After weeks in limbo, the Bayou la Batre City Council appointed a new mayor on Thursday. Councilwoman Annette Johnson will be sworn into office on Aug. 18, officially taking the place of former Mayor Brett Dungan, who resigned in July.
The council voted 3-0 to put Johnson at the helm of the city, with Johnson herself and Councilwoman Ida Mae Coleman abstaining. As was the case after Dungan’s resignation, the council will have 60 days to fill the council seat Johnson vacated, and if they are unable to reach a consensus, Gov. Robert Bentley could be tapped to make the appointment.In her first remarks to the press as mayor, Johnson continued discussing the city’s financials as she has for months — vowing to be more open and frugal than the previous administration.
“We have limited revenue coming in right now, and we need to live within that as much as possible,” Johnson said. “We’ve extended our borrowing power to try to stabilize things, but we need to now realize there’s going to be some tightening of the belt in some areas.”
In June, Lagniappe reported that Bayou la Batre collects anywhere from $100,000 to $140,000 in revenue each month but has recurring expenses of around $125,000. Just this past week the council approved the city’s administration to pull excess monies from a patchwork of accounts to cover a gap in the general fund needed to make payroll.
The city is also in the process of requesting a delay on a $185,000 bond payment due in September for a dredging project that was performed in 1996.
Despite the financial concerns, Johnson said she’s confident in the city employees’ willingness to work in an effort to keep costs down, but she also said the council is going to do what it can to meet their needs and to seek out “any other outside funding.”
Since March and until his resignation, Dungan’s spending has been heavily scrutinized by Johnson and a majority of the city council, who even went as far as passing a resolution restricting him to a budget of “$0.” Critics and supporters of Dungan’s accused Johnson of playing politics in an attempt to micromanage the city, and possibly seek the mayoral seat for herself.
However, Johnson said on Thursday she has always acted in the best interest of the city.
“Mayor Dungan was a true visionary. He had a lot of interest and motivation to do many things in our community, but you have to meet your budget throughout the year to do these things,” Johnson said. “Our council has to take into consideration that we may have lots of wonderful ideas, but if you have to take from your general fund to do those things, you’re going to shortchange the actual operation and the administration of your city.”
The true financial shape of Bayou la Batre has been somewhat of a mystery over the last two years. Records requests from this publication, citizens and council members often went unanswered. In April, the council passed a resolution demanding a “proper balance sheet” from former City Clerk Jaime Abastoflor that was never received.
Johnson said that lack of transparency and communication is something she hopes to improve.
“What we’re trying to focus on is everybody being aware of everything,” Johnson said. “We’ve actually brought the costs of operating the city to the forefront, where as it’s been handled so many times in the past administratively — privately worked out in the mayor’s office.”
Even with the desire to more forward, Johnson said addressing of some of those financial concerns may require digging back into things that happened during Dungan’s administration — including an investigation into an unauthorized $50,000 loan Dungan and Abastoflor obtained in December 2014.
On Thursday evening, the council voted to formally request Regions Bank investigate the documents that set up that loan, documents that were only seen by the council after the loan was finalized.
Regions was also asked to stop drafting the interest payments for that loan automatically from the city’s Fire Truck Acquisition Account — a process Johnson said Dungan also set up without the council’s knowledge.
With financial concerns on the horizon and a vacant city council seat, Johnson said she has confidence in the current council, which appears to be unified for the first time in months.
“We have a very strong council, and everybody has worked really hard to get these kinds of things worked out,” Johnson said. “It is important now that we get some stability and calmness of spirit within our community, and I appreciate the opportunity to serve in that capacity.”