Tempers escalated at the close of the Bayou la Batre City Council’s last meeting, as conversations about governmental transparency and communication overshadowed the regular business of the meeting.
Terry Downing, a member of the city’s housing board, spoke about a lack of transparency he claims is coming from the council and Mayor Brett Dungan, saying he sensed an “us versus them mentality.”
His statements eventually grew into a conversation about the availability of public information and the council’s regular meeting schedule.
“Where there’s a lack of transparency, there’s a huge political advantage.” Downing said. “That’s why we’d like the (council’s) work session to be held on a different night.”
Currently, the council holds its regular work sessions only an hour before regular meetings at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, and a finalized agenda is written in between the two meetings.
Those who have addressed the council about the issue in the past say the limited time doesn’t give the public adequate time to analyze and “digest” the council’s business before action is taken.
In the past, city officials have cited scheduling and the amount of the council’s time already taken up as reasons for continuing the same-day meeting practices. Despite the discussion, no action was taken on the issue Dec. 18.
Downing said other municipalities in the area televise meetings, but residents of Bayou la Batre have struggled to get advanced agendas.
Councilwoman Annette Johnson said, “unfortunately we don’t have the manpower or the level of funding (those) cities have,” but said she and the rest of the city’s officials are glad to work with anyone on a specific issue.
Johnson said lately some citizens have been making very detailed and lengthy requests with no clear purpose given for why they would need such extensive public records.
“If you’ve got a specific concern, we’ll be glad to address that, but if you’re coming down here to shop for the entire ballpark, it’s going to take us a while to pull that package together for you,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to try to hold any information back from anyone, but we need to narrow it down so that we aren’t sending our folks that are already overworked out on a goose chase.”
Johnson said some have requested the city provide detailed lists of checks and receipts for purchases made over entire year, which she called “a fishing game.”
“It’s available. It’s public knowledge, but for what purpose would you want these documents?” Johnson asked. “Why do you need the receipt for every light bulb we’ve purchased or everything we’ve gotten from the auto parts store, other than to say we spent it? That’s like an audit itself, and we already pay for an audit. It’s about $18,000 a year.”
Downing also brought up the city’s recently missed insurance payment to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, which left the city’s employees without health insurance coverage for more than a month — an incident the city hasn’t discussed publicly with the exception of a Lagniappe interview last month. However, it is important to note city officials did discuss the issue with individual employees who contacted the city about problems with their insurance policies.
Though no councilmembers openly discussed the “clerical error” that led to the missed payment during the meeting, Johnson discussed a “situation” that occurred during the same month.
“We didn’t bring that dirty laundry out here because we don’t consider it dirty laundry. It’s not dirty laundry,” Johnson said. “It’s just an event that occurred, and we’ve set legal ramifications in place to prevent that from happening again.”
Councilwoman Ida Mae Coleman used her closing comments to discuss what she calls “people that waste time trying to hinder the programs” the city is working towards by requesting information.
Coleman said she didn’t mind people attempting to get information, but said that information has “got to go through the city and the City Council.”
“It’s a train moving, whether you want to get on that train is up to you, but it’s pulling out,” Coleman said. “This town is moving forward and there ain’t a thing nobody can do about it cause it’s God’s plan. I prayed about, I saw it — so don’t waste your time trying to hinder this program, because like I said God is in the plan and ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
Coleman went on to say, “it doesn’t matter if you get the information, you’ve still got to bring it up. So, what is it?”
Amnesty for late garbage payments
After the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre voted to cease collecting garbage services fees for the city in May, the city had to scramble to come up with way to handle the new task.
The fees stayed the same, but a $25 late fee was added, which almost immediately drew criticism from some members of the community because the garbage fee itself is only $18.
According to members of the city’s staff, there are more than $2,000 in fees currently owed to the city. As a result, in January, the city is allowing all late fees to be waived if a customer’s account is brought up to date. Officials said this is the only time the amnesty would be offered.
Additionally, a new tiered system was adopted for late fees associated with garbage payments. Now, payments that are one-to-30 days late will be charged a $5 fee, payments 31-to-60 days late will be charged $10 and those more than 60 days late will be charged a $15 fee.
Changes to the ordinance also included a provision allowing residents above age 65 and whose only income is from Social Security to be exempt from collection fees.
Residents who wish to qualify for the exemption would also need to apply at the Mobile County Health Department sometime during the month of January.
City Attorney Bill Wasden said the changes would only apply to households, but noted the city is also working toward a comprehensive overhaul of household and commercial garbage policies, which he said would incorporate certain aspects of the city of Mobile’s sanitation practices.
Resignation, ‘forced retirement’ in administration
The council also accepted the resignation and retirement of Assistant City Clerk Chad Seamans and Building Inspector Tommy Reynoso, respectfully.
Seamans hasn’t publicly discussed the circumstances of his resignation, but its acceptance was retroactive from Dec. 12. Under the guidelines of the Mobile County Personnel Board, he would be prevented from being rehired because of a failure to provide a two-week notice.
Seamans, who has worked with the city for eight years, also turned down a proposition from Johnson to “consider a long term leave of absence” instead of resigning.
The agenda for the work sessions originally listed Reynoso, a 14-year employee of the city, as resigning. However, Reynoso spoke out during the meeting to say it should be classified as a “forced retirement.”
Though he didn’t so say who, Reynoso said someone asked him to retire as of Dec. 31, and he chose to comply.