published Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

LaFayette to split public safety director position

LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- City officials voted unanimously to split the vacant public safety director's position into both a fire and police chief, a decision prompted after closer scrutiny after the former director was fired.

City Manager Frank Etheridge requested the change at Monday night's City Council meeting and officials agreed it specifically would improve the fire department side of public safety.

"I think from a practical standpoint it would be better for morale that people involved in fire control and firemen to be answering to a fireman," Councilman Ben Bradford said.

With the approval, the public safety department also will be split into two departments beginning Monday.

The change was sparked a month after Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman was fired. Freeman had been criticized for his lack of fire certification, and Etheridge said in a previous interview that led to his decision to look closer at both positions.

Today, Etheridge will begin an internal search to fill the positions.

However if Etheridge decides there are no qualified candidates internally he will advertise the position to the public. He said he plans to make a decision in one to two weeks.

The two chief positions were combined in the mid-1990s when a fire chief retired in an effort to save money.

But the safety director position paid more than for a police or fire chief, Etheridge said. Freeman was paid $74,776 a year.

So Etheridge proposed lowering the police chief salary, and eventually eliminating the assistant chief position.

Mayor Neal Florence raised concerns about whether splitting the departments would waist cross-training that police officers have to fight fires.

But interim public safety director Bengie Clift said only three to four officers have maintained their certification to fight fires. In the end, he argued the positions would have to change and officers may be able to continue volunteering to fight fires but participate in an assisting role.

But most agreed the change made sense.

"There still is a very different mindset," Etheridge said Monday night. "To say every policeman would make a fireman is just not true."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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