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Council wants to hire PIO to boost image

FOREST PARK — City leaders are split on hiring a public information officer to counter what some say is a negative image created by the local newspaper.

A series of actions taken since May when Mayor David Lockhart and Ward 1 Councilman Tommy Smith took office has divided residents. Subsequent reports by the Clayton News Daily drew public criticism by Lockhart, Smith and Ward 4 Councilwoman Latresa Akins.

Akins broached the idea of hiring a PIO during Monday night’s meeting.

“I think we should look at getting a PIO because of the negative things in the media about the city,” said Akins.

Smith agreed.

“I think it’d be good to have positive news on what the mayor and council are doing,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord, who hasn’t been vocal about perceived negative publicity, said she understands the need for a PIO. However, she said the problem isn’t one of media coverage.

“It doesn’t matter what a PIO says as long as there is the perception y’all can’t work together for the city,” said Lord. “Not everyone reads the paper. People here at the meetings talk to other people about what goes on.”

Lockhart said hiring a PIO was recommended for each of Clayton County’s municipalities by studies paid for by the cities that pre-date his election to office in April.

“We spent money on these studies before I even thought about running for office,” he said. “This was something suggested county-wide, is not limited to Forest Park and has nothing to do with internal politics. We participated in the study and paid a lot of money for ideas.”

City Manager Frank Brandon, whose hiring was included in the series of controversial actions, said he has already met with department heads who oppose adding a PIO to the staff. City departments include police, fire, public works, finance, parks and recreation, planning and zoning, and Keep Forest Park Beautiful.

“They feel they handle things well in their departments,” he said. “When need-be, they feel they handle the media well.”

After council members voted to add the item to the agenda during a May 6 meeting, residents said they were surprised by the firing of veteran city attorneys Robert Mack and Joe Harris. Residents grumbled about the swiftness of the action and lack of an explanation as to why it was taken. Lockhart immediately recommended hiring the Fincher, Denmark and Williams Law Firm.

Longtime Public Works Director Mike Gippert and City Manager John Parker voluntarily left the city but both men have said they felt forced out after conflicts with Lockhart.

Weeks after Parker left, Lockhart suggested appointing Brandon. The two men have attended the same church for years, said Brandon. Brandon’s wife, Jackie Brandon, is director over the Sunday school program, and Lockhart teaches a youth class.

However, Brandon said he first met Lockhart in April, at the post office.

A lifelong educator, Brandon has no experience in city government, a fact about which he is apparently sensitive. Before apologizing to Lockhart, Brandon rattled off his professional background, which includes high school principal, and Clayton State University instructor for 38 years.

“I was a principal for 24 years,” he said. “I’ve dealt with personnel issues, a staff, grants, budgets, facilities. I’m sorry, David, but I had to say it. I have no experience?”

Lockhart told Brandon Monday night to look over the studies recommending a PIO and work on formulating a job description and salary, with input from Akins.

“We could have all that ready for you at the next meeting,” said Brandon.

None of the county’s six other municipalities have a PIO on staff and neither does Clayton County Board of Commissioners. Although a county-wide comprehensive economic development plan recommended Clayton County officials address the negative perception of the county, other city mayors have said they were not aware of any specific recommendation that they hire PIOs.