The Fairhope City Council got through a work session and meeting Monday without sniping or shouting among themselves and Mayor Karin Wilson. But fallout continued from a previous meeting that was marked by heated argument over a contract to evaluate the city utility system.
The firm that won the contract at the Jan. 9 meeting, HMR, withdrew Monday. Company president Scott Hutchinson read aloud HMR’s letter of withdrawal, which Council President Jack Burrell said he received just a couple of minutes before the start of the work session.
Hutchinson said he reviewed a video of the Jan. 9 work session that included shouting among Burrell, Wilson and Councilman Kevin Boone over Wilson’s recommendation that an out-of-town firm should get the contract. He said it was “very uncomfortable to watch,” and that he feared HMR was being used as “a political football.”
In addition, he said, the scope of work to be included in the contract had been changed late last week. The final cost depended on negotiations between HMR and Wilson once a firm had been approved by the council.
Hutchinson said HMR was well-qualified to do the work. As a Fairhope resident, he said the decision to decline the contract was difficult but was in the best interests of HMR. “Believe me when I say that I want what’s best for Fairhope, but I also want what’s best for HMR,” he said.
The evaluation of sewer, water and natural gas capacities and needs is considered crucial to managing the city’s growth. The council has issued a moratorium on new residential subdivision and multi-family project applications.
The last several council gatherings have been marked by arguments and criticism among council members and Wilson over several different issues. HMR’s withdrawal Monday left Wilson and the council looking for a fourth consultant to do the work.
Wilson’s original selection didn’t get a second and never came to a vote as council members questioned the firm’s qualifications. The second firm she recommended, from the Tuscaloosa area, set off the Jan. 9 confrontation, with council members saying they wanted to do business locally. The council then substituted HMR and approved it during its regular meeting.
This time around, there was no shouting. Council members and Wilson tossed out names of several locally based consultants and quietly settled on the firm of Goodwyn Mills Cawood, a Southeast regional architectural and engineering operation with offices in Mobile and Fairhope.
A “bizarre” resignation
However, when council members asked who had changed the scope of the work last week, they were told it was Scott Sligh, who resigned last Friday after what was reportedly less than a week on the job as Fairhope’s director of operations.
The position was intended to supervise the utilities department as well as handling other other duties. Former Mayor Tim Kant also served as utilities superintendent, and that position had been vacant since Wilson took office in November.
In a letter to council members Burrell said he received Monday, Sligh said he resigned because “there has been a turn of events in my personal life in which my family will need me at home more, not less.” He wrote that he would be returning to his previous position at Riviera Utilities and that his family “must take top priority, always.”
Sligh served as Fairhope’s electric superintendent before leaving for Riviera Utilities in 2015. In his lengthy letter, he pointed out problems in the utility system, praised Wilson and defended her handling of what he called the “tree light debacle,” in which criticism of how holiday tree lights were strung led to a last-minute purchase of more lights.
The letter included at times cryptic language that seemed to refer to city politics. “Fairhope also lacks a strong network of employee resources and faces a real shortage of leadership in the employee ranks — possibly by prior design,” Sligh wrote.
In the final paragraph, Sligh said in part, “I know there are those who will believe otherwise no matter what I say, but I want to stress that my decision had nothing to do with her, her ideas, her personality or any other thing having to do with Mayor Wilson. Anyone who underestimates her resolve and determination does so at their own peril.”
Burrell called the letter “bizarre.” He said he thought Sligh was a good choice for the position and his hiring was one of the best decisions Wilson has made since taking office. But, he said, “I’ve never seen a resignation letter like this.”
Burrell also told Lagniappe that the council should consider making the job an appointed position, meaning the council would appoint someone as it does the city clerk, police chief and some other positions.
Sligh’s abrupt departure and how the job will be filled were not discussed during Monday’s meeting. Lagniappe could not reach Sligh for comment.