Updated: Website allegations lead to commissioners' sparring

Matthew Strother

April 9, 2014

Tuesday's Troup County Commission meeting erupted into a heated debate between Commissioner Tripp Foster and fellow commissioners and county management.
At the beginning of the meeting, County Commission Chairman Ricky Wolfe asked to add an item to the top of the meeting's agenda – discussion of Commissioner Tripp Foster's Facebook page called “Fire Chief Foster.” On the site, Foster said he has formed a task force to investigate claims of corruption in the Troup County Fire Department and cover ups by county officials. Wolfe said the page is causing confusion for firefighters about who they should report to.
“There seems to be, at least among this body (the Commission), and a lot of the public as well, particularly the fire department that the website is causing a state of confusion. It appears to be that a lot of the firemen do not understand what that means in terms of their reporting responsibility, and I can't answer the question because I don't know, and I don't think the other commissioners know as well,” Wolfe said. “So, you certainly are open, if you so choose, to help us understand the motivation behind it and what the intention is, to give us a bit of education.”
Foster said that the intent to discuss his website during the 9 a.m. meeting was brought to his attention at 8:35 a.m. He said he hadn't prepared any statement about it, but said he had no problem being transparent.
“In fact, I encourage you to get on Facebook page somewhere and look at Fire Chief Foster on Facebook. It's clearly explainable, what I'm talking about on there,” Foster said. “I encourage you to get to Facebook site Troup County Citizen, it goes in-depth onto things that transpired the last 16 months that I've been in office.”
Foster said there has never been any confusion among firefighters whom they report to. He said he made up the name Fire Chief Foster for his page because of his years of experience in fire and EMS service. Foster, a former Troup County firefighter, said there have been numerous issues in the department over the years that have not been addressed and he intends to begin addressing all of them.
Commissioner Morris Jones said that he had concerns that posts on the web page were giving “orders” to firefighters in their personal lives. Foster said those posts were encouragement to the firefighters who have been harassed and discouraged to look at themselves and find the courage to “man up and speak up.”
“I don't know why any Troup County employee would be afraid or scared of anything going on, when, to me, everything in the fire department here is in pretty good shape,” Jones said. “We all have mistakes, we all need to make adjustments and corrections to different items in each department. But overall, the fire department has always been in pretty good shape. Those men have always done their job, those men have always been responsible for what they're doing. And I just didn't like to see our firemen be afraid of comments.”
“… Commissioner Jones, those firemen don't have anything to be afraid of by coming to me,” Foster said. “As long as it's the truth, they don't have anything to be afraid of. But I can assure anyone this, if you lie, I'm putting you on front street and hold you accountable. And that goes for any person in this Troup County government (and) the fire department. …”
Jones responded: “… I've been sitting in this seat for 14 years, and there has never been any lying, cheating going on, as far as I know, in that Troup County Fire Department that hasn't been taken care of when it needs to be the appropriate time to be taken care of.”
Foster countered that multiple employees who have left the department and contacted Foster and are willing to speak publicly about problems in the fire department. He alleged that there are current firefighters who would speak out, but are afraid of losing their job and benefits. He said county managers have turned a deaf ear to complaints from firefighters and convinced by management to turn a blind eye to problems.
“Until I draw my last breath, this problem is going to get fixed,” Foster said.
Wolfe asked Foster if he understood that the acting fire chief and future fire chief doesn't report to him or any commissioner. Foster said he understood and that he understands the county works on a county manager style of government, but said he doesn't respect that setup.
Wolfe asked if Foster would propose changing that, which Foster said he would, but noted he would have no support on the commission for that move.
Wolfe said Foster can expect to receive a letter from the commissioners about their concerns over the website.
County Commission vs. Tripp Foster
“So ya'll can not vote me as the vice chairman, ya'll can play that game like you did a couple of months ago in here like a bunch of children, but I'm going to tell you this today, I'm going to be here the whole four years,” Foster said. “It may not be another four, but I'm going to be here until this is fixed.”
