New Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson promised change, and on Monday night she introduced some big ones.
Wilson proposed two new hires, an operations director and an economic and community development director, each with a salary ranging between $114,868 and $183,791. Without those positions, she said, “The alternative is that I will have to replace some people.”
The City Council approved the positions.
Wilson, who recently took office after defeating longtime incumbent Tim Kant, also announced she wants the city to take control of 251 acres of Airport Authority land and wants the city to direct the future of the airport.
In other council news, citizen activist and blogger Paul Ripp got into an acrimonious confrontation with Council President Jack Burrell over Ripp’s allegations of insider dealing involving an airport hangar.
Jobs already filled
Although the two new jobs must be posted for applications for a minimum of three days under personnel system rules, Wilson made it clear she had two candidates in mind. The name of the operations director was not made public, but that job includes the utilities superintendent post previously held by Kant along with some public works functions.
As for the economic and community development director, Wilson refused to answer questions from Lagniappe after the meeting, but Burrell confirmed the person Wilson wants to hire is Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop.
According to Botop’s LinkedIn page, she has been national vice president of Catholic Charities USA since April. Based in Washington, D.C., Botop previously served as executive director of the American Institute of Architects Foundation. From 2008-2011 she was vice president, advocacy and development, for Mercy Medical in Mobile.
Wilson said Botop was involved in Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts, and repeatedly sang her praises. She said the hire was part of “a plan that has never been seen in the history of Fairhope.”
Wilson said the position was needed because Fairhope spends “not one dollar” on tourism or economic development. She said the job needs to be filled quickly. Mayors have the option to bring in their own teams of supervisors and administrators when they take office, she said, but she didn’t want to replace any existing supervisor.
“I could have come in and said, ‘Thank you for your service, supervisors, but I’m going to bring my own team in,’” Wilson said.
Pandora Heathcoe, director of human resources, said the salary range was arrived at by comparing the salary levels of similar positions in 20 other cities. However, Personnel Board members indicated they would have to review the salary levels to ensure they comply with the city’s personnel system.
In response to questions from council members about the expense of the new positions, Wilson said they would pay for themselves by creating more profit in the city’s utility system and by bringing new businesses to Fairhope. The $60,000 salary paid to Kant as utilities supervisor and the salary of a recently retired city supervisor would defray some of the cost.
Although the council approved the positions on a unanimous vote with Kevin Boone absent, there was a bit of criticism. Councilman Robert Brown noted he did not receive job descriptions until about 2 p.m. Monday and did not appreciate how the matter had been handled. Brown noted the city has not passed a budget for the current fiscal year and is operating on an extension of the most recent budget. “We’re trusting you here,” he said.
Members of the news media did not receive the job descriptions in their agenda packets. Lagniappe made a verbal request for the descriptions as passed and received them Tuesday morning from the city clerk’s office.
Wilson said, as she did frequently on Monday, that her actions were what the citizens of Fairhope wanted. “Would you rather me come in and say, ‘Here’s my new team?’”
Taking back a piece of the airport
In 2007, the Aviation Authority purchased 251 acres of property that made a horseshoe around the H.L. “Sonny” Callahan Airport. The City Council turned over control of the airport to the Airport Authority several months earlier, according to a news report at the time.
The city financed $8.75 million for the property and related expansion and upgrades through a bond issue. According to a story originally printed in the Baldwin Register, the city was to pay interest on the first five years of the loan and then the Airport Authority would take over responsibility for it.
Wilson said the city has since been paying $500,000 a year, and the airport loan makes up 20 percent of Fairhope’s total debt service. But a provision of the agreement allowed the city to take back the property in 2012 for $10 if the principal had not been paid off by the Airport Authority, Wilson said.
Now, she said, she intends to exercise that right.
Wilson noted that none of the current council members had anything to do with the original decision, but that it was wrong. “The city should never have purchased the land to begin with,” she said.
Wilson said she and her new economic and community development director would take the airport in a different direction from that pursued by the Airport Authority, with one goal being elimination of the debt. “I have to think of my citizens,” she said.
She said the city would continue to work with the Airport Authority, and the takeover would not interfere with the authority’s plans or any grants or other programs being funded by outside agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration. But, she said, the authority had nine years to take care of the debt and had not done so.
While council members did not discount the idea, they asked many questions of Wilson, Authority Chairman Joe McEnerney and Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Authority. At one point, Wilson asked, “Did you all get together and have a conference before this meeting?”
No action was taken and the question of whether the council would have to approve the takeover was not answered.
Lawson, summoned from the audience to take questions from the council, said he would offer no opinion on the matter of whether the city or the Airport Authority should own the land. He did say a full-time manager is needed because of its growth and that the airport was in a better position than ever to attract second-tier suppliers to Airbus.
Current economic development prospects are interested in the east side of the airport where most of the expansion is taking place, Lawson said. Some 80 percent of all prospects in Baldwin County want existing facilities, not empty land.
Lawson also said authorities, industrial development boards and specialty financing entities are in a better position to develop such properties than elected officials, because elected officials have to answer to citizens’ complaints about noise and traffic.
He advised that whatever is decided, “the people we’re talking to want to know who the clear path of communication is with.” The alliance needs to talk with one person, not 10, he said.
McEnerney said the authority wants to at least retain control of the eastern portion of the property. He presented the council with a three-page summary of economic impact and challenges facing the airport. It included $18.6 million in capital investment and 142 new jobs.
A red-faced Burrell and a shouting Ripp argued about a story published Friday on Ripp’s blog, The Ripp Report. Headlined, “You don’t know Jack,” the blog questioned last year’s award of a hangar lease to Ray Hix, an Airport Authority board member. Burrell was among the officials whom Ripp claimed had a conflict of interest.
Burrell produced an advisory opinion requested from the Alabama Ethics Commission. The opinion, released in February, said board members could seek business from the airport provided they did not “vote, attempt to influence or in any manner participate in the bid process.” Burrell and the opinion noted that Hix regularly left meetings or did not attend meetings when the hangar lease might be discussed.
Burrell, who represents the council on the Airport Authority, said he and board member Vince Boothe were appointed to evaluate the bids for the hangar, and they concluded that Hix’s bid would bring in the most revenue.
During the meeting, Ripp told Burrell his report was based on documents and he stood by it. Burrell replied, “Mr. Ripp, you are not even close to the truth.” Later, he said, “You have done nothing but make false accusations over and over and over.”
Ripp has said The Ripp Report will continue to investigate and present its finding to Wilson and others.