MOUNT CARMEL — Former Police Chief Jeff Jackson was given his job back Thursday morning, while the man who fired him exactly one month earlier received jeers and catcalls from a large City Hall audience exclaiming, “Fire the mayor!”
Following a lengthy appeal hearing for Jackson that began at 8 a.m., the Mount Carmel Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 5-2 to overrule Mayor Larry Frost’s Dec. 28 firing of Jackson and reinstate him as police chief.
The two “no” votes came from Mayor Frost and Vice Mayor Paul Hale, although the mayor unsuccessfully attempted to delay a vote by improperly declaring the meeting adjourned and walking out.
When Mayor Frost fired Jackson on Dec. 28, he provided no reason for the termination.
Jackson’s attorney Wayne Culbertson made multiple requests over the past month for a list of charges against Jackson, but no list was presented.
That is, until shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday when Culbertson finally received a list of seven reasons for Jackson’s firing, less than 12 hours before Jackson’s appeal hearing was set to begin.
The 8 a.m. hearing started with fireworks and ended with fireworks.
Shortly after the meeting was called to order, local resident Mike Hayes was ejected from the upstairs meeting room by Mayor Frost after Hayes stated loudly he’d made a mistake by supporting and campaigning for the mayor when he was elected in 2012.
Mayor Frost then read his seven charges against Jackson aloud, after which Jackson answered and explained his side of the allegations — most of which were months old.
Following a heated closing argument by Culbertson, who suggested perhaps the mayor should be fired instead of Jackson, Mayor Frost attempted to adjourn the meeting and walk out.
For the past three BMA meetings, Mayor Frost has improperly ended each meeting by banging his gavel and stating, “Meeting adjourned.”
The proper way to end a BMA meeting is to call for a motion to adjourn, receive a second, and then a majority vote is required.
The first two occasions were BMA meetings in which the highly controversial subject of removing the mayor’s powers to hire and fire were discussed.
After covering such weighty matters, no one seemed to notice the mayor’s improper mode of ending the meetings.
Thursday morning, however, after Culbertson concluded his closing statement, Mayor Frost stated a vote would be taken on Jackson’s appeal within 10 days.
The mayor then banged his gavel and said, “This meeting is adjourned.”
As Mayor Frost and Hale stood and began walking toward the exit, an outraged audience, Culbertson and other members of the board demanded that the mayor and vice mayor return to their seats and vote.
“No,” Alderman Eugene Christian said. “Sit down! We’re going to continue. We’re going to finish this.”
Frost eventually relented and sat down for a vote.
Hale actually made it to the doorway. From the audience, former mayor Gary Lawson told Hale he better go back and sit down, and Hale replied, “Don’t threaten me.”
But Hale too relented and sat back down for the vote.
A motion by Alderman Margaret Christian was made to reinstate Jackson immediately, return his badge, and allow him to return to work on Monday.
Christian also stated in her motion that Jackson would receive 30 days back pay for the time he was fired, although City Attorney John Pevy said he would have to check the legality of that.
Christian’s motion was approved 5-2 with Margaret Christian, Eugene Christian, Carl Wolfe, Chris Jones and Wanda Davidson in favor.
Mayor Frost and Hale voted no.
The charges against Jackson
Jackson has been employed as a Mount Carmel police officer since 1981 and was appointed police chief in 1999.
Culbertson entered into evidence for Thursday’s hearing Jackson’s four-inch-thick personnel file.
After Frost had read his seven charges against Jackson, some of which pertained to allegations dating back to April 2015, Culbertson noted that not one of those issues was listed in Jackson’s personnel file.
The charges against Jackson that were presented by the mayor Thursday included:
• “Allowing an untrained employee to drive a fire truck” in April 2015.
Jackson admitted that he gave permission for a police officer without proper training to drive a fire truck because the fire department was shorthanded and he was concerned about essential equipment not making it to fire scenes.
The officer had been trained on similar equipment while in the military, and Jackson said he made sure the officer could handle the equipment before giving permission. That officer has now received the proper training to drive the fire truck.
