2012
04.19

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 He was asked by LPD Chief Tommy Freeman (shown above) and Assistant Chief Bengie Clift to install an outdated police radio in a Public Works pickup truck, per the request of newly appointed Public Works Director Mark White.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.

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.

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?

    “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.

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12 comments so far

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  1. This focuses a lot on Freeman, but it’s NOT just Freeman.. The whole attitude has to change. Having the city declared to be something it obviously isn’t will contribute nothing towards fixing what’s wrong.

    GMA also has a COUNTY of ethics program, so you know it’s only a matter of time before Bebe Heiskell has herself also declared ethically sound.

    Wonder if there’s a Blog of Ethics certification we can sign up for. If we do that, would it change anyone’s perception of what we do here? Probably not.

    – LU

  2. Impressed..although would have liked reaction quotes by the targets. Otherwise, good editorial/analysis. It’s is being noticed by even those who dare not quote you by name.

  3. The targets, being the council? We asked the councilors who participate in the LU Facebook about this a week ago, and they didn’t give us a response. One of them clarified that the new ethics rules only apply to officials, not employees, but nobody will answer why they didn’t go ahead and extend the ethics laws beyond that point. And they can’t legally say anything about Freeman because that’s a personnel issue and whatnot. Their actions will have to do the speaking, and so far we’re not that impressed.

    Looking for them to “wow” us at the next council meeting, but not going to hold my breath for that.

    Some of the Freeman issues were supposedly handled by Johnnie Arnold a long time ago (we’ll get into that next week in an article about the other termination) which I guess means they can’t be brought back up. But he still isn’t fire certified, and still yells, and still curses, and still has employees who are afraid of him. You’d think doing something wouldn’t be that hard, Georgia is a no-fault state when it comes to firing people. That’s another good reason for everybody who has a run-in with him to file a formal complaint and keep a record of it, so there’s enough of a paper trail on him that the City Manager can’t help but cut him loose.

    – LU

  4. With all the current focus on bullying, it would seem the City of LaFayette would be right in the forefront about abiding by regulations regarding this issue. They also have been less than stellar in forcing the chief to abide by his contract to get the fire training. By not taking said training and continuing to accept a paycheck which includes monies for him to be certified in this field, he is in essence committing a fraud. A very harsh word, but this situation has spiraled to the point where harsh words are the only way to fight the individual concerned. Like all bullies, Freeman uses a loud voice, profanities, and fear to continue to keep his job. One can only hope the city council and mayor will worry less about letting Freeman continue until his alleged retirement in 2 years and more about ensuring the city has an individual in charge of public safety who engenders a peaceful work atmosphere and good relationship with the citizens.

  5. Nothing has happened to Freeman because while he curses and screams he protects a few “friends” who have friends. He continues to “serve and protect” a few low life’s that need to be in prison, instead of on the Golf Course. Tommy is an ignorant pawn who is being used to keep a few people out of prison so they can try and pay their bills. It is not always who you know it sometimes comes down to who you owe. He struggles in a job that is way over his head, he is desperate to keep it….after all who else would have him? He tries to hide his incompetence with Bully tactics like a 12 year old school boy. It all boils down to the fact the “good ‘ole boys” play him like a fiddle, he is a pathetic, ignorant, desperate person who can not manage on his education, experience, or the ethics of doing the right thing; therefore has to pitch fits like a spoiled rotten school boy in the grocery isle to keep the candy he never should have gotten. Allowing that behavior is the problem. If the new CM is of any ethics or quality he will at the least demote Freeman for not meeting the job requirements. Of course if he did that he would have to explain why someone was just hired to fill the Director position who also did not meet the job requirements. Just like spoiled kids the parent ( CM) is responsible to curb the “learned” behavior. Suspend, demote, take his rank whatever the term not only for his disgusting behavior, lack of knowledge, lack of requirements, slanderous discriminating remarks but due to his instability and desperation. Anyone in this type positions who is desperate like Freeman is vulnerable to corruption. All it takes is for a person of “position” to hold his desperation over his head and he will do whatever it takes to remain. Desperate people do desperate things. It’s like having a desperate bankrupt broke person in charge of your checkbook …

  6. Even the Municipal Association admits that this certification doesn’t mean the city is ethical:

    “Certification under this program program is not in any way approval of past or present conduct by the city or any city official. Instead it is an attempt to raise awareness about ethics issues at the local level and provide a local forum for the airing and resolution of legitimate concerns. The use of a local ethics ordinance allows citizens to raise their concerns and participate in the ethics investigation process at the local level, where the voice and influence of the individual citizen is strongest.”

    I think we’ve raised the awareness and provided a forum. Now where’s the improvement leading to better ethics?

    – LU

  7. I am not trying to be mean, I promise, but the fact that you mix the new ethics ordinance with the issues surrounding the chief kind of makes me think that you haven’t read the actual ordinance. The reason that an ordinance is needed is because it creates an actual process for fixing ethical problems from the top down.

    Illustration of life without the ordinance: Say Councilman A buys vacant lot in the city and then votes to sell the land to the city for a huge price to build a new building. The people that voted for Councilman A are astounded (they obviously didn’t think he was crooked when they voted for him) but there is absolutely nothing they can do about it for perhaps four years. Councilman A is an elected official – you cannot fire him. Maybe, if he is lucky, everyone will forget it in a few months and he gets re-elected anyways.

