If anyone needed more proof the relationship between Bayou la Batre Mayor Brett Dungan and the City Council has gone completely toxic, his arrest last week on charges of harassing one of those councilors might just prove the point.
When it gets to the point where City Council meetings end with arrests and discussions of whether the mayor was or was not thinking about hitting a councilwoman with his gavel, it’s going to take more than a refresher course on Robert’s Rules of Order to get things back on track. They’re putting the “fun” in dysfunctional down in The Bayou these days.
It’s kind of shocking things have gone down this way, especially given that Dungan ran for office as an educated businessman who claimed he would bring a calm, logical approach to running a city still recovering from former Mayor Stan Wright’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-overalls style of leadership. Wright had been removed from office after being convicted on federal corruption charges for a shady land deal, so The Bayou needed a steadier hand.
And certainly during the race Dungan seemed like just what the doctor ordered. But lately he’s often acted as if that same doctor needs to prescribe him some new meds.
His arrest came after he allegedly grabbed Councilwoman Annette Johnson’s arm three times during the regular meeting May 19 — hard enough that Johnson says her arm was bruised. She also said she felt during the altercation Dungan was possibly about to hit her with his gavel. She said she could see it in his eyes. Thankfully the mayor did not gavel her into compliance. Just to be safe, though, officials in the Bayou might consider getting him one made of Styrofoam.
The result was Johnson filing harassment charges against Dungan with the Sheriff’s Office and hizzoner getting a fancy picture on “Arrested in Mobile.”
This was just the latest in what has become an exceedingly long list of bizarre fights between Dungan and the council, with Johnson often playing his foil. It seems a lot of the bickering began last May when the city’s utilities board voted not to have Dungan serve as superintendent, a position held by the previous mayor that comes with a $24,000-a-year salary. Dungan then attempted to appoint someone to the board, but that appointment was rejected.
Since then things have gone south. The council has peeled through the city’s financial records and zeroed in on unapproved expenditures and actions by Dungan. One was a $50,000 loan the mayor and City Clerk Jamie Abastoflor obtained through Regions Bank without the council’s knowledge. Dungan said it was to help the city make payroll through a particularly lean part of the year, but the councilors weren’t happy and Dungan ended up being stripped of his power to write checks, use city credit cards or obligate the city to any contracts.
Then there were allegations Dungan sent strange messages to Johnson, including one that was a little explicit concerning marital relationships.
“I’ve been married 41 years,” Johnson said. “I don’t need any help from anyone, especially the mayor, on getting my partner into the mood or anything of that nature. This falls right there into inappropriate communications.”
The list gets longer. The mayor has civilly sued each member of the council. He’s had to turn documents related to that $50,000 loan over to the district attorney, the state examiner and the ethics commission. The council has had service turned off to both his cell phone and iPad because he bought them without their permission. Last year city employees were without health insurance for about six weeks, after his administration forgot to make the payments.
Then there’s some truly strange stuff.
A break-in at the fire department resulted in the theft of some old computers that just happened to house information about the city’s fire grants after Abastoflor moved $10,000 from a grant account into the general fund and the council called for an investigation. That prompted some cloak-and-dagger suspicions. The mayor also orchestrated the sale of a house owned by The Bayou and valued at $26,000 to a Montgomery County Commissioner for just $10. No one has ever really figured out what that was about.
Even a trip to Waffle House turned into a political football after Dungan hit a handicapped sign in his vehicle and city employees were dispatched to repair the damage. Dungan says he didn’t tell them to do it.
So I think at this point we’ve at least established there is a serious pattern of craziness surrounding the mayor and council. I’m not going to lay every bit of the blame at Dungan’s feet, but judging from what we’ve seen so far, he appears to have a very tenuous grasp on what it means to be mayor.
Maybe Dungan has read too much about Chicago’s famed Richard Daley, a guy who ran the city as if it was his kingdom and did pretty much as he pleased. Dungan seems enamored of the “power” that comes with being mayor, including that fancy gavel. It wasn’t so long ago he had our reporter and one from the Press-Register tossed out of a meeting just for sitting in the wrong chairs. He also tried to have Councilwoman Johnson thrown out of a meeting.
I’m not sure where in Mayor 101 it talks about tossing people from meetings, arbitrarily moving money around, taking out loans without council approval or having city workers repair damage from your personal accidents, but Dungan must have paid way more attention to that part of the course than the sections about fiscal responsibility and leadership.
His entire show has become buffoonish lately, and that’s not what was expected when he took office nearly two years ago. Dungan needs to remember that not only does he represent his citizens, but that a lot of people vouched for his credentials and ability to lead when he ran for office. I’d imagine most of those people have scrubbed his name from their cell phones by now.
Mayor, you’re not going to win a power struggle by grabbing women, sending strange emails, tossing people from meetings and generally acting like the job has gone to your head. One big part of politics is winning people over to your side, and right now I’d imagine it’s pretty lonely on Team Dungan.