The director of the city’s Information Systems department should move to Decatur or leave his job, according to Mayor Tab Bowling, but some council members disagree.
The mayor’s assertion brings to a head a long-simmering, but usually abstract, debate over whether city directors should be required to live within city limits. In recent director hires, the City Council has typically required Decatur residency for successful candidates, but done so with the knowledge that it could eliminate the requirement if it struggled to find a qualified applicant willing to move to Decatur.
Bowling, however, has his sights on an existing director.
Brad Phillips, 53, has headed the Information Services department since 2014 and has worked for the city for 18 years. He resided in Athens when he was hired, and still lives there. The City Council resolution appointing him to the director’s position required that he “relocate and become a resident of the city of Decatur, Alabama, within 12 months of this appointment date.”
“I learned there was a resolution that actually spelled out that Brad was to live in the city of Decatur,” Bowling said last week, after emailing council members. “I visited with him last week and shared that with him and shared that I needed to know his plan, and that I expected him to have residency in the city within the next six months.”
Phillips, he said, questioned the decision.
“He said he wanted to contact the council to see if he could get a waiver on that,” Bowling said. “He was not happy.”
Bowling said he expects the issue to be discussed at a City Council work session Monday at 5 p.m.
Phillips was mum on the issue.
“Thank you for your interest, but I have been advised by the city that this is a personnel matter and I should not discuss it with the media,” Phillips said in response to a series of questions from The Decatur Daily.
Councilman Chuck Ard questioned why Bowling issued a directive to Phillips when, Ard believes, it’s an issue that should be addressed by the council. He said the 2014 resolution requiring Phillips to move to Decatur should not be viewed as the final word on the matter, given that five years have elapsed since the resolution and four years since that resolution required Phillips to move.
“I believe it will require council action because, to me, you can’t just four years later decide you’re going to enforce something that’s been in effect for a number of years,” Ard said. “I don’t know why (the mayor) did what he did. I don’t support the mayor’s actions.”
Ard also said it’s a mistake for the city to insist that most directors reside in the city.
“I do not share the belief that all directors should be required to live in the city of Decatur. I believe that we should be concerned with finding the best person for the job, not somebody who lives in our city,” Ard said.
He said a city residency requirement makes sense for some positions — police chief, fire chief, city clerk and possibly chief financial officer — but not others.
“The others I’m not as concerned about. It would be preferable that they live in the city, but I’m about finding the best person for the job,” Ard said.
It's been a contentious issue for city officials. Despite increasing emphasis on residential growth, a Decatur Daily review in December of the city's 509 full-time employees found only 40% resided in Decatur.
Council President Paige Bibbee generally disagrees with Ard on the residency requirement, but shares his frustration with Bowling’s focus on Phillips.
She points to an intense debate in 2017 over whether residency should be included in the chief financial officer's job description. Ard was on the losing side of that debate, but Bibbee points out that the person ultimately hired — John Andrzejewski, who generally gets high marks from council members — was willing to move to Decatur.
She said she wants initial efforts to hire directors to include a requirement of residency, with the caveat the requirement could be waived if no qualified candidates come forward.
“If they buy into the city of Decatur and they invest themselves personally and financially in this city, if they have a little skin in the game, they will pay more attention," she said. “It’s very important for me to know that directors live in the city of Decatur.”
Bibbee is suspicious, however, of the timing of Bowling’s focus on Phillips’ residency.
She was not in office when the 2014 resolution was adopted, and she questions why officials did not follow up in 2015 to find out why Phillips had not relocated to Decatur. She said she first became aware of the Phillips resolution in 2017 and brought it to the attention of Bowling, City Attorney Herman Marks and Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin.
“I took it to those people because it’s their job to take care of it. Nothing was ever done. Now it has to be done almost immediately?” Bibbee said. “So my question is, why now? I’ve heard maybe retribution for him asking for something that wasn’t initially put in the Information Systems budget, but I don’t know. Why now? Nobody has provided me with a good answer.”
The mayor's proposed fiscal 2020 budget for Information Services was $3,343,759.88. The City Council upped that to the departmental request of $3,403,750.77. The difference of $59,990.89 will fund salary and benefits for a new Information Services position, requested by Phillips, that the mayor did not recommend but the council approved.
Information Services also takes a hit in a proposed revision to the city's organizational chart Bowling posted last week on Facebook and provided to The Daily. Bowling's proposal moves the city's geographical information systems from Phillips' department to the Planning Department.
"That's concerning," Bibbee said. "This just doesn't add up."
Bowling, who said he has long known Phillips lived in Athens, said the timing of his directive to Phillips is explained by this month’s hiring of a new landfill director. Wanda Tyler agreed to move to Decatur, and Bowling said the discussion prompted him to review the residency of other directors. During that review, he said, he discovered the 2014 resolution on Phillips. He said his investigation predated the council's decision to override his proposed Information Services budget.
"The answer is no," he said when asked if he was targeting Phillips.
Ard, who is liaison to Information Services, said the position Phillips wanted to add was focused entirely on the police and fire departments. "'Why now?' is a good question," he said of the mayor's directive.
Bibbee said she questioned Phillips about the position he wanted to add during a budgetary work session and also consulted with Human Resources. Her conclusion was that it needed to be funded.
"I was surprised the mayor hadn't brought it up to us directly," she said.
Bibbee said she is unaware of Phillips having any job performance problems, and she noted the City Council has authority to rescind the 2014 resolution.
“I think after five years we have shown a pattern, and I don’t know that (requiring Phillips to relocate) now is the thing to do. I would love for him to live in the city of Decatur, but this one bothers me,” she said.
She said she talked to Phillips about why he did not move to Decatur by 2015 as required by the resolution, and “he said he was told by several officials that he didn’t have to worry about that.”
Further complicating Bowling’s demand that Phillips live in Decatur, Bibbee said, is that some other directors do not.
In the email Bowling sent to council members, he noted that Decatur Youth Services Director Bruce Jones and Rickey Terry, outgoing director of the landfill and director of Street and Environmental Services, reside outside of Decatur. Bowling said he was not requiring them to relocate because both have announced they plan to retire in 2020.
“If you’re going to require this of one employee, you need to require it of the others,” Bibbee said.
While Phillips declined to comment last week on Bowling’s directive that he move to Decatur, he discussed the residency issue with The Daily in 2014 when he was promoted to director.
He said then that he had lived in Athens most of his life, and that his wife, a teacher, worked in Madison.
"Decatur's more my home than Athens, but it will be a hard transition," Phillips said then. "My parents are in Athens, and we're just down the street from my wife's parents. As they get older and need taking care of, it would be nice to be closer to them.”
Phillips, who has a master’s in business administration with a concentration in information systems from the University of North Alabama, was a systems administrator for Intergraph from 1990-1997 and an information systems analyst for CIMSqts from 1997-2001. He started working for Decatur as a geographical information systems support analyst and became the network administrator in 2012 before his 2014 appointment as director of Information Services.
He has an annual salary of $106,219, the maximum possible in his position, and supervises 10 employees.
If he elects to leave city employment rather than move, his successor will inherit a job that requires oversight of 200 terabytes of data and more than 500 users at 30 sites and 50 connected buildings. Phillips’ department coordinates over 1,600 network devices, including 11 physical servers, 63 virtual servers, more than 500 desktop or laptop computers, more than 400 phones, and more than 170 switches, routers, and modems, according to reports he has made to the City Council.
Among the network devices monitored by the department are security cameras, badge readers, emergency buttons, credit card machines, in-car cameras, body cameras, copiers, desktop printers, audio-visual systems, cellphones, alarm systems, gas pumps, digital signs and sprinkler systems.