By Billy Davis
A brewing controversy over the appointment of fire commissioners could be heading toward a pivotal decision by the Panola County Board of Supervisors.
At issue is when – or even if – supervisors should overrule rural fire departments when a commissioner is up for reappointment.
Any resolution on the matter has been postponed after supervisors, meeting Tuesday in Sardis, tabled the appointment of a new Longtown commissioner in order to discuss the issue among themselves.
Board president Gary Thompson, speaking for Supervisor Vernice Avant, announced she is delaying an appointment until supervisors’ Second District meeting next Monday.
In past weeks, Thompson has defended Avant’s legal right to nominate a commissioner to the volunteer fire departments in her district. Her position also includes the authority to turn down a recommendation.
But the board president also suggested Tuesday that the issue needs to be resolved.
“This doesn’t need to keep dragging out,” he told fellow supervisors. “We need some resolution on this.”
At the same board meeting, Longtown Fire Chief Jacob West handed a reporter a petition, signed by other fire chiefs, which asked supervisors to honor the “tried and true method” of allowing the departments to pick commissioners.
The petition further states that “deviating” from the current method “in order to appease one fellow supervisor is a disparaging act of the worst kind that reflects badly upon the Board of Supervisors as a whole.”
The petition was purportedly signed by seven fire chiefs and one assistant chief from Curtis-Locke Station, Pleasant Grove, Red Hill, Bynum, Cole’s Point, Sardis Lake, Mt. Olivet and Pope – all volunteer fire stations.
Pope Fire Chief John McCollum said the petition was signed this week at a monthly meeting of the fire chiefs.
“In the past, it’s always been the recommendation of the fire department,” he said. “At Pope, we want to get something we can work with and can get along with.”
“I’m backing the firemen at Longtown because I don’t feel they’re getting a fair shake,” said Sardis Lake Fire Chief John Havas.
West also handed the reporter a copy of a second petition, this one signed by Longtown firefighters, requesting that ex-commissioner Herman Bradley be reappointed.
West and commissioner Danny Willard were present Tuesday to witness Avant name her choice after the supervisor has said she would not reappoint Bradley.
Bradley had been appointed to the Longtown Volunteer Fire Department by Mrs. Avant’s late husband, Robert, firefighters have said.
During the meeting, Thompson recognized West and Willard, leading to the brief conversation and the board vote.
“At the last meeting, Mr. Bradley’s name was brought to the floor,” West told the county board. “I’d like to hear a yes or no.”
But with Avant’s appointment delayed, Thompson then suggested that the county board table any action until supervisors share their views. That suggestion, presented as a board motion, passed unanimously.
The appointment of fire commissioners has traditionally been a low-key function in county business, with each fire commission forwarding the name of a replacement to the county fire coordinator.
In past weeks some firefighters have recalled that Robert Avant also initiated the process that allows fire departments to nominate commissioners.
Late civil defense director Son Hudson, who served as fire coordinator, had passed the names to supervisors. Emergency Management director Daniel Cole has since assumed Hudson’s role.
What has been an uneventful procedure drew attention at a county board meeting in July, when Longtown’s fire commissioners tangled with Avant over her plan to reappoint Paula Askew.
At that meeting, Bradley and Willard claimed Askew had moved out of the fire district, making her ineligible to serve. The two commissioners also said Askew had failed for two years to acquire an insurance bond for the public office and had failed to attend the monthly meetings.
They also asked that the board approve their recommendation, Rupert Sanders, to fill Askew’s seat.
Avant responded that Askew was “moving back” after the death of her mother. But the supervisor was eventually forced to drop Askew and instead appointed another replacement, Gregory McGhee.
During that time, Bradley’s tenure as commissioner expired and Avant announced she would not reappoint him.
At a tense meeting in August, Avant explained that Bradley had not been “inclusive” about the community’s needs – namely that he had refused to allow the fire station to be used as a “community center.”
“Remember that it is a community center,” Avant told West and others.
That suggestion added to the ongoing dispute, since some firefighters and commissioners at Longtown believe Avant will pick commissioners who share her plans for a “community center.”
At the same August meeting, West, the fire chief, pressed state fire coordinator Larry Barr about Avant’s plans. Barr agreed that the fire station cannot legally double as a community center.
There is still another issue afoot: Mrs. Avant is pitted in a six-way political race to win the District 2 seat.
Voters in Panola County’s District 2 will cast ballots November 3 in a special election.