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Jonesboro mayor abruptly fires police chief

By Joel Hall and Linda Looney-Bond

jhall@news-daily.com

What appears to be taking on the dimensions of a feud between the City of Jonesboro's police chief and its mayor boiled over Thursday when Mayor Luther Maddox fired Police Chief Brad Johnson.

Shortly before the end of the business day on Thursday, Maddox called Johnson into his office and handed him a letter of termination, according to Johnson's attorney Keith Martin. The letter "cited that he [Johnson] has failed to satisfactorily complete his working test," said Martin.

When asked whether the "working test" referred to a probationary period, Martin said, "There's no provision for the police chief to be on probation."

Johnson took office as police chief this year on Jan. 1. Martin said he did not know what specifically led to the firing. However, he added that, earlier on Thursday, Johnson sent a letter to Maddox regarding a personnel matter involving a police officer.

"Brad sent, to the mayor, a letter that cautioned him on one of the actions the mayor was considering," explained Martin. He said the mayor wanted to move a police officer to a code enforcement position that would report directly to the mayor, as opposed to the police chief. However, the officer would continue to be a member of the police force under the mayor's plan, according to Martin.

"Brad said you can put him [the officer] there, but he cannot [continue to] be a police officer, with police authority, and arrest powers," said Martin. Later that afternoon, Maddox fired Johnson and Johnson turned in his badge and gun to the police department, according to Martin.

Martin said Johnson will seek to get his job back. "He liked being the Jonesboro Police Chief," said Martin. "We're going to look at every bit of applicable law - state, federal, the city charter and the city's ordinances - and what we're going to do is ... seek every remedy we can for Brad," he said.

Johnson and Maddox had been at the heart of an incident earlier that stirred public debate, and seemed to divide the community over whom to support. Maddox had suspended the police chief for five days without pay, accusing Johnson of disrespecting the mayor's office, and alluding to the fact that the chief wore jeans, rather than a police uniform to work. The mayor said that was inappropriate. A hearing before the city council resulted in the suspension against Johnson being reduced to two and a half days without pay.

Mayor Maddox could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Major Tim Jessup, the city's highest-ranking police officer after Johnson, declined to comment about who would take Johnson's place as chief.

According to members of the city council, the mayor informed them of Johnson's firing Thursday evening, shortly after it was executed. Council members had varying opinions about the mayor's right to unilaterally fire Johnson.

"From what I understand, the mayor fired him [Johnson]," said Councilman Rick Yonce, who also serves as Mayor Pro Tempore. "He just called and told me after he did it, that he had done it. I think the mayor, under the employment manual, had the right to fire him, so he exercised that right. I'm just sorry that turn of events led to this.

"He [Johnson] was a real likable guy," Yonce added. "I'm sure that made Luther's decision hard."

"It was about five o' clock that he [Maddox] called me and told me that he felt like the chief hadn't met his probationary status," said Councilman Roger Grider. "According to the employment manual ... promotions, demotions even, have to go through the same probation period that new hires have to go through. Typically, its six months.

"The mayor runs the day-to-day operations of the city," Grider said. "We try not to get involved in it any more than we have to. My understanding is that the mayor can do that [fire an employee] and that we can either uphold, or deny, that. That will probably be a voting item at the next council meeting."

Councilman Billy Powell, who has vocally supported Johnson, believes the mayor acted on a personal vendetta. "From what I've read in the charter, he [the mayor] can suspend an employee up to five days," Powell said. "The council is supposed to do the firing, and, to my knowledge, none of the council was notified of the mayor's actions beforehand. We were scheduled to have the meeting tomorrow night, but that has been canceled.

"I can't imagine why the mayor would fire Johnson today ... except for the possibility that Maddox heard that this council was going to decide not to fire Johnson," Powell said. "I think there are a whole lot of people in our city government that need to grow up."

Councilman Wallace Norrington declined to comment. Councilmembers Clarence Mann and Bobby Wiggins could not be reached for comment.

Some citizens expressed disappointment over Johnson's firing, among them was longtime resident, Nancy Reeves. "I'm very disappointed, because Brad had worked so hard on reaching the community through the Neighborhood Watch Program," said Reeves. "He was the heart of that program. The main thing is that the citizens knew he had an open-door policy, that they could talk to him at any time.

"I think it's a big disservice to the citizens of Jonesboro," she said, "to dismiss a chief that's as qualified as Chief Johnson was."

Powell said there would be no council meeting on Friday at 6:30 p.m., as planned, to discuss personnel issues related to Johnson's employment. Grider and Yonce said they assumed the meeting would be canceled, but were not certain.

"At the next council meeting, the council will make the decision to uphold the mayor's decision, or put him [Johnson] back to work," Grider said. The next city council meeting is scheduled for June 8.