Political feuding in Bayou la Batre has made headlines recently, but amid allegations of harassment and political grandstanding, it seems Mayor Brett Dungan may have found a way to bypass a city council he claims is keeping the city from moving forward.
During the May 14 council meeting that led to Dungan’s recent arrest for harassment, he and Councilwoman Annette Johnson were having a heated discussion about the Bayou la Batre Port Authority.
Dungan was asking the council for permission to pursue grant funding through the Port Authority for the removal of 21 derelict vessels in the Bayou la Batre watershed. All of the councilors supported the project, but many took issue with Dungan representing the city on the Port Authority for more than a year without notifying the council of its actions or hosting a single public meeting.
“They’ve called at least one meeting, I know. It’s got to be a public meeting,” Councilman George Ramires said. “All boards for the city of Bayou la Batre must have public meetings, just like the public safety and the finance committee and the Utilities Board.”
Ramires said the project was something the city “desperately needed,” but said Dungan should have brought it before the council. As has happened previously, Dungan accused the council members of not remembering things he’d sent to them via email.
“This is why the mayor moves forward, because the council doesn’t give feedback” Dungan said.
Ultimately, the derelict vessels project was approved by the council 4-1, and according to Dungan, it will give the city the benefit of $150,000 for removing the vessels and only require in-kind services.
However, the Port Authority has also been brought into other city business recently, including the management of several projects that might potentially be funded through RESTORE Act penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
According to Johnson, councilors were caught off guard when four RESTORE Act projects were transferred recently from the city’s name to the Port Authority without their knowledge.
Similar RESTORE Act projects will ultimately be selected by the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, of which Dungan is also a member. Currently, projects can be submitted through an online portal managed by the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources.
Last year, the council hired Thompson Engineering to prepare four project submissions for the portal at a cost of around $16,800. However, Johnson said the council had no role in selecting what projects would be submitted and never saw the full scope of those projects until recently.
Thompson sent a representative to an April meeting seeking a late payment and Johnson demanded proper documentation as proof of service before the council would approve a final retaining fee.
“These projects never came before us, and we paid for the package from Thompson Engineering,” Johnson said. “The projects are all related to industry, and are primarily economic. We felt like the scope of what BP was offering was not just economic, but should also include tourism.”
Like Johnson, other councilors and some citizens expressed concern because all of the projects currently submitted have an economic focus — including a $31 million project at the city docks that would fund “the development of new seafood-related industries that support and enhance existing businesses,” among other improvements.
“We we have a very large waterfront area, but those docks are the only area that we have the ability to launch boats from for recreation,” Johnson said. “It’s not huge by any means, but the city docks in Bayou la Batre are a very valuable resource.”
In a previous meeting, Dungan said an ongoing watershed study through the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) would present several opportunities for recreational and environmental projects down the road.
According to the MBNEP, that study — also funded with early BP money — will include a significant amount of public input and lay out several projects that could be submitted for future RESTORE Act funding.
“One of the overall goals of our organization is to increase the recreational access, and that will be a component in the Bayou,” Christian Miller of MBNEP said. “These studies can recommend all kinds of projects, from stream restoration, wetland preservation, water quality enhancements and additional recreational access points.”
Johnson said even if there are recreational submissions forthcoming, the city still put up the money for the economic projects that are now in the name of the Port Authority — a change Dungan has said he orchestrated.
When asked on May 11 about pursuing city projects through the Port Authority, Dungan told councilors he was “trying to do damage control in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., with people who are having hesitancy about funding projects in Bayou la Batre because of the city council’s attitude.”
The Port Authority doesn’t have a well-documented history, and according to Johnson, it hasn’t been active since it organized a state-funded dredging of the Bayou in 1995.
Typically, the Port Authority has been made up of several industry professionals from the businesses along the city’s waterfront. Dungan, a retired executive at Master Marine, is one of seven current members. In previous meetings, Dungan named the others members as Travis Short, Nicky Johnson, Chris Collier, Rosa Zirlott, Ernie Anderson and Allen LaForce.
According to Mobile County Probate records, all but two of the board members have ties to Dungan’s 2013 mayoral campaign including Anderson, who was listed as his campaign’s chairperson.
Anderson and Zirlott also both signed off on campaign expenses and Anderson was also one of Dungan’s largest financial contributors through donations he made personally or through his business, Graham Shrimp Company.
According to those same records, Horizon Shipbuilding, which employs both Short and Johnson, also made multiple contributions to Dungan’s political campaigns as recently as last year.
Attempts to reach members of the Port Authority were unsuccessful, with the exception of Short, who spoke with Lagniappe Friday. Short said he was a friend of Dungan’s but stressed his involvement in the mayor’s campaign was limited to attending a few events — though records show he did make a personal contribution in 2013.
“I’ve been in the Bayou for about 20 years, and I knew there was a Port Authority several years ago, but I don’t remember them having any activities or taking much action,” he said.