Racial tensions are running high in Athens after the NAACP accused the city of unfair hiring practices. Many claim the city of Athens has a habit of failing to hire minority employees. The issue recently came to a head after the council appointed a new white fire chief. NAACP leaders saw this as a missed opportunity to hire a well-qualified African American candidate. They voiced their concerns at Monday night's city council meeting.
At the meeting, sharp words fired back and forth, with accusations of choosing the new fire chief through back-room deals and corruption. Limestone County NAACP President Wilbert Woodruff says to council members, "That process, to me, it was certainly different than other processes I've known about." Council president Jimmy Gill responds, "The only deal I make is with my Lord and Savior."
Months earlier, Woodruff says he asked the city council to fairly consider a black Decatur firefighter for the top job. That request, he says, went ignored: "Long story short, they end up placing someone else in the position who we think was probably not as qualified as the African American candidate."
Athens City Councilman Harold Wales nominated the current fire chief. He explains, "We hired Mr. Tony Kirk, and he had been with us 26 years, and had a great resume and a good interview. I saw nobody, myself personally, that I could rate ahead of him, and if I found a minority I would have voted above him, I would have voted for the minority."
Wales admits there are too few African Americans in Athens' police and fire departments, but wants to solve the problem carefully. He explains, "What I do want to avoid is bringing in a minority just to fill a quota, I want to bring in a highly qualified person."
City leaders say they plan to continue recruiting candidates through traditionally black organizations and colleges.
No matter the method, Woodruff says more minorities need to be hired soon, for the sake of future generations, if nothing else. He says, "When you don't see any people that look like you in different positions, you have less ambition to strive for these positions, or you may think you're not capable of maintaining one of these positions."
City council members blame the current under representation on a lack of applicants, and among those who do apply, lack of qualification. But after the fire chief debate, NAACP leaders don't buy these excuses.