Although the mayor and council are weary of dealing with the perpetually acrimonious topic of whether directors should be required to live in the Decatur city limits, they are destined to address it again today.
Wanda Tyler was hired as the landfill director in October 2019 in a resolution that specifically required her to relocate to Decatur within two months. Initially she did rent a home in Decatur. This year, however, she moved to a rented house in Priceville.
“I’m very close to the city limits,” Tyler said last week. She said she was confused because her mailing address through the post office says Decatur and her ZIP code — as it is in all of Priceville — is 35603, also the ZIP code for much of Decatur. She said she first realized she was outside the Decatur city limits when she filled out a change of address form for the city and was approached by Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin.
At a council work session last week, Sandlin proposed a resolution to “approve temporary residency deviation” for Tyler. If approved by the council today, the resolution would not require Tyler to move back to Decatur until next May. Sandlin said Tyler lives in a subdivision near Priceville High School.
City Attorney Herman Marks told the council that some action needs to be taken.
“The appointment was based on (Tyler) eventually moving into our corporate limits. That’s no longer what we have. We have her living in the town of Priceville corporate limits,” he said, explaining that the council needs to either waive her residency requirement on a temporary or permanent basis or enforce it.
The resolution to be taken up today at the council's 5:30 p.m. work session and 6 p.m. business meeting 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, unless the requirement is waived by the governing body."
Council President Jacob Ladner said he does not just want to grant Tyler an extension on the residency requirement, he wants to waive it altogether.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m so tired of talking about this topic. I feel there are a lot more pressing issues than where our directors live. Wanda does a great job. We found a really good person. If she lives in Priceville or Decatur, it does not matter to me at all,” he said.
Unless the council revises a resolution it passed in March, however, the topic likely will come up with other director appointments.
In 2000, the City Council passed a resolution memorializing a longstanding but unwritten policy that all city directors were required to live in the city limits. Exceptions have been made several times over the last few years, including for Information Systems Director Brad Phillips, Rickey Terry, who as director of Street and Environmental Services — he plans to retire in September — oversaw the landfill until Tyler was appointed, and Bruce Jones, who was director of Youth Services until his retirement in January 2020.
The issue became contentious in September 2019, when Mayor Tab Bowling advised Phillips he would lose his job if he failed to relocate to Decatur from Athens, a demand that the council overruled. Like Tyler, Phillips’ 2014 appointment came with a requirement that he move to Decatur. He never did. In the same October 2019 resolution waiving the residency requirement for Phillips, the council also allowed Terry and Jones to keep their jobs despite residing outside the city.
The current City Council, which took office in November, soon was drawn into the residency debate when two of their top picks for the chief financial officer position expressed reluctance at the idea of moving to Decatur. The council in February gave the job to Kyle Demeester and did not require him to relocate to Decatur.
In March, the City Council voted 4-1 to replace the 21-year-old resolution requiring all directors to live in the city. Under the March resolution, the city will require the city clerk, police chief and fire chief to be residents of Decatur within a year of their appointment. All other department heads appointed in the future, according to the resolution, will be appointed “on a case-by-case determination as to whether it is required for that person appointed to be a city of Decatur resident.”
Councilman Billy Jackson was the only nay vote, objecting in part that the “case-by-case” determinations would be inherently subjective, leading the council to make inconsistent decisions when they appointed directors.
He said last week the upcoming decision on how to handle Tyler’s move out of Decatur is indicative of the inconsistency he feared when the council passed the resolution.
While Jackson said he prefers the former policy of requiring all directors to live in the city, he said any policy needs to be applied consistently.
“The rules that we’re playing by are not across the board. This is so subjective. If we’re deciding on a case-by-case basis, what’s the determining factor? Is it because we like this person or we don’t like that person? It’s like we’re deciding on the residency requirement by the person, not by the position,” Jackson said. “I don’t think any of our department heads should live outside the city limits, but I do think we’re inserting a double standard here.”
He said the inconsistency in application of the residency requirement complicates his view on whether Tyler should be required to move to Decatur by May.
“We’re allowing some department heads to stay outside the city, and now we’re going to put her on a time clock that says you have to move back to the city in a year. I think they all should have to live in (the) city limits, but I don’t know how we can apply it to her and not to others,” he said.
He said the council’s March resolution, ostensibly aimed at ending the frequent conflicts over the residency issue, will instead exacerbate it.
“We have to think these things through thoroughly and understand that every decision comes with future consequences. It can’t be this ‘fire, ready, aim’ approach, and I think that’s what we did in March and it’s what we’re doing in a lot of situations,” he said.
Bowling said the decision on how to apply the residency requirement to Tyler is up to the council and he has no desire to weigh in on it. "She made a mistake," he said.
Councilman Kyle Pike said he’s fine with giving Tyler until May to relocate to Decatur, but he also is concerned with the inconsistency of requiring her to move to the city at all.
“We’ve talked about this (residency issue) so much. Wanda’s done a great job. I don’t think we need to make residency the biggest issue with her,” he said. “I’d be perfectly fine toward allowing the longer exemption. There are others who have been given an exemption with no time limit, so I don’t know that we should treat her any different than that.”
Pike said he wishes all city directors and employees lived in the city — a recent analysis by The Daily found that 64% of city employees live outside Decatur — but he's not comfortable with mandating residency.
"I want all of our employees and their families to live in Decatur. I just think we need to be focused on the task at hand, and that’s making Decatur a better city," he said. "That means having the right people in place, and I feel Wanda is that person."