published Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Employees accuse LaFayette’s public safety director of hostile work environment

Lafayette Director of Public Safety Tommy Freeman.
Lafayette Director of Public Safety Tommy Freeman.

A LaFayette, Ga., police officer who may be fired says he believes the city’s public safety director is retaliating against him for arresting an “influential” person.

Officer Denny Reyes, a nine-year employee of the department, disputes that Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman fired him for a policy violation, according to Reyes’ attorney, Theodore Salter.

Reyes is the second employee this week to accuse Freeman of retaliation and of creating a hostile work environment.

The same day Reyes was fired, Freeman also said that a city firefighter, Johnny Stephens Jr., needed to be fired for insubordination.

Mayor Neal Florence said Thursday that “we’re looking into the situation” involving Freeman’s actions.

Stephens appealed his firing and, at his hearing in front of the City Council on Tuesday night, an angry crowd asked council members why Freeman hasn’t been investigated for similar allegations in the past.

Florence said the allegations made at the hearing weren’t relevant in Stephens’ case because city officials were trying to determine whether the firefighter had been insubordinate. But the mayor said the accusations against Freeman got the city’s attention.

Freeman said he believed Stephens was acting in retaliation against his firing.

The council upheld Stephens’ termination, saying he was insubordinate when he refused to install a radio in his truck as requested by his boss.

City Manager Frank Etheridge was out of the office Thursday and didn’t respond to emails for comment.

Both Reyes and Stephens said they thought they’d been fired on March 5, but Etheridge later told them they were on paid leave until he determined whether they should be terminated.

Etheridge fired Stephens on March 8, but Salter said the manager hasn’t decided whether he will terminate Reyes.

Reyes said he was told he was being terminated for being a liability to the department, but Salter said Reyes was given an ultimatum to resign or be fired. They believe it had to do with an arrest Reyes made in February.

“The police department doesn’t contend that [Reyes] did anything illegal,” Salter said. “But they were very concerned about the person that was arrested.”

The charges against the arrested person were dropped, Salter said, but he declined to go into further detail pending Etheridge’s decision.

After Reyes was told he could be fired, the police officer filed a grievance against Freeman for racial slurs made against him, Salter said.

Freeman said he wasn’t aware of any grievance filed by Reyes. He also declined to talk about the reasons why he requested Reyes’ termination.

“I can’t comment on that until city manager makes his decisions,” he said. “I don’t care what [Reyes’] attorney says.”

On the other hand, Stephens — a 14-year employee — said that Freeman fired him after he asked why he should install the radio in a vehicle used by the city’s Public Works Department.

Stephens was asked twice to install the radio, which he claimed was not within his job description but was something he did on the side for the police and fire departments upon request.

Stephens also said he was upset with Freeman because the director had decided that full-time firefighters could no longer be on call for certain types of emergency calls, a decision that cut into the firefighter’s pay. It also could pose a risk to the firefighter on duty, Stephens said.

Whenever he questioned the decision, Freeman would get angry and, on several occasions, screamed and cursed at him, Stephens said.

At Stephens’ appeal hearing before the council, Councilman Ben Bradford asked why the firefighter didn’t file a proper grievance with the city manager against Freeman instead of disobeying an order.

Stephens said he didn’t know that was an option.

“If this had been handled correctly, we’d be asking different questions to different people,” Bradford said at the meeting.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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