At a special called Fairhope City Council meeting June 4, Fairhope Police Chief Joseph Petties accused Mayor Karin Wilson of attempting to bully him into retirement, a claim which Wilson denied.
The exchange led to a council decision to look into taking over the police department from the mayor’s supervision.
June 1 announcement
In the late afternoon of June 1, a press release was sent out by the City of Fairhope announcing Petties’ retirement.
The statement said:
“After 36 years of service to the City of Fairhope, Chief Joseph Petties will be retiring on July 1. Chief Petties began working with the City of Fairhope in 1982 and joined the Fairhope Police Department in 1991.
“During his tenure, Chief Petties started the Back to School program Red, White & Blue which has helped hundreds of children by providing school supplies, clothing, haircuts and more. The program was in response to national tensions between law enforcement and citizens around the country and was his way of providing more opportunity to build relationships with residents.
“Chief Petties led the effort to update critical security communications systems for the Fairhope Police Department. This was a vital part of bringing the department up to date with the latest communications technology. He also advocated for, and received approval to provide each officer with a rifle for the first time in the history of the department.
“Chief Petties has provided nearly four decades of loyal service to the residents and visitors of Fairhope,” Mayor Wilson said. “We cannot thank him enough for his time and effort. He started each police department meeting with this phrase, ‘Come to work, do your job to the best of your ability and go home safe.’ I am thankful he is able to go home safe after serving our City for so long as he embarks on this new chapter.
“An interim Chief of Police will be named by the City Council in a forthcoming council meeting.”
However, Petties had not signed any retirement paperwork to the city before that announcement was made.
When asked at the June 4 meeting by WABF’s Lori DuBose as to whether Petties had actually submitted his resignation, Council President Jack Burrell said he was not aware such a resignation had actually occurred.
“I have not seen a letter of resignation or retirement,” Burrell said.
Wilson said the announcement was based on paperwork Petties had filed with the Retirement System of Alabama.
“The paperwork for RSA was turned in to retire on July 1,” Wilson said. “I reached out to get more information, but wasn’t able to get it.”
June 4 special council meeting
The June 4 meeting was initially called to allow the city council to set guidelines for appointing an interim chief and possibly naming someone to the position, but the meeting quickly became a forum for citizens to express their thanks and support for Petties.
“I don’t see what the problem is here,” resident Johnny Cheney said. “He has been a great chief. He caters to everybody - he doesn’t choose sides. I’m surprised this is happening here in Fairhope.”
Several residents asked what had led to Petties choosing to possibly retire.
“Would it not be fair for the citizens of Fairhope and others who have an interest to have an accounting of what has led to Chief Petties’ resignation,” one resident asked. “And, in that accounting, for there to be absolute transparency as to what has brought this about.”
Former City Attorney Tut Wynne also took to the podium to praise Petties.
“It has been an honor and privilege to work with Chief Joe Petties all 36 years he’s been with the city,” Wynne said. “He taught me a lot of things, and his integrity is impeccable. I just love Chief and wish him the best. If he can stay with the city, that would be wonderful for the city.”
Burrell asked the audience if everyone there was there in support of Petties. The entire room stood and applauded the chief.
Petties then approached the podium, flanked by numerous former city employees who were either fired or had retired during the Wilson administration, including former Community Affairs Director Sherry Sullivan, former Public Works Director Jennifer Fidler, former HR Manager Pandora Heathcoe, former City Treasurer Deborah Smith, former Purchaser Dan Ames and others.
“There are times when you don’t always see eye to eye with your supervisor, but the treatment has grown to a point where it can no longer be ignored,” Petties said. “My work and leadership, and most important my integrity, has come under attack by Mayor Wilson. I feel these attacks have been a ploy for me to surrender my position as chief.”
Petties said Wilson had given him a performance evaluation that was entirely filled with negative comments, the worst he said he had ever been given while with the city.
“I feel it was a personal attack on me,” Petties said. “There wasn’t one positive thing on this list - not one.”
Petties added that Wilson told him he was accused of intimidating one city employee and harassing two others and was told he was not allowed to interact with said employees and to have his lieutenants handle issues with them.
“If you have got to go somewhere and you have to take someone with you, things are serious,” Petties said.
Petties added he had been accused by Wilson of not assisting with background checks for workers on the city’s water tower repainting and failing to take ownership of departmental issues and that he had blamed the council and mayor of any issues.
Petties said he would like to continue in the job and added he would stay on if he could work under the city council’s leadership rather than Wilson’s.
Petties also said Wilson had called one of his lieutenants earlier in the week and told them Petties needed to go ahead and leave the city while his legacy and reputation were still intact.
“This confirmed my thought that Mayor Wilson is bound and determined to turn me out,” Petties said. “I would like to finish what I started.”
At that point, a member of the audience shouted “Let the mayor resign,” which caused claps and cheers from many of the attendees.
At one point, Petties appeared to be struck by emotion, so his wife got up and continued his prepared statements.
Burrell said he had not anticipated what Petties had to say at the meeting.
“I had no idea what to anticipate today,” Burrell said. “All we were doing is considering the Chief’s decision to retire and keep the city moving. In light of this, I want to say I’m sorry.”
Burrell asked Petties if he would consider working for the council if the council could take over the department, and Petties replied he would.
“I don’t know if that’s possible,” Burrell said. “You are appointed by the city council, but you also answer to the mayor of the city - that’s state law. I don’t know how much power the council can exercise over you and your department. I think there are things we probably have the ability to do to make things a little better for you. I want to say that I’m willing to explore these options.”
Councilman Kevin Boone agreed that options to allow the council to oversee the department should be explored.
“I cannot say enough things about this fine man,” Boone said. “He’s the finest gentleman I’ve ever known. This is not a position I want to be in, deciding about our next chief because I’ve been a strong advocate of him staying as long as he wants to stay. We need to find out what our options are. I don’t know if we can or can’t. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but we need to now since it has gotten to this point.”
Petties handed each elected official a copy of his resignation letter, but Burrell and the council said they refused to accept it, with several members tearing up the letter and throwing it back toward Petties.
In her comments, Wilson said she was not prepared to speak at the meeting but felt she needed to.
“I think this is unfortunate this has turned into something about me,” Wilson said, with the audience beginning to boo after the statement was made.
Wilson said it was communicated to her early in her administration that Petties had intended to retire, and said she supported whatever decision he wanted to make and that she didn’t ask him to retire.
“Whatever happens in the city right now, it is unfortunate that I’m always the scapegoat,” Wilson said. “It’s no different than me being a mother - everything is always my fault.”
With regards to the personnel evaluation of Petties, Wilson said it wasn’t for her to release.
“The evaluation is confidential,” Wilson said. “If he wants to share it, he can. This is no different than anyone else that has an evaluation … It’s not my right to speak on behalf of that and it could open the city up to liability.”
Wilson said city employees have been used for political purposes during the last few years.
“Our city employees have been the subject of political gain since I’ve taken office, and that’s unfair,” Wilson said. “It shouldn’t be this way.”
She also advocated for the creation of a city administrator or manager position to help cut down on political issues with employees.
“I have never said that I’m perfect, but I absolutely believe that an administrator or city manager should be our future,” Wilson said. “This has been a very political town in the past year and a half. There’s been every opportunity for people to point the finger, but that shouldn’t happen with personnel.”
“It is about the mayor because you run the day to day and oversee the employees,” Boone said. “There have been a few that have been forced to resign.”
“It’s political,” Wilson said. “It is 100 percent political. Successful cities don’t put the personnel in this position and make this about sides. There are a lot of employees that are very thankful to be able to do their job. You’re only talking about a few people.”
“It’s every head of department we’ve got, plus the best contracts man we’ve had,” Boone replied.
“It’s our fault, council,” Burrell said. “The man pours his guts out and it become about you.”
The council voted unanimously to take a month to explore possible options that would allow them to take control of the department from the mayor.
Mayoral reaction, community reaction
On the day following the meeting, Wilson release the following statement on her official Facebook page:
“A mayor’s foremost responsibility, second to none, is the safety and security of the citizens. As mayor, I have taken this responsibility to heart and I will continue to do so.
“No police department, and no police chief, are perfect. Certainly, I recognize this is equally true with regard to the office of mayor. Nevertheless, my job as mayor is to initiate changes intended to improve public safety where it can and should be improved, including supervising the chief and recommending to him needed improvements. Though I have carried out this task and attempted to provide Chief honest feedback, in no manner does it diminish my appreciation and respect for the many years of service Chief Petties has devoted to the city. Nor does it diminish my continuing commitment to working with him in a constructive fashion in the future.
“My sole intent in exercising my obligation of supervising the Chief has been to improve public safety for the betterment of the city. I am mandated by state law to perform this function and that same state law would have allowed me to temporarily remove the Chief if I had deemed it appropriate. But it has never been my intent to do so nor cause him to resign.
“It is unfortunate that, in the heat of things, facts get lost and emotions take over. The special called meeting on Monday was specifically to address the procedure the council and our HR department would use for establishing an interim chief of police and, eventually with a specific timeline, the selection of a new chief.
“Yesterday, during the council meeting, Chief has conditionally recalled that signed letter. I support whatever decision he ultimately makes and will continue to work for additional personnel and appropriate resources to meet the department’s needs as they continue their work in safeguarding the citizens of Fairhope. For example, I will once again request the funding for a Captain position as we have had in the past when our population was much smaller.
“Early in my term, Chief told me he had intended to retire at the end of the previous term. But, he said, he decided to stay on for another two years to help with the transition of the new administration. For that I am grateful.
“This year all city employees were requested to submit a written self-evaluation; each supervisor gave a written and verbal evaluation of his/her employees. Evaluations are one of the best tools we have to assist employees in attaining their greatest potential and are based on known facts backed by specific examples. I will not disclose any conversation from any city employee’s evaluation as it is confidential information and remains so for all our employees for their protection.
“I made a conscious decision to run for mayor and serve because of my conviction that the city needed forward thinking guidance to meet its growth and future. Employees should play key roles in administering the steps to take us there. Working together we will fulfill that future vision that exists in the 21st century and still holds its history and traditions.”
Community members have also reacted, with a Change.org petition asking Wilson to resign from office. As of June 8, almost 400 have signed the petition.
A Facebook group advocating support for Petties was also created and had reached almost 1,800 members before being taken down under mysterious circumstances.
Stickers saying “I stand with Chief Petties” have also been made and are being given out at several local businesses.
Further council reaction
In an interview on WABF Radio on the morning of June 11, Burrell said the council had not yet received a legal opinion on whether or not it could take over the oversight of the police department.
Burrell said there was a section of the Code of Alabama, 11-43-55, that the council was looking at in its argument.
According to that section of the code, “Except as otherwise provided in this title, the council shall have power to establish a police force and to organize the same under the general supervision of the chief of police, and to provide one or more station houses and to require all things necessary for the maintenance of an efficient police department.”
“We will be looking to that statute,” Burrell said. “That phrase, ‘and to organize the same under the general supervision of the chief of police,’ I think we will focus on that and decide what powers we may want to give the chief of police, what supervisory powers we may want to change if we decide to change them.”
When questioned about citizen efforts to try to get Wilson to resign, Burrell said he wouldn’t speak as to what citizens are doing.
“I can’t speak for what citizens do,” Burrell said. “I guess people have the right to call for that, though the mayor certainly has her supporters, too. What people do in their own time is their business, and I don’t get into the politics of that.”
Burrell also answered questions about calls from some of the citizens for Wilson’s impeachment, saying he wasn’t aware of any impeachable offenses done by the mayor.
“Things would have to be done by the mayor that would prompt an impeachment, and, at this time, I am not aware of things she may have done that would lead to impeachment,” Burrell said.
Burrell was also questioned about Wilson’s call for the appointment of a city manager or administrator, something he said he had advocated for back when Wilson decided to create the operations director position.
“That call came as a surprise to me, since that’s the first I’ve heard of that she was thinking about a city administrator position,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he had not spoken to the council about such a position, but said the council could possibly look at changing the operations director position to a hybrid administrator position.
“I feel we’re getting a little top heavy with new positions that have been created in the last year and a half,” Burrell said. “We would take that under consideration as to whether or not we would need an administrator.”