By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Mayor David Lockhart banged his gavel hard several times Friday night against the protests of residents angry at the most recent decisions made by council members — to hire a city manager and fire the elections superintendent.
While there were repeated murmurings and grumblings in the audience during the called meeting, residents Donna Barkley and Ann Keith spoke out loud enough to draw Lockhart's ire. He reiterated that the agenda didn't allow for public comments and ordered that no one other than council members speak.
That didn't stop Barkley, who voiced her opposition to members when they filed out for a closed session to discuss personnel and legal matters.
"It's not right," she said. "It's not right."
The women — and about two dozen other residents on one side of the room — were not happy with the council's method of replacing former City Manager John Parker. The other side of the room has, over the past few months, been occupied by residents who tend to support Lockhart and new Councilman Tommy Smith.
Lockhart announced at the beginning of the meeting that he had a recommendation for the position, Frank Brandon, whose background is in education. Brandon has taught at Forest Park High School, was vice principal and principal at Jonesboro High School and was an instructor at Clayton State University for 38 years, said Lockhart.
"His qualifications on paper go beyond that because he's one of you, one of us," said Lockhart. "He's worked with so many different people, he's global. He knows us and you know him. He has a reputation and a relationship with most of our directors. He can bring peace the city needs."
After the lengthy introduction, Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord questioned Brandon's government experience.
"Business experience, yes," said Lockhart. "But city manager experience? No. No experience in city government."
Lord was also doubtful that the position could be filled only by a recommendation. Lord said the city charter requires the position be posted for 30 days, and read the code section into the record.
"John Parker has only been gone 15 days, I doubt if it has been posted for 30 days," she said. "It appears it has not been advertised. Has it been posted?"
"No, ma'am, it's not in the charter that it has to be posted," he said.
Councilwoman Latresa Akins asked if Brandon would have time to devote to Forest Park.
"He plans to make this his one and only full-time position," said Lockhart.
Smith made the motion to appoint Brandon but Lord objected.
"I think this is getting us into an ethics violation," she said. "I abstain because I think it's an ethics violation."
The 3-0-1 vote angered residents and the murmuring increased.
"Keep your comments to yourselves," Lockhart told them, causing a Forest Park police officer posted near the dais to come to attention. Police officers routinely attend the meetings but for the past several gatherings, a uniformed officer has stood at the front of the council chambers, facing the audience.
As council members streamed out for a closed session to discuss Brandon's contract, Barkley voiced her objections. After the doors closed, she was more specific.
"This position should have been shopped so people could apply for it," she said. "He's asking for a change, then let there be a change. It's not right."
"I would have preferred they post the job and put in a person with city manager experience," she said.
After the closed session, council members voted on Brandon's two-year contract, which will pay him $125,000 annually. Parker, who was hired seven years ago with 12 years experience as city manager, was being paid $141,000. Lockhart said another change from Parker's contract to Brandon's is that Brandon can be fired if the council decides it wants him gone.
"The terms don't require termination for cause," said Lockhart. "If council decides to terminate, it can."
Lord again abstained because she said she thinks the action can result in an ethics violation but the rest of council approved the recommendation.
Brandon has previously run unsuccessfully for city office. During public comments several meetings ago, his wife, Jackie Brandon, spent about five minutes praising Lockhart and his family.
Council agreed to keep police Chief Dwayne Hobbs, who has been serving as interim city manager, as assistant city manager for 30 days to help Brandon get acclimated to the job. Brandon is to begin Aug. 6. He didn't attend the meeting.
Council also resolved the ongoing issue of Elections Superintendent Darnell Moorer. Akins said last month she wanted him removed because she thinks he's "too political" and has been a vocal opponent of Lockhart. Akins put the issue of removal back on the agenda and Lockhart called for a motion and vote.
Lockhart, who can vote only to break a tie, cast a "yes" vote to break the 2-2 vote to remove Moorer. Lord voted against it but it was unclear who voted with her.
Qualifying for mayor and wards 1 and 2 will be held in August. Lockhart, retired Public Works Director Mike Gippert and former Mayor Pro Tem Sparkle Adams are expected to run. There have been no public announcements on other candidates. The election will be held Nov. 5.