An interview with Fayetteville Fire Chief Alan Jones by a local television station on the impact of the termination of the automatic aid agreement for fire services by Fayette County was shot down by Mayor Greg Clifton and Councilman Paul Oddo. Asked about his comments on the issue, Oddo said he was supporting the mayor while Clifton said he trusts department heads but viewed that specific interview as a special case that did not need to be aired across metro Atlanta.
Jones had responded to numerous questions relating to the recent failed fire consolidation with Fayette County and, more recently, the county’s announcement that the automatic aid agreement with the city would be terminated. Another interview, this one concerning the impact of the elimination of automatic aid, had been requested by an Atlanta television station.
Clifton in a July 7 email to City Manager Joe Morton, copied to council members and pertaining to the interview said, “What do you think about this? Did Chief Jones discuss with you prior to scheduling the interview? Did he give you an outline of what he plans to say? If not, is he not usurping your and city council’s authority? I don’t think unelected folks need to be going on TV and making comments relating to intergovernmental agreements. As I read the letter from (County Manager Steve) Rapson, the county is amenable to a new automatic aid agreement that the fire chiefs can agree to and the county and city actually vote on, which the previous ‘handshake agreement’ never was. Accordingly, I think Chief Jones’ time would be better spent working on a possible automatic aid agreement through back channels.”
Oddo also weighed-in on the topic with a July 7 email to Clifton and Councilman Scott Stacy and copied to Morton. Oddo said he thought Clifton should be the one to be interviewed.
Clifton on July 10 was asked to clarify his remarks.
“I don’t want (Jones) getting out in front of whatever the City Council and the County Commission might decide. I didn’t want to antagonize and make things worse,” said Clifton. “I was more concerned about how things might be presented on TV. With the Atlanta news it’s not just a Fayetteville issue, it becomes an Atlanta issue. So I didn’t want anything that would reflect badly on the city.”
Asked if it was a case of not trusting Jones to be able to speak in the interview without embarrassing the city, Clifton said, “No, I think he is very well-spoken and competent. But in my mind the issues weren’t altogether resolved as to how we are going to finalize the agreement (with the county) we’re going to be working under going forward. It’s a city-county issue that doesn’t need to be aired on the Atlanta news. An interview for a newspaper is not the same as a live interview.”
Reiterating the City Council’s trust of department heads and his stance on Jones’ interview, Clifton said he expects department heads to have far better knowledge of a topic than he. In this particular situation it was a special case, Clifton added.
“We do trust the department heads, but this issue with consolidation is mixed in with this and (the county’s) attempt to withdraw from the automatic aid agreement,” said Clifton. “So it’s a lot messier issue than regular issues.”
Clifton on July 10 also noted that the consolidation issue may take on a new light since the city and county both signed an agreement in 1997 which provided an automatic aid agreement as part of the county’s strategic service delivery plan.
Asked about his comment on July 10, Oddo said Clifton had mentioned that in light of everything going on with the fire department it would be better not to keep stirring the pot. Oddo said he agreed with Clifton on the topic of the specific television interview.
“If the mayor wants to make statements, that’s good. I was supporting the mayor,” Oddo said.
Oddo in the July7 email also said that he did not think he would let his staff discuss his CPA firm in an interview unless he approved it, adding that he would likely be the one interviewed.
Oddo was asked his position on the distinction between a small business where the owner has daily hands-on experience and would be the best person to speak on a topic and a department head of a city government with far more experience in a specialized area than someone serving on the council.
“Philosophically, I have no problem (with a department head speaking on a topic) as long as those supervising (meaning the City Council) were aware. I’d like to know before hand on a sensitive topic. I’m responsible for the actions that result,” Oddo said.
Having received the emails from Clifton and Oddo, Morton in a July 8 email to all council members said Jones had been requested to do an interview, adding that Clifton was aware of the request.
“You may recall that this is the same request that was made several weeks back that you and I discussed with Chief Jones and we then asked him to postpone until we had something more definitive from the county, which we have now,” Morton said. “I certainly don’t think this is ‘usurping’ mine or mayor and council’s authority. The media simply is inquiring about the impact of the termination of the automatic aid practices on the fire service to our community. Chief Jones has already been contacted by the local media on this as well and answered questions about the operational impact.”
Morton in the email also defined the longstanding role and responsibility of city department heads in communicating with the media.
“Our department heads have always had the latitude to respond to media and open records requests and they know their limitations or boundaries when responding particularly if it involves politics. I do require that they inform me and obtain approval in advance in sensitive situations and that is exactly what happened in this case and the reason you and council were copied on the email last Wednesday, July 2,” said Morton. “Due to the political concerns that you have raised, I instructed Chief Jones late yesterday afternoon to cancel the interview and direct any future media requests on this issue to your attention to respond. I have confirmed that the interview has been cancelled for today.”
Clifton on July 10 noted the potential, as has been suggested by some, that consolidating the fire departments might come up again.
“I think it makes good economic sense to consolidate, more so than Peachtree City (consolidating its fire department with the county),” Clifton said.