published Thursday, May 17th, 2012

LaFayette city manager fires safety director Tommy Freeman

LaFayette Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman
LaFayette Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- City officials haven't decided who will replace Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman, whose five-year tenure that ended Wednesday was marked with allegations of public tirades and retaliation against employees.

But City Manager Frank Etheridge said he made the decision to fire the 62-year-old Freeman after he conducted an internal investigation and decided the chief no longer could be trusted.

"The official reason was a loss of trust from the council and myself and his ability to manage the department," Etheridge said.

Accusations against Freeman came to a head in a meeting in March when multiple residents accused the City Council of ignoring complaints against Freeman for years. The meeting was to decide whether a fired firefighter should be reinstated, but it turned into a heated debate about Freeman.

City Councilman Ben Bradford, who is new on the council, said he was upset by the allegations in March and began speaking to employees in confidence to find out the truth. He said what he found concerned him.

Mayor Neal Florence said the council wasn't aware of any turmoil between Freeman and other employees before the March meeting. But he admitted there was at least one complaint by a former employee against Freeman two years ago that didn't raise city officials' concerns.

Multiple attempts to reach Freeman were unsuccessful. In a previous interview, Freeman said he wasn't popular because of his no-nonsense attitude within the department.

In the meantime, Assistant Police Chief Bengie Clift has been assigned as interim director until officials make a decision on how to fill the position, which is over both fire and police departments, Etheridge said. The position likely will be discussed at this weekend's special planning session with the City Council.

Freeman didn't have a contract, but he will be paid his accumulated time, which includes unused sick and vacation time, Etheridge said.

In 2007, Freeman was hired to replace former Chief Charles "Dino" Richardson who died of cancer. A four-person committee, which included former City Manager Johnnie Arnold, picked Freeman as the final candidate. City Council voted him in with a 3-2 vote.

Those who opposed Freeman wanted to choose someone locally.

Freeman came from the Griffin Police Department, where he was head of the criminal investigation unit and where he had worked for 27 years. But records obtained by the Times Free Press show Freeman was accused of overseeing a "hostile" department in Griffin. The allegations were determined to be unfounded, records show.

Throughout Freeman's tenure in LaFayette, disgruntled employees have accused Freeman of firing employees out of retaliation and operating a hostile work environment -- the latest two were in March involving fired firefighter Johnny Stephens Jr. and police Officer Denny Reyes. Both claimed Freeman fired them in part for questioning decisions the chief had made and that he often cursed and yelled at employees in public. Reyes also filed a complaint with the city manager claiming Freeman had cursed at him at a local gym. While Etheridge reinstated Reyes, he found the complaint already had been dealt with in a private reprimand.

Another employee who resigned in November 2010 sent letters to Arnold and the City Council after he left. He claimed Freeman was verbally and mentally abusive and that his behavior had demoralized the department, making it difficult for police to do their jobs.

"By lashing out at employees and citizens in a loud boisterous manner using profanity laced tirades, Director Freeman promotes a hostile work environment," former Officer Paul Vaughn wrote in his letter.

Florence said the council didn't look into the allegations at the time because Vaughn already had resigned.

"It wasn't a concern at the time," Florence said.

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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