Foster was referring to commissioners not choosing him for vice chairman of the commission, which the commission votes on, but usually has rotated by district year-to-year. Foster said this year would've been District 3, which he represents, but he was instead passed up for the nomination.
He also referred to an incident where Foster made a motion to accept hiring a person for the solicitor's office. No commissioners would second Foster's motion, but the motion was eventually passed by role call vote. Foster said the move was the other commissioners showing they would not support him because of issues he had brought up previously with the hiring process for the fire chief.
Foster said Tuesday that even without the support of the other commissioners, there are laws governing how the fire department should be run and he would ensure the county will follow those laws.
County Commissioner Richard English said he had a problem with commissioners getting involved with employees, which creates conflicts. He said commissioners are supposed to be policymakers, not supervisors.
“Once you cross that line, you start having problems,” English said.
Fire chief dispute
Foster called out Commissioner Buck Davis for not showing up to a meeting with Darrell Neese, who Foster identified as a candidate for the fire chief. Foster said Neese wanted to speak to Davis as his constituent, but Davis didn't meet with him, leaving Neese “out in the cold.” Davis said he didn't meet wiht Neese because he was lead to believe there was a potential lawsuit involved.
Davis said Foster called him while Davis was in Tennessee, telling him he had enough to present litigation against the fire department for not hiring Neese. Davis said he later spoke with Neese, who he said denied knowing anything about any litigation.
Davis said even though Neese didn't plan to file suit, he said Foster had told him there was planned litigation, which is why he didn't meet with him.
Davis said the county had selected an applicant for chief of the fire department, whom Foster told commissioners he would support. Foster said he would've supported the candidate had he taken the job.
Davis said the candidate backed out after hearing about what was being said about him. Foster said he had a discussion with the candidate, whom he said was the least qualified for the job, and the candidate then decided to reject the job offer.
Foster said the county manager also rejected using a council of fire chiefs from around the state to evaluate applicants, instead using a volunteer council, including the retiring fire chief Jerry Heard, which he said was one of a few conflicts of interest on the council.
“I contend that the number one candidate (referring to Neese) had even more education than your county manager,” Foster said. “And you don't have to take my words, the facts will state that.”
Jones said the county manager doesn't have to setup a committee, because he can hire who he wants to. The county works on a county manager form of government, where the county manager is in charge of hiring.
“No commissioner sitting up here has a right to tell the county manager on any person to hire,” Jones said. “We sit in the background and then he brings those candidates or whatever to the board of commissioners.”
“You're correct,” Foster countered. “I don't tell him who he needs to hire, but when I see a bunch of foolishness, lying and funny business going on – I was elected by the people of District 3 and I'm gonna speak up for them.”
Jones said Foster brought Neese to an event with the governor and introduced him as the next fire chief. Foster said Neese was his guest and repeated that he was better qualified than any other candidates.
Neese is “an honorable man dedicated to the fire service, and you let him get shot down,” Foster said.
Tentler said Foster had been announcing Neese as the next fire chief. Foster said he only told Tentler that Neese was an optimum candidate.
Foster said other candidates interviewed were below qualifications and that two applicants in the department didn't even get interviewed. Tentler argued that Foster said they weren't capable, which Foster denied.
Foster said his Facebook site is a communication tool and a resource for oversight of the fire department.
“Until they put a chief and deputy chief in that department that are men of honor, that are people that are competent, that are people that possess education and skills that should be at the level that is accepted today by the National Fire Protection Association and the National Professional Qualifications Board, I'm gonna stay on top of this fire department,” Foster said. “And until that happens, I won't rest.”
