“I feel good about our city,” said Councilor Willie Hardley, addressing the attendees of the June 6 meeting of the Fairfield City Council. He’d said almost the exact same words two months prior, while presenting his new business at the council’s April 4 meeting. Then, his optimism was greeted by the crowd’s scattered mutterings.
On Monday the audience just laughed.
In terms of content, the June 6 meeting didn’t differ much from the one that occurred on April 4. There were arguments over unpaid bills and delayed city employee paychecks. The fault lines in the city government remained the same: Council President Darnell Gardner and Councilors James Reasor, Harry Lee, Gloria Matthews and Hardley mostly on one side; Councilors Paralee Britt and Jerry Yarbrough on the other.
Mayor Kenneth Coachman, meanwhile, remained on his own, third side, aloof from the council’s proceedings unless directly addressed. “I didn’t know I was charged with that,” he responded dryly when Matthews asked if he had a plan to save the city. “No, I understand that you all have been working on a plan to save the city. I don’t understand your question.”
But if the content was the same, the atmosphere was decidedly more fraught and the theatrics more exaggerated. At one point, following a heated exchange between Yarbrough and City Attorney Ed May II, Gardner interrupted proceedings to make sure that a sergeant-at-arms was present in the building to maintain order if necessary.
“We can’t continue the way we’ve been continuing,” he said.
The city of Fairfield has been in economic decline for well over a decade, with reductions by U.S. Steel costing hundreds of workers their jobs and departing businesses such as J.C. Penney, Winn-Dixie and Walmart leaving significant voids in the city’s sales tax income. The loss of Walmart in January was particularly crippling, causing the city a loss of $125,000 in monthly revenue.
Though members of Fairfield’s city government remain in agreement that the municipal budget should be cut to accommodate this loss, they remain in a deadlock on exactly how to go about doing that. In March, members of the city council voted 4-0 to dissolve the city’s police department, a decision that would have gone into effect in April. That decision faced significant opposition from Coachman, and as of June 6 the city’s police officers are still on the payroll. (The city’s then-police chief, Leon Davis, announced his retirement at the end of April; he was succeeded by interim chief Nicholas Dyer, who was the sergeant-at-arms present at Monday’s meeting.)
In recent weeks, Fairfield has been plagued by two fresh crises stemming from its financial problems — one regarding water, the other transit. On Monday, the mayor and the council maintained that both issues had been resolved.
At the end of last month, an internal memo from Birmingham Water Works General Manager Mac Underwood to board members was leaked to the press. The memo indicated that Fairfield was over $128,000 in debt to Birmingham Water Works due to unpaid bills. A notice that water would be disconnected from city buildings was delivered on June 2.
At the pre-council meeting on Monday, Yarbrough expressed confusion over the press coverage the situation had received. “I was out of town last week,” he said. “I got a whole lot of [news about] Fairfield sewer and water… How did this become statewide, national news?”
“You tell me,” Gardner shrugged, speculating that the email, which he said overstated the amount that Fairfield actually owed, had leaked on the BWWB’s end. “I don’t really think it was meant to get out like that.”
Gardner and Coachman, between whom agreement is notoriously rare, both maintained that the situation had been cleared up.
“We’ve been in touch with the Birmingham Water Works Board, and we’ve been able to work through that disconnect [using] our franchise fees,” Coachman announced at the meeting, referring to a fee the BWWB pays the city in exchange for operating within city limits. The fee, Coachman said, will now go toward “[covering] this arrearage.”
“We should be able to clear that matter up and go forth,” Gardner said during the pre-council meeting.
A representative for the Birmingham Water Works Board declined to comment.
Not mentioned at the meeting, to the chagrin of some attendees, was the reported threat of another Birmingham service being withdrawn from Fairfield: this time, Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority buses.
Late last month, the BJCTA voted to shut down the route 41 bus line, which has served Fairfield, due to the city’s outstanding bills of more than $500,000. The shutdown, which was slated for July 5, would have left many Fairfield residents without a way into Birmingham.
Wanda Shelby arrived at the meeting with a handwritten petition “to keep the bus service active” for Fairfield citizens. She had started the petition earlier that day and had gathered over 40 signatures before the meeting started. “This is people’s livelihoods,” she said, pointing out several members of the crowd who have relied on the bus system to get to work. “They need to talk to us about this.”
The subject was not broached during the meeting proper, though. Reasor, speaking after the meeting, suggested that the issue was mostly resolved.
“It’s been worked out,” he said. “There’s been a verbal agreement. Johnathan Austin has said he will pay our fees.”
