EASLEY, S.C. (FOX Carolina) -- Things are heating up as we get closer to the mayoral election in Easley.
The current mayor has now suspended Easley Fire Department Chief, Butch Womack without pay. He’s also a mayoral candidate.
This has caused some speculation in the community and FOX Carolina wanted to get to the bottom of it.
Womack tells us he has been with the fire department for 34 years, 26 as the chief. When the decision was made to suspend him, as you can imagine, he was shocked.
FOX Carolina was notified Monday, August 5 about the administrative ruling.
Easley Mayor Larry Bagwell says he was well within his rights to suspend Womack, citing the employee policy manual gives him that right. He said it wasn’t a choice made lightly, and that he reached out to the city attorney ahead of time.
The policy reads, in part: “In certain circumstances involving real or potential conflicts, employees who run for public office may be placed on unpaid leave of absence until after the election. If an employee is placed on leave of absence, his employment will terminate upon his election to a partisan public office.”
Bagwell feels it’s unfair to be a city employee while running for the office of mayor.
“If he’s going to be riding in our cars and running for mayor; then the people who are running for mayor who don’t have that opportunity are at a disadvantage,” said Bagwell.
Womack was asked if he was properly explained why he was being suspended without pay. But his response wasn’t a clear yes or no. He said, “He was afraid I would be campaigning during city time. Which I told him I would not be.”
To help come to a solution, Womack did offer alternatives like using his nine weeks of vacation time during the campaign or working a modified schedule. However, Bagwell didn’t approve of either option.
While all of this is stirring, city leaders are in talks about major construction projects that’s going to cost the city well over one million dollars, that involves The Fire Department. Womack says even with the suspension he’s still taking phone calls, answering questions.
“I have not turned down the first phone call. Anybody that wants to call me and ask questions on what’s been done in the past... I welcome those.”
We expressed to Bagwell the entire process looked suspect, only because Chris Mann, another mayoral candidate, was in the executive session discussing his opponent’s employment status with the city.
“I think that our city attorney was asked several attorneys were asked, and they said that being a member of council I had the right to be in there,” Mann said.
Mann is still serving on city council and receiving benefits while running for office. He was asked if it would be ethical to step away from council.
“No, I don’t. I think that I’ve been elected by the citizens of my ward to serve them,” he said.
Bagwell doesn’t quite understand why Womack would want to step away from his “good paying job” to become mayor. Womack’s role with the fire department will still be there for him, if he doesn’t win the election.
That has been promised by Bagwell.
“The word got out that fired Butch. Butch is not fired; his job is going to be right there when he comes back.”
Pickens County municipal election is scheduled for November 5, 2019.
The city released a statement on the incident on Monday:
"The City of Easley has named Battalion Chief Brad Owen as the Interim Fire Chief effective Tuesday, July 30. Fire Chief Butch Womack was placed on administrative leave after he filed to run as a candidate for Mayor. The City’s Personnel Policy states, “In certain circumstances involving real or potential conflicts, employees who run for public office may be placed on an unpaid leave of absence until after the election.” Following the City’s personnel policy, Mayor and City Council have made the decision to place Chief Womack on administrative leave while he seeks elected office.
Interim Chief Brad Owen has worked with the Easley Fire Department for over 29 years. Owen has served as Fire Marshal for Easley since 2006 and was promoted to Battalion Chief in 2016. Prior to full time employment, he served as a volunteer with the department.
As the Battalion Chief, Owens has overseen the day-to-day operations of the fire department protecting property and the lives of our citizens. He also has conducted inspections of new construction projects, is involved in public safety fire prevention, and oversees pre-incident planning by jointly acting as the City’s Fire Marshal.
The Easley Fire Department currently oversees 47 employees and three stations"