Last week the candidates in a contested local election squared off on two occasions where District 3 County Commissioner Jerry Carl continued to tout his record and his challenger, State Rep. Margie Wilcox, worked to tear it down.
At separate town hall meetings at the Fowl River Community Center and Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, the candidates addressed a host of countywide issues likely to be on the minds of voters during the March 1 GOP primary.
While Lagniappe attended both events and is publishing statements Wilcox made publicly, she has refused to be interviewed or questioned directly on several occasions.
As she has in her campaign ads, Wilcox took the opportunity to accuse Carl of voting to raise taxes, not working well with other officials and stonewalling attempts to combine Mobile County’s license and revenue offices.
“For every year we don’t combine those offices, it’s costing us $1 million,” Wilcox told the audience. “The clock is ticking. Much like the national debt, that’s money that we’re wasting. Commissioner Carl does not support that plan and he doesn’t support combining those offices and saving a million a year.”
Carl called the push “an old story,” adding the County Commission “has nothing to do” with combining the two offices, which would have to be handled in the state Legislature.
Wilcox said she’d sponsored a bill for the past three years to combine the offices, all of which have failed to gain approval from the local legislative delegation. The same effort also led to federal criminal charges against Wilcox’s friend and current Revenue Commissioner Kim Hastie, though she was ultimately acquitted in a jury trial.
Carl also pointed out that in the original version of the Wilcox legislation, Hastie would have received an “80 percent” pay raise, and went on to draw a parallel to a separate school bus safety bill Wilcox also sponsored in 2015.“It was originally drafted where 10 percent on all tickets that were written was going to the License Commission. Why would you have 10 percent earmarked to go to the License Commission when the Sheriff’s Department actually writing tickets got zero?” Carl said. “The good old girl system, I’m going to call it down. I’m sorry, but that’s what I’m dealing with here.”
Wilcox, on the other hand, has accused to Carl of not working with other county officials including Hastie, License Commissioner Nick Matranga and fellow Commissioner Connie Hudson who, incidentally, attended the event in Fowl River wearing a “Margie Wilcox” sticker on her blouse. Carl and Hudson have traded tense words publicly on multiple occasions over plans to build a county-owned soccer facility Hudson has championed.
Conceptually, the complex has already cost taxpayers around $450,000 and a final price tag is estimated at nearly $40 million if all planned features are included. The use of county funds for such a potentially expensive project was another issue raised during last week’s meetings, though Wilcox addressed it only indirectly.
Asked if she would support having citizens vote on any “non-infrastructure project that cost more than $3 million, such as the proposed soccer complex,” Wilcox said, “I don’t think you can ever go wrong asking the citizens to vote something and getting their opinion.”
“That is really my short answer on that,” she added.
Last September — prior to her campaign for the District 3 seat — Wilcox avoided the question altogether when the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association posed the question to members of the county’s legislative delegation. Of the seven lawmakers in attendance, Wilcox was one of three who opted not to speak on the proposed soccer facility.
While Carl agreed with Wilcox on large projects “going before the voters,” he also took a few shots at a complex he claims to be “deeply against.”
“We think it’s going to cost $25 million, but I promise you it’s going to be twice that. It’s going to be just like what we’ve got downtown on some of these other projects,” he said. “I do think people should have a right to vote on these projects, but when we’ve got a small county commission and you can get a two-vote bloc, they can walk anything through.”
The issue of a three-member commission was also addressed by each candidate. Currently, Mobile County is one of only three of Alabama’s 67 counties with a three-member commission. The others, Wilcox and Cullman counties, have significantly smaller populations.
Last year, a bill aimed a creating a referendum vote proposing a five-member county commission died in session, despite having five cosponsors. Wilcox was not one of those sponsors and as a prospective commissioner, she’s still opposed to a change she says would put “too many chefs in the kitchen.”
“I’ve been doing business in counties that have five or six county commissioners. It is no different. The bickering is the same,” she said. “That’s more money out of your pocket to support more government. I’m a Republican. I want less taxes and less government.”
Carl said given the size of its population — 415,000 as of the 2010 Census — Mobile County should “no doubt” have five commissioners. Carl made similar comments when the issue was floated in the Legislature last year, but with the stipulation that salaries for each commissioner be cut in half.According to data from the Mobile County Probate Court, District 3 includes just under 81,000 registered voters and is the smallest commission district. It’s also predominantly white, with Caucasian voters making up nearly 80 percent of the electorate.
With no Democratic opposition, the winner of the March 1 primary will face no opposition during the general election in November and their term will begin in early 2017.
FOR MEMBER, MOBILE COUNTY COMMISSION DISTRICT 3