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Interim fire chief appointment brings heated discussion

by Danny Wade

It is not out of the ordinary to start the year off with some fireworks. But it is not normal for the first city board meeting of the year to have fireworks going off. That is what happened last week during the Humboldt Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting.

With three new board members, Shane Lynch, Julie Jones-Coleman and Tammie Porter, and two returning board members, Monte Johnson and Leon McNeal, Mayor Marvin Sikes opened the meeting.

The agenda for the Monday, January 10 meeting had seven items under new business. Of those, six were appointments to city positions. Appointed positions included the city attorney, city judge, city court clerk, police chief and secretary of the board who also serves as vice mayor. But instead of having the fire chief as an appointee, the agenda item was listed as interim fire chief.

As board members took their seats at the table prior to the meeting, Humboldt Fire Chief Chester Owens

handed each member and the mayor a letter expressing his intent to retire in August. Once the meeting was underway, Mayor Sikes asked the board to allow Chief Owens to address them during the interim fire chief discussion portion of the meeting. The board voted in agreement.

As the appointment items came up, Alderman Lynch said the board’s first appointment should be for secretary of the board and referred to the city’s charter. Mayor Sikes agreed it should be the first position to be appointed.

Sikes then recommended the board approve his appointment of Alderman McNeal to continue to serve as secretary of the board and vice mayor. The mayor noted that McNeal has served in this position for eight years and has done a good job. The board unanimously approved McNeal as secretary.

The board also unanimously approved Mayor Sikes’ reappointments of Randy Camp as city attorney, Joseph Tubbs as city judge, Ella Abbott as city clerk of the court and Reynard Buchanan as police chief.

The final appointed position for interim fire chief brought some dismay from the board since Fire Chief Owens was not being reappointed.

Lynch asked why appoint an interim chief since there is a chief who is about to retire.

Mayor Sikes said he did not want to get into a lot of discussion because people’s feelings were involved. He said the city needs to go in a new direction. The mayor said the city can get MTAS (Municipal Technical Advisory Service) involved and advertise the position. Sikes said he wants the city to move forward and get the best chief they can find.

Alderwoman Tammie Porter suggested the board table the interim chief appointment since they just received Chief Owens’ letter of retirement. Porter said she needed more time to go over all of the information.

Porter asked Mayor Sikes what would happen to Chief Owens if he appoints Assistant Chief Leroy Kail to be interim chief. Sikes said Owens would no longer be chief.

Then Porter asked the mayor if Owens would receive his retirement, to which Sikes said he would. Porter asked if Owens had ever been written up.

Chief Owens, who had been holding back as long as he could spoke up. He said he had never been written up in 28 years as chief or 45 years with the Humboldt Fire Department.

There was discussion of the firemen receiving raises and purchasing firefighter gear.

Owens had a file folder full of papers in his hand. He said he has records of the past budgets to get more pay and buy new gear. The chief told the board that he can only submit his department’s budget and it is the board that approves the budget. Owens said the firefighters were told something they did not get.

Chief Owens said he was told on January 5 that he would not be reappointed and that Chief Kail would be appointed interim. Owens said he was told he would not have a job.

Owens looked at the board members and audience and said he has his name, his dignity, and his career on the line.

Mayor Sikes sat and listened while Owens spoke and asked to be allowed to speak as well. The mayor then handed out sheets of paper with letters from firemen who had left the department under Owens time as chief. Sikes read a few of the comments out loud.

Lynch thumbed through the papers and noticed that none of the letters were signed. He said if someone wants to submit this type of letter, they should sign their name. Without any signatures, Lynch said they do not hold very much weight in his opinion.

The mayor also had a tally sheet of the amount of overtime hours the fire department turns in each month.

Earlier in the meeting, the board approved the resignation of Lt. Michael Lewis with the fire department. In Lewis’ letter, he stated that the lack of a working relationship between the fire department leadership and the city administration has caused a toxic workplace environment that in which he no longer wished to be a part of. Lewis also stated that there are too many emergency calls happening in the city that the fire department is not responding to and that the men are trained to handle.

Owens said his firefighters want to be emergency medical responders (EMR) but the board has to approve the training. Owens said Gibson County Fire Chief Bryan Cathey has offered free training.

Owens referred to Lewis’ words in his letter of a toxic relationship and agreed.

It was noted that Porter had suggested tabling the interim chief appointment. The board unanimously approved to table it until a further date.

Alderman Johnson suggested the board have an attorney/client meeting.

Editor’s note: Without litigation or pending litigation, any gathering of the board must be open to the public. An attorney/client closed meeting would be breaking the state of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Law, often called the Sunshine Law.

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