Foster vs. the county manager
“If there is something wrong with this government – and this government is made up of human beings, of which we are a part and we all make mistakes and we all wish we could do things better than we do – it is our responsibility to report those things, specifically, not with innuendo and not with conspiracy, with facts to (County Manager Tod) Tentler,” Wolfe said. “And ask Mr. Tentler to deal with those, and then he is accountable to us to dismiss those as rapidly and effectively as he can.”
“And he does a good job at dismissing them, chairman, and that's why I'm resurrecting them,” Foster said. “Because he has dismissed them wrongfully.”
Wolfe said that Foster participated in a performance evaluation of Tentler recently, and gave him high marks. Foster disputed that, saying he signed off on a paper after Wolfe twice slid it to him in an effort to “play nice” with commissioners.
Discussion eventually steered to an incident that occurred at the government center between Foster and Tentler on Thursday. They gave the following account:
“On Thursday afternoon at 2 o'clock I got a phone call from Commissioner Foster, saying that he wanted to know who the fire chief was on the interview panel …” Tentler said. “I told Chief Foster that I -“
“Excuse me, my name is not Chief Foster, it's Commissioner Foster,” Foster said.
“I'm sorry, I got confused with the website,” Tentler said sarcastically.
“Well you didn't talk to the website, you talked to me on the phone,” Foster retorted.
… '“Commissioner Foster told me, that – he demanded to know who was at that interview panel as the chief.”
“Demanded? I said 'I want to know,' let's get the words right.”
“… And I said, I can't tell you that. I just talked to Dennis (Knight, interim chief) and I don't really have to tell you that, because the chief is not allowed to give us permission to do that. You then said 'I have caught Dennis Knight in four lies this morning alone, and this is the fifth one I want to prove it.' And I didn't know how in the world you could've caught Dennis Knight in four lies when he was in the interview panel the entire day and … with me before he came to the interview panel. …”
“I said I had caught Dennis Knight in four lies 'as of this morning,' not 'this morning,'” Foster said.
“'As of this morning,' OK, excuse me,” Tentler said. “… Then I got a call from Captain Knight that you were across the street with another man, I think it was Ron McClellan –”
“It was Mr. McClellan.”
“– Spying on his department."
“No, we weren't spying on his department,” Foster said. “I was making a phone call to the sheriff at that point, because I pulled over. Then after I talked to you on the phone, and I told you, 'Tod I want those records.' And you said, 'If you don't give me that fire investigation manual back –'”
“I thought you wanted me to tell the story,” Tentler interjected.
“Well you keep telling it inaccurate, but go ahead and finish …”
“Inaccurate? We'll see. At that time you said 'I have to have records,' for something, 'from 2009 to 2014.'”
“January 1 … 2009, to January 1st, 2014. Active duty rosters is what it was, that shows you have not been staffing those fire trucks with state-licensed EMTs, which the state law prescribes, in willful violation.”
“That is incorrect. I talked to Billy Watson Friday. Billy Watson said we are absolutely doing it the proper way, that no county in the state of Georgia has an EMT-certified person on every fire truck when they go out.”
“On BLF fire trucks, not a basic fire truck,” Foster said. “… I'm going to talk to him today because he sent me PDF files … that say different, state PDF files.”
“Well, we'll get him here, because he said he'd be glad to come here and clarify that for me. … So, at that point, you said 'I'm getting those,' and I don't know what you said, but you –”
“No, I said I'm going to ask you a second time to call interim Chief Dennis Knight to hand me those files, and you said, 'You're not getting 'em buddy,'” Foster said. “You yelled that over the phone, and I said 'that's insubordination and I'll see you in five minutes.' I left that location and came up here. And while I did, guess what you did - left me a phone message talking about your blood pressure while I was in the parking garage coming up to the building, and you went down the back stairwell, and when I came down in that hallway, there you and Dennis Knight and deputy Shannon Howard were standing, and you looked at me and you yelled, 'I got nothing to say to you two,' and pointed at me and yelled in a loud voice … turned and went to that door, and after I walked that way, you slammed that door and it came back open, then then you put both hands up on it and barricaded that door on me, is what you did. …”
“You're telling me now that you knew I had high blood pressure and you still came after me,” Tentler asked.