    Life with the ordinance: Concerned citizen files a formal complaint with the ethics committee. The committee investigates and makes a determination of whether Councilman A has violated the ethics ordinance. The determination is of a legal nature, meaning that they don’t just ask, “Do we think that this action meets our definition of the word ethical?” Rather, they see if Councilman A has taken an action that violated the terms of the ordinance. If they find that an infraction has occurred, the ordinance provides a few actions that can be taken.

    The ordinance is in place because YOU CANNOT FIRE ELECTED OFFICIALS. So, we are trying to provide some way to police their behavior besides waiting 4 years to simply not vote them back in. There is absolutely no need to make this ordinance cover anyone else because they can absolutely be fired. If the ordinance covered people like the chief or Johnny Jr., then there wouldn’t really be a city manager – the ethics board would control the hiring and firing of the entire city and the whole system would get out of balance. The ethics board is merely an intended check or balance on the power of the people “at the top.”

  8. Ben:

    First let me say we appreciate you commenting, you’re the first elected official from the city or county who’s ever made a comment on the blog.

    We are not saying the ethics rules are bad. It’s a good thing, a right step. But I think it’s ridiculous to apply for the city of ethics certification because of it. That part is the superficial step. The city ought to focus less on being certified this, that, or the other and more on actually fixing what’s wrong. Forget about GMA certification; 80% of the people who live in LaFayette are going to laugh at the certification because they know better.

    If the whole point is only firing or disciplining elected officials, why include the officials like City Manager and City Clerk who serve at the will of the council? They can be fired too, with a 3-2 vote of the council. But often the council won’t handle those things because it’s too political – that’s how Johnnie Arnold clung to power fourteen years even though at least two people on the council (we’re told) wanted him gone for a decade.

    Obviously you can’t answer this question due to personnel laws, so consider it rhetorical… If “anyone else” “can absolutely be fired” then why haven’t they been? Why does Freeman still have a job after doing so much damage to Public Safety? Some might say he’s reformed, incidents we’ve highlighted here are in the past.. But in the last six days he’s threatened Public Safety employees over perceived “leaks” to us. Seems like the same old behavior to me, just now the ones who would complain about it have been run off or silenced.

    The only terminations we’ve seen recently, outside of Johnnie Arnold last year, have been put into motion by Freeman to punish those who challenge him. There’s no sign of the City Manager ever disciplining or terminating anybody without first being asked to by the police chief. Maybe he has, but we haven’t seen it or heard of it, and if it happens we almost always hear of it.

    If removing the City Manager’s authority to fire people makes his position redundant, could we say his position is already redundant since he only fires people when the department heads ask for it? He’s paid an awful lot just to call people on the phone and tell them they’ve been fired or (in some cases) only suspended. His job is more than just that role, or should be. (He also ought to be answering inquiries from citizens, but he ignores our e-mails. Come back Monday for an example of that.)

    Seems like it would be less political, less controversial, and more even-handed to have the same ethics committee or another similar body supervise employees, or at least supervise the department heads. We would be satisfied if low level employees were still under the City Manager IF all the department heads were appointed and fired, when warranted, by either the council or an ethics committee. Department leadership is too big a thing to have one person responsible for supervising it.

    The council is doing much better with its new members, and Etheridge is more competent than Arnold; we perceive that things are not as bad as they were. But when you’re in leadership of such a damaged, beaten-down community, you have to go beyond just adequate, beyond just minimum standards.. LaFayette’s leaders have got to think outside the box and be aggressive towards ethics and transparency to ever begin turning the ship around.

    – LU

  9. We cant dwell on the past, we have to look at now and the furture. There are issues being looked at in every dept . We didnt just ask for the Ethic for the certificate , we actually want to have to follow them and be held accountable if we dont. We really thought this would be something everyone would agree with with past history and be glad that we want to be held to a higher standered. As for Frank I was talking to him today and he didnt even know about the flag, Do you have his right email address? I will check with him and urge him to respond to you and citizens emails. Thanks

  10. There’s no disagreement that it’s a good thing to have in place, nobody is wishing the rules weren’t there, we just think (as stated several times) it’s not enough. We’ll have to be patient with the city dealing with “issues” in every department but there is seriously no time to waste when it comes to departments where experienced good people are leaving all the time because of leadership problems. There’s a lot going wrong that can’t be fixed later – some stuff we don’t even discuss here because it would put people’s jobs further at risk.

    This time we e-mailed him via his official city address, and last time with his personal address provided on his bio/resume since he didn’t have a city address at the time. He’s ignored us on both. We understand there are certain things he (and you, and Ben, and other city leaders) can’t respond to but he’s not been asked anything inappropriate.

    – LU

  11. City of ethics I think frank needs to check out some of his upper level employees running around wasting our tax payers dollars by burning gas up everyday. Doing nothing. Oh and by the way frank Rick jones parks his truck behind his house everyday for half the day. So do others it’s sad when you can’t even keep up with you workers. It’s not your fault you are just gullible

  12. From the Chattanooga Times Free Press, May 6, 2012:

    “[Councilman Davis] said LaFayette’s ordinance was in the works long before a heated meeting in March at which several residents accused the City Council of ignoring earlier complaints about Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman, he said.

    “Complaints about department heads are directed to the city manager, he said.

    “‘They’re not affected by this [ethics resolution],’ Davis said, explaining that the ordinance only applies to the council members, the city attorney, city clerk and city manager.”

    http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2012/may/06/ga-lafayette-passes-ethics-resolution/

    – LU