To be fair, maybe Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway could have toned down the rhetoric in a July 30 news release about a viral video purporting to show untreated sewage floating on the surface of Mobile Bay. To be equally fair, maybe Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson could’ve used a different approach than to — after Callaway didn’t acknowledge Wilson’s email for a week — go over Callaway’s head and express her concerns to Baykeeper’s entire board of directors.
Publicly, it ended in a stalemate at the City Council meeting Monday night when Council President Jack Burrell interrupted the two after they suggested simply picking up a phone and calling each other next time. Separately, both said they remain committed to working together.
The dispute began July 30, two days after the video was widely circulated on Facebook and after the city and Baykeeper independently investigated and found no evidence of a sewer spill. Although the water was not sampled for nearly a day after the video was uploaded, Baykeeper announced the resulting tests indicated low levels of bacteria and no trace of any surface effluent.
Callaway told the council the key message of the news release was to encourage the public to report suspected sewer spills. Mobile Baykeeper, she said, was only notified of the video about 12 hours after it was uploaded. Even though it had been viewed hundreds of times, Callaway said she was actually the first person to call the city to report a suspected spill.
“If you don’t report a problem you can’t solve a problem,” she said.
The news release also encouraged readers to sponsor Baykeeper’s water testing program, saying it encourages utilities to invest more in aging, compromised infrastructure, where stormwater infiltration is listed as the cause of 75 percent of reported sewer spills.
But then Callaway got personal.
“Without adequate staffing and resources, utilities don’t have any defense against these overflows,” she said in the news release. “Fairhope being named the No. 2 most polluted beach for 2018 is not an accolade we want for our community or Mobile Bay. Reporting pollution concerns, adding more test sites and peaking up to elected officials will ensure investments are made to clean up Mobile Bay.”
In an interview with Lagniappe July 31, Wilson called the news release “extremely frustrating” and “irresponsible” during a period of weeks where the city was subjected to several negative reports about its water quality.
“There’s no reason not to tell the whole story,” she said. “You can still be the whistleblower. And [Callaway] knows that Fairhope is doing more than any other municipality for the rehabilitation of our sewer, and she doesn’t say anything? It’s mind-blowing to me.”
Behind the scenes, Wilson had fired off an email to Callaway calling the news release “nothing but propaganda, fundraising tactics and taking credit for the hard work of those who are actually working to resolve the problems.”
Copying Public Works Director Richard Johnson, Operations Supervisor Richard Peterson and Director of Economic and Community Development Jessica Walker, Wilson wrote: “It’s exhausting spending unnecessary time responding to so many who read stuff like this thinking there is nothing being done … The last thing we need is the belief that simply complaining and pointing the finger is the solution … Fairhope is doing our part with an aggressive 5-year plan … [Baykeeper] is not ‘driving us to make critical investments in upgrading our facilities, lines, lift stations…’ my administration is.”
Callaway explained she did not immediately respond to Wilson’s email because it “didn’t make sense in terms of what we said.”
On Aug. 7, Wilson wrote to Callaway again, this time on city letterhead and copying Baykeeper’s board of directors.
The news release “was written in typical Baykeeper fashion – to mislead the reader and promote scare tactics,” Wilson wrote, accusing the organization of distributing “divisive propaganda” and encouraging “constant finger-pointing.”
She shared a timeline of the progress her administration has made in sewer investment since late 2017, arguing the system was “neglected” by the previous mayor and council.
“There was no plan in place before I took office. There was no funding in place for the massive needs. In less than three years, both are in place and work has begun. Rather than focus on “gotcha” news releases, it would be so refreshing for Baykeeper to try a positive campaign that citizens, municipalities, businesses and other organizations can really get behind, support and affect meaningful change,” Wilson wrote.
After the meeting Monday, Callaway said she didn’t understand Wilson’s objections to the news release.
“It’s not our job to tell everyone everything Fairhope is doing, it’s our job to inform the community where there are problems and how to solve them,” she said. “Fairhope is doing great work to solve pollution problems and we are talking about it consistently, but we are also talking about when there are problems, there is a way to engage the community to do something about it.”
In an Aug. 9 letter perhaps best summarized as “sorry, not sorry,” Callaway formally responded to Wilson’s emails, copying Baykeeper’s board, the Fairhope City Council, attorney Matt McDonald and publisher Paul Ripp.
“We want to clarify that our purpose in sending the press release was twofold: 1) explicitly state that the substance filmed in the Bay was unknown, and 2) encourage community members to call when they see problems so that any concerns can be addressed quickly,” Callaway wrote. “These are goals I feel confident we both share. We also want to state clearly that we are thrilled that your administration is focusing on infrastructure and the health of the waterways that run through the city of Fairhope into Mobile Bay.”
The letter continued to throw subtle shade by reminding the mayor about legal intervention Baykeeper has taken against other municipalities in the past, mentioning, “Even though … Fairhope has reported sewage spills of 265,999 gallons year to date, 345,892 gallons in 2018 and 869,394 gallons in 2017, we believe you are attempting to implement a plan to address the issues .…”
Callaway also pointed out Baykeeper frequently and voluntarily collaborates with the city on many projects and issues, including as recently as last weekend when Baykeeper was notified of unpermitted construction on private property along Fly Creek, passing information along to responsive city staff, who shut the project down.
“We appreciate your concern about the unfair portrayal of the city of Fairhope, but we have to disagree with your conclusion that we have treated you or the city unfairly. We think a quick review of our past public statements on this issue would demonstrate that we are interested only in protecting our bay, not in playing ‘gotcha,’” she said.
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