Toward the end of the characteristically contentious — if relatively muted — meeting of the Fairfield City Council on April 4, Councilor Willie Hardley Jr. addressed the attending citizens with refreshing, albeit incongruous, optimism.
Earlier in the meeting, the council had announced the hiring of two Birmingham-based law firms — Spain & Gillon and Jones & Hawley — to assist Fairfield in navigating its ongoing financial crisis.
“I feel good about what they’re doing,” Hardley said, referring to the firms. “I’m hoping that we can rebuild and bring hope to our city and our citizens. I feel good about what they’re doing right now.”
The attendees’ response was less enthusiastic. “What are they doing?” several asked loudly.
The answer wasn’t immediately clear. When representative attorneys from both firms — Alton Parker Jr. from Spain & Gillon and Doug Jones from Jones & Hawley — presented their ideas to the council at its March 21 meeting, it was during an executive session closed to the public. And when, at Monday’s meeting, Parker spoke publicly about the firms’ hiring, microphone issues prevented many in the audience from hearing him clearly.
“They’re consolidating our finances,” Hardley said, speaking after the meeting had concluded. “Parker and Jones, they have a team. They have people who can [deal with] debt. They can go to the creditors and say, ‘Look here: If [Fairfield] goes bankrupt, you get nothing. But if you negotiate, you can get something.’ This is why I believe in the team that they have. They’ll stop the bleeding, right?”
“[They] can handle municipal law, they can handle bonds, they can handle bankruptcy,” added Council President Darnell Gardner. “So, whatever [direction] we go in, wherever we fall, they’ll be able to pick us up and take us to safe ground.”
Speaking on Tuesday morning, Mayor Kenneth Coachman said that the firms “were brought in to assist us toward Chapter 9. We are hoping that we will not have to file, but if we should have to file, the law firm will already be in place.”
Filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy was still on the table, Hardley and Gardner said, but it was being considered “a last resort.” Gardner said he saw the possibility of bankruptcy as less likely now that the firms had been hired, but added that “we’re still going to have to get rid of some [city] employees” as part of budget-cutting measures. “There’s no other way around it,” he said.
According to Parker, though, the firms have not yet developed a clear plan for Fairfield’s future. “We don’t know,” he said on Tuesday. “There’s no preconceived notion about either going to Chapter 9 or not going to Chapter 9… We’ve only been on this a little more than a week, so it’s not like we’ve had lots and lots of time.”
Parker says that he and Jones reached out to assist Fairfield because several lawyers at their firms had personal connections to the city. “Doug grew up out there,” he said. “He went to Fairfield High School. He wants to do the right thing by the city. One of our other lawyers that’s working for us had relatives and family that were out there [as well]. All of us have some connection.
“It was obvious to us that we might be able to help the city,” he added. “It’s not going to be a million dollars a month like it was for Jefferson County, but it’s a lot of work.”
Parker also said that he hoped the firms’ assistance would also indirectly address one of the Fairfield government’s largest problems: the deep-running animosity between the mayor and the city council.
“I would hope that both the mayor and the council would have the confidence — which they have displayed — in what we’re trying to do, and that the net result of that would be them working together for an ultimate solution to the problems that have beset them,” he said.
That tension was very much on display at Monday night’s meeting, particularly when it came to addressing the city’s police department, which the city council had voted to disband last month, effective April 1.
At the meeting, Coachman distributed to the council a letter written by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office general counsel Jay Murrill; at Hardley’s request, he also read the letter aloud. The letter asserted that the authority for requesting to outsource police functions to the sheriff’s office rested solely with the mayor. The letter also stated that the sheriff’s office would not be “in a position to assure police services for the City of Fairfield… until the [city] seeks and receives proper authority from the Personnel Board of Jefferson County.”
Gardner responded to the letter by stating that he had yet to receive the letter, which was addressed to him. “I don’t know how he was able to get the letter prior to me getting the letter,” he said.
After the meeting, Gardner alleged that Coachman had intercepted the letter, breaking federal law. “It had to be,” he said. “I’m a retired postmaster! Yes, that’s a federal [offense]! There’s something wrong with that. That’s crazy.”
Coachman denied breaking the law. “I do not even get the mail,” he said. “The way I received this was not even through city hall. Someone brought that to me.” His response to the Gardner’s allegations, he said, was “no, just emphatically, no. I wouldn’t have a need to open his mail.”
It’s a continuation of a long-running dispute between the two that has previously gone all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court (a 2013 ruling upheld a lower court’s decision that Gardner, not Coachman, would preside over city council meetings). It’s a conflict that shows no signs of subsiding.
“This is just a mess,” Gardner sighed. “That’s all it is.”
Even so, Gardner expressed hope that Fairfield’s new legal advisors would provide the city with a way forward. “I feel great about it,” he said. “I feel outstanding about it. I think they’re going to do us a good job. I think they’re going to get us some results.”