Temperatures are reaching a boiling point in Fairhope, where Mayor Karin Wilson remains at odds with the city attorney and a majority of the City Council after three former employees and now an outspoken citizen have filed notices of claim against the city — precursors to potential lawsuits. Meanwhile, text messages between Wilson and an IT contractor were subpoenaed by the City Council last month, and their subsequent release is causing a stir, putting the mayor on the defensive.
In a conversation last week, Wilson said the “leak” of the texts was the latest attempt by the City Council, primarily President Jack Burrell, to “usurp power from the mayor’s office” as part of a “mission to make me look bad.” At the same time, Wilson said the council’s subpoena — spurred by a resolution written by the city attorney — appears to only be “aiding” three of the plaintiffs in claims against the city, essentially gathering evidence on their behalf.
Attorney Harry Satterwhite, who according to Wilson is representing the mayor’s office in spite of the council’s refusal to officially hire him in that capacity, said he was considering filing a lawsuit against the council.
“Just about every legitimate proposal [Wilson’s] brought up, [the council] has unanimously voted down,” Satterwhite said. “So really, her back is against the wall, she has to do something legally.”
For his part, Burrell said he believed Wilson’s termination of three longtime employees earlier this year was not done “with cause.” Further, he pointed to the city’s strong council/weak mayor form of government, suggesting, “If she wanted to vote, she could have run for City Council.”
While Wilson rode a wave of controversy into office — defeating four-term incumbent Tim Kant with 53 percent of the vote a year ago amid a citywide debate over unchecked development and a proposed 240-unit apartment complex on the banks of environmentally sensitive Fly Creek — she has enjoyed relatively strong support and nominal success in the months since.
But over the past year, the mayor and council have also frequently been in conflict, with tempers flaring at public meetings and on social media over decisions involving not only personnel, but also the budget, planning and zoning, board appointments and city contracts.
“Mayor Kant was here a long time and [he had] some really entrenched supporters,” Satterwhite said. “There were employees who were closely tied to him and Jack Burrell of course was too, and that was very disappointing … but there’s a lot of the employees and the council, and Jack, [who] are constantly trying to do things every day to tear [Wilson] down, work against her, conspire against her … it’s amazing.”
Wilson said suing the council was “the last thing I want to do,” but “I can either sit back and continue things the way they are or I’m going to stand up for my role as mayor.”
The rhetoric reached a crescendo last week after The Courier, a newspaper owned by Gulf Coast Media covering the Eastern Shore, published text messages between Wilson and an employee of Elias Technologies Inc., which had been hired by the city to perform IT work on behalf of the Fairhope Police Department. Burrell said last week the council had reason to believe Wilson instructed Elias to go beyond its authorized scope of work to “spy” on employees, elected officials and even the public.
The text messages had been obtained by the City Council on the order of a subpoena issued after the council adopted a resolution Aug. 14 originally seeking “the keywords searched on Jennifer Fidler’s and Sherry Sullivan’s computers and phones, all documents and electronic records produced by the search, all communications, written or electronic, between Mayor Wilson, [Fairhope IT Director] Jeff Montgomery and Elias Technologies Inc. or its agents and employees regarding the search of Sherry Sullivan’s and Jennifer Fidler’s computers and phones, an answer to the questions, what was Elias told to look for, what were the results of the searches, who told Elias what to look for?”
Fidler and Sullivan were the city’s public works and community affairs directors, respectively, and along with Human Resources Director Pandora Heathcoe have filed notices of claim against the city for wrongful termination and demotion. Fidler and Sullivan’s terminations Feb. 24 were widely criticized by some residents and elected officials — despite Wilson’s authority to do so — and Wilson confirmed last week it was the result of “insubordination.”
At the time, the council called a special meeting and enacted a temporary hiring freeze. Satterwhite said that meeting — held Feb. 27 — was illegal because the council did not provide enough notice and furthermore cannot enact a hiring freeze with a “budgetary reason.” Wilson said the meeting, and city attorney Tut Wynne’s lack of communication about the the proposed resolution, caused an irreparable rift between her and Wynne.
While the situation was unfolding, the texts released last week suggest Wilson was attempting to use Elias Technologies to obtain evidence to support her decisions to fire Fidler and Sullivan.
