Less than a week after being replaced on the local utilities board, it was confirmed that Bayou la Batre City Council members George Ramires and Kimberlyn Barbour opted to step down from their positions due to an inquiry from Alabama Ethics Commission.
Hugh Evans, general counsel for the Ethics Commission, told Lagniappe the two had voted to appoint themselves to the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre in November of 2012 — a position compensated with a $4,800 annual stipend.
Based on information provided by the city, the use of “political power for personal gain” would indeed be a violation of Alabama ethics code.
“That matter came before the commission and the two individuals asked that their case be handled administratively,” Evans said. “We have to get it approved by District Attorney (Ashley Rich) and then we’ll levy a penalty.”
Evans didn’t specify what penalty might be assessed, but did say it would be handled in an open meeting of the Commission, most likely in December. The resignations for both council members took effect as of Oct. 1.
According to council minutes from Nov. 8, 2012, Ramires and Barbour did indeed vote themselves into the paid position, but did so in the presence of counsel, then city attorney Missty Gray. The written minutes don’t suggest that Gray’s opinion was sought on the vote and audio recordings of the meeting have since been destroyed.
The same set of minutes also documents councilmember Ida Mae Coleman voting in favor of herself to take the same position on the utilities board, however that motion ultimately failed. It is unclear why Coleman was not involved in the Ethics Commission’s query.
At its most recent meeting, the council voted to fill to vacancies on the utilities board with Coleman and councilmember Annette Johnson — both of whom nominated one another on Sept. 26. Ramires was alone in opposition to each nomination, while Coleman abstained from voting this time around, as did Johnson.
Some speculated that Mayor Brett Dungan was responsible for notifying the Ethics Commission about the two-year-old violations, an allegation later corroborated by Dungan himself after he traveled to Montgomery to attend the session where the issue was taken up. However, he said he wants to dispel rumors that he filed a “formal complaint.”
“We were going back though some of the actions the council had taken in previous minutes and came across some irregularities the mayor is bound by state law to disclose to the Ethics Commission,” he said. “The action was brought to the commission’s attention by me, not by a complaint filed.”
City attorney Bill Wasden said the mayor had “submitted a copy of the relevant council minutes from 2012 to the Ethics Commission, reflecting the votes in question. Both Wasden and Dungan cited Alabama Code Section 36-25-17, which states “every governmental agency head shall file a report within 10 days on any matters that come to his or her attention in his or her official capacity which constitute a violation.”
Despite some original concern over the wording of the law, Wasden said the commission staff confirmed mayors “were in fact required to submit such reports.” An Attorney General’s opinion was also sought on the matter, he added, which confirmed Barbour and Ramires’ votes were inappropriate.
“At the training sessions through the Alabama League of Municipalities they talked about violations of the Ethics Commission,” Dungan said. “It’s a requirement that a council member must go through at training program once they’re elected.”
Dungan said neither Ramires nor Barbour have attended those training sessions, which he claims would have given them “very practical guidance on these issues.”
Despite the confirmation that the votes in question violated state ethics code, several AG opinions – including the one sought by Bayou la Batre – are very clear that a city council “has no authority to remove a member of a utilities board.”
That’s one reason why Sylvia Raley, chairman of the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre, said she thinks decision to go to the Ethics Commission was a calculated one.
“He wants control of the utilities board,” Raley said. “He’s had a plan, and I guess he had to dig to find it. If he wants to see that things are done right within the city, why not sic Ethics Commission on other council members and things they’ve done including himself?”
Friction started between the two entities after the board filed suit to block a Dungan appointee intended to replace current board member Louis Hard. Since then, the have gone to court to ask a judge to decide between their conflicting ideas of what terms utility board members should adhere to.
For the time being, Hard remains on the board, which has also refused to recognize the council’s latest appointment, Jeff Ladnier, until a decision can be reached in court.
Hard, whom a former mayor appointed, was also among four board members who failed to second a motion by Ramires to hire Dungan as the superintendent of the utilities board shortly after he was elected – a position that comes with $24,000 salary.
Dungan acknowledged there are rumors circulating about the timing of the Ethics Commission’s involvement with the utilities board, but said he wanted to quash the notion that “the mayor is out for these people’s heads.”
“What the attorney (Wasden) did was disclose to the ethics commission what may or may not have been a violation of the law,” Dungan said. “I want to be very clear. The mayor never filed an ethics complaint against these people. The mayor is duty bound when there is information that comes to light.”