Cuts to the WAVE Transit System, public safety and the future of the city’s water board are all top issues as five candidates have registered for Prichard’s mayoral election in August.
Incumbent Mayor Troy Ephriam is facing challenges from candidates including former mayors Ron Davis and Charles Harden, former police chief Jimmie Gardner and local business owner Mike Sellers.
Gardner, who was fired by Ephriam shortly after the 2012 election, said public safety is his top priority and added the instability at the police chief position was concerning. After Gardner’s initial replacement, Jerry Speziale, quit to return home to New Jersey, Ephriam has brought in a slew of interim chiefs including Mike Rowland, who the City Council refused to confirm.
“Public safety is one of the most vital things,” Gardner said. “The city is in a very bad situation.”
Gardner said while the police department lacks solid leadership, the fire department is short on trucks and personnel.
“You can’t ask other agencies to come in and deal with it,” he said. “You have to provide services and that hasn’t happened.”
Sellers, who worked as a reserve officer under Speziale, agreed that public safety should be the top priority. Sellers said he would promote a police chief from within for the purpose of stability, which is something Ephriam didn’t do.
“I think if I took office today, I’d appoint someone from inside who had knowledge of the city,” Sellers said. “[Speziale] was a good guy, but he didn’t know the area.”
Ephriam said he promised to make public safety a priority when he defeated Davis in 2012 and he kept that promise. Despite the loss of Speziale and other interim police chiefs, Ephriam said the occurrence of communal crimes such as assault or burglary is declining.
“Despite the turnover of chiefs, we’ve been able to build relationships with the FBI and the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives],” Ephriam said. “These agencies have worked with the city to reduce our crime numbers.”
While Davis said public safety was a “big concern,” he also brought up WAVE Transit’s decision to cut all routes to Prichard save for the federally funded hub, which he said was built during his eight years in office.
“The plan was to develop a transportation authority of our own and apply for grants to set it up,” Davis said. “That’s my plan.”
Davis added he wasn’t surprised when Mobile decided to cut the service. He said there had “been a rumble out there that it would happen over the last five or six years.”
“The city missed an opportunity to use BP funds for a match on a grant for bus service,” he said.
Harden, who was mayor from 2000 to 2004, said he was part of a group of people who tried to convince Mobile City Council members, including Vice President Fred Richardson, to change his mind on the WAVE vote due to the amount of money Prichard residents spend in Mobile every day.
“Since Prichard has no tax base, everything we buy comes from Mobile,” Harden said. “Prichard buys enough to pay for the bus service.”
On losing the routes, Ephriam said Mobile’s decision was forced on Prichard and he did everything he could to prevent it.
“It’s easy to say what you could do,” Ephriam said. “We acted on the information we had and did everything in our power, but that was the hand that was dealt to us.”
As for the more than $630,000 in BP funds, Ephriam said he did the right thing by applying them to the day-to-day operations of the city.
In an effort to replace the service, the city is going into the third month of its agreement with Comfort Coach, which he said is providing service on the routes WAVE cut in April.
Ephriam also touts his work in bringing Love’s truck stop and a new Hardee’s to town. He said he was also integral in leading the revitalization efforts on Wilson Avenue in the city’s downtown. Davis said Wilson Avenue plans were in the works before he left office, while Harden said the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization deserves most of the credit.
The city’s Water Works and Sewer Board is a concern for those running for office because residents have been complaining about increasingly high water bills. Voters in a referendum last year decided to allow the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System to take over the board, but MAWSS later declined. The board also recently parted ways with its management company, Severn Trent, and is now managing the day-to-day operations itself.
The board is also in the middle of a legal battle over who is the board’s true chairman. This fight could decide whether it goes forward with the placement of its own wells or continues to buy water from MAWSS.
Ephriam, who admitted the mayor’s office has little control over the board, has asked the authority for a rate study to help residents with high bills.
Gardner said as mayor he would work with the board to come up with a plan to fix its issues.
“We do not have a relationship with the board,” Gardner said. “The performance of the board is falling short … based on the fact there’s no relationship between the city and board.”
Davis said he wants to go in a completely different direction with the board. He said he wants the council to stop making appointments to it, which would allow the city to take control.
Prichard’s municipal elections will be held Tuesday, Aug. 23.