Without a valid explanation, members of the media were asked to leave a Bayou la Batre city council work session this evening after refusing to move to seats approved by Mayor Brett Dungan and his staff.
While seated at the side of the room near the council members, reporters for Lagniappe and the Press-Register were approached by City Clerk Jaime Abastoflor, who asked they take a seat in the audience.
When asked why, Abastoflor suggested communication between council members away from the microphone was not public information. After further questioning the city’s objection to their choice of seating, the reporters were removed by a member of the Bayou la Batre Police Department at behest of Dungan.
Though Dungan later allowed both reporters back into the building, his assistant, Wanda Overstreet, said their attorney had validated Dungan’s decision to remove them. An email to City attorney Bill Wasden questioning what, if any, laws the reporters may have violated remains unanswered.
Two members of the council later apologized for the incident.
In the meeting, Councilwoman Annette Johnson cited a lack of information about the city’s finances as the reason she and other councilors did not feel comfortable approving several expenditures, including a proposed salary increase for city employees and payment of the city’s bills.
Her comments came after the council voted to have a complete list of the “city’s income and debt” provided within the next 30 days — information both council members and residents have had difficulty getting over the past few months.
Johnson, at odds with Dungan, initiated a vote to table the proposed 5 percent raise until the financial information was received from the city’s administrative staff. Dungan later emphasized to both employees and media present at the meeting that the pay raise delay was the result of Johnson’s motion to table.
“I do not have a balance sheet stating what we have in our accounts,” Johnson replied in defense. “We don’t just come in, mayor, and randomly assume we can do anything. You’re asking me for a 5 percent raise, and then making it out like I don’t care about the employees. I care greatly.”
Johnson said she’d be glad to consider a pay raise if and when a proper account of the city’s finances were presented to her, but she still took issue with what the lack of information being provided from City Hall. Johnson went on to tell Dungan the council didn’t have any idea what some city employees were being paid or when they had been hired.
Councilor Ida Mae Coleman said the issues were related to insufficient staffing, which the city has previously discussed following the resignation and forced retirement of former assistant city clerk Chad Seaman and building inspector Tommy Reynoso.
Dungan himself pushed the issue off on the Mobile County Personnel Board, which the city is legislatively required to handle its employment with.
“The personnel board is making it difficult, not just for Bayou la Batre, but for every municipality in Mobile County to hire people in a timely fashion,” Dungan said. “We’ve been on a waiting list for four months.”
The lack of staff has also been blamed for a backup in the city’s ability to approve the minutes of its regular meeting. Tonight, the council approved minutes dating back to November 2014.
Another issue tabled because of the lack of a “proper” balance sheet was an $1,828 check reimbursing Dungan for traveling expenses in late 2014. The expenses included trips to Mobile and Montgomery to meet with the Alabama Ethics Commission, though Dungan said neither were related to recent ethics charges filed against him personally.
After the meeting, Dungan told Lagniappe the city’s inability to pay $30,000 in regular bills was also because of Johnson’s request for a balance sheet. He emailed the following statement late Thursday evening:
“For your information, there are very few municipalities in Alabama with under 5,000 population that prepare Balance Sheets more than annually,” he wrote. “Those Councils carry out their monthly responsibilities. In fact, Bayou La Batre is one of the few small municipalities that prepare monthly Profit and Loss Statements for the Council, which show more usable information than a balance sheet would, i.e., they show the total monthly revenues collected and the monthly expenditures and they also show the cumulative Year-to-Date balance.”
During the meeting, Abastoflor also suggested increasing the portion city employees pay for their health insurance from 20 percent to 25 percent, which he said would saving the city approximately $30,000 annually.
Last year, the city was using an 80/20 split for its employees health care coverage, but this evening Abastoflor proposed using a 75/25 split beginning in March. He also suggested using last year’s $22,000 in savings from a GAP fund to issue a 5 percent raise for employees.
However, Johnson said the only rate change was a $128 increase for family coverage, and said increasing the insurance payments would be the equivalent of “growing the perpetual fund on the backs of (the city’s) employees.”
“The insurance company is not going to be charging the city anything different regardless of how we divvy it up who pays what,” Johnson said. “The price is what it is across the board. If we’re going to be generous and give a 5 percent raise, why are we even associating that with the insurance?”
Ultimately, Johnson proposed an alternate motion to keep the insurance premiums as they are and wait until a proper financial analysis is available to determine the possibility of a 5 percent raise for employees.
Dungan pointed out during and after the meeting that Johnson had expressed support for a 5 percent raise earlier this year, and accused her of having “a short memory.”
Johnson said those statements were based on the assumption that preparations for the Affordable Healthcare Act would create a savings based on what the employees paid in through their GAP fund.
“We had the money to cover the cost of the increase,” she told Dungan. “I see no reason to put it back on the employees. They’ve done their job.”