‘From within’ – How Avondale filled a top job

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt July 24, 2014
City Manager Clai Brown presents associates with special recognition awards during the state of the city address. From left to right: Brown, City Clerk Juliette Sims-Owens, Parks and Recreation Supervisor Oscar Griffin, Public Works Associate Shawn Luttery, Sanitation Supervisor Harold Anderson, Finance Director Ken Turner and Mayor Ed Rieker. Photo and caption provided by Avondale Estates.

City Manager Clai Brown presents associates with special recognition awards during the state of the city address. From left to right: Brown, City Clerk Juliette Sims-Owens, Public Works Director Oscar Griffin, Public Works Associate Shawn Luttery, Sanitation Supervisor Harold Anderson, Finance Director Ken Turner and Mayor Ed Rieker. Photo and caption provided by Avondale Estates.

Bryan Armstead submitted his resignation as the city of Avondale Estates Public Works Director on May 19.

That same day, City Manager Clai Brown emailed the Mayor and Board of Commissioners.

“Bryan will be missed and had a wonderful career here in Avondale Estates,” Brown wrote. “He said he is going to spend some quality time with his wife and family … The goal is to promote from within to fill the position.”

The public works director oversees Avondale’s parks, sanitation and code enforcement. It has a salary range of $54,233 to $86,773, according to the city’s pay scale.

Decaturish attempted to learn more about why Armstead left, but the city announced in May that its staff had decided to stop responding to requests for comment from this publication. The city’s communications manager, who earns $55,000 a year, isn’t allowed to speak to the media.  Reporting about the basic functions of city government usually requires a records request, and this story was no different.

The records the city provided give some insight into the city’s hiring process.

From within when possible

According to the employee handbook, the city prefers to “promote from within when possible.” The city doesn’t always do this, however. The city in the past has posted job openings for several positions on its website, including, communications manager,  court clerk and city planner.

“Vacancies will be filled by a person judged to be the best qualified for the position, with the city preferring to fill by promotion from within but only when such a person is determined to be the best qualified for the position,” the employee handbook says. “All vacancies shall be announced to city associates.”

No one outside of city hall got the opportunity to apply for the public works director position. The position wasn’t publicly advertised, but was advertised internally, according to the City Clerk.

The employee handbook doesn’t specify how the city should advertise vacancies. It says, “The city manager shall conduct such programs of advertising and recruitment as are necessary in order to provide applicants for the position who meet established employment standards.”

The city made no official announcement of Armstead’s resignation, which became effective June 9.

So what’s considered a best practice for recruiting employees?

The Georgia Municipal Association referred questions to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. CVI didn’t return a message seeking comment, but the Municipal Association published the institute’s recommendations on its website.

According to the Institute, “a broad-based recruitment program that seeks to incorporate all segments of the community is in the best interest of all concerned.” The institute recommends passive recruitment – like advertising the position on websites and in newspapers – and active recruitment like visiting schools and colleges, depending on the needs of the job. CVI recommends posting a job for at least 10 working days.

The city posted its internal advertisement for the public works director job in every building where city employees work, according to the city attorney. The job was posted for two weeks, he said.

The minimum qualifications

On June 11, Brown sent an email to city staff announcing the promotion of Oscar Griffin to the Public Works Director job. Griffin was the city’s Parks and Recreation Supervisor. Griffin is, by everyone’s account, an affable employee who was a good parks supervisor. He has about eight years of experience in a public works department (he started working in Avondale in December of 2006), the minimum required in the job description.

Oscar Griffin. Photo provided in the Avondale Estates newsletter.

Oscar Griffin. Photo provided in the Avondale Estates newsletter.

The job description, obtained via records request, lists other minimum qualifications, too. One of the qualifications is an associates degree, though a bachelor’s degree is preferred.

Here is the list of minimum qualifications in the city’s job description for its public works director:

“Associates degree in related field required; bachelor’s degree preferred; minimum of eight years of progressively responsible experience in a public works department; possession of a valid state of Georgia driver’s license; equivalent combination of education and experience.”

