The youngest member of Decatur's City Council said its member with the longest tenure has prevented the city from growing after they differed on a proposed police vehicle policy, hiring additional legal help and weed abatements
Hunter Pepper, 19, appeared unhappy during Tuesday's council meeting at City Hall with positions taken by fellow Councilman Billy Jackson, who participated in the meeting by teleconference. After the meeting, Pepper criticized Jackson.
“Mr. Jackson pointed out that we’re not growing, and I think he’s the No. 1 reason we haven’t grown,” Pepper said. “He never votes for anything important even if it’s for the sake of public safety. He doesn’t care.”
Jackson, a 25-year City Council member, and Pepper, a first-term council member, have often been at odds during the first 10 months of the council term.
The City Council voted 4-1 to hire a second assistant city attorney. City Attorney Herman Marks said recent growth has made his department so busy that the extra help is needed for the additional workload.
Prior to casting the only vote against the hiring proposal, Jackson argued that the Legal Department didn’t need to expand to three attorneys because the city only added roughly 2,255 people between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. censuses.
Jackson said hiring another attorney would cost $100,000 plus $30,000 to $50,000 in benefits while the city had only $72,000 in the budget for additional legal expenses.
“I don’t understand how you can argue growth is the reason for needing another attorney,” Jackson said.
Jackson was also the only vote against the council’s approval of Police Chief Nate Allen’s proposal that the city extend the distance police officers are allowed to drive their police cars home from 5 to 20 miles outside of the city limits.
Allen said he proposed the additional 15 miles as a recruiting tool in his effort to attract more police officers to fill a short-handed staff. The Police Department has 182 employees with 14 officer vacancies, about twice the number that it usually had in previous years.
Chief Financial Officer Kyle Demeester said last week 16 additional police officers and one investigator would qualify for taking home their police vehicle outside the city if the resolution is adopted. Including maintenance, oil and gas at $2.49 per gallon (the most recent price the city paid for gas on Aug. 18), he estimated the annual cost for the city would be $23,613.
Jackson reiterated his previous position that he believes the increased cost associated with gas expenses and vehicle use plus the liability concerns doesn’t make the proposal financially viable, especially since he considers the reasons given for allowing the officers to drive the vehicles subjective.
“All I’ve heard is ‘if, I think and I hope,’” Jackson said. “I’ve heard nothing that’s concrete.”
Pepper said after the meeting that “Jackson needs to learn to support employees because he never supports employees. This is a such a petty amount. It’s so small.”
Jackson needs to go on a ride-along with the police officers and see what they deal with daily, Pepper said.
“For what they deal with daily, they deserve anything we can give them,” Pepper said.
Jackson said Wednesday in response to Pepper’s comments on his votes, “Am I supposed to respond to that?”
Jackson then added that he “is only one vote, and often that vote is in the minority. It doesn’t keep a resolution or ordinance from passing or failing if that’s what the majority wants.”
Pepper questioned at the beginning of the meeting why the City Council couldn’t vote on 10 weed abatements as a block instead of conducting separate votes on each abatement.
Council President Jacob Ladner moved forward with voting on the abatements separately because Jackson has insisted for years he would not go along with block voting. City Council rules require that the council must be unanimously in support for a block vote to occur.
Jackson noted Wednesday that he has consistently voted against weed abatements because he feels city “is being hypocritical” in forcing residents to take care of their lawns when the city doesn’t do a good job of managing its properties and rights of way.
Jackson pointed out that, as he was driving to a Wednesday appointment, he was seeing overgrown grass on the 14th Street overpass and then again along Sixth Avenue.
“If we ever get to a point where we get to where we were before, I’ll start voting for weed abatements,” Jackson said. “One of the things newcomers look at is the cleanliness of a city. It’s hard to attract people when the city doesn’t look good.”
Jackson did vote for one weed abatement, a $285 assessment against 503 14th Street N.W., because he said the owner has a history of problems at properties he owns throughout the city and the neighbors asked him to support the resolution.
"The neighbors are the one who have had to suffer through this, so I'm going to support what the people in District 1 want," Jackson said.
Ladner and Councilman Carlton McMasters said they think Pepper was off base in his comments about Jackson.
McMasters said it takes a mayor and votes from five council members to make decisions about the city.
“Mr. Jackson has served on the council longer than anyone and he’s got a ton of institutional knowledge,” McMasters said. “We don’t always agree, but to say Mr. Jackson is the reason the city hasn’t grown isn’t an accurate statement.”
Ladner said all of the council members have the right to vote as they see fit, so he doesn’t think it's right to criticize another councilman’s vote.
“Mr. Jackson has served on the City Council a long time and he’s been pretty consistent,” Ladner said.