Jones sues council

Published 3:00 am Friday, January 22, 2016

Fire marshal Willie Jones is suing the mayor and most of the Troy City Council over the process used to select the next fire chief.

The suit, filed in Pike County Circuit Court late Thursday afternoon, alleges the plaintiffs violated the Open Meetings Act by having an illegal meeting to discuss the selection process.

“Based on statements made by the defendants in the January 12, 2016 city council meeting members of the Public Safety Committee of the Troy City Council convened on at least one occasion and deliberated on the appointment of the next chief of the Troy Fire Department,” the complaint states.

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The complaint names Mayor Jason Reeves, and council members Charlie “Sarge” Dunn, Greg Meeks, Marcus Paramore and Johnny Witherington as defendants. The council members all voted to appoint Michael “Buford” Stephens fire chief.

It stems from the comments made by Meeks, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, who recommended that Stephens be appointed the next fire chief. Eric Hutchins, attorney for Jones, said Meeks’ comments inferred that a meeting had taken place to discuss the appointment.

“The only council member not served is Ms. Dejerilyn King Henderson, because she had abstained from the vote,” Hutchins said. “When she heard the comment about there being a meeting and she knew the public was never notified, she abstained from voting on an illegal act.”

Henderson joined Hutchins and Jones for a press conference at city hall to announce the filing of the complaint. “This is about accountability, this is about transparency,” she said. “This is about the meetings being open to the public.”

Henderson declared the decision to appoint Stephens fire chief an “injustice” at the Jan. 12 council meeting, saying afterwards that Jones had 35 years of experience and was not fairly considered for the job. Jones, the only African American applicant, was one of four internal candidates interviewed for the position.

“We’re here today because the rights of the citizens have absolutely been violated,” Henderson said. “Whether the meeting was held at the City Council chambers, upstairs or downstairs … a decision was made that did not include me and because of that, citizens are being denied their rights.”

Hutchins said the lawsuit does not specifically seek to have Jones named fire chief, although Henderson said that appointment is her personal goal.

“In filing this lawsuit we’re not trying to cast any aspersions on any particular individuals running for fire chief,” Hutchins said. “There are many qualified individuals, including Mr. Jones. But right now you have the appearance of impropriety that swallows up the whole process and swallows up the appointment of Michael Stephens. We’re trying to shed light on this.”

Jones said his decision to file a lawsuit stems from his desire to address what he believes is an unfair practice. “I realized I’m just not going to let this happen to me because the next guy that comes along? It could happen to them, too.”

Reeves said Thursday night he had not reviewed the filing and therefore could not comment on it. “We have not reviewed any legal proceedings, but I can say that the council chose the person most qualified for the Fire Chief position based on the applicants’ qualifications, interviews and the circumstances,” he said. “In fact, our council is made of a racially diverse group of people and no council person voted against the applicant chosen for the position.

“We are proud of our Fire Department and the work they do to protect our citizens. So, I cannot imagine why legal proceedings would be brought, but if they are I’m sure our legal counsel will vigorously defend the city.”