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Commissioners spar over allegations of cover ups, employee intimidation

Matthew Strother mstrother@civitasmedia.com

April 8, 2014

(The embedded video shows the first 25 minutes of the exchange between County Commissioner Tripp Foster and other commissioners, the remainder of the exchange at Tuesday's meeting has been added as audio only, recorded from the reporter's laptop - which was also used to type notes. The video was recorded on a cell phone, which ran out of storage space before the end of the meeting. The Daily News apologizes for the shakiness of the video and audible typing in the audio recording.)
Tuesday's Troup County Commission meeting erupted into heated debate between Commissioner Tripp Foster and fellow commissioners and county management after Foster aired allegations of problems in the fire and other county departments.
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 he has been contacted by multiple employees who have left the Troup County Fire Department who are willing to speak publicly about problems they encountered. 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 long turned a deaf ear to complaints from firefighters and been coerced to do what they're told by management.
“Until I draw my last breath, this problem is going to get fixed,” Foster said.
More on Tuesday's County Commission meeting will appear in Wednesday's edition.