“No sir, I listened to the message after the fact.”
“Oh, after the fact.”
“And came after you? Nobody came after you.”
“… So it's OK to come down and come running around the corner towards me?”
“Running is not the truth, I walked through those doors. I did not know where you were.”
“I removed myself from the situation.”
“You didn't you stayed in the building is what you did. Then, after you slammed the door on me twice -“
“I didn't, I closed the door,” Tentler said.
“Yes you did, you slammed it on me,” Foster countered. “That is a lie, Tod Tentler … Then Dennis Knight and deputy Shannon Howard stood right there between the door and said 'don't go out there,' and I was very mad at that point when you did that, and they said don't go out there. I stood there for two to three minutes until everything subsided. Then I walked out there, and there you were walking in circles around the parking deck with your hand on your chest. You know what, I don't doubt that you might have health problems, that's not my business, but the bottom line is, you went home, nobody called an ambulance for you, and you went to work the next day. …”
“I did not go home, I was taken by somebody to the emergency room,” Tentler said.
“Oh, OK. That's terrible, that's really terrible,” Foster said. “If you had not showed out and did what you did, you probably wouldn't have gotten to that level. Yelled at me on the phone, vacated the building, then you stayed down at the bottom and slammed the door on me twice, that was very insubordinate, Tod Tentler, is what that was. … Had that been any county employee, they would have been fired by sundown that night for what you did that day, sir.”
“I disagree strongly … I would say if a person were to have been fired, it would've been you if you possibly could've been,” Tentler said.
Tentler said that earlier in the week, Foster had gone to a fire station and was asking firefighters to complain about their living conditions, but the firefighters were OK with the conditions. Foster said that the firefighters felt intimidated and were scared to lose their job if they complain.
Tentler said Foster also went through bins of a fire truck at Abbottsford fire station when he had no right to do so. Foster questioned why he doesn't have a right to look through the bins. Tentler said it has to be sanctioned by the fire chief.
“You're acting like you're running the fire department, you're acting like you're doing an inspection of the fire trucks,” Tentler said.
Foster said he was looking to report back to the fire chief. Tentler asked if Foster was asked to inspect the truck by the chief. Foster said he wasn't.
“My point, how are we going to run a county when you are always running, circumventing everything everyone does?” Tentler said.
“Because you're dishonest and I don't trust you, that's why,” Foster said. “… Oh goodness, get your handkerchiefs out, that's just the cold hard truth.”
“That's just your opinion,” Tentler said.
'Count to three'
Wolfe began: “You are obviously very unhappy with us –
“And for good reason,” Foster said.
“– unhappy with Tod, unhappy with the system.”
“I'm very unhappy with dishonesty, with lying, with cover ups –”
“Me too,” Tentler interjected.
“– With cover ups, with misappropriations,” Foster said.
Tentler said that Foster also made accusations of theft against County Division Manager Dexter Wells and County Engineer James Emery. Wells was at the meeting and addressed Foster.
“As I addressed you upstairs privately, I told you that I'm not elected, that I'm a citizen, I mean –” Wells began.
“As you threatened me and I walked out of that room and kept my cool. Go ahead,” Foster said.
“I told you that I'm a civil servant, I'm not an elected official, and I will not be talked about on somebody's website,” Wells said. “We have a disciplinary process in this county. If there is something that needs to be said about, or discipline done of a county employee, it needs to be done by the policy set forth by this body, not this website.”
Foster tried to interject, but Wells said he was asked to speak and he was not going to be interrupted. Wells also said Foster didn't look into allegations of misappropriated funds involving a friend.
“I do not steal, and I will not have it put on any web site that I steal,” Wells said tersely. “I don't care who you are.”
