The decision by Mayor Karin Wilson to fire two well-known city employees led to the City Council instituting a temporary hiring freeze Monday, and seemed to leave the city divided.
Some 300 people turned out for a special called council meeting, spilling out into the lobby where a monitor showed the meeting for those who didn’t want to stand along the walls inside. Judging from the applause, the crowd seemed split between supporters of the council — or the fired employees — and the mayor.
On Friday, Wilson fired Public Works Director Jennifer Fidler and Community Affairs Director Sherry Sullivan, two longtime city employees well-known to many city residents. Word of the decision quickly made its way around the city and was a subject of contentious debate on social media throughout the weekend.
“The council has received hundreds of calls, texts and emails,” said Kevin Boone, who presided over the special meeting. Boone said council members had no knowledge of the firings until after the fact. The hiring freeze could last up to 60 days, or “until the council has the opportunity to meet with the mayor to discuss these issues.” The issues include the mayor’s overall vision for the city, he said.
Council President Jack Burrell was out of town Monday and Councilman Jay Robinson, an attorney, was reported to be in court. The three councilors who constituted a quorum and voted for the hiring freeze were Boone, Robert Brown and Jimmy Conyers.
“I realize there are a lot of people that are upset right now,” Wilson said before the vote. “I do want everyone in this room and the citizens of Fairhope to know that although I cannot talk about this issue because of liability from the city and out of respect for Sherry and Jennifer, I made this decision based on something that came up, and it was very hard decision. I cannot be specific, but I can say that it was a situation that would prevent me from doing my job successfully.”
Fidler and Sullivan did not respond Monday to messages left seeking comment. Since Wilson took office in November, Planning and Zoning Director Jonathan Smith left the city, and her newly hired operations director, Scott Sligh, resigned after less than a week on the job.
Within hours of the terminations Friday, former Mayor Tim Kant took to his Facebook page to criticize Wilson’s actions. Wilson defeated Kant in the August elections.
“I’ve been hoping that the transition of our new mayor and council would be up [sic] a smooth transition,” Kant wrote. “The only reason I am on Facebook tonight it’s [sic] because Jennifer Fidler and Sherry Sullivan have been the most dedicated employees to the citizens of Fairhope. And for the mayor to just outright fire both tonight it’s just unbelievable. My prayers go out to the the city of Fairhope.”
The council’s action forced City Attorney Marion “Tut” Wynne into an afternoon of research as to whether the council’s action was legal. He concluded the hiring freeze is legal and, because it is temporary, Wilson cannot veto it.
The hiring freeze excludes the following positions: a new police officer; a new building inspector; and part-time or seasonal workers.