To steal a line from a great, old movie, it seems Fairhope is experiencing a failure to communicate. Or at least some city leaders feel this way.
Tension from a memo Karin Wilson sent to all city employees directing them to talk with her before speaking with any member of the City Council came to the surface at a Feb. 15 council meeting. Wilson contended councilmen were going behind her back and not only talking with city employees but directing them in their jobs.
At the root, she said, is a lack of communication between her and the council, one she said she has experienced every day since her election 18 months ago. Examples, she said, were too numerous to list.
During the Feb. 15 meeting Wilson mentioned two other issues where she felt communication was lacking, a budget amendment for employee raises and an agenda item giving the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival Foundation sole ownership of the longtime annual event.
Council President Jack Burrell said he had some communication issues of his own with Wilson.
“You complained that there were no communications,” Burrell said to Wilson. “People, let me tell you about some communications that we don’t get. I received phone calls from Realtors saying that the civic center is for sale. This building is for sale. Folks, the council is responsible for all of the real property in Fairhope. There was no communication with the council.”
Burrell went on to cite several other instances he’d heard the mayor was involved in or talking about while excluding the council.
Burrell’s comments set up the following exchange between him and the mayor:
WILSON: These are absolute, outright lies. Those are ideas and I said there was no way we’d ever do that. You’re the ones that’s spreading lies.
BURRELL: You didn’t see plans for this? You didn’t tell people that we were going to sell the civic center? I had a commercial Realtor call me because he wanted to know when we were selling the civic center. Are you calling him a liar?
MAYOR: These are all lies. Absolute lies. Discussing ideas is not making decisions.
Burrell added the city was trying to get a $10 million grant from the RESTORE Act council to improve city infrastructure, but none of the councilmen had received any communications or paperwork regarding the application.
As Burrell polled each of the councilmen, who in turn said they had seen nothing on the RESTORE Act grant, the mayor responded: “I’ve talked to every single one of you about it.”
“I guess we’re all five liars,” Burrell responded.
As for the mayor’s memo, each councilman disputed the claims they were directing city employees, arguing it was vital for employees to speak to them in order to decide policy for the city. Jay Robinson spoke first and each councilman agreed with his points.
“I read your comments and reasoning behind it and I respectfully disagree,” Robinson told Wilson. “What that memo does is takes away the council’s ability to get the information from the ground level and that’s really where most of it should come from. I have problems with it because it’s not a punishment to the council, it’s a burden to the employees and ultimately it’s going to be a burden to the citizens of Fairhope because they are the ones who are going to suffer from this.”
Burrell, singled out by Wilson in the memo for his lack of communication with the mayor and employees, said no council members are telling city employees how to do their jobs. He went so far as to say he feels like he’s received calls enticing him to make decisions for city workers.
“I get tons and tons of phone calls from employees asking for clarification,” Burrell said. “I’m extremely careful. Sometimes I think I’m being set up to direct them.
“Despite what you read there is no directing of city employees on a day-to-day basis. I would ask the mayor to reconsider that policy.”
As for the budget amendment on raises, Wilson said she again wasn’t in the loop.
“In the 2018 budget I proposed to do a bucket for a merit increase,” Wilson said. “It is now on the agenda without any communication with me. It’s not what I proposed, there was no conversation or engagement on this to make the right decision that I believe would be right for our city employees.”
Burrell, again, disagreed. The council passed the amendment to give every employee a 2 percent raise and set aside funds to award employees who excel with a merit raise.
“You said you weren’t consulted on the raises and I think we came up with an outstanding compromise in that every city employee will get some sort of raise,” he said. “And some of them will get merit raises, and I think that was the intention.”
Another sticking point for Wilson was the memorandum of understanding between the city and the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival Foundation. The mayor wanted the item pulled from the agenda to have more discussion with the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, whose role in the festival was diminished or eliminated.
Burrell interceded and told Wilson this was council discussion time, indicating she was speaking out of order.
“This is unbelievable,” the mayor said.
Lang Floyd of the festival foundation said there had been numerous discussions with all involved parties in recent months.
“I have to respectfully disagree with the mayor,” Floyd said. “The chamber has been engaged. They were at a roundtable discussion with the arts center, the downtown merchants, the foundation representatives. And the chamber had a representative there and said the chamber’s not going to be involved this year.”
Casey Gay Williams of the Eastern Shore Chamber agreed with Floyd’s assessment.
The council voted 5-0 to give the foundation sole ownership of the annual Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival for 2018-2020, or three years. The 66th annual Arts and Crafts Festival returns March 16-18 to the streets of downtown Fairhope.