Foster asked who said Wells stole. Wells said Foster made the accusation.
Foster said he would bring up a case against Wells for harassing and intimidating employees.
“OK, let's do it,” Wells said. “Good.”
Wolfe steered the subject back to Foster's issues with the commissioners and county management. Foster said before he took office, that Wolfe told him that if he didn't play along, he would be isolated, unable to address his issues and a one-term commissioner.
“The school you went to, you were taught, I'm sure, that to be an effective County Commissioner, you need to learn to count to three,” Wolfe said. “… And you've got yourself in a situation where you can only count to one. And I am willing and able to do anything I can possibly do as the chairman of this body to get us to some point where we can work together. This is not necessarily about liking each other, but it's a lot about having respect for the positions that we hold. And it is all about relationships, politics is all about relationships, and if you can't count to three, you just come in here and sit and you're not in any way meeting the needs of the people that elected you.”
Ron McClellan spoke from the crowd, saying as a resident of District 3, he disagreed with Wolfe's assessment.
Wolfe said he was trying to convey to Foster that he needed a majority vote of commissioners to get things done. He said he wasn't trying to deter Foster over his philosophy.
Foster agreed that it takes a majority of commissioners to approve policy, but rather than sit and do nothing about it, he chose to go public. Foster said it went downhill for him in November. He went along with things other commissioners wanted and supporting issues for their districts so they would go along with his, but when issues arose about the fire department, it soured.
Foster said Wolfe also disregarded his requests to talk about his concerns with the fire department in December, which was the last straw.
Davis said his relationship with Foster soured after an employee told Davis and Commissioner English that Foster had said “how he really felt” about them. English said a person he knows, whom he highly respects, told him that Foster used the “N-word” referring to him, and said he was going to ask English about certain black staff members and whether they got the job because of qualifications or because they were black.
“Mr. English, I wish you had come to me, because I don't ever remember using a racial slur directed to you,” Foster said. “… I may have disagreed with racial profiles, and many times in these meetings before you've asked how many black employees in certain departments, you've said that, and I have a problem with you not asking about other minorities … but I don't have to use racial slurs or any other things like that directed toward you or any person's ethnicity.”
Wolfe said it's difficult when the commissioners and county staff are “bashed” online by Foster and then he expects them to work together and support him.
“It's not human nature to do that,” Wolfe said.
Foster said that people need to come to him “like a man or woman” and addressing their issues.
Wolfe said if he continues to take the strategy of “bashing” the other commissioners online, then he would continue to be isolated. Foster said he took to online as a way to speak out, and he wasn't spending so much time dedicated to being a commissioner without a way to support his constituents.
Code of ethics
Wolfe said that most counties have a code of ethics for commissioners to abide by, but Troup doesn't. He said the Troup County employee handbook, which governs every county employee except the commissioners, has guidelines for appropriate behavior, respect for peers and harassment.
Wolfe asked Jones and English to serve on a committee with Tentler and the County Attorney's office to develop a code of ethics for commissioners that they could adopt that would regulate their behavior and the consequences for not meeting that code.
Ron McClellan, a resident in District 3 and administrator of the Troup County Citizen page, asked for there to be residents on the committee.
Jones said the chairman has a right to pick a committee.
“The chairman has the right to put a couple of citizens on (the board),” McClellan said.
“I do, and I'm not,” Wolfe said.
“Well you should,” McClellan said.
Foster asked Wolfe what kind of consequences he would propose. Wolfe said they would take a look at other counties' codes and take up the issue for discussion.
The committee “will figure out a way to shut up a commissioner who won't play ball,” McClellan said.
“Mr. McClellan, you make another comment out of order in this meeting, and I'm going to ask that you be removed from this chamber, with your camera,” Wolfe said.
“That's my camera,” Foster said.
“Is that understood,” Wolfe asked.
“Yes sir,” McClellan said.
The board voted to form the committee with Foster the sole opposing vote.