By Joel Hall
Jonesboro residents gathered at the Jonesboro Police Department on Tuesday in a show of support for Police Chief Brad Johnson.
The support rally took place during an executive session of the mayor and council, in which it was widely believed the council would terminate Johnson's employment.
About 20 residents showed up for the meeting, holding up laminated signs reading, "Support Police Chief Johnson." The council ultimately delayed a decision on a "personnel matter" until a special called meeting scheduled for this Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Several city officials, including the mayor, would not say if the special session will discuss Johnson's continued employment. "Nothing was decided, on the advice of the city attorney," said Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox. When asked if Friday's executive session was about Johnson's employment, Maddox refused to address the question, and said the executive session involved "a personnel matter."
However, when asked if Friday's meeting would determine Johnson's employment, Councilman Billy Powell replied, "You can assume that."
Johnson was given a five-day suspension -- without pay -- from April 28 to May 4, for what Maddox said was "insubordination and disrespect to the office of mayor." In a suspension letter dated April 28, the mayor also chastised Johnson for failing to wear "professional attire," and opting blue jeans over a standard police uniform. The five-day suspension was later reduced to a two-and-a-half day suspension, without pay.
Johnson appeared at Tuesday's meeting in uniform, and with a lawyer. Appearing to be in good spirits, he said he is ready for a conclusion to the matter. "I think the police department is functioning better than it has in a long time," he said. "I think they [the citizens] understand that it's politics, and not performance. If they [the council] have got something to do, let's get [on] with it."
The topic of Johnson's continued employment has generated anxiety among the council, as well as city residents. Councilman Powell, who supports Johnson, believes tensions between the mayor and Johnson stem from control issues. "I feel like Brad has done nothing wrong, and I think that we are lucky to have a [police] chief as good as Brad," Powell said. "I think it's about authority. The mayor wants somebody who he can push their buttons and tell them what to do. Brad Johnson is not going to be that person."
Powell also suggested that the mayor and Johnson have disagreed about how to spend funds procured through the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). On May 11, Maddox suggested asking the federal government for permission to use DEA funds to pay for a new siren system for the city.
Johnson said DEA funds are typically approved by a city's police chief for equipment upgrades and training for public safety officials. "The only procedure is that the police chief can authorize the spending," Johnson said. "That's not me, that's the federal government [dictating the rules]. What your standard thing to do with it is [spend the money on] equipment and training. Anything outside of that, you have to apply to the federal government for."
Keith Martin, Johnson's attorney, said Maddox felt "threatened" by "written exchanges" between Maddox and Johnson explaining how DEA funds should be used.
Maddox would not discuss how the spending of DEA funds factored into his discussions with Johnson.
Councilman Roger Grider said the issues with Johnson "are not personal. It's a personnel issue that hasn't been resolved," Grider said. "It's not about his performance, it's more about his attitude."
Many Jonesboro residents expressed dismay about the idea of Johnson being fired. They also expressed ire over perceived tensions among members of the city council. "I don't think the punishment fits the crime," said Ann Sligh, a lifelong Jonesboro resident. "I think it's a little harsh. The people here are happy with Brad. I saw Brad when he was in blue jeans ... I wasn't offended by it.
"My greatest disappointment is that I thought things were going to be better after the last administration," Sligh said. "I thought a lot of things would be ironed out. I had hoped the squabbling and the conflict would end, but obviously, it hasn't."
Larry Boak, a resident and a Johnson supporter, believes the current tension between Johnson and the city council stems from "micromanagement," and "retaliation," on the part of the mayor. "I think Mr. Johnson is a good chief," Boak said. "Otherwise, people would be leaving left and right. He does not have a turnover problem in his department."
Steve Fincher, attorney for the City of Jonesboro, declined to comment on the details of the meeting the council will have on Friday, citing attorney-client confidentiality. "That's a matter between me and my client," he said.
Martin said he will be prepared to defend Johnson's employment status on Friday. "I was told by several people, that would have knowledge, that this [meeting] has to do with his employment status, unequivocally," Martin said. "We're just going to show up and see what they do. We'll certainly be ready for anything."