Griffin doesn’t hold an associates or a bachelor’s degree. He does have 76 semester hours at LaGrange College, where he majored in computer science.

When the city announced Griffin’s promotion to the community on June 16, it noted, “Oscar holds a level 1B Certification in Erosion Control from the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and an A+ Certification in Computer Hardware from OmniTech Institute in Atlanta.” According to his resume, he received the Erosion Control certification this year.

So was Griffin qualified to hold this position, under the city’s job description? According to City Attorney Bob Wilson, he is.

Wilson notes that the hiring policies give the city manager some latitude in making personnel decisions.

“As City Manager, (Brown) has simply exercised the discretion which is rightfully his,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson said Griffin’s experience with the city, just shy of eight years, and the education he’s received are also covered in the list of qualifications.

In an emailed response, Wilson said, “you have apparently overlooked the statement in the same paragraph that ‘equivalent combination of education and experience’ is an alternative qualification for the position.”

“Mr. Griffin has a high school diploma and has undertaken some college course studies,” Wilson wrote. “More importantly, Mr. Griffin has eight years of experience supervising Parks and Recreation, which is within the Public Works department and had prior work experience before becoming an employee of the City of Avondale Estates. This hands-on experience in a management role within the Department that he will now be directing is invaluable in terms of qualification for the position of Public Works Director.”

The makings of a good public works director 

So what qualifications do other cities want in a public works director? The answer isn’t straightforward. Laura Bynum, spokesperson for the American Public Works Association, said, “Each (city) will have its own description of what their Public Works Director will need as qualifications to do that particular job.”

A sample job description on the Municipal Association’s website contains the caveat, “This job description is provided for general informational purposes, may not apply to your city’s specific situation and should not be considered a comprehensive description of the job position.”

The sample job description lists the minimum educational qualifications for a Public Works Director as:

(A) Graduation from a four-year college or university with a degree in engineering,
public administration, management or a closely related field; and
(B) Extensive professional engineering and administrative experience, preferably
including experience in public works; registration as a professional engineer is also
desired; or
(C) Any equivalent combination of education and experience.

Wilson said that it’s not all about what’s on Griffin’s resume, though.

“Moreover,” he wrote. “The fact that City Manager Clai Brown has worked with Mr. Griffin for half a decade and knows his abilities first hand is a factor that should not be ignored.”

Griffin is definitely well known at city hall. According to the employee handbook, all job “applications must include three references other than family members or previous employers.”

In his application, Griffin listed five references, all of whom are current city employees.

His references are:

– Harold Anderson, the sanitation supervisor who is now under Griffin’s direct supervision

– Caryl Albarran, the city’s code enforcement officer and another employee who reports to Griffin

– Juliette Sims-Owens, the city clerk

– Kelly Brooks, the city communications manager who was hired in January of this year

– Keri Stevens, city planner and community development officer

City Commissioners weren’t concerned about Griffin’s qualifications.

“It doesn’t really bother me since he’s internal and has proven himself as an excellent employee and leader,” Commissioner Randy Beebe said.

City Commissioner Lindsay Forlines said that it’s not her place to comment on the city’s hiring practices because Avondale has a city manager form of government.

“Commissioners just are not involved in personnel decisions like that,” she said.

The city also sent over a job description for the vacant Parks and Recreation Supervisor position. Applications were due June 20, but the position is listed as vacant on the city website.

It’s not known whether the city intends to promote from within to fill the vacancy.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • Andrew

    Alternate headline: “Scandal Breaking: City fills vacant position with well liked, proven performer through non-disruptive, cost-effective hiring process.”

    • NoNewsIsNoNews

      Alternate Alternate headline: “______ __ ________ ” ZZZzzz

  • JT

    “Decaturish attempted to learn more about why Armstead left, but the city announced in May that its staff had decided to stop responding to requests for comment from this publication. The city’s communications manager, who earns $55,000 a year, isn’t allowed to speak to the media. Reporting about the basic functions of city government usually requires a records request, and this story was no different.”

