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Jonesboro city manager's future uncertain

By Ed Brock

Jonesboro City Manager Jon Walker's job may be in peril after January, but right now he's just continuing to do that job.

In January new council members Luther Maddox and Clarence Mann will be sworn in along with incumbent Rick Yonce. All three of them, along with Councilman Bobby Wiggins who took office after winning a special election this month, have questioned the need for a city manager and criticized some programs initiated under Walker.

Walker did not seem disturbed by what the future may hold.

“I serve at the wish of the board,” Walker said. “I'm just doing my job.”

That job includes overseeing the ongoing search for a new police chief for the city and helping the council as it considers the year's next budget.

It was during similar budget discussions last year that the controversy began that set things in motion for the election night victory of candidates opposed to Walker and Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day.

That was when it became apparent that the city council was not including the Jonesboro Volunteer Fire Department in the budget. Crowds of people began coming to council meetings to protest unfolding plans by the city to eliminate the fire department and contract with the Clayton County Fire Department to provide services for the city.

Supporters of the move, including Day, said it would be cheaper than trying to change to a full-time fire department and that, according to a report by Fire Chief Jimmy Wiggins, volunteers were becoming more difficult to recruit.

Since the county fire department has taken over the city's ISO rating, used to measure the quality of fire protection and a factor in setting homeowner's insurance rates, has improved. But many residents, already unhappy about the city's elimination of its sanitation department for a private contractor, said they preferred the volunteers.

That groundswell of discontent apparently showed itself on Nov. 8, Election Day.

“I think the voters who turned out spoke volumes about what direction they want the city to go in,” Yonce said.

Yonce was one of three council members who voted to keep the fire department. The other two were now retired Councilman Clifford “Rip” Sewell and Councilman Wallace Norrington, who lost his seat in the election. Three others voted to eliminate the fire department and Day broke the tie by voting to go with the county for fire protection.

During the campaign, however, Yonce joined with Maddox and Mann on a platform supported by the Jonesboro Pride civic group.

Regarding Walker, Yonce said he couldn't comment on any plans to terminate the city manager because that is a personnel matter.

But he is concerned about current budget plans to take money out of the city's reserve fund to pay matching funds on grants for a planned parking deck downtown and the city's Streetscape Project for Main Street. The parking deck is part of the city's Livable Center's Initiative and that, along with the Streetscape Project, are projects that began after Walker was hired in 2002.

Yonce said he had made a motion last year to use reserve money to save the fire department for at least a year and that motion was voted down.

“It's just hard for me to see how you can take that money away from the fire department and throw it into the parking deck,” Yonce said.

Maddox also was worried about the proposed transfer of funds.

“I want to leave it in the reserve collecting interest until it's needed,” Maddox said.

However Maddox, who during a candidates' forum told the crowd that hiring Walker was a mistake, also said he couldn't say if he would vote to fire Walker because it is a personnel issue.

“I am going to do what I promised the voters in my campaign,” Maddox said.

Wiggins said he still had to attend a couple of more council meetings before deciding what he wanted to do about the city manager position. Mann could not be reached for comment.

Firing Walker would come with a price. According to his contract, if the council fires him outright, assuming it is not due to some criminal action by Walker, they will have to pay his salary and “all relevant benefits” for a four month period.

Walker makes $75,712 annually. His contract automatically renews each year unless the city gives Walker 120 days notice prior to the end of a calendar year that it does not plan to renew the contract.