Tensions in Bayou la Batre have hit a boiling point, and on Tuesday, May 19, Bayou la Batre Mayor Brett Dungan was arrested on a charge of harassing a city council member.
The incident stems from an argument with Councilwoman Annette Johnson that turned heated during a regular meeting May 14. Johnson pressed charges alleging Dungan grabbed her arm aggressively during the meeting and then held a gavel in the air in a threatening manner.Johnson said the argument started during a discussion over the city’s finances as they related to Dungan’s office.
“He had grabbed my arm before, but the second and third time it was forceful enough that I knew he was angry,” Johnson said. “There were red marks and bruising on my arm that appeared the next day. I’ve taught social sciences for several years, and if a child puts their hands on me like that it’s a federal offense.”
Johnson claims after Dungan grabbed her arm a third time she told him, “nobody has the authority to put their hands physically on another professional or another councilperson.”
“He just lost it,” Johnson said. “Then he held up (the gavel) like he was going to hit me and I realized it. I said, ‘Don’t you dare hit me with that,’ and he caught himself, but just for a second I saw the expression in his eyes.”
The incident comes in the middle of ongoing dispute over the city’s finances that has pitted Dungan against a majority of councilmembers. Last month, he filed a civil lawsuit against four members of the City Council, including Johnson.
Initially, Johnson attempted to file charges of harassment and assault based on the red markings and bruising, however when all was said and done Dungan was only charged with harassment — a Class C misdemeanor.
On Friday, Lagniappe confirmed through the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office that the incident had been investigated following Thursday’s meeting. That next day, Dungan’s attorney Michael Hickman said, “She was not assaulted, certainly not by the mayor.”
“These are trumped up non-existent charges,” Hickman said May 15. “If she wants to sign a warrant to that, we look forward to challenging it in court.”As Dungan left the Mobile Metro Jail May 19, Hickman said he didn’t have a statement prepared for media. However, he did refer to harassment as “the bottom of the barrel of criminal charges.”
According to an audio recording of the argument May 14, which was corroborated by a description in Dungan’s arrest warrant, Dungan and Johnson were going back and forth about whether an outside entity had the authority to do work on the city’s behalf. On the recording, Johnson suddenly raises her voice and says, “you take your hands off me, or you’re going to regret it.”
Then, as Dungan was attempting to have Johnson removed from the meeting by a police officer, Johnson appears to say, “he put his hands on me three times.” Dungan then says “I have a gavel and I’m talking” just before three loud knocks can be heard on the tape.
Based on the audio, Dungan once again asks an officer to remove Johnson, but the request is again denied by Bayou police officers. He then abruptly proposed a motion to suspend the meeting, which failed due to lack of a second.