The Decatur City Council appears poised to adopt a resolution Monday that would end the requirement that department heads other than the city clerk and the police and fire chiefs reside in the city of Decatur, a move one councilman said will erode the confidence of residents.
The resolution would effectively amend a March resolution that required the city clerk and chiefs to reside in Decatur but held that the residency requirement for other newly hired directors would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Under the March resolution, existing employment agreements requiring residency remained in effect. The resolution to be considered Monday would trump residency requirements in existing department head appointments, allowing them to move from the city.
Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin said the proposed resolution was in part an acknowledgement that the residency requirement has not been followed.
“As we’ve seen through history, those appointments have been made with the residency requirement, but we continue to have department heads move out or not move to the city of Decatur under that requirement, so we’ve removed the longstanding requirement and made it less subjective,” Sandlin said of the proposal.
The city’s 11 directors’ average annual salaries are about $100,000.
The issue became contentious when Landfill Director Wanda Tyler moved to Priceville despite a residency requirement in her employment agreement, and Youth Services Director Brandon Watkins — also subject to a residency requirement — disclosed last week he was building a home in Madison.
A 2000 resolution required all department heads to reside in the city, but exceptions have been made several times in recent years, including for Information Systems Director Brad Phillips, Rickey Terry as director of Street and Environmental Services and Bruce Jones, who was director of Youth Services until his retirement in January 2020. The council in February appointed Kyle Demeester as chief financial officer and, at his request, did not require him to relocate to Decatur. Demeester lives in Athens.
Council President Jacob Ladner said at a work session Monday that the proposed resolution would create as a default that only the clerk and chiefs would be required to maintain Decatur residency.
“The council could require it in the job description, but the default would be no (residency requirement), and then any past requirements that are currently on the books — that are currently employed and have an agreement that they would live in the city — we’re basically not going to require that anymore,” Ladner said.
A competing resolution that will be on Monday’s agenda after being tabled at the July 6 council meeting gives Tyler until May to resume her residency in Decatur. That resolution also states that “department heads presently living in or in the process of moving to the city limits of Decatur must maintain residency within the Decatur city limits.”
Sandlin said the Tyler resolution becomes obsolete if the council adopts the resolution that would eliminate the residency requirement for all but the clerk and two chiefs.
Eliminating the residency requirement appears to have the support of a council majority. Ladner has been particularly vocal that residency is a positive, but that it’s more important to find the best-qualified person for the job, wherever they choose to live. Council members Carlton McMasters and Kyle Pike have expressed the same view in recent weeks.
Councilman Billy Jackson on Tuesday said he remains adamant that all directors should be required to maintain Decatur residency.
“When we have people in key positions that make decisions for our community, yet they’re not willing to live in our community, I don’t think that sends a good message to our citizens,” Jackson said.
He said directors should be engaged in the community — not just while sitting in their offices, but while at the grocery store or church.
“It’s critical that people who make decisions for our city have a vested interest in our city,” Jackson said. “I think it’s unrealistic for our citizens to think we can attract people to our city when we can’t even attract our department heads to our city. Who wants to come to a city when the people who run the city don’t want to live here?”
Councilman Hunter Pepper, however, supports the proposed resolution. While he said he was unsure whether the city clerk should be required to reside in the city, he said the safety of citizens is better protected with the fire and police chiefs required to live in Decatur.
“The rest of the department directors are all major assets to the city, but none of them really run a life-and-death department,” Pepper said. “I want them in Decatur. I want them spending their money here; I’m all for that. I just don’t want to put a chain on somebody and say you have to live here.”