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Alderman questions BFD firefighter hiring

A new Brookhaven firefighter was hired Friday, but not beforeone city board member raised a number of questions about thefirefighter’s qualifications, residency issues, job posting noticeand other considerations.

During the specially scheduled meeting, Brookhaven Fire Chief TonyWeeks was heavily questioned once more by Ward Two Alderman TerryBates. Bates regularly airs complaints over hiring practices in thefire department to the board.

In this case, Bates contested Weeks’ choice of certifiedfirefighter Seth Morris, who was chosen ahead of black candidateDante Dixon. Following a discussion, Morris was hired in a 4-1vote, with Bates against, one member abstaining and oneabsent.

During board talks, Bates discounted the value of qualificationswhen weighed against residency and other factors. Morris, who iswhite, is a resident of Copiah County.

“Qualifications can kick us all in the you-know-what,” Bates saidto Weeks. “I just want to know why you’ve been here since July andyou haven’t considered any blacks.”

Dixon does not have as many years in the service nor the number ofcertifications that Morris has, Weeks pointed out. The openposition was vacated by a white firefighter roughly two weeksago.

“He has the most education, that’s why I went with him,” Weeks saidof Morris. “I’m trying to be as fair as I can.”

Bates said that using qualifications as a reason to hirefirefighters is a problem because there are local blacks that wantto be firefighters, and that they should be given a shot to get thetraining.

“You bring in these people and you say it’s because they’re morecertified and more qualified, but that’s an excuse,” he said.

The city has to keep a certain number of firefighters on the rosterin order to comply with the State Ratings Bureau, but recent budgettalks are causing Brookhaven officials to ponder if layoffs ofother city workers are an inevitability if sales tax numbers do notstart to look better.

Morris has completed pump operator training, which is a mandatoryclass for firefighters before they can be promoted, but Dixon hasnot. Thus the cost of his enrollment in the class would fall on thecity, officials said.

Bates said that he was simply trying to achieve “balance” in thefire department.

“I don’t see no color,” he said. “But we’ll never have balance ifwe replace white with white and black with black.”

Mayor Les Bumgarner was quick to point out that the four people whohave left the fire department since Weeks has been chief are whitepeople, but in the meantime two black firefighters and two whitefirefighters have been hired before Morris.

Meanwhile, Ward Five Alderman D.W. Maxwell opposed Morris’ hiringbecause he said he had held conversations with would-be firefighterLes Falvey. Falvey has passed the Candidate Physical Aptitude Test,but is not yet a certified firefighter.

“To see people get a position through an alderman or the mayor orsomeone is wrong,” Bumgarner said.

Ward Six Alderman David Phillips said he’d like to see it becomeprocedure that a candidate’s face is not seen by the board, nor ishis name known, but simply his years of service and qualificationsbe brought for hiring or termination.

Bumgarner told the board that it is counterproductive to fight overevery firefighter candidate that comes into the boardroom.

“I can’t imagine what I’d do if I was a department head trying todeal with seven different personalities when I want my departmentto actually be able to function,” Bumgarner said. “He can’t play toall seven of y’all. And then you come in here and air your dirtylaundry in public and try to get your way after the decision isalready made.

“He couldn’t bring Jesus Christ in here and get you all to settleon it,” he finished.

Bumgarner said he had told Weeks to be sure and hire the bestcandidate in a way that would completely stand up in court.

At that point Bates took a new approach, stating that the positionhad been open for two weeks and it was not posted. Meanwhile thecity has frozen hiring in most departments and is not takingapplications, and Morris’ application will have been in for a yearon April 20, officials said.

“Terry, you’re not worried about posting,” Bumgarner told Bates.”You just want to hire who you want to hire, and we can’t dothat.”

Morris was hired on a vote of 4-1, with Bates voting against,Maxwell abstaining, and Ward Three Alderman Mary Wilsonabsent.

But after the vote was taken, Weeks was reminded once again thatrace will continue to be an issue in future hirings.

“Chief Weeks, just remember we will be hiring again,” said Ward OneAlderman Dorsey Cameron.