“I want records for ethics,” Wilson texted to an Elias employee the day the two were fired. That weekend, she followed up with additional requests for email records from Fidler, Sullivan, Kant and Burrell noting “Jeff [Montgomery, IT director] did find what he needed to support my decision to terminate.”
However, Wilson later texted, it “was not the proof wanted from Jeff. Badmouthing yes but not about overturning. Wish could get this before tomorrow meeting especially any communications with Jack Burrell.”
According to subsequent texts, the employee with whom Wilson was corresponding apparently complied, but was unable to uncover anything “of any value.”
Around the same time, a controversy was stewing over a contract the Fairhope Airport Authority awarded to one of its own board members — a decision endorsed by Burrell along with a letter of approval from the Alabama Ethics Commission.
At the next City Council meeting March 9, the council voted against two of three of Wilson’s nominees for the Fairhope Airport Authority. One of three members had resigned, but Wilson wanted to exercise her authority to appoint new members across the board. Instead, the council retained two who wrote letters of interest to the City Council.
“What is happening is [the] council trying to infringe on the mayor’s authority,” Wilson said during the meeting.
“First of all, you’re infringing on our authority because this is council discussion,” Burrell shot back. “You gave a very good description of [your candidates] and nobody questions their qualifications … but the concerns about the Airport Authority … these are not valid concerns. There’s nothing going on. All this stuff you are reading on social media is a bunch of bunk.”
Councilmembers Jimmy Conyers and Jay Robinson supported the mayor’s nominees.
“Again, these are my appointments,” Wilson said, suggesting the two board members she wanted to replace — Pam Caudill and Vince Booth — had “dragged my name through the mud” and been “extremely rude” to her. When she noted the airport carries 21 percent of the city’s debt, Burrell began to interrupt.
“It’s a two-way street, mayor,” he said.
After the meeting, Wilson texted the Elias employee to say it was “another unbelievable night during council,” noting “I have to get a handle on Jack trying to take me down.”
Records responsive to the City Council’s subpoena comprise seven months of text messages between Wilson and the Elias employee, whom Lagniappe has chosen not to name. A more comprehensive report on their content can be found on The Courier’s website, gulfcoastnewstoday.com, but the texts appear to show Wilson first attempting to obtain electronic data from former employees’ computers and devices, then growing concerned that her requests may have fallen outside the contractor’s scope of work.
“The detail invoice that was sent I think will get me in trouble,” Wilson texted April 24. “There were things done not in the scope of work …”
Around the same time, Wilson noted she wanted the company to begin working on the police department’s IT issue. Later, the company said it would send an amended invoice to the police department comping the additional work. According to The Courier, the amended invoice “was delivered to [Police Chief Joe] Petties on June 23 but was never signed by him and returned to the company.”
Alarmingly, on July 7 Wilson texted the Elias employee “the police department has lost trust.”
Wilson and Satterwhite, meanwhile, railed against the reporter who published the texts and Burrell, who they suspect “leaked” the text messages responsive to the subpoena.
Satterwhite, who claims to be a former journalist, called the reporter a “dang hack” who is “putting out propaganda for [Burrell].”
A statement provided by The Courier defends its reporting, noting: “The Courier seeks to report the truth and follows recognized journalistic best practices by verifying the accuracy of documents it uses in reporting. The Courier also seeks input from all sides of any controversial issue and reports relevant statements from all parties if they offer comment. Our responsibility is to keep our readers informed with the truth.”
At Satterwhite’s insistence, The Courier did publish a retraction to clarify Wilson’s statement about the police department’s trust. However, reached over the weekend, Chief Petties said while he was taking the advice of his own personal attorney and not speaking about the situation, “the [Courier’s] report speaks for itself.”
Satterwhite remained on the defensive.
“When you really look at it and boil it down, it’s hype,” he said of the texts. “They’re just hyping it up to have something against her. We’re not saying she’s perfect — she said some things that maybe they can take out of context and use against her — but at the bottom of it, there’s not a law that has been broken, no ethical provisions that have been broken. And all she’s trying to do is good things for the city the whole time, and try to protect the city from people suing the city. And if that’s wrong, I don’t know how you operate as mayor.”
On the other hand, Burrell confirmed the texts as legitimate and said it’s Wilson who has been attempting to delay operations of the city.
“Everything from refusing to sign off on resolutions passed by the council, to trying to look at my personal emails, to questioning everything former employees did, to what the council is [legally allowed to do] … I don’t like it one bit. I’m not under investigation and she has no right to look into my personal business,” Burrell said.