He was referring to Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin, who earlier this month told WVTM that he hoped to budget some of Birmingham’s funds to help keep transit going to Fairfield.
“Whether it’s a portion of that $500,000 or the entire amount, I am certain that we can come up with the funding to help the city of Fairfield on this issue,” Austin was quoted as saying.
Austin, meanwhile, said that assistance to Fairfield would be entirely reliant on the input of Birmingham mayor William Bell. “The city council wants to [help], but we don’t know what the mayor wants,” he said. “He has yet to respond to our request. I don’t know what the mayor will decide.”
“I Am an Elected Official! You Are a Hired Hand!”
Despite these ostensible — or at least potential — solutions to two very public crises, the council still found areas of vocal disagreement — perhaps most emphatically over the prospect of hiring Brandon C. Prince, a lawyer with expertise in areas of municipal litigation, employment law and insurance law, to serve as assistant city attorney at a salary of $500.
“We have an attorney that we are paying to the tune of $5,000 a month,” Britt mentioned, gesturing to May. The amount drew gasps from the crowd. Britt also cited the hiring of legal firm Spain & Gillon, which the city has paid $85,000 to provide financial advice over the past two months.
“Our attorney has not provided us with any information stating that he is unable to provide for the duties that are given to him, so I don’t know how we can get out here and make a motion to hire someone,” Britt added, her tone rising. “You’re talking about ‘save your city,’ and you are continuing to add up our legal fees? …You think it takes seven attorneys to run this city? There’s something wrong with that picture.”
Britt alleged that May had not been fulfilling his duties as city attorney. “I have done way more to save this city than you have and you are an elected official,” May retorted, though he said he would not list the specifics because he did not find Britt’s question to be “in good faith.”
May, who has announced his intention to run for mayor of Fairfield, then stood and addressed the crowd, arguing that he was consistently focused on “the best interests of this city,” and that any ineffectiveness was due to the inaction of Britt, Yarbrough and Coachman.
“All I can say is that I’ve met my responsibility, but I do not think that they can say the same,” he concluded.
Yarbrough retorted by demanding May’s resignation. “When a person announces their candidacy for mayor of the city, they don’t need to be employed by the city,” he said. “They need to step down from their position.”
Yarbrough and May exchanged insults as Gardner tried to call the meeting to order. “I am an elected official!” Yarbrough shouted at May. “You are a hired hand!”
As the din inside the council chambers subsided, Lee leaned forward to his microphone and addressed the audience. “I want to [say] how sorry I am that you had to sit through this,” he said.
“Let me say this, council,” Gardner said later in the meeting when another argument between Yarbrough and May broke out. “You know, when you live in a glass house, you can’t throw stones.”
“So Far, We Haven’t Done Anything That Was Right”
Toward the end of the meeting, State Rep. Rod Scott (District 55-D), gave the council a presentation that included several possible ways to reduce payroll expenditures, including freezing overtime or moving city employees to a four-day work week.
The council’s response was mild. “We’re going to have to rightsize,” Yarbrough responded. “We’re not going to be able to do that overnight. We need a good police force, we need a good fire department. We need our trash picked up and all that stuff. But the end result is that we’re going to need less people doing that.”
Gardner agreed. “We can’t have all of our revenue going toward payroll,” he said. The council did not discuss specifics, though they did schedule a finance committee meeting for Thursday, June 9 at 5:30 p.m.
Already, though, it seems that much of the city government’s focus is on the upcoming municipal elections, which are slated to take place on August 23. On Monday, the council voted to overturn Coachman’s veto of legislation ordering the hiring of a city clerk who would oversee the election. Reasor, meanwhile, made repeated references to the need for a shift in city personnel.
“We’re paying these lawyers a decent sum of money for advice, and that advice isn’t being adhered to,” he said. “It’s been stopped right there at the gate of the mayor. I love him, I like him as a person, but politics and what’s right is not what’s going on in this city, and the mayor’s not doing what’s necessary. He’s not doing what’s right… Since we came into this administration, we’ve been begging and asking for the same things that would mean salvation for this city. I’m going to again plead to the mayor to please search his heart.”
Coachman continued sitting with his back to Reasor.
“Citizens, take notice,” Reasor continued. “There’s an election coming up. If you’re going to have a city, you’ve got to study your candidates. You’re going to have to be concerned about where this city’s going to be in the next administration. You’ve got to put pressure on the people who are in office now, including myself and everyone else, to get the right things done. And so far, we haven’t done anything that was right. This is going to be in your hands soon. Please be attentive.”