Interim fire chief told to stop making changes

Some commissioners argue request is meddling

JONESBORO — Depending on the point of view, Clayton County commissioners either asked interim fire Chief Dwayne Jackson to stop making changes in his department Tuesday, or they gave him an order to do so.

The commission voted 3-2 to approve a resolution that urges Jackson to stop making personnel changes in the fire department. Jackson was named interim fire chief last month when former Chief Jeff Hood retired. Chairman Jeff Turner and Commissioner Shana Rooks voted against the resolution.

Turner said after the meeting that Jackson should be treated the same as any previous interim chief, including Hood. According to county records, Hood made more than 50 personnel changes from the time he was appointed interim chief Dec. 25, 2010, to his permanent placement in early April 2011.

“I voted against the resolution because it would be inconsistent with what the board has allowed in the past,” said Turner Thursday. “It wasn’t my desire this interim chief, for consistency’s sake, to be treated any differently than any other interim chiefs.”

According to the resolution, Jackson has made “a number of changes which impact the transition.” Jackson said he was caught off guard by the commission’s move because he didn’t know the changes he’s made had upset anyone.

“This was my first time hearing about it, so I have no idea what’s going on,” said Jackson. “Nobody came to me and said anything about it so I’m surprised by this.”

The question some commissioners have is whether what they say, regardless of how it is phrased, is construed as an order, or a request. Rooks said this was the first time she was aware of that the commission had taken a step like this through a resolution. Other longtime county government insiders quietly said they’d never seen anything like it before either.

It bordered on commissioners micromanaging department heads who are hired to oversee the day-to-day operations of their departments, said Rooks.

“Basically, we’re telling a department head how to run his department,” she said.

“Not quite,” said interim county attorney Jack Hancock. “What this does is it urges the interim fire chief to stop making personnel changes in the fire department.”

“But if we’re his bosses, can’t a suggestion from us essentially be seen as an order?” Rooks countered.

“It’s a matter of semantics,” said Hancock.

Turner said the resolution was requested by Commissioner Gail Hambrick, and he did not know why she requested it. Hambrick left after the meeting.

Turner argued Jackson had the right to make personnel changes as he saw fit. The changes so far have been to move employees temporarily into “essential” position, he said. Such changes would include naming a temporary fire marshal to fill the void created when Jackson left that position to become interim fire chief.

“I understand he’s the interim chief, but I think in his situation, he should be afforded the latitude to place people where he feels that they would be most effective,” said Turner.

However, Jackson’s appointment to the position was meant to be a short one, until a permanent fire chief is named. Turner said a month ago that he wanted to pick a permanent chief quickly. On Tuesday, he said a decision could be made as early as next month. Jackson has said he will seek the permanent posting.

But, if Jackson doesn’t get it, the people he moved around could find themselves moved around again by his successor — if he or she decided to do so — just as they get acquainted with their new jobs.

Still, Turner said while some people may not like being moved around, it shouldn’t be the commission’s place to get involved in any of that.

“We’re policy-makers and should not be meddling in the operations of the department,” he said.