published Sunday, May 27th, 2012

LaFayette seeks replacement for Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman

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

It's been nearly two weeks since LaFayette Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman was fired, leaving officials with a decision on the best route to take to improve leadership at the police and fire departments.

One decision is whether the top spot should be split into two positions -- a fire and a police chief.

"That'll be the City Council's decision," City Councilman Wayne Swanson said. "Either way, I want to talk to [interim safety director Bengie] Clift."

City officials also must decide whether the person should come from within the department or from outside. Clift has said he would be interested in the job if the city hires from within the department.

LaFayette City Manager Frank Etheridge said the idea to split the department stems from criticism at a March meeting in which Freeman was accused of making decisions that saved money for the fire department but could cause a safety threat to firefighters. Freeman had his basic certification to work with a fire department, but nothing more, Etheridge said.

Freeman did not return calls seeking comment.

While Etheridge said he thinks it would be a good idea to split the public safety director position into two, he said he isn't going to create another high-paying chief position. He will find a creative alternative if that's the direction the city goes, he said.

A decision on how to move forward likely will be made at the City Council's two-day retreat, or planning session, to be held June 1 and 2, Etheridge said.

Swanson said this is the first time the council has had a retreat in his 16 years in office.

"I'm sure it will be productive," he said.

Freeman, who was accused of public tirades and retaliation against employees, was fired May 16. The stated reason by LaFayette officials is that they lost trust in his ability to lead the safety department.

But six days before Freeman was fired, Etheridge gave him a written reprimand, warning him that the City Council was concerned about his lack of leadership, harsh management style and profanity in the office.

"You are seen spending most of your work time getting coffee, shooting the breeze with your senior staff and playing computer card games," Etheridge wrote.

Freeman -- who was paid $74,776 a year -- was told to change and take on his responsibilities professionally or be fired.

Etheridge said he based his findings on confidential interviews with employees when Freeman was on vacation in April.

But according to a May 10 letter from Etheridge, after the reprimand, Freeman retaliated against his staff and went on a hunt to find out which officers had talked with the city manager, lying to them that he had already been told what was said.

Freeman then planned a meeting to reassign officers, which caused fear of demotions and firings, Etheridge wrote in Freeman's termination letter.

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 fired firefighter Johnny Stephens Jr. should be reinstated, but it turned into a heated debate about Freeman.

Freeman was hired in 2007 to replace former Chief Charles "Dino" Richardson, who died of cancer.

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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