Former Semmes Mayor David Baker may have left office with a victory, after ramming through the approval of a nearly $6 million City Hall project, but new Mayor Brandon Van Hook hopes it is short-lived.
In an interview with Lagniappe, Van Hook said the City Council not only approved the winning bid for the new, 18,000-square-foot City Hall complex, but Baker signed the contract to begin the work, meaning it might not be as simple as a new council and mayor voting to get out of it.
“We’re hoping to overturn,” Van Hook said. “It could be a lot of work. We have to look at the contract and see what the termination fees are. If they’re small enough, we can do it. We’re looking for the cheapest way out of this.”
Just days before Van Hook and two new councilmen were to be sworn in Nov. 2, the Semmes City Council used two special meetings to first introduce and then approve, by a 4-2 vote, the bid for the new City Hall.
Both of the new councilors — Tony Ebright and Jason Herring — have come out publicly against the project and replaced members who voted for it — Carolyn Owens and Pat Hillman. So, the likelihood of a majority on the council voting against the project is strong, but like Van Hook said, it all depends on what it will take to get out of the contract.
In public comments during the first special meeting, Herring called approval of the project irresponsible because both bids came in higher than expected.
“It’s not going to be leaving us in a good place, financially, if we spend $6 million on a City Hall building,” he said. “It’s common sense. It’s $3 million over what we projected. I don’t see that as a fiscal way of doing business.”
Ebright, a public works employee with the city of Mobile, also disagrees with how the city handled the project and was denied a chance to represent the people who elected him during the vote.
Councilman Howard Smith, whom Ebright defeated in an August election, resigned due to illness in early October. Despite efforts from Ebright to be appointed to the seat early, councilors appointed Owens to serve out the remaining weeks of Smith’s term. Ebright, who was present at the Oct. 6 meeting, was not even nominated to take the seat, despite his willingness to serve. In a recording of the meeting, Ebright can also be heard suggesting councilors leave the seat open until after his inauguration.
In a previous interview with Lagniappe, Baker confirmed Owens was a member of the Semmes Woman’s Club at the time the group gave input on the proposed City Hall’s design.
In an interview with Lagniappe, Ebright complained the city did not give contractors enough time to submit bids for the project and so only two bids were received. He said contractors need six to eight weeks to get bids together, not two.
“That’s why it was almost double the price,” Ebright said. “It disenfranchised a lot of the contractors who would’ve participated. That’s why I’m against it.”
Like Van Hook, Ebright hopes the new administration and council can overturn what has been done. Also like Van Hook, Ebright believes there are more pressing matters in Semmes, like the building of new fire stations. One station consists of a mobile home with a detached metal building. Another one is just a house with a similar metal structure.
Also like the new mayor, Ebright is hopeful the city can transition to a police department, rather than rely on a contract for police protection from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. Ebright said the contract leaves gaps in protection for the city.
In a previous interview with Lagniappe, Baker defended the move, saying the project had been discussed quite a bit in city business. He said the city purchased eight acres of land for the future site more than a year ago. The cost was $500,000. The council then spent another $300,000 on architecture and design.
“The project has been active for quite some time,” Baker said. “It’s about all we’ve talked about. We’ve been talking about this forever and a day.”
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