John Manelos didn’t have anything negative to say about Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson, but he thinks if he can beat the incumbent in the Aug. 25 municipal election, he can do a better job than she has. In a packet of personal information and policy Q&As he handed to a reporter over coffee earlier this month, he pointed out how one of the primary goals of his campaign is to “build consensus and seek compromise” between the mayor’s office and City Council.
By choosing to enter the mayoral race, Manelos implies Wilson is at fault and the buck stops there.
If you haven’t heard of him before the race, there’s probably a reason why. Manelos only retired to Fairhope in 2012, after a seven-year stint as an officer in the Houston Police Department in Texas, followed by a 28-year career in corporate security with BP. He started up a paddle board business after retirement, but closed it after just making a few wholesale board sales and giving away many hours of lessons, he said.
He began getting involved with local community organizations, and eventually Wilson herself recommended he join the Fairhope Personnel Board. Manelos obliged, telling Lagniappe he later began attending City Council meetings to get a better grasp on municipal politics. While he was initially satisfied sitting in “the cheap seats,” over time he began to realize he could make more of a difference in an elected position himself.
“I think if you ask any citizen in Fairhope that’s tuned in, there’s probably three things that really concern them, and I’ve listed all three of them in my top five goals,” he said. “The first is the discord going on in city government.”
It’s a little dated, but among the documents in Manelos’ press packet was a 2000 article by Ken Smith, who at the time was the director of legal services at the Alabama League of Municipalities.
“The primary factor in success in municipal government lies in the working relationship between the mayor and the City Council. Accomplishing a goal, providing the city or town with the best municipal government possible, requires a harmonious working relationship.”
“I’m not going to cast any stones at any particular individual,” he said. “But I think most citizens know that’s not going on.”
Although the League of Municipalities clearly outlines the role of the council and the mayor in cities like Fairhope, Manelos said if the six elected officials aren’t working harmoniously, “the things that really need to get done don’t get done.”
Case in point: getting a handle on the city’s problem with sanitary sewer overflows. Manelos’ second goal is “protecting natural resources” — namely the bay — by making critical infrastructure improvements “our greatest priority.” He acknowledged the strides the Wilson administration has made in the past four years, but he wants to go further, proposing to accelerate utilities upgrades and create an environmental officer position similar to one filled in the neighboring city of Daphne.
Late last year, Daphne Utilities reached a settlement agreement with the state of Alabama in a lawsuit targeting its sanitary sewer overflows. Despite the more than $10 million of investment Fairhope has pumped into its sewer upgrades since Wilson took office, the state filed a similar lawsuit against Fairhope earlier this year.
His third goal is “preserving culture and community” by managing growth. While he admits property owners have very defined inalienable rights in the state of Alabama, he believes zoning ordinances and building codes should be strictly enforced, variances should only be granted in limited circumstances and “architectural standards and controls” can soften the aesthetic impact between new development and old.
Manelos said those problems and others — including a work climate that doesn’t foster employee retention and a perception there are two classes of citizens — have been a stain on the city, often making it seem as if the only widespread news produced from Fairhope is bad news.
On the issues, he’ll accept the mayor’s salary, which increases to $85,000 per year next term, but like Wilson, will deny the additional “utilities superintendent” salary that former Mayor Tim Kant collected. Like Wilson, he’s hesitant to put the “Triangle” property in a conservation easement, but would like it to remain as green as possible. Like Wilson, he favors additional staffing, but is awaiting the results of an independent study currently underway by Auburn University to determine the best use of employee talent and more effective job descriptions.
As a member of the Personnel Board, he encouraged the city to create a “safety coordinator” position, which was recently filled in an effort “to create a safety culture” among municipal employees.
Unlike Wilson, he would prefer a $6.2 million grant-funded project to enhance the pier and surrounding parks exclude the bluffs along South Beach Park, where the city is planning to “stabilize” the bluffs with steppes and provide ADA and access. He also believes the proposed new beach is unnecessary and parking spaces and traffic patterns should remain as is.
If there’s an elephant in the room it may be his career at BP, but Manelos said he had no involvement in the events leading up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, although for the next two years he was part of a “small leadership team” that created the 40,000-member Gulf Coast Restoration Organization to focus on the cleanup effort.
Before the spill, his job title was regional security advisor in BP’s Global Security Group, where he conducted investigations into fraud and conflicts of interest, provided vulnerability assessments, risk mitigation strategies, anti-terrorism and kidnapping training and executive protection and threat assessments.
Lagniappe filed a public records request for Manelos’ time with the Houston Police Department. Last week, the city provided 92 pages from his personnel file, the majority of which were positive performance reviews and letters of commendation from citizens and his superiors. He was written up once for damaging a police cruiser in a minor accident during a call.
“I’ve approached the mayor and council the same: friendly, encouraging, trying to be helpful,” he said. “We can’t accomplish these major issues without the mayor’s position and council — not always in harmony — but you can disagree without being disagreeable. What I’ve told our mayor is, ‘I’m running for mayor, I’m not running against you.’ Mayor Wilson has done good things and I support many of those … but this isn’t just a city for the six elected officials and employees; this is all of our city and there are additional ways to get people involved.”
Qualification for municipal elections ends Tuesday, July 21. The municipal elections will be held Tuesday, Aug. 25. Lagniappe will provide profiles of all the contested candidates in the coming weeks.
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