After four years of political turmoil, both candidates running for mayor in Bayou La Batre are hoping to rebuild the people’s trust in their local leadership.
Incumbent Annette Johnson took the job last August after former Mayor Brett Dungan resigned in the middle of a tumultuous year culminating in his arrest for harassment last summer.
Those charges were dropped but made Dungan the second consecutive Bayou La Batre mayor to stand trial while in office. His predecessor, Stan Wright, was removed from the position in 2013 after being convicted of multiple federal criminal charges.
Johnson told Lagniappe instability has undoubtedly hurt Bayou La Batre’s image, but she also said it has made banks and lenders “nervous” — something she’s worked to address to help maintain the city’s borrowing power and its ability to seek and obtain grant funding.
“If I’ve done anything in the past few months, it’s been to continually protect that financial rating so we don’t have issues in the future with the city government, whoever it is,” Johnson said. “That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a significant issue when you’re trying to secure funding for your municipality.”
Johnson was appointed mayor by the City Council following Dungan’s resignation, but in her first campaign to secure the seat she’ll face a challenger in Terry Downey, a retired plumber and pipefitter, former union leader and member of the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority (BLBHA).
Like Johnson, Downey is looking to move forward and, as his campaign slogan suggests, “renew faith in leadership” in the Bayou. However, Downey said he and Johnson have different ideas about what the future of the city holds and how to get there.
“To me, having credit down at the bank doesn’t mean you’ve got a balanced budget. I’ve been a labor guy all my life, but you can’t give raises when you’re not sure of what your budget is going to be,” Downey said. “My goal when I leave office is to have a balanced budget and to make sure what we went through before with the previous administration doesn’t happen again.”
Specifically, Downey discussed a $300,000 line of credit the city tapped at the end of 2015 but has since paid off. According to Johnson, the city has only borrowed money when necessary and is currently maintaining a debt load of less than $300,000.
Other than city finance, the most glaring difference between the candidates seems to be in their respective plans to increase housing options in the city. The difference will also affect the future of Safe Harbor subdivision — a city-owned property originally constructed with FEMA funds after Hurricane Katrina.
The BLBHA holds a lease on the property which is up for renewal in November, though city officials have already entertained the idea of turning management of Safe Harbor over to another organization and selling some of the development’s vacant lots to private owners.
Downey, however, has joined BLBHA Executive Director Virginia Huddleston in opposing that plan, as he said increasing the number of rental properties in the city is a better option.
“We approached the council to turn the other lots over to [BLBHA] like every other housing authority in the country, but they’ve not wanted to do that,” Downey said. “If we had a long-term lease, we could get people into houses without attachment and build more rental units.”
Johnson said she would like to see more home ownership, adding that available U.S. Department of Agriculture loans could help subsidize mortgage rates for families. However, those federal dollars wouldn’t be available in the city’s floodplain.
According to Johnson, the city needs land that’s “high and dry” like the area at Safe Harbor, but that has some worried they could lose their spot in the subdivision. Johnson, though, says those those concerns are being “stirred up” by others and accused the management at Safe Harbor of acting to protect “a $69,000 a year job.”
“I don’t like my community disrupted by people saying there’s going to be certain things taking place when it’s absolutely not true,” she said. “I don’t have a desire to put anybody out of a home. This is about getting people in homes.”
Recently, BLBHA members have been holding open meetings with the City Council to discuss options going forward. But while there is certainly political division over the issue, Safe Harbor is still a city asset and the decision over the lease will ultimately come down to the City Council.
However, with Johnson facing an opponent in Downey and four of five council seats also being challenged, the municipal election on Aug. 23 could significantly impact Safe Harbor’s future.