Tony Hunt, left, and Haley Lucas
October 24, 2017 10:41:25 AM
Tony Hunt has long felt called to serve.
He did not join the U.S. Navy, as his father and brother had before him -- something Hunt said he has always regretted.
When he and his family lived in Clay County, he spent about eight years as a volunteer rural firefighter, attaining the rank of captain before he and his family moved to Caledonia in 2002. Hunt said he enjoyed the work, but it didn't quite "fill the void." There was something else he knew he was meant to do.
For the last 10 years, Hunt has worked full-time as a contract maintenance manager for the Akzo Nobel Pulp and Performance Chemicals plant in Columbus. In summer 2016, a coworker talked him into joining the part-time police academy -- held each year in Columbus for officers all over the Golden Triangle -- and he joined the city police department's reserve force by fall.
In that role, he worked occasional patrol shifts and on security details at public events. Things seemed to click into place for Hunt, at least for a little while.
"I was like a sponge at the academy," Hunt said. "The day I was sworn in was one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt I really accomplished something and found what would fulfill the need in my life."
It lasted only four months before the city nepotism policy forced Hunt to turn in his badge -- a conflict created earlier this year when his daughter, Haley Lucas, joined Columbus Police Department's full-time force. But after failed attempts to get on part-time at other law enforcement agencies, he is asking the city council to either change its policy or grant him a waiver.
Neither seems likely.
A tearful plea
Columbus' nepotism policy, last amended in 2008, prohibits anyone related by blood or marriage within three degrees of kinship to serve within the same department. That includes an employee's mother, father, sister, brother, grandparent, great-grandparent, grandchild, great-grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, half- or step-siblings, step-parents or in-laws.
The policy is stricter than the state law, passed in 1972, which only prohibits most cases of public employees having a supervisory position over a family member.
Hunt knew about the city policy when his daughter, a Navy reservist, applied for a full-time CPD position. He said since he was on the reserve force, however, he didn't think it would affect either of them.
He learned he was wrong only after Lucas had completed her pre-screening and physical for hire, and CPD leadership told them one had to go.
As a father, Hunt knew that meant him.
"My heart sank," he said. "It shocked me. But I wasn't going to make Haley withdraw her application. I can't do my kid like that. So I did what I had to do."
As months went by, though, the void in his life returned. So he met with Mayor Robert Smith and other city administrative leaders, who referred him to the city council.
At the council's Oct. 17 meeting, with his wife and daughter sitting in the audience, he made a sometimes tearful, yet resolute plea for a policy change or exception. He said since reservists have more say over when they work, he could guarantee he wouldn't serve on shifts or details with Lucas -- thus avoiding any conflict.
At the very least, he asked for a temporary reprieve so he could keep working until he could move to another agency. If he doesn't find work as an officer before next summer, Hunt said, he'll lose his certification.
The council listened to Hunt's plea before taking no action. They asked no questions. Made no comments. The mayor simply told him they would "take it under advisement."
Smith and some of the council are sympathetic to Hunt's position. But it's not the first time the city has come across enforcing its nepotism policy.
Nepotism issues arise in several city departments about once or twice annually, Smith said -- most notably public works, police and fire. Just a few months ago, a Columbus firefighter resigned after he married a battalion chief's daughter.
In each case, Smith said, the city has been consistent, granting no waivers and taking the position that "the policy is the policy."
"It's fair and it's consistent, but just like any policy, it has its pros and cons," Smith said. "We don't want to create dissension within a department or create the appearance or opportunity for favoritism. If we grant a waiver to one person, what about all the other people we didn't give a waiver? What do we tell them?"
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin agrees with Smith, also admitting there were two sides to the argument -- for example, losing good recruits for critical positions whose family ties make them more passionate about the work. But the policy's benefits outweigh its risks, he said. Beyond favoritism, he brought up the possibility of family conflicts -- from basic arguing to more extreme things like divorce -- spilling into the workplace.
"It opens a huge can of worms when you allow two family members to work in the same department," Gavin said. "A lot more can go wrong than can go right. I'm sure we've lost good people because of our policy, but how many times, by enforcing the policy, have we avoided problems in a department?"
Stephen Jones, councilman for Ward 5, said he is willing to look at changing the policy, but he would not support a waiver for anyone, including Hunt.
Speaking specifically to Hunt's situation, he questioned whether working at CPD with his daughter would cause him to take more risks.
"What role would he play in a situation where he had to choose (between being a father and a police officer)?" he asked.
While Police Chief Oscar Lewis has come to rely on his reserve officers during staff shortages and large events that need all hands on deck, he said he also sees both sides of the nepotism policy argument. Loosening the policy could help recruit more officers, he said, and he would support a waiver for Hunt. But he said he's "fine either way."
"He was a good officer," Lewis said of Hunt. "He definitely loves the work and this community. That's really the sad part about the whole situation."
Lucas: 'It's my turn to support him'
Hunt remains optimistic the council will eventually see things his way and let him back on the part-time force. Whatever comes of his effort, though, he said he doesn't want it to taint how his daughter views her job or the city.
"This is not her fault," Hunt said. "It's my fault because I didn't fully understand the policy. I may be able to get back on, or honestly, my law enforcement career may be over. Whatever the case, it's worth it to see Haley have a good career and be happy."
Still, he believes the policy can be written "more carefully" to promote family legacies of public service without causing hazardous conflicts. How exactly to do that, he admits, he doesn't know.
While Lucas roots for her father, even becoming emotional herself as she watched him speak to the council, she recognizes this is his fight. She loves her job, she said, and plans to keep working at CPD for the foreseeable future.
"The main thing he told me when all this happened was he didn't want me to feel guilty, and I don't," Lucas said. "I'm proud of my dad for fighting for what he wants and showing the police chief, the mayor and council he has a heart for law enforcement, community policing and protecting and serving. I was a daddy's girl growing up, and he's never missed an opportunity to support me. Now it's my turn to support him."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
1. SOCSD board approves administrative moves STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
3. Columbus man arrested for allegedly molesting child COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Two injured when car crashes into Subway COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. Spruill stays: Judge Ford's ruling ends yearlong challenge STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY