Comments during the Feb. 15 Fairhope City Council meeting turned controversial, as Mayor Karin Wilson and several Fairhope council members engaged on several issues, including comments made by Wilson about sewage infrastructure, employee raises and the memo she released regarding communications between city workers and the council.
Mayoral comments on sewage infrastructure, employee pay raises
Prior to the council meeting last week, a large sewage spill in the city of 100,000 to 500,000 gallons was reported, and Wilson said she had been contacted by residents asking her to explain how such large spills could occur.
In a post on her official Facebook page made Feb. 14, Wilson put the blame for inaction on the sewage system squarely on the council.
“Last August we received the results of the sewer study conducted when that moratorium was placed and the findings were disappointing but not a surprise, Wilson wrote. “We were warned in 2011 that the development of a comprehensive sanitary sewer collection and conveyance management plan was necessary for future operational and budgetary needs.
“And yet in 2017 consideration for those needs had not been taken. Now, six months later, we sit in the same position as we wait for the City Council to also make this a priority. The Council has seen this sewer study, and they’ve also been instructed on the dangers of not taking action.
“The upgrades we need aren’t new news; they are truly the second phase of what we should have done in 2012. For seven years now we’ve known that these upgrades are essential to the health of our sewer system and the diverse and complex Mobile Bay Estuary our community sits on.”
Wilson said that the upgrades should be made immediately.
“What we need can not be done in a piecemeal fashion; we’ve got to do this phase of the upgrade now - all of it,” Wilson wrote. “The council’s sense of urgency is missing. They’ve talked about not needing to spend this money now. All of this infrastructure was put into the 2018 budget and they removed it.”
During the mayoral comments portion of the meeting, Wilson also took issue with an agenda item involving an across-the-board pay raise for city employees, saying the council had not engaged her in discussions about the move.
“It’s not what I proposed,” Wilson said. “There was no conversation and engagement on this to make the right decision for our city employees.”
Councilman Jay Robinson took issue with Wilson’s Facebook post regarding the sewage issue.
“It is absolutely imperative that when someone purports to put out information on behalf of the city that it be correct,” Robinson said. “There was a statement issued today about the most recent sewage spill that we’re waiting on the council to do something, and I can’t express enough how patently untrue that is. Upgrading the infrastructure has been a priority for this council and this mayor from day one.”
Robinson pointed to a Sept. 2017 council decision to do line cleaning and improvements in one of the areas affected by the week’s rains and sewage issues, adding that even with those improvements there was still a spill.
Robinson said any comments about the council not taking action were “disingenuous and irresponsible” and he urged residents to contact him directly if they saw information about the city or him that they didn’t believe.
“When we are discussing anything to do with the city, if you read something that makes you say ‘Gosh, that seems unreal,’ it probably isn’t real,” Robinson said. “The hardest thing about this job is not the criticism - it’s to read or hear comments based on bad information.”
Robinson also took issue with the recent memo released regarding council communications with city employees.
“What that memo does is it takes away the council’s ability to get the information from the ground level,” Robinson said. “It’s not a punishment to the council. It’s a burden to our employees.”
Robinson said he also had an issue with the memo from a transparency standpoint.
“For an administration that has preached transparency, to do anything that stops the free flow of information - I’ve got a major problem with that,” Robinson said.
Wilson replied that was she intended with the memo was for the sake of transparency, adding the council was having meetings behind her back.
“Transparency means that many of these conversations that have been happening need to happen in a public forum for the benefit of all to get this information,” Wilson said.
Wilson gave the recent budget process as an example of such actions and questioned Robinson over whether he actually knew what was in the budget when he voted to pass it and if he understood what he had passed.
Robinson replied he did.
Wilson went on to say the council cut budget items they didn’t understand that were to the city’s detriment and added that she felt the council and City Attorney Marcus McDowell were trying to do her job and manage “my city employees.”
“Can you imagine being the CEO of a business and having a board of directors running the day-to-day operations every day,” Wilson said. “That’s been my life for over year. I’m just trying to do the job you’ve elected me to do.”
“City employees do not work for the mayor or the council - they work for the citizens of Fairhope,” Robinson said.
Councilman Jimmy Conyers said he also had an issue with the memo on employee communications.
“Employees ought to feel comfortable talking to us,” Conyers said. “There are certain things people may be willing to say to us that they wouldn’t say in front of their supervisor or their mayor. I would want all employees to feel like they had an open line of communications.”
Councilman Kevin Boone went further in his commentary on the memo.
“The law states we can’t direct city employees, but it doesn’t say we can’t talk to employees,” Boone said. “I don’t work for the mayor. I will talk to any city employee I deem necessary and I will never direct them to do anything.”
Council President Burrell’s comments
Council President Jack Burrell began his comments by echoing what Robinson had said.
“I think communication is vital between council and employees,” Burrell said, asking Wilson to reconsider the policy. “We’re not going to get the truth if we have to go through the supervisor or the mayor.”
Burrell reiterated that the council was not directing city employees on a day-to-day basis, though he said he received “tons of phone calls asking for direction.”
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m being setup when I get those calls, so any comments I make, I just say it would be my suggestion as to what they may or may not do,” Burrell said.
Burrell pointed to a recent issue regarding street closings for the Mardi Gras parades, in which the council had passed a resolution decreeing which streets would be open when that was not followed.
“The resolution was not followed,” Burrell said. “You couldn’t get down Section Street after MMOR, and, Mayor, your responsibility is to carry out the resolve of the council.”
Burrell also took issue with Wilson saying she hadn’t been consulted about the employee raises and added he felt there were times when Wilson was not communicating with the council about her plans and intentions.
“Talk about communications we don’t get - what about phone calls from realtors saying the civic center is for sale. There was no communication with the council on that,” Burrell said. “What about the idea that came out from the mayor’s office on that we’ll move our offices to the K-1 center? I got word that discussions were had about trading the Triangle Property and making a land swap. No communication, no polling of the council on any of this. What about the proposal to put at a market at the rose garden?”
Wilson replied that Burrell’s statements were lies, though she did say some of the ideas were discussed.
“These are all lies. They are absolute lies,” Wilson said. “Those were just ideas - there’s no way we would ever do that. These were ideas that were flowing in a brainstorming effort. You’re the one spreading lies.”
Burrell gave the name of the commercial realtor, Matt White of White-Spunner Realty, who had approached him about the idea to possibly sell the civic center.
“Call him a liar then,” Burrell said.
Burrell and Wilson began to talk over one another, with Wilson continuing to say Burrell was lying.
“All I have is ideas in prioritizing our assets and using council meetings to talk about these lies and then not giving me an opportunity to do it is childish,” Wilson said.
Burrell then polled the council members to ask if Wilson had been in contact with them regarding priorities for the city’s RESTORE Act projects, with each council member saying they hadn’t been contacted by Wilson.
The council went on to pass the across-the-board city employee raises later in the meeting by a unanimous vote.