He also denied Wilson’s accusation of “colluding” with former employees to seek damages against the city, instead suggesting the information responsive to the subpoena will help determine whether Wilson went beyond the contract’s scope of work.
“We acknowledge the mayor doesn’t need a reason to terminate, so why is she using [the Elias] contract to investigate people if not for political gain? I do not believe they were let go with cause. I don’t see any evidence they were let go for cause. I said the mayor has a right to terminate, but to say there was cause and search for evidence later, to me that is a sign there is no cause, and it’s my own speculation that she felt the need to find a cause.”
The Ripp Report
Lagniappe spoke with Wilson and Satterwhite Aug. 29, the day after a City Council meeting that included routine budget discussions. Coincidentally, the city had also received its fourth notice of claim that day, this one by citizen activist Paul Ripp, who lives within the 36532 ZIP code but outside Fairhope city limits.
At the meeting the previous night, Burrell refused to allow Ripp to speak during the council’s allotment for public participation, where anyone who wishes to speak is allowed three minutes each to address the council.
“You’ve relinquished your rights,” Burrell told Ripp before having Chief Petties escort him back to his seat. “It’s a privilege and I’ve had more complaints about you getting up here and spreading innuendo, talking about citizens and employees and council members, and most people that I’ve talked to don’t want to give you time in this meeting.”
Ripp, who identifies himself as a nonprofit writer “identifying and exposing public corruption,” later noted he’s been barred from speaking at previous planning and zoning and City Council meetings, each time getting an attorney to write a letter to restore his rights. But he said his claim in this instance arises from Burrell’s alleged breach of policy.
“They’re going to try to say ‘it’s not a right, it’s a privilege,’” he said. “That would be true if it was their policy, but that is not their policy; the policy is to allow people to speak for up to three minutes. Where [Burrell] screwed up is announcing public participation and saying ‘anyone who wishes to speak can speak’ then denying me — he also asked if anyone else wanted to speak after denying me.”
Ripp said he suspected Burrell’s distaste for his commentary is rooted in the Fairhope Airport Authority, where Ripp spawned an ethics complaint over the aforementioned airplane hangar contract awarded to a board member. Burrell said he couldn’t confirm or deny whether he’d been investigated or questioned over that complaint, but it wasn’t part of his decision to deny Ripp public participation.
“This was not retribution,” he said. “[The Airport Authority complaint] didn’t even cross my mind. I’ll probably be careful here — this is a frivolous claim — but we’re there to conduct business, and I have received numerous complaints that Mr. Ripp has been using public participation … and he always comes up there and says it’s Paul Ripp with The Ripp Report basically representing his blog, using innuendo and creating controversy. There are no constitutional rights to be able to speak in a council meeting. Our own ordinance states the presiding officer has to give you permission.”
While the feuds have been ongoing, Wilson said it is distracting from progress. While she counts a new planning director and appointments on the planning commission as a win-win — “that alone will change the course of Fairhope’s future forever” — dozens of municipal jobs remain unfilled, and she fears the council will not favor her forthcoming budget proposal, which is expected to provide more money for infrastructure improvements at the expense of debt repayments.
At public meetings Aug. 28, the council accepted the findings of a Wilson-supported utilities study determining sewer pump stations and pipes are operating at, and sometimes over, capacity, but also refused to consider her proposal to rebid the city’s health insurance and stop-loss contract, which she claims could have saved $1 million per year. Burrell said the deadline had passed.
But while offering little detail, Wilson claims she’s uncovered “all kinds of stuff” unfavorable to the City Council, the city attorney and the previous administration, not limited to an alleged “fraud” of Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds whereby the city repaired a broken sewer main and built a “mack daddy” pump station on private property, in anticipation of private development.
“The main concern when you look at all this is why the council and city attorney are aiding the claimants, and that should be the biggest concern,” Wilson reiterated about the text messages in a brief follow-up interview Tuesday. “There is absolutely nothing to this — [Elias and I] had a lot of talks before we even had a scope of work, because we were going to use them for a lot of purposes.”
Meanwhile, after the council denied her formal request to hire Satterwhite on June 26, Wilson said she has appointed him as “attorney for the office of the mayor” using her own source of funding.
“When all this unfolds, you’ll see this was definitely about the overarching story — the council’s intention is to keep people distracted and the media has perpetuated it.”