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McKENZIE (August 16) — The members of the McKenzie City Council affirmed the mayor’s decision to fire Ricky French, who has served as the city’s park director for 20 years. The decision came during a Rule 10 appeals hearing in which French received three of the requisite four votes necessary to overturn the mayor’s decision.
French was represented by Dresden attorney Roy Herron and the city was represented by city attorney Laura Keeton. The hearing was moderated by Michael King, a Huntingdon-based attorney and the six members of the Council sat as the ones with the votes to make the final decision.
Mayor Jill Holland terminated French’s employment on July 23 for what she called as the “last straw” when he failed to attend the city’s annual Festival of Freedom on July 4 and had photos of him in Florida, drinking beer and fishing.
Herron said French suffers from anxiety and has previously had heart attacks. French had suffered a panic attack in the final week of June, to which French texted to office staffers Elaine Brown and Jennifer Waldrup (city recorder) that he suffered a panic attack and was at the doctor waiting to see her.
Herron said the dismissal of the 59-year-old French, who has a history of heart problems, was not appropriate because the city’s Personnel Rules and Regulations indicate promotions or demotions of department heads must be approved by the City Council. Herron said French was never suspended for his actions during his 20-year tenure. The city went from “zero to 120” in its actions when the mayor terminated French’s employment, said Herron. With the termination, French loses his city-paid health insurance except for the provisions of COBRA rules, which allows him to self-pay for the coverage.
Herron said French was in Florida to be with his grandson, who was entering the military.
In a courtroom-style hearing, Mayor Jill Holland was the lone witness called to testify. Herron did not call any witnesses in defense. Herron asked that his client be allowed to be questioned by Herron, but not cross-examined by the city’s attorney nor members of the City Council. Herron was concerned the extra stress would adversely affect the health of Mr. French, who sat quietly by Herron’s side.
King responded that if French is placed on the witness stand, all parties have the privilege of questioning him.
In the Council Room, two tables were placed end-to-end for the city’s representatives and for French and his representatives. Behind them sat approximately 53 McKenzie-area citizens and another 25 to 30 stood in the hallway outside the Council Room. There were no city employees in the audience other than Jennifer Waldrup, who took the official minutes of the meeting.
In opening comments, Keeton said French could not substantiate his reason for not working on July 4 when all Parks Department associates were to work. He gave a false reason and violated city policy.
Roy Herron said he was privileged to speak to members of the City Council members because the city’s attorney had cautioned members not to speak with him during a closed-door session following the regular August meeting. He said the issue could not be discussed in private.
In a follow-up, The Banner was told Herron had threatened litigation and the private, closed-door meeting in the Mayor’s office with Keeton was allowable under Tennessee’s exemption to the Open Meetings Law.
Herron said his client is not perfect but serves the young people well. French is under a doctor’s care and has suffered three heart attacks. The doctor is concerned about the stress and strain on French. Herron recommended French not take the stand because cross-examination would be too much stress.
Councilman Charles Pruneau said if French cannot take the stand and cannot be questioned it is impossible to get his side of the story. Pruneau said his father was judge and he admonished him to always tell the truth.
The first questions of Holland were by Keeton. She asked if Tennessee is an at-will employment state. Holland answered yes. The attorney asked if French had a pattern of misconduct. Holland answered yes and that she had given French three written warnings and several verbal warnings since 2011. The warnings were for: beer in the refrigerator at the city park; failure to care for trees and landscaping; failure to monitor inmate trusties on work detail and assigned to work in his department under his supervision - the trusties were caught with drug paraphernalia and for having sex with a female at the Farmers Market; purchasing ducks after the city announced it did not want ducks at the city park because of the fecal matter and resulting bacterial hazard; failure to inspect his monthly financial reports; failure to utilize a city-purchased smartphones purchased for him to check e-mails and respond to citizens in a timely manner; failure to display federal labor laws and HEPA regulations that are to be displayed for employees to review. – those were found rolled up in the shop; failure to properly assign student workers over the summer, resulting to an end of the employment of student workers; failure to file doctors’ excuses of his employees, but instead trashed them; failure to evaluate his employees, which resulted in the employees not receiving pay raises; failure to utilize the city’s uniform allowance for department employees, resulting in them not receiving the clothing – the employees received t-shirts five years ago; on July 4th, French was absent and assigned one full-time and one part-time employee for the event, which usually has eight to 10 workers; failure to submit documentation on time concerning a TOSHA violation – he was given October 30 to December 2, 2015 to submit correctly. He submitted on December 2 but was rejected by the regulating agency. It was resubmitted two days later with the correct information. The lateness could place the city at risk of a fine, said the mayor.