• “Allowing a part-time police officer to operate city police vehicles with a Kentucky driver’s license.”
Jackson said the mayor was mistaken in his belief that a police officer from out of state working in Tennessee must have a Tennessee driver’s license. Jackson said the law states they must acquire a Tennessee driver’s license within 30 days of moving to Tennessee, but there are officers who reside out of state and work in numerous Tennessee police departments near state boundaries, including Kingsport and Bristol.
• “Destroying hazardous material including narcotics, syringes and ammunition in a dumpster close to Mount Carmel School.”
Frost said a complaint of a foul odor was made in April 2015 from the school due to that evidence burning.
Jackson noted that the MCPD has been burning evidence under the supervision of the Hawkins County clerk of courts for more than 30 years. Last year a fireman stated that some of the smoke was blowing up to the school, and they made a decision to burn only on weekends.
• “Improper management of evidence room.”
Jackson said the problems with the evidence room, which Frost described as “disarray” are a direct result of a personnel decision made by the mayor. Jackson noted that shortly after Frost was elected in November 2012, Jackson was demoted to patrolman. Fourteen months later, Jackson was reinstated as chief, at which time he discovered that the painstaking process of eliminating old evidence hadn’t been taking place and old evidence was piling up.
Jackson noted that the MCPD evidence room passed a state audit in June 2015. Traditionally, the assistant chief is in charge of the evidence room.
But 30 days after the audit, Frost and Hale notified Jackson that Phillip Robinette was the new assistant chief, and the civilian municipal court clerk would be in charge of the evidence room. Jackson said that clerk refused to do the job and subsequently quit.
• “Poor leadership.” Frost referred to the other charges as his reason for this charge.
Jackson noted that during his time as chief, the MCPD has been recognized not only as among the best police departments of its size in the nation, but also the best in the nation of any size, as evidenced by the 5-foot trophy on display in the BMA’s ground floor meeting room behind the board members.
• “Failure to provide truthful information about employees.” Frost referred to letters from other police officers that weren’t read aloud, although he said it pertained to a police officer failing a psychological exam after applying to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Jackson said he has never been untruthful. The gist of that issue was he didn’t feel comfortable allowing that officer to return to work until he passed a psych test due to liability concerns. Details related to alleged untruthfulness weren’t specified.
Jackson said he has never been disrespectful to the mayor, although he has disagreed with the mayor. Jackson said the mayor confuses disagreeing with insubordination.
In concluding his response to the allegations, Jackson noted that some of the things Mayor Frost said he did are true, but he wasn’t aware he’d done anything wrong because he was never reprimanded by the mayor.
“This town doesn’t owe me anything,” Jackson said. “I owe everything to the town because this town has made it possible for me to raise my family, feed my kids and send them to school. Because of that I have tried to do the absolute best job that I could for this town. I’ve made mistakes over the years, and I have learned from my mistakes, and I’ll probably continue to make mistakes no matter where I’m at.”
Jackson added, “But my heart is in this city, and I’ve spent my whole career here. I am close to retirement, and I would like to finish my career here.”
Culbertson closed the hearing by pointing out that Mount Carmel is fortunate to have a police chief like Jeff Jackson.
He held up Jackson’s personnel file and noted that it contains no real blemishes.
“What better record could anyone ever have?” Culbertson asked. “If he was derelict in his duty in April, why didn’t anyone say something to him? If it happened 30 days ago, six months ago, with all due respect Mr. Mayor, if you knew about this, maybe you ought to be fired. If the citizens of Mount Carmel are put in danger because of this man (Jackson), maybe the voters will say something about that next time. I don’t think it happened.”
Culbertson said Jackson can’t be penalized for following procedure for destroying evidence or inheriting an evidence room in disarray that was “messed up” due to the mayor’s actions.
“I just don’t understand putting this man, with 30 years of experience, putting his livelihood on the line,” Culbertson added. “It’s not right.”