The city director whose home address began the debate about Decatur residency told City Council — before it voted Monday to end most of its residency requirement — that where directors live was treated as a “joke” when he was hired.
The City Council voted 3-1 Monday to approve a resolution that effectively ends residency mandates for all but three city directors. The fire chief, police chief and city clerk still must live in Decatur. Councilman Hunter Pepper was absent from the morning meeting.
The City Council passed a resolution in 2000 that formalized a longstanding practice and required directors to live in the city limits, but that requirement has gradually eroded in the last two years. A March resolution said residency for newly hired directors — except for the clerk and two chiefs — would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Monday’s vote amends the March resolution and allows Landfill Director Wanda Tyler to remain at her new address in Priceville and Decatur Youth Services Director Brandon Watkins to move to a planned home in Madison. Both were hired on the condition that they live in Decatur.
City directors are the city's highest paid employees, making an average of $100,000 a year in salaries. Five of the eight directors whose residency mandate ended Monday or previously — Watkins, Tyler, Chief Financial Officer Kyle Demeester, Environmental Services Director Rickey Terry and Information Systems Director Brad Phillips — live or plan to move outside of the city. Fire Chief Tracy Thornton, who has a September deadline to move to the city, has said he plans to move to Decatur this month.
Councilman Carlton McMasters said he supported the March resolution, especially since Decatur was the only city in the state with the requirement. The resolution was passed after Demeester, newly promoted to CFO, was allowed to take the job without moving from Athens to Decatur.
However, McMasters admitted he “has some heartburn” over ending the requirement altogether, especially for those hired under an agreement that they would live in the city.
“The previous council set the precedent of selective enforcement,” McMasters said before voting for the resolution ending the requirement. “What’s been done before we have no control over, but the precedent has been set.”
Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin said it creates an issue for the Personnel Board when directors have a residency agreement at hiring and then don't have to follow it.
“This is a matter of integrity,” Sandlin said. “It’s a condition of their employment, and folks are breaching that agreement.”
Sandlin admitted, however, that the residency requirement has been hard to enforce.
“Our previous (March) resolution seems to have created challenges toward holding folks accountable to the agreement they made with the city,” she said.
Phillips, hired in 2014 as Information Systems director, said he felt compelled to speak to the council because the issue of integrity was brought up.
Phillips, who lives in Athens, said the 2000 residency requirement for directors “was never treated seriously. I was told immediately after I was hired that I could use one of the council members’ address. The requirement to move here was a joke."
Mayor Tab Bowling threatened to fire Phillips in September 2019 if he did not move to Decatur. The City Council voted to allow Phillips to remain in Athens. Council also was told during the debate over Phillips that Terry and then-Decatur Youth Services Director Bruce Jones lived outside of the city. Terry plans to retire in September.
Councilman Kyle Pike said he was for ending the residency requirement for eight of the 11 directors because “these guys are still involved in our community. They still shop here. Kyle (Demeester) and I go to the same barbershop.”
Council President Jacob Ladner said the residency requirement issue is tiresome, especially when he sees a story like the article he read on Sunday about Madison having 3,500 home lots approved in the last 10 months “and we spend all of this time talking about where 11 people live."
“Our focus is way off where it needs to be,” Ladner said.
Councilman Billy Jackson, who voted against Monday's resolution, has said city directors should have to follow an old precedent that they must live in the city. He said at a previous meeting that the council only broke with this precedent in recent years.
“We need consistency,” Jackson said Monday. “We’re talking about spending $8 million on Sixth Avenue beautification to attract people, but this (directors’ residency) will have a bigger impact on whether people want to move here.”