
Stephens blamed his actions on the hostile atmosphere at LaFayette Public Safety and Chief Tommy Freeman’s continual abusive behavior towards employees. Many in the standing-room-only crowd stood to echo those concerns, saying that Freeman’s employees walk on eggshells, living every day in fear of being verbally assaulted by the chief or fired for minor offenses. (Freeman’s unacceptable behavior and incompetence have been covered here on multiple occasions.) The chief of course denied yelling at Stephens or any other employee, accusing the witnesses of trying to get back at him for unpopular decisions.
City leaders seemed to accept the claims made about Freeman, but apparently felt the chief’s notorious temper and abuse didn’t negate Stephens’ actions. After the lengthy hearing, council members voted 0-4 against his rejoining the city workforce. (Councilman Davis recused himself from voting due to a business relationship with Stephens.) Councilors ruled that the termination was justified because of insubordination, but also noted that the issues with Freeman could have been addressed if Stephens had followed orders and then filed a formal complaint instead of showing his proverbial butt and essentially daring the chief to fire him.
- “If this had been done right, we’d be asking different questions of different people tonight.” -LaFayette Councilman Ben Bradford
Stephens was in the wrong to behave as he did. But termination is an extreme punishment for something that happened out of frustration with a broken system, especially in light of Johnny Stephens’ exemplary employee record over the last fourteen years. He should have been suspended, not fired, and also probably given some kind of commendation for making the council aware of Freeman’s abuses, since (despite all our efforts to point them out) they seemed to be clueless about the chief’s character up until Stephens mentioned it during the reinstatement meeting.
But Stephens’ employee file was closed for good, while Freeman’s continues to grow. The council and City Manager took no action during the special meeting on March 20th, and didn’t mention the chief during April’s regular council gathering. When asked by the Chattanooga Times about Chief Freeman, Mayor Florence would only say “we’re looking into the situation.” Meanwhile, things can only be getting worse.
Legally, the City Council has no authority to hire or fire regular employees. Despite threats made to the contrary, not even city department heads like Freeman can formally terminate their own staff. All hiring and firing decisions are officially made by the City Manager, and the Manager is also responsible for addressing issues employees have with their supervisors. But Johnny Stephens didn’t address his complaints about Freeman to the CM. When asked why he never filed a complaint, Stephens replied that he and other employees were not aware of the complaint process, and going to the chief would be pointless since it would “turn into an argument.”
It’s hardly surprising that department heads wouldn’t explain the complaint process to their employees, and even less surprising that department leaders (especially a bully like Freeman) don’t especially like being complained about. It’s also not a stretch to assume few city employees trust the City Manager or members of the council to take up for them, considering how many times in the past workers have been burned for doing just that. Past letters written to the council complaining about Chief Freeman were simply passed along to the chief, who launched a witch hunt trying to track down the people who dared challenge him. In light of that, who can really blame Stephens (or any other employee) for trying to take matters into their own hands?
That is the core of LaFayette’s ethics problem. Over the last however many years, going back at least into the mid-nineties, employees and citizens alike learned not to trust elected officials or authorities like the City Manager, because time and time again the occupants of those offices (with a few exceptions) showed themselves to be unethical, uncaring, vindictive, petty, or just outright nasty.
In 2010, a senior LPD officer’s resignation letter pointed out how Freeman and (now former) City Manager Johnnie Arnold “rule the police and fire departments with fear and intimidation,” strengthening themselves by “continuously breeding mistrust and confusion.”
Arnold was fired and replaced by outsider Frank Etheridge, but the toxic attitude and atmosphere he and Freeman established to consolidate their power hasn’t faded. That’s why nobody trusts anybody else, which leads to discouraged, frustrated employees and continual strife all throughout the ranks of city employees. Government entities are like businesses in regards to workers: they can only be as good as their employees. And in LaFayette many of the best employees are discouraged, or gone, because of how they’ve been treated.
City employee frustration and dissatisfaction has spread through LaFayette like cancer. Those feelings make a visible, palpable impact on everything from poorly maintained facilities to bad attitudes displayed by workers who regularly deal with the public. Frustration and brokenness has also begun spreading to citizens discouraged by the city’s condition. It’s a sour, bitter, hopeless feeling slowly killing the entire community.
The first step to fixing that toxic legacy is to go beyond “looking into” Freeman’s behavior and begin looking for his replacement. Not for political reasons, not because we’ve asked for it, and not because Johnny Stephens, Jr. doesn’t like him – but because he’s repeatedly shown himself undeserving of the position.
Freeman displays contempt for the city, he never took fire training he was required to get five years ago, and has run Public Safety like an incompetent tyrant. Beyond that, there is no justifiable reason for the city to still employ a man who calls police officers or firefighters racist names, threatens to terminate anyone who challenges him, and curses in front of employees and citizens alike. A quick investigation by the City Manager would uncover eyewitnesses and evidence of this – even police who are loyal to Freeman and defend his actions admit the man has a terrible temper and trouble controlling it.
It shouldn’t have taken Johnny Stephens, Jr. committing career suicide to make city leaders aware of problems at Public Safety (as if none of them knew before), and it shouldn’t take another unjustified termination or something much worse to prompt the Council or City Manager to remove its director.