The mayor noted that a group of citizens appeared at the April 2017 Council Meeting to complain about the deterioration of the infrastructure of the city playground equipment and infrastructure. They presented photographs to show the disrepair. The city spent almost $10,000 making the repairs.
The mayor noted French provided a doctor’s excuse from a clinic several days following the July incident and did not request the time off.
Herron produced an affidavit, produced by his wife, an attorney, that indicated the city could not be fined by TOSHA, contrary to what the mayor stated. He also produced an affidavit from French’s medical doctor, Misty Allen, indicates her nurse examined French when he returned from Florida and that he suffered from hypertension and anxiety, and heart problems. In the affidavit, she indicated she has been his medical doctor for several years. Her medical excuse to miss work was retroactive to include dates from Friday, June 29 to the time of the doctor’s visit. As for the clinic employing French’s daughter-in-law as indicated by the mayor, Herron said she no longer works at the clinic and did not at the time of French’s visit.
Herron said inmate trusties are very difficult to supervise. He noted the trusties were never prosecuted for their actions by the McKenzie Police Department.
Post-hearing, MPD Chief Craig Moates said the inmates were turned over to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department for prosecution as per standard procedure.
Herron said much of the talk surrounding French has been hearsay from the coffee shops and from Facebook. The mayor had referenced some of the hearsay during her testimony.
The attorney said his client had even fired his own son from driving an off-road vehicle when he worked for the Parks Department.
In a period when each of the councilmen was asked to weigh in, Pruneau said he had heart problems and four bypasses. He said the hot summer heat and fishing, no cardiologist would recommend that along with alcoholic beverages.
Randy Callahan asked if French requested time off. The mayor responded “no.” He then asked Chief Moates about the trusty who was caught. Moates said he was given extra time on his sentence.
Jessie Townes said he wished he had known about the situation since it had been going on from 2015-2018. The mayor responded that she attempted to deal with it one-on-one.
Jason Martin, who said he attempted to reach a compromise between the mayor and French, questioned why if she had been mayor for eight years and he was the parks director why the grievances were just now surfacing. Holland responded that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and other employees were furious and sent a message that “it was o.k. to lie.”
Cassie Allen, a relative of French’s, asked if it is common to take off. Holland replied there is a request form to complete and put in her mailbox.
Keeton on redirect asked Holland if the doctor’s signed medical excuse indicated French visited the clinic on July 6 and was retroactive June 29? Mayor said French was given the opportunity to provide proof earlier but did not.
During the vote, King said it requires four votes to overturn the mayor’s decision to terminate the employment of French.
Gene Hale, Cassie Glisson, and Jessie Townes voted to reinstate French. The three votes were shy of the required four votes. King declared the termination of employment stands.
After the hearing, Herron alluded to the fact the citizens had come out to support Ricky French. He has served the city for 20 years and the Council was divided three to three. The outpouring shows how loved he is.
Mayor Holland also offered this information following the hearing.
“On July 23, Ricky (French) was given the choice of resigning or being terminated. He was offered a severance agreement which after meeting with his attorney, he declined, and chose the option to be terminated, and asked for an appeal’s hearing in front of the council.