The Columbus city council voted unanimously Tuesday to delay the process of choosing a new chief operating officer until after the June 8 election, to give the incoming council a say in the hiring.
The vote came at the urging of Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, one of two council members running unopposed in the upcoming election.
“I just feel like … with a new council coming, I feel like that council and mayor should have some decision into who the next COO is of this city,” Mickens said toward the end of Tuesday evening’s council meeting.
Then Mickens couched his stance for patience in praise for outgoing COO David Armstrong, who will retire June 25.
“I really don’t think we can replace this guy right here, with his lawyer experience, being the (former mayor of Natchez),” he said. “We’re not going to find that. We’re not going to find a lawyer and a mayor to come in here and be the COO. So I think this is a process we need to look at very thoroughly, very thoroughly. I don’t think we need to rush this process. I think we need to wait until after the election before we make a decision.”
Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell said she has set up a committee of officials to interview the final applicants but had not begun to schedule the interviews yet. There are six applicants for the position — Mitchell admitted to mistakenly telling The Dispatch last week there were five — three internal and three external. Mitchell previously said the committee will interview all the applicants and recommend a finalist to the city council for approval, though she did not give a timeline for when the interviews and recommendation would occur.
During Tuesday’s meeting, most council members said they agreed with Mickens.
“I’m kind of like Councilman Mickens,” said Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin, who lost re-election to Jacqueline DiCicco during the primary and is one of the outgoing council members. “We’re so close to the election, it might be feasible for the … next administration, because I won’t be here, for them to have a voice in who they hire.”
The only drawback to waiting, Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones said, is that if the COO didn’t come in until after the new council takes office on July 1, then Armstrong would have already departed and wouldn’t be there to help ease the new COO into their position. Mayor Robert Smith added the new COO would come in as the city was preparing its budget for Fiscal Year 2022.
“You would want Mr. Armstrong to assist whoever the other person is,” Smith said.
But Jones said he saw it “from both ways” and pointed out that whoever is hired ought to have some experience already.
“You may have that person that may be able to walk right in and do the job,” he said.
Armstrong himself said he recommended the new administration hire the COO.
“I really think it’s not only in the best interest of the next council, it’s also the best interest of the next COO,” he said. “You don’t want to bring someone in and then they may have to work with a council that (didn’t choose them). … It’s got to be a mutual thing. I remember when I came here (in 2006), and it was kind of like (former mayor) Jeff Rupp was walking out the front door and I was walking in the back door. I had no idea he was leaving. I felt like turning around and going back to Natchez. It’s in the best interest of the COO also.”
Gavin moved to delay the process of choosing the COO — though he did not give a specific date — and the council unanimously approved it.
Mickens said his idea to delay the hiring had nothing to do with the council members leaving. He specifically spoke to Gavin and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, who chose not to run for re-election.
“I know we’ve disagreed a lot over the years, but it’s been an honor to work with you,” Mickens told them.
The council also approved city IT Director Greg Drake’s emergency purchase of 12 surveillance cameras to be installed around the city and help deter crime.
Drake and Smith eschewed the usual procurement process, which would have involved Drake doing extensive research into technical and installation options and bringing back quotes for the council to approve, in favor of purchasing and installing the cameras as quickly as possible following a number of high-profile shootings last week. Violent crime has increased in Columbus and surrounding areas this year, and Columbus police responded to three high-profile shootings with injuries within 48 hours on May 10 and May 11.
The cameras themselves cost $14,000, Drake said, though with the cost of assembly and installation the overall project will be $37,960.
During executive session at the end of the meeting, the council also terminated two public works employees who got into an on-duty fight that ended with one assaulting the other.
Columbus Police Department arrested Lamarcus Davis, 35, for aggravated assault on May 5. Davis and another employee who officials have not identified got into a fight while they were working on the same public works crew on Pickensville Road. Investigators said Davis used a weapon to injure the other employee seriously enough that the employee was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle.
The council held a special-call meeting to discuss the issue on May 6, eventually voting to place both employees on unpaid administrative leave until they could discuss the issue at the next council meeting.
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently in legal proceedings that involve the city of Columbus. Details are available in previous reporting.