Johnny Stephens Jr. attempted to appeal the termination notice received from LaFayette city manager Frank Etheridge on Thursday, March 8, following an incident that occurred Monday, March 5, between Stephens and his two supervisors, LaFayette public safety chief Tommy Freeman and assistant chief Bengie Clift.
According to Stephens, Clift, reiterated by Freeman, asked Stephens to install an outdated police car radio in a vehicle belonging to the LaFayette public works department. Clift called the directive a direct order, which Stephens refused to obey by questioning it.
Stephens maintained that installing radios, a task he had performed between eight and 10 times before for city police and emergency vehicles, was technically not part of his job. This issue was compounded, he claimed, by the fact that another firefighter had received a pay raise to perform this exact duty as needed; furthermore, Stephens questioned why he, a firefighter, was being asked to install a radio in a vehicle from the public works department, whose maintenance was usually handled by public safety.
Stephens said he received “no explanation for why the radio was wanted in the car” and thus was hesitant to perform a duty he did not feel was his.
“Basically I just wanted a reasoning why – why was it in the scope of my job description,” he said.
“I feel like I was taken advantage of for my knowledge of working on cars.”
The main question the council sought to answer Tuesday evening, March 20, was whether Stephens had been in-subordinate or refused a direct order to install the radio.
“I never said no to anybody,” said Stephens at his appeal. He mentioned that, when questioned by chief Free-man, he asked the chief twice “Why?” the radio needed to be installed.
Freeman constituted the question as insubordination and fired Stephens on the spot on Monday, March 5.
According to Etheridge, the radio was to be installed in this public works car and later in subsequent vehicles “so we can have direct communication to get them to go from job site to job site or in case of emergency.”
Etheridge said that for the past five to six years, public works vehicles have had no radios, and communication from city hall to employees out in the field has been difficult and time-consuming, often requiring an employee to drive to a job site to track down an employee.
Council members questioned why Stephens had not either gone ahead with the order and filed a grievance at a later date or been able to discuss the purpose of the radio with Freeman in a more civil and less petulant manner.
Stephens said neither he nor any other firefighter he knew was aware of the process to file a grievance or that such an option even existed. “I didn’t know about the grievance process.”
As for the chief, Stephens said “you can’t go in and talk to Mr. Freeman without it turning into an argument or something like that.”
Community members in the packed room, with about 60 people present, jumped to Stephens defense, including other prior city employees who have worked under Freeman. They mentioned that the chief was more often than not observed to curse and berate his firefighters and police officers and that most of his employees lived in fear of him, keeping their mouths shut to keep their jobs.
Council member Ben Bradford expressed a wish that Stephens had gone ahead with the radio installation and come to city officials afterward with his complaints about the chief and his request.
“If this had been done right,” said Bradford, “we’d be asking different questions of different people tonight.”
Stephens has been a firefighter with the city of LaFayette for five years and served as a volunteer firefighter since 2002, while he was still working with the gas department. In nearly a decade and a half of employment to the city, Stephens claims he has never received any disciplinary action whatsoever, and questions why less severe steps – rather than termination – were not taken against him in this particular case.
“Fourteen years I’ve worked with the city and never had any problems whatsoever.”
As Stephens stood to defend himself, he pointed out a tattoo on his right arm of the fire department logo embla-zoned with the letters LFD.
“That’s dedication. That’s going to be with me the rest of my life.”
The city council voted 4–0 to uphold the termination.