It seems a hastily-made website has prompted the resignation of a member of the Bayou la Batre City Council, a move that comes on the heel of multiple complaints made to the Alabama Ethics Commission about several city officials.
Jennifer Stork, elected in 2012, tendered her resignation to the council effective Jan. 22 citing the “propaganda from a certain website.”
Stork’s letter was referring to a template-based website that has taken issues with Mayor Brett Dungan and the current City Council. Several recordings of candid conversations with the mayor and multiple city documents are available on the website. So far, it’s not known who operates the site, but it has garnered more than 7,000 visitors in less than ten days.
Stork, whose primary source of income is The Lighthouse Restaurant in Bayou la Batre, was mentioned on the site Jan. 20, claiming the city used her restaurant to provide catering services. However, a complaint to the ethics commission was made about the alleged incident in late December.
A copy of that original complaint was obtained by Lagniappe, and suggests that Stork, Dugan and Wanda Overstreet, who is Dungan’s assistant and Stork’s sister, “conspired to secure an event for The Lighthouse Restaurant” on Dec. 18, 2014. The services charged to the city totaled $551.05.
In her letter of resignation, Stork denied any alleged wrongdoing saying “I, nor my business, have done anything wrong and have done everything by the rules.” “I have a business that I have to think of and 30 employees that work with me,” her letter reads. “I can not have my restaurant hurt due to people who want to push the wrong words out to the city.”
Dungan acknowledged the occurrence of the catering services that were provided as the council accepted Stork’s resignation, but made no mention of the ethics complaint.
Kasee Heisterhagen, one of the city’s attorneys, cited Attorney General’s opinion 2013-028, which states that such instances are permitted “when the council member’s business is the only domiciled vendor of that personal property or service within the municipality and the amount to be expended does not exceed $3,000.” The opinion also says a counselor should abstain from the decision-making process of selecting his or her business for city contracts or reimbursement.
According to Council member Annette Johnson, Stork did abstain when the catering services were discussed by the council.
“On the date in question, we had 17 community economic development specialists that came to visit our town, and we catered a seafood lunch on short notice,” Dungan said. “They were the only restaurant that was available to cater that event. That is exactly the case.”
The city’s legal advisors contend that Attorney General Luther Strange’s office has also stated that, as the only business providing lunch catering services, the city’s use of Stork’s business was permitted, as long as she wasn’t involved with voting for it.
However, the original ethics complaint filed Dec. 30, 2014, claims it is not the only business that could have provided such catering services. Attached to the complaint is a list of several other business in the area that includes Von’s Restaurant and Grill and others.
The opinion of the attorney general also goes on to say the business of a council member can contract the municipality they serve only if the “council member fully discloses his or her relationship in the business, the council members does not participate in the decision-making process, the municipality uses a competitive bid process and the council member is the lowest responsible bidder.”
Early attempts to obtain documentation of the minutes from the meeting when the vote was held have so far been unsuccessful. However, the operators of the website claim “the catering was never on the agenda, and Stork only abstained from voting on approving her payment.”
Lagniappe’s records show Stork did indeed abstain from voting on bi-weekly payments that included the payment to the Lighthouse Restaurant.
Attempts to reach Stork for comment have so far been unsuccessful, but her fellow council members said she would be greatly missed. Johnson called her resignation “another great loss for the city.”
“I spoke with Jennifer today and I’m very humbled by her concern for her business,” Johnson said. “I pray that the people of this community remember that though she may have been paid for this one meal, there were many times that the Storks’ Lighthouse Restaurant, their employees and their staff have donated, not just hundreds of dollars worth of goods, but they’ve donated their time, they’ve donated their hearts and they’ve donated their passion for the community.”
As a class 8 municipality, Stork’s resignation from the council should be filed by the remaining council members at the next regular meeting. Then they will have the opportunity to nominate someone to serve the remainder of her term, which expires in Oct. of 2016.
“In the event a vacancy is not filled within 60 days after it occurs, each existing city council member, including the mayor, may submit a name to the Governor for appointment,” Alabama Code 11-44-G-1 reads. “If the Governor fails to make an appointment from any submitted names within 90 days after the vacancy occurs, the judge of probate shall call a special election to fill the vacancy.”