    This is %&^$ing ridiculous….what in the hell are we (Yes, I’m an AE resident) paying her $55K for if a COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR can’t comment to the media? This is no way for government to handle personality conflicts between PUBLIC SERVANTS and the media. Frankly, it’s embarrassing as a citizen of AE to think it’s run so poorly with MY tax dollars.

  • JC

    So does Avondale not respond to the media at all? Or it just doesn’t respond to Decaturish? Is there some reason/history behind the decision to require open records requests instead of just commenting directly? I’m not sure I’m satisfied with “no comment” from my elected leaders. The media (ideally) works on my behalf because all citizens don’t have time (or access) to personally speak with elected government representatives.
    I’m also curious, in your digging, did you find the job description of the Communications Director? What specifically does this staff member do if they are not allowed to comment to media outlets?

    • JC, Avondale Estates talks to the AJC – which covers the meetings, though the paper isn’t always there for day to day coverage and seldom writes in-depth stories about city government. The communications director told me that she is not allowed to speak on behalf of the city, and that all comments must come from Mayor Ed Rieker. Rieker hasn’t returned messages for comment on any story since April.

      The issue apparently stems from some disagreement with our coverage of the April 12 fire in Avondale Estatesn. No one has ever provided a specific example of what people found objectionable. I linked to an article about this at the top of my story, but I’ll link again here:


      The job description of the communications director is linked in the story as well. Here is that link:


      As always, my goal has been to cover the city as accurately and fairly as I can.

      • JC

        Sorry for not clicking through the links – I must’ve been so caught up in the read that I missed them. 🙂 Thanks for relinking. I do find it interesting that the Communications Director is tasked to “develop and maintain strong working relationships with government and community leaders, internal information sources and the media.” How would one accomplish a strong working relationship with the media without being able to speak to them?

        I appreciate the work you do keeping us informed about the happenings in the Avondale/Decatur area. The feet on the ground, day-to-day coverage provided here far exceeds anything the AJC is willing to do (or provide in front of a paywall). It’s unfortunate that Avondale’s representatives don’t see fit to speak to a local news outlet despite whatever disagreement they seem to have with it. The lawyer’s letter in story linked indicates that they would “address your questions and will continue to do so if approached in a respectful manner and at an appropriate time.” Have they provided information about what level of respect they expect or when an appropriate time would be when they refuse to answer your questions? This seems petty. I expect better of our elected representatives. I have spoken with Mayor Rieker a few times and may bring this matter up with him. I find Decaturish’s content detailed and compelling and see no reason it should be officially stonewalled by Avondale.

        • I appreciate the sentiment, JC, but please don’t feel obligated to do anything on my behalf. I put myself out there and I should be willing to take the heat. Thanks.

  • Patsy Neal

    I’m happy to see Mr. Griffin secure the position after 8 years of employment with the City of Avondale Estates. However, the article brings up a good point about lack of education. It appears the City’s other department directors all maintain higher education degrees (a few with Master’s degrees) and professional certifications within their fields of work. Based on these previous hires, the City hired individuals meeting both education and experience. Does the City of Avondale Estates not value the importance of qualified education for its Public Works Director?

    • Elizabeth B

      To earn an associates in computer science at Georgia Perimeter, it looks like one only needs 62-66 credit hours. With 76 credit hours at LaGrange, AE might be counting that as a completed associates. http://www.gpc.edu/programs/AS-Computer-Science

      • Patsy Neal

        Do you agree with the City’s choice of hiring a Public Works Director with a pseudo-associates degree in computer science? A computer science degree is great for an IT position, but not a municipal public works director position. This is where an engineering degree is the basic prerequisite, per Decaturish’s well rounded job research.

