by Kyle Whitmire and Madison Underwood
Two years ago, Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos toyed with the idea of de-annexing Hoover from Jefferson County, but if all goes well this week with the Jefferson County Commission, he could wind up running the place instead. The two-term Hoover mayor has applied to be the first county manager, a position the commission has struggled to fill most of the year.
On Tuesday morning, Commission President David Carrington told his colleagues Petelos had applied for the job at the same time Petelos informed his staff and held a press conference for the public.
“The prospect of leaving one of the best managed cities in the country going to a county which has the potential of having the largest [municipal] bankruptcy in the history of America is a challenge,” Petelos said at the press conference.
Legislative deadlines have come and gone for the county to hire a chief executive, but the commission has so far been unable to fill the seat. The Legislature initially required the commission to hire a county manager by April 1, 2011 when it mandated the position by law, but earlier this year it extended that deadline to June 1. In May a professional head-hunting firm produced three candidates for the job, but all three eventually withdrew their names from consideration, sending the county fishing again for a new prospect.
It was around that time that Carrington approached Petelos about taking the job.
“It became apparent that it would probably behoove us to look for someone who has some experience in Alabama, who understands the dynamics of the political situation and still has the same executive experience,” Carrington said after Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Petelos has had a long and varied career in Alabama politics and government. Now nearing the end of his second term as Hoover Mayor, Petelos has served in the Alabama Legislature. He was appointed by Gov. Fob James as director of the Department of Human Resources after the department had been put under a federal consent decree to improve services. When Gov. Don Siegelman defeated James in 1998, he asked Petelos to continue as DHR director.
Since being elected mayor of Hoover, Petelos has noticeably worked to mend fences with Birmingham, even as Mayor William Bell recruited the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team away from his city. And when the Birmingham City Council struck “metro” from the name of its new Fair Park sports facility, Petelos quickly and loudly reminded the council that Hoover had given Birmingham almost $1 million worth of design work and had lobbied the Alabama Legislature on Birmingham’s behalf to get money for the sports center.
Carrington says Petelos has demonstrated throughout his career that he can work across party lines and deal with competing constituencies. That experience, he said, would be important to the commission. After the county lost a crucial home rule vote in the Alabama’s 2011 Legislative session, the importance of that experience became even more apparent.
“When we were identifying a list of candidates locally we thought would fit the bill, we thought Mayor Petelos would be an excellent choice,” Carrington said.
Carrington might have been courting Petelos, but the Hoover mayor struggled with whether to leave his current job. On Tuesday, Petelos said he had finally agreed to apply for the job the night before.
““This is a very, very difficult decision for me, “Petelos said Tuesday. “The City of Hoover is one of the best organized — one of the best run — cities in the United States. We don’t have any major issues facing us. This city has done extremely well under our administration the last seven years.”
Petelos will interview with the commission this week. If that interview goes well and both sides agree to the hire, Carrington hopes Petelos could step into the job by Oct. 1.
Petelos would have an almost unthinkable job ahead of him, turning around a county crippled by mountains of debt and years of corruption. Jefferson County is still struggling to reach a settlement on its $3.14 billion sewer debt. Meanwhile, the loss of the occupational tax, in addition to other revenue shortfalls, have left the county’s general fund at even worse risk of insolvency.
On Tuesday, Petelos said bankruptcy must be an option for the county, even if it never chooses to use it.
“Three and a half years ago, I was one of the first mayors in Jefferson County who said we should file for bankruptcy. When I said that, that means keep bankruptcy on the table,” Petelos said. “That was the largest bargaining chip that they had. When you take it off the table, you lose a lot of your bargaining chip.”
On Tuesday, Petelos described a Hoover deannexation not as a real possibility, but rather as a barometer of who people in the county felt about county government. At a public meeting two years ago, Petelos asked the audience who there would like to de-annex from Jefferson County. Most of the people in the room raised their hands.
“I was criticized for doing that,” Petelos said. “But I think the point I was making to the County Commission is we need the people to work together; we’ve got to solve these problems.”
Public attitudes, including Petelos’s position, have changed with election of the current commission, he said Tuesday. In the spring, when Petelos spoke to the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce, he recanted any secession-talk.
“I said, ‘I want to take that back. We have elected a new set of County Commissioners, they’re very sincere, and they’re trying to solve the problems — I want to take that back,’” Petelos said.
When asked about the de-annexation flap, Carrington said it it might not be a bad idea to have a tough critic of the county in charge.
“What better person to make the county better than someone who knows their problems?” Carrington said.
Carrington said he and Petelos have talked frequently about a business Hoover was trying to recruit. When the business owners realized they would be locating in Jefferson County, they chose to go elsewhere. Their goal now is to remake a county where business will want to locate, Carrington said.
If the county hires Petelos, the Hoover City Council would appoint a temporary mayor until the next election cycle.
The county would have to negotiate a contract with Petelos. According to Carrington, the salary range for the job would be between $180,000 and $240,000.
In lighter moments in Hoover and at the Jefferson County Courthouse Tuesday, some questioned whether the mayor was in his right mind to take the county job. Petelos likened the career move to his last vacation — to Mt. Everest.
“Well, I’m a little bit crazy,” Petelos said later. “I was crazy enough to go to Mt. Everest in April, and I’m crazy enough to take this job.”