Bayou la Batre Mayor Brett Dungan appears to be at the center of a recent complaint filed with the Alabama Ethics Commission — one that accuses Dungan of asking city personnel to fix damages caused by his personal vehicle at the local Waffle House.
Dungan, whose wife is legally handicapped, doesn’t deny striking a handicapped sign at the local business. However, he maintains that he didn’t ask anyone employed by the city to make the repairs to the sign.
“I struck a pole when parking at the Waffle House, and it was negligible,” Dungan said. “It was brought to my attention that there were city workers sent to make the repairs, but they were not dispatched by me and the city did not authorize them to do so.”
Dungan said the repair was authorized by City Clerk Jaime Abastoflor, who had discussed the issue with Jimmy Warren, head of the Bayou la Batre street department. Several weeks after the incident occurred, two street department employees were dispatched and made the repairs.
Abastoflor has since reimbursed the city for the cost of labor to repair the sign, which according to Dungan was less than $30.
“Because he’s a new city clerk, he didn’t realize the issues with that,” Dungan’s assistant Wanda Overstreet said. “It was a minor error in his judgement. I assume he thought it was OK because the Waffle House is one of the city’s providers of business income. It was also a priority because it was a handicapped space.”
Dungan said Abastoflor opted of his own volition to refund the money top the city.
Contrary to Dungan’s claims, the complaint suggests the mayor “ran over a curb and hit a handicap sign” and then “came back into the store and, according to the manager of Waffle House, told him not to worry that he would have someone come and repair the sign.”
The manager’s name was listed in the complaint, but Lagniappe has chosen not publish it, as several attempts to contact the manager both in person and over the phone were unsuccessful. Similar calls to the Bayou la Batre street department were also not returned.
A copy of the complaint was sent to Lagniappe along with pictures of two street department employees in the process of fixing the sign Oct. 27. By practice, state ethics officials neither confirm nor deny the existence of complaints or investigations due to grand jury secrecy rules.
If a complaint is received, the commission will review its merits initially and if warranted, begin an investigation — a process that can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the complexity of the situation.
Hugh Evans, general counsel for the Alabama Ethics Commission, said he was aware of the situation but couldn’t comment other than to say, “We have 180 days to get a matter resolved. If we had something on an issue like that, I would expect something around February.”
“As a general rule you can’t use public funds, equipment and personnel to do work on private property, but their are always exceptions,” Lori Lien of the Alabama League of Municipalities said. “That’s according to the public purpose doctrine.”
Several attorney general’s opinions have been issued on the public purpose doctrine, but none specifically address damage caused by a personal vehicle. Lien said if a city is performing work and damages private property, public funds can be used to fix the damage, but said that wouldn’t apply in a non-official capacity.
When asked about a hypothetical situation similar to one at the Bayou la Batre Waffle House, Lien said “that would definitely be factually driven.”
Dungan admitted last month to his role in a report to the ethics commission that resulted in the resignation of two Bayou la Batre City Council members from the Bayou la Batre Utilities board.
He said then that it was his “responsibility” to report that two city councilmembers had inadvertently voted to appoint themselves to the paid position two years ago. However, he calls the most recent ethics complaint a “needless distraction.”
“It’s funny,” Dungan said. “With all the positive things happening in Bayou la Batre, for like saving $1 million in taxpayer money last year. This is kind of a non issue,” he said.
*Updated at 12:25 p.m., Nov. 17, to correct a misattributed quote and to clarify that Dungan’s wife, not Dungan, is handicapped.*