Three-year city employee Kyle Demeester will be Decatur’s new CFO if contract negotiations are successful, but he won't be required to live in the city for which he works.
The four new City Council members spoke in favor of promoting Demeester from finance manager to chief financial officer at this week's council meeting. Demeester, of Athens, has not agreed to move to Decatur if promoted despite a 2000 council resolution requiring all department heads to reside in the city and a residency tradition that dates well before that.
The council majority agreed that Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin should begin contract negotiations on the possible promotion. Demeester would replace his former boss and mentor, John Andrzejewski, who retired Jan. 22.
The four councilmen supported Demeester and defended their position that he should not be required to move to Decatur.
Councilman Hunter Pepper said Monday that Demeester “is the best option,” and he believes in promoting from within whenever possible.
Councilman Kyle Pike said Demeester, who previously worked at Hexagon Safety and Infrastructure and Warren Averitt Inc., has good experience, a thorough knowledge and understanding of Decatur, and benefited from working under Andrzejewski as the planned successor.
“I think he’s the best fit,” Pike said.
Councilman Carlton McMasters signaled his views on social media before Monday's council meeting.
"If this person is hired, there is zero learning curve, he was trained and received the full endorsement of our retired CFO and will be a home run hire," McMasters wrote. "Do we really want to not hire the right person because they live 8 miles from the city limits?"
Councilman Billy Jackson said after Monday's meeting that he opposes Demeester’s promotion because he lacks experience. He also pointed out that it goes against Decatur’s tradition of requiring department heads to live within the city limits.
“I like Kyle Demeester,” Jackson said. “But CFO is a very, very critical position for the city, and Mr. Demeester only has a total of three years at finance manager. I think he will be a very good CFO one day, but the two previous CFOs had a lot more experience.”
Jackson said he was surprised the city only got 26 applicants for CFO and he wasn’t impressed with the four candidates interviewed on Feb. 12.
“In this economy, we should have received more applicants, and that’s an indictment on our HR Department,” Jackson said.
Council President Jacob Ladner said after the meeting that the issue of whether Demeester will move to Decatur from Athens will be included in the contract negotiations.
Demeester said during his interview that he and his wife, Savannah Demeester, bought a home three years ago in Athens and his willingness to move to Decatur would depend on the pay offered during negotiations if he’s offered the CFO job. His wife is the West Madison Elementary School principal and his family lives in Athens.
“I’m super appreciative (of the council decision) and thankful they believe in me,” Demeester said Tuesday.
The advertised salary range for the job is $86,328 to $131,359, and Mayor Tab Bowling said the contract package will be based on experience. He said Sandlin will conduct negotiations and he will sign off on the final agreement before it’s presented to the City Council for approval.
City Attorney Herman Marks, who is in his 40th year with the city, said the residency issue came up several times over the years but there wasn’t an official rule for the first half of his tenure.
He said the council passed a resolution in October 2000 that requires all department heads to live in the city limits.
“It was generally understood that department heads lived in the city,” Marks said. “There have been some exceptions in recent years.”
Jackson said the new councilmen are going against city tradition by possibly allowing Demeester to live outside the city, a tradition he said extends back at least to when Bill Dukes was mayor.
“Obviously, they think they know more than all previous councils after just four months in office,” Jackson said. “We’ve required department heads to live in the city for 50 years, and this idea of letting them live outside of the city is just recent.”
Jackson said department heads are the highest paid city employees at an average salary of $100,000 a year. Four of the 13 directors live outside of Decatur, although one, new Fire Chief Tracy Thornton, is within the six-month period in which he is expected to move to Decatur.
Dukes served four and a half terms and left office in 1994 to become a state representative. Pike, his grandson, said, “Things change dramatically in 25 to 30 years. There’s a lot more competition from private companies and a need for talented employees. I want directors to live in the city but it’s more important for us to have the best talent working for the city.”
Pike said they shouldn’t “uproot” a director who has bought and established his family in a home elsewhere.
Jackson said not making directors, the highest paid city employees, live in the city would be a major financial loss.
“If all of them didn’t live in the city, that would be a $1.3 million loss,” Jackson said.
Ladner called the residency requirement for directors “shortsighted” even though he admitted that the position isn’t popular among city residents
“While on the surface this may seem like a ‘no brainer,’ I believe this policy is extremely shortsighted and has actually hurt the city from a competitive standpoint, and will continue to do so unless it is changed,” Ladner wrote Tuesday in a social media post.
Ladner said city employees should be “strongly encouraged” to live in the city, “but we should not box ourselves into a policy of requirement. It puts us at a major disadvantage in recruiting candidates, and we know we have lost great candidates because of the policy. This does not even take into account great candidates that never even applied because of the requirement.”
Bowling has said it's especially important that department heads live in Decatur because the city is working so hard to boost residential growth.
However, the mayor said Tuesday that the council majority “makes those decisions” on hiring directors.
“They have a lot of confidence in (Demeester),” Bowling said. “He seems to have a really good institutional knowledge and the council zeroed in on the person they think is the best for the job.”