Fairhope Mayor-elect Sherry Sullivan said she has aspired to lead her hometown since she was in high school. She had other aspirations, but those changed when she became pregnant with her first child.
She returned home to raise her daughter and took a job at Thomas Hospital until 2000, when she accepted an offer to join the city as community affairs director. She served under three mayors — albeit briefly under two — before she was fired by Mayor Karin Wilson in 2017.
Rumors quickly spread about her possible mayoral campaign in 2020, but Sullivan said she was focused on serving in other capacities. She made an appearance at a 2018 City Council meeting in support of former Police Chief Joe Petties — who claimed he was forced into retirement by Wilson — and told Lagniappe people had encouraged her to run, “but 2020 is a long way off.”
After she was fired by Wilson — the Council admitted the mayor had a “right to terminate” Sullivan and two other department heads, but it enacted a brief hiring freeze afterward because members believed it was not done “with cause” — she worked for an internet company, Foley Main Street and most recently, Riviera Utilities.
“I really enjoy being part of a larger organization and being part of a larger team and serving the community and some people may be wired differently, but I just love the government,” she said in a conversation with Lagniappe Aug. 14. “When I went into work for the city I was able to learn about communications, events, disasters — I got to interact with every department and get that experience — plus I was able to see the things that needed improvement. I enjoyed the energy rush and how busy you are, and that you’re really serving the people and you’re able to make a difference. I like to feel like I’m contributing to the greater good.”
Pointing to the budget in particular, Sullivan acknowledged some things had improved under the Wilson administration. But she said she was ultimately compelled to campaign for mayor this year because “I just don’t feel like we can have four more years of learning on the job,” and, “there’s been so much in-fighting in Fairhope when we need to build relationships and do what needs to be done with staffing. I can come in and hit the ground running from day one.”
She can’t talk about her firing in any detail — a confidential settlement agreement was reached after she filed a notice of claim against the city — but she insisted her campaign was based solely on her desire to serve, as well as an interest in uniting the mayor’s office, the council and city staff.
She is also aware of several other rumors swirling about her candidacy, including an alleged allegiance to former Mayor Tim Kant and the former Baldwin County political “machine” known as Catalyst, which has been portrayed as very pro-growth and development. She doesn’t evade those questions.
“I appreciate the opportunities that [Kant] gave me, but at the end of the day, we didn’t agree on everything,” she said. “He had his management style and I have a different management style. Catalyst was nothing more than a political consulting group, and it does not exist anymore.”
Former Catalyst partner Scott Boone, son of Fairhope City Councilman Kevin Boone, did manage Sullivan’s campaign under the name of his new company Boone Consulting, but Sullivan said it was a good fit.
“They did not hand-pick me by any means. I hired him mainly because I really wanted to run a grassroots campaign,” she said. “I feel like I know enough people in town who can help do that, but I didn’t want to run myself crazy. I want to be hands-on, I’m trying to meet a lot of volunteers, I want to call people back, I want to answer their emails, I want to do my social media, but I don’t want to do paperwork. I don’t know what all those campaign rules are and I jumped in at the last minute, so my head was spinning.”
Indeed, Sullivan was the last to enter what became a four-person race on July 20, just before the qualification period closed. On her first campaign finance report filed two weeks later, she reported more than $32,000 in contributions, more than four times the incumbent or challenger John Manelos, who was the first to announce his campaign.
Over the ensuing weeks, only a handful of contributions from businesses and political action committees stood out — $2,500 from Hix & Snedeker LLC, $1,000 from DVA Holdings Company PAC, $2,000 from the South Alabama PAC for Higher Education — but otherwise they were individual contributions of $2,500 or less. Gov. Kay Ivey’s Chief of Staff Jo Bonner and State Sen. Chris Elliott even contributed to Sullivan’s campaign.
She wouldn’t characterize herself as pro-growth, but Sullivan believes growth is certain, and it’s up to the citizens to decide how they want to manage it.
“A lot of people want to slow growth and that’s fine for people to say, but it’s also kind of a double edged sword,” she said. “If you put the things in place that will help you slow growth like the high impact fees or more stringent regulations, then you risk people like my daughter’s age not being able to afford to move back here because you’ve increased property values so high. I’m not sure there’s a great solution to slowing growth because growth is inevitable. But I do think being able to communicate respectfully to people and being able to bring all the players to the table to have reasonable conversation, you can at least help guide that growth in the way that you can measure.”
She noted the Fairhope Planning Department is currently under the supervision of its third director since Wilson took office and “there are probably some subdivision regulations and other things that need to be reevaluated to make sure they’re meeting our current needs.”
Behind Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Fairhope has the third highest average median home price in Baldwin County, around $306,000 according to the University of South Alabama’s Center for Real Estate and Economic Development. Sullivan said it’s important to offer “a diversity of housing” to cater to first-time homeowners and young families as well as higher income individuals and retirees.
“If you move here and you want to live on the bay and can afford it, great, but if you want a big house on the creek you ought to be able to have that or if you’re a new home buyer, you ought to be able to have that,” she said. “So, I just think that it’s important that no matter what we do, we provide a diversity of housing. I think it all boils down to being able to communicate with your developers, being able to talk to engineers and talk to people who come in work with your planning staff, and make sure they know, make sure it’s communicated and very transparent about the vision.”
Sullivan said she’s interested to see the results of a compensation study undertaken by Auburn University that is due to the city in September, but among her immediate priorities would be evaluating staffing levels and responsibilities.
“If elected first and foremost I would meet with all the department heads and staff and talk about issues that I’ve been hearing while I’m out on the campaign,” she said. “I know utilities and staffing can be increased. It’s not only wastewater we’re having issues with, there are issues with gas, water and wastewater. You’ve got to make sure we have the right personnel in place, and the right management in place to hold those employees accountable if those things are not being done. And we have not had that we’ve had too much turnover, and we have lost a lot of institutional knowledge.”
Sullivan said she is also in favor of putting at least a portion of the city-owned “Dyas Triangle” under a conservation easement to ensure it’s not developed in the future. She said with the city’s recent purchase of additional parkland off County Road 32 but no plan to develop it, there is also a need for a comprehensive plan for parks and recreation. But primarily, she’s interested in building consensus.
“Initially I will be meeting with the staff, of course, and with the City Council, letting them know what my expectations are and just communicating,” she said. “And depending on who’s elected, getting to know those council members and making sure we’re all on the same page that and that we can work together.”
All incumbents on the City Council won re-election, but Jimmy Conyers was unopposed. The only newcomer to the council is Corey Martin, who ran unopposed for the seat vacated by Jay Robinson. Sullivan’s term begins in November. She will be paid a base salary of $85,000, but will also have the option of claiming an additional salary of $60,000 as superintendent of utilities.
Before the council approved a salary increase earlier this year, Wilson was paid $32,400 per year and declined the additional salary, but Sullivan said she was not yet familiar enough with the issue to pledge whether she’ll do the same. Elected officials are also entitled to participate in a family health insurance plan worth about $15,000 per year.
“I feel like between the relationships I have, the experience I have, and the community contacts I have, it will make me a good mayor,” she said. “I think I’m very approachable, hopefully easy to get along with, I’m somebody who is willing to listen and be respectful even if we don’t agree. I know how to have conversation and build a consensus among a group.”
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