With a frustrated and vocal crowd of about 40 looking on, the Decatur City Council on Monday voted 4-1 to hire Knoxville Fire Department Battalion Chief Tony Grande as fire chief.
Most of the crowd supported the sole internal candidate who applied for the position, Division Chief Lorenzo Jackson. Jackson was the only black candidate interviewed for the position.
Councilman Billy Jackson, Lorenzo Jackson's brother, was prohibited by state ethics laws from participating in the process when his brother was a candidate. On Monday, he scolded his colleagues for placing more weight on a 50-minute interview with Grande than on the 33-year career of Lorenzo Jackson.
"We are obligated to protect the city's well-being and safety by selecting candidates with strong credentials and backgrounds," Billy Jackson said. "It appears to me the only tangible this city council ever considered was Chief Jackson's race."
The audience applauded Billy Jackson's statement.
Council President Gary Hammon protested the allegation of racism.
"To paraphrase a famous statement, the cry of racism is the last bastion of a scoundrel," Hammon said.
Grande will start on the job June 23 at a council-approved salary of $76,800.
Councilmen Roger Anders and Chuck Ard said Grande was the best candidate, to which members of the audience called out, "Shame." Councilman Charles Kirby denied racism was a factor, to which several members of the crowd called out, "It had to be."
Billy Jackson said Grande was inferior both in education and experience to Lorenzo Jackson.
Grande supervises 30 firefighters in Knoxville. He has an online bachelor's degree from the University of Memphis.
Lorenzo Jackson has two bachelor's degrees, one from Alabama A&M and one from Athens State University. He also has an online master's degree from Grand Canyon University. As division chief, he has supervised 125 firefighters since October.
"I hope you are effective. I hope you are very successful in this position," Jackson said. "We have a guy here with 33 years of experience. He doesn't need to be trained. That's what I think our community is upset about. As best I can, I welcome you here.
"This council has often used no logic to arrive at decisions, at least logic they are not willing to share," Billy Jackson said. "Chief Jackson has for all practical purposes run this department for the past eight months. He was born in this community. He knows this community backwards and forwards."
Mayor Don Kyle said Grande was the best candidate.
"Tony Grande, in my opinion, lapped the field in the interview process, and made himself stand out as the top candidate by a long shot over the others," Kyle said.
When a member of the audience asked to speak, Hammon said, "No."
At various times Hammon threatened to eject members of the audience.
After the vote, as members of the audience grumbled, Hammon looked to Chief Ed Taylor.
"Chief, if this continues, I'm going to have to ask you to get a couple of deputies," Hammon said.
Taylor nodded, but did not move from his seat.
After the meeting, Alma Birdsong said she was frustrated by the vote.
"It's not about racism, it's about the qualifications," Birdsong said. "They should have looked at Chief Jackson's qualifications. I just don't understand it."
Freddie Abernathy said the only explanation for the vote that made sense to him was racism.
"They took a man with 33 years of experience, who's lived here all his life, and knocked him down," Abernathy said. "They're saying he's not qualified, but they put in a man with less experience who doesn't even know the town. I've lived here 50 years, and I'm ready to move."
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