        • Elizabeth B

          Hi Patsy, Without seeing the full transcript of courses taken, I can’t really speak to the classes taken by Mr. Griffin beyond the fact that he majored in IT and how many semester hours he took. However, choosing a major does not mean that he only took computer science classes. I am also not comfortable calling 76 semester hours a pseduo-associates degree (nor am I comfortable terming that “lack of education”) as the only difference between that and what would then be considered a “real” associates seems to be a diploma. If an engineering degree was a definite necessity to be a Public Works Director, than I agree that something seems off, but even the American Public Works Association does not only list engineering as a potential 4 year degree (“a degree in engineering, public administration, management or a closely related field”). The American Public Works Association is listing what they feel a Public Works Director should have. This, to me, is not the same as what a Public Works Director needs nor necessarily what Avondale’s PW director needs. I don’t know Mr. Griffin, I don’t live in Avondale, I’ve never hired for a Public Works Director. I was simply pointing out that if Avondale was looking for someone with at least an associates and work experience, from the cursory look over Mr. Griffin’s history, his number of semester hours could easily fit the bill for an associates. Best, Elizabeth

          • Patsy Neal

            Your long-winded argument still doesn’t address the inconsistency with how the City’s other department directors all maintain higher education degrees (a few with Master’s degrees) specific to their job functions and professional certifications within their fields of work. The new Public Works Director doesn’t even come close to holding similar credits.

          • Elizabeth B

            Hi Patsy, I realize that the level of education is very important for you, I’m just not sure that the candidate did not have the job experience to make up for the fact that he does not have the same education level as others. Best, Elizabeth

          • Patsy Neal

            Yes, and professional certifications require a certain amount of experience you speak of. Yet, the new Public Works Director doesn’t have certification.

          • Elizabeth B

            Hi Patsy, Do you mean the professional engineer registration listed as desired by the American Public Works Association? Other than that, I’m not sure which certification is required. I think I would need to see the qualifications of other Public Work directors of cities of Avondale’s size/location to determine what truly seems to be necessary and what the APWA deems necessary. (As to the designation of “long-winded” – fair enough!) Best, Elizabeth

  • Brad

    This is going to get more embarrassing before it gets cleared up and back to “normal”. In my hometown, over 25 years ago, Channel 5 spent six months making a documentary, everyone was all a tizzy about it…when it came out, everyone was angry and defensive. Looking back, it was an accurate look at rural Georgia. Just goes to show that you cannot control the prism how a place is perceived in the media. So I would think the mayor needs to unbunch his boxers and move on with the positive stuff happening in downtown.

    Part of the documentary I speak of may be able to be seen here, I think.

  • AEresident

    What’s the big deal?
    Why let something as simple as a city council adopted employee handbook, job
    description and pay scale get in the way of doing whatever you want in Avondale
    Estates. Just look at the comments of the two city commissioners, one of whom is
    a lawyer and former member of the city’s Personnel Board. If the city council
    sets policy but doesn’t care to question when policy isn’t followed, then why
    serve on the city council? And why we’re at it, look at the hiring of Clai
    Brown, albeit very popular in AE, he was recruited by Mayor Ed Rieker to
    replace Ron Rabun. Ron made $108k at the city but the city council started Mr.
    Brown at $122k and has given him a 5% raise every year since. Does he have a
    master’s of public administration degree? No. Is he an ICMA credentialed city
    manager? No. Is he qualified to be city manager? Probably … and most
    certainly the way the city attorney interprets job descriptions. Mr. Brown is
    the highest paid city manager per capita in the state according to the state Department
    of Community Affairs. Last I saw he made about $150k to serve less than 3,000
    residents. AEs city manager makes about $54 annually per resident whereas
    Decatur’s makes about $8 per resident. So why would the city manager ripple
    things and try and post an outside job announcement for fear of hiring someone
    with more skill and talent that can move the city forward?

    to the American Public Works Association (http://www.apwa.net/workzone/)

    generally required candidates for public works director positions to have a
    bachelor’s degree in public administration, engineering or a related field and
    significant experience in public works and management. A public works director
    must be a solid manager and a technical expert. Lacking in either area
    significantly diminishes a public works director’s effectiveness.

    works directors must synthesize complex information about public works projects
    that can be understood by audiences that do not have the technical background
    to understand the finer details.

    should also have experience writing reports and giving presentations to groups.
    Because so much of the work done by public works departments is
    project-oriented, it is essential that a public works director has experience
    managing projects with large budgets, long timeframes and broad scope. A
    project management professional certification is desirable.

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