Firing a police chief isn’t exactly unprecedented in Georgia. Earlier this month the city of Rincon, slightly larger than LaFayette, fired its police chief of three years for using “excessive anger and demeaning language when dealing with staff.” He was also credited with poor decision making, ignoring recommendations from officers, and causing a high level of staff turnover in the Rincon police department. Change the names and it could be a report about LaFayette and Freeman, except LaFayette has yet to send its own “excessive anger and demeaning language” chief packing. (Maybe the council and manager need to take a field trip to Rincon?)
LaFayette’s city council seemed to be addressing the Freeman situation during its April meeting when a new “ethics committee” was created. The new committee, consisting of three independent people appointed by the mayor and council, will address ethical issues and conflicts of interest among city officials. Recommendations for termination or discipline made by this new committee won’t be official, but the new statute requires the council to take whatever action the committee recommends.
That’s exciting, and sounds like a solution to problems between employees or department heads who misbehave – except the new committee will only be handling ethics for officials like councilors, mayor, City Manager, City Attorney, or Clerk. All other employees will still be supervised by the City Manager – which takes us back to where we started. If the mayor or clerk steal money the committee will meet and decide what to do with them, but if the police chief curses like a sailor and bullies his employees into resigning their positions, the process stays what it’s always been: complain to the City Manager and hope he doesn’t tell your boss who squealed.
So if the new ethics rules don’t actually do anything to fix the city’s biggest problem, why bother with them at all?
- From Walker County Messenger / CatWalkChatt.com, 04/17/12:
- “LaFayette has passed an ordinance to include itself as a ‘Certified City of Ethics’ as defined by the Georgia Mu-nicipal Association. ..
- “The resolution passed by the city council included the five principals required to constitute a city of ethics. They are, namely, that the city: ‘Serve others, not ourselves;’ ‘Use resources with efficiency and economy;’ ‘Treat all people fairly;’ ‘Use the power of our position for the well-being of our constituents;’ and ‘Create an environ-ment of honesty, openness and integrity.’ ..
- “The official designation of LaFayette as a ‘Certified City of Ethics’ should be recognized by the Georgia Munici-pal Association in June.”
New ethics rules are copied from the Georgia Municipal Association, the bare minimum required by that body to have LaFayette declared a “Certified City of Ethics.” We won’t be a city of ethics, but it’ll look nice on a sign, or maybe mentioned in a brochure. (Small comfort for the people who still have to work with Tommy Freeman on a regular basis.) The whole thing brings up sayings about pigs wearing makeup, or scripture about whitewashed tombs with no regard for the corruption laying within. Superficial change.
For LaFayette to truly be a “city of ethics” and not just certified as one, the council needs to revisit these new ethics rules and expand them to every aspect of city government. It’s fine to have an ethics committee handling rare issues with top officials, but officials normally aren’t a problem. When they are a problem it’s usually due to their unwillingness to tackle festering problems like the one over in Public Safety.
Becoming ethical inside and out, moving past the toxic legacy of abuse and mistrust strangling LaFayette dead, requires going beyond minimum standards. The current City Council (or at least its new members) and new City Manager Frank Etheridge have to prove themselves competent and trustworthy. That requires responding promptly and sufficiently to complaints from citizens and employees, handling situations before they get out of control. It also means being fair in how employees are treated – what’s wrong for one is wrong for all the rest, even those who don’t vote the right way or support the right people. We need deeper-reaching ethics rules with more teeth, and even with perfect rules in place we also need the people charged with enforcing those rules to do so consistently.
The new City Manager and councilors haven’t been in place long enough to make a judgment on their goals and priorities. So far the jury is still out. But choosing to terminate Stephens instead of merely suspending him – WHILE still doing nothing about Freeman – didn’t really help their case. Hopefully that will be addressed again soon and something more substantial will be done before things get any more fouled up.
In the meanwhile, city employees should protect themselves by getting educated. Get familiar with state and federal labor laws (supervisors cannot call you a “stupid Mexican” as one example), then figure out what the city’s specific policies are about chain of command and filing complaints.
City workers should try talking to department heads, the City Manager, or council members. Ask for printed copies of any rules cited, and get everything in writing. Then follow the rules, complain to the right people, and keep records of incidents – that way when things do get bad, employees are prepared to take legal action instead of getting frustrated and getting fired the way Johnny Stephens, Jr. did. (Sending complaints to the LU is also helpful, we keep everything.) Keeping a record of complaints is also good advice in a city where too many people have been fired for whistleblowing.
Put the council and City Manager to the test – do exactly what they’ve said to do, and see if they respond in the ways they promised. If employees are crossing every “T” and dotting every “I,” department heads and officials will have little defense for reports of abuse. We need to see progress, not more Johnny Stephens, Jr. behavior that overshadows bigger problems.
If fired for unjust reasons, city employees would also be well advised to get a lawyer. Mr. Stephens went before the council without legal assistance and accomplished little for himself. By contrast, other employees terminated in the past, like Robby Tate and Andy Fricks, hired attorneys and were reinstated. (Stephens, we admit, had a weaker case; the terminations of Tate and Fricks were obviously unjustified.)
Another Public Safety employee fired at the same time as Johnny Stephens brought in a lawyer, and his return to work didn’t even require an appearance before the council. We’ll have more on that unjustified termination next week.