The Fairhope City Council approved close to a dozen resolutions at its latest meeting June 26, but one proposed by Mayor Karin Wilson and pushed by her, according to council members, under threat of legal action failed to gain support. That resolution would have authorized up to $15,000 for Wilson to negotiate agreements to contract a lawyer specifically for her office and for a mediator to negotiate between herself and the council, which have been in tense relations since their election last November.
Wilson, who was at a mayor’s conference in Miami and did not attend Monday’s City Council meeting, sent Harry Satterwhite to represent her. Satterwhite, a Mobile-based attorney, was listed in the proposal as the mayor’s choice for legal counsel and spoke to members about the resolution.
“There’s something on the agenda tonight … It’s a resolution [Mayor Wilson] is proposing to hire counsel for the mayor’s office here in Fairhope,” Satterwhite told council members on June 26. “She contacted me a couple of weeks ago and explained to me concerns she’s got about the relationship she has with the council, and it’s her perception that there’s a lot of tension with the council. There is a lack of cooperation, a lack of communication, a lack of information that she’s getting, and of course I understand the council has its own view and its own opinion of that.”
For months, the Fairhope City Council and Mayor Wilson have been at odds. Earlier this year Wilson fired two city employees without notice. In response, the council imposed a temporary hiring freeze, a standoff that eventually fizzled but highlighted the ambiguity of power-sharing that’s causing angst among city leaders.
Attorney Satterwhite next laid out what he saw as the best way forward in nixing that angst.
“We’ve kind of aired things out, and my recommendation was that Fairhope have an attorney for the mayor’s office, similar to what Mobile has,” Satterwhite explained. “Mobile has a state statute where the mayor has the appointing authority of the city attorney … and the council has its own attorney. So when there are disputes and the city attorney is placed in the difficult position here of trying to be neutral and not take either side … in Mobile, that doesn’t happen. [The attorneys] try to work it out.”
Satterwhite also mentioned setting up mediation between city leaders — a cost also included in the resolution’s “not to exceed” $15,000 price tag.
“We’ve also suggested we conduct a mediation where we come together with a mediator in a nonbinding setting — anyone can walk away at any time,” he said, adding it could help the mayor and council “come to a resolution … even if it’s a written resolution … to this.”
Shortly after Satterwhite’s presentation, the floor was opened to public comment, and every speaker addressed the mayor’s proposed resolution: a couple for, and a few against.
“From my perspective as a resident and a taxpayer, the optics of this resolution are not good,” Steve Yule, a Fairhope resident, said at the meeting. “To begin with, the city has had an attorney for years that has represented both the council and the mayor … this tells me that perhaps the city attorney is not doing his job well, and I don’t believe that. … Why are we doing this? This is $15,000.”
Another Fairhope citizen, Barbara Smith, said she’d keep it brief and simple: “The city of Fairhope has a city attorney paid for by the city to take care of city needs,” Smith said. “If any city of Fairhope resident wants or needs an attorney, they would bear that expense. I feel as a taxpayer and concerned citizen that this would and should apply to the mayor. If she is not comfortable [with the city attorney], she should bear the expense of her own attorney.”
A couple of people, though, said they were in favor of whatever would move the city forward, even if it meant paying $15,000 and letting the mayor and council’s respective attorneys “hash it out.”
“We’re at an impasse,” Paul Ripp said. “Mobile shows that it works. Why not? Let the attorneys hash it out.”
“I think this is a good suggestion,” Ben Smith, another Fairhoper, said of the mayor’s proposed resolution. “The council needs to start working with her … I support it.”
The council didn’t represent the public’s split opinion. Instead, every council member spoke against the proposal, and it died without a vote. Council member Jay Robinson was the first to explain his lack of support for the mayor’s resolution.
“The city currently has three firms on payroll,” he said. “So to me personally at this time I don’t feel [it] a prudent use of tax money to hire yet another law firm.”
Instead, Robinson said, leaders should seek guidance from the state attorney general’s office and the Alabama League of Municipalities for any disputed roles in governance.
“Those are some alternatives we have for this issue without spending any more taxpayer money on it,” Robinson said. “I’ll be fine with whatever they decide.”
Another member, Kevin Boone, was admittedly more blunt about the mayor’s plan.
“We do need to probably do a better job of communicating, but it was communicated to me quite clearly that if we didn’t approve this, we’d be sued,” Boone said. “I can assure you if you want to communicate with this council, coming up with a threat … is not a real wise idea. I don’t take threats very well.”
Jack Burrell, the head of the council, echoed Boone’s attitude toward a potential suit and mocked the idea of mediation on its face.
“I would like to see better communication, but I also agree that this is not the way,” Burrell said. “As far as mediation goes, I feel like we are the mediators. I think that the council was elected by the city of Fairhope to make decisions on their behalf and I don’t think we’ve ever overstepped our bounds. If somebody wants to make a legal challenge to that, then I’m up for it.”
Burrell also gave a nod to the city’s current attorneys, who he said were done a disservice by the mayor’s failed resolution.
“I have faith in them, and I’m sorry the mayor doesn’t have as much trust in them,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this. I don’t think it’s necessary.”
The next Fairhope City Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 10.