So suddenly the water board is the hottest game in town. And when I say water board I’m not talking about George Bush’s favorite way of entertaining the terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I’m talking about the appointed group that oversees the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System — perhaps better known locally as MAWSS.
All of the sudden being on the MAWSS board is quite the ticket, especially if you’re from the ousted Sam Jones administration. Maybe they saw how much fun the crew out west at the Mobile Area Water, Sewer and Fire Protection District were having and wanted to get in on it.
First City Councilman C.J. Small appointed former Jones mouthpiece Barbara Drummond to the board, bumping out Kimberly Williams-Pettway who had just been elected chairwoman in October. Then Councilman Fred Richardson decided MAWSS needs even more of that special Jones spice and nominated the man himself.
Rumors this game was coming were flying a couple of months ago, even before it began to materialize. Some Government Plaza insiders were even predicting Jones’ former Chief of Staff Al Stokes will be nominated next and then the group will move to have former city attorney Larry Wettermark propped up as the new MAWSS attorney. It seems unlikely as there’s not another board membership opening anytime soon and the current board attorney has been there for a while, but it’s fun to imagine the whole Footie Pajama Gang riding high again!
But whatever plan had been hatched was crushed Tuesday when Sam’s nomination to the board failed by a 4-3 vote, causing Richardson’s head to explode like one of those test bombs dropped on Bikini Atoll in the 1950s. Council members Gina Gregory, Bess Rich, John Williams and Joel Daves voted against Sam’s nomination, while Richardson, Small and Levon Manzie voted for it, so it seemingly broke down racial lines.
While it might seem somehow to be a white/black situation, the reality is Fred created the situation by nominating Jones, whose political baggage grows each and every day. The council members who voted against putting Jones on the water board did the entire area a service, and I’m sure it wasn’t an easy vote knowing Richardson, at least, is going to use this as a reason to try to hold up other appointments — as he has the fire chief’s for a couple of months now.
Richardson immediately declared he would retaliate against future appointments by his colleagues and warned a “storm is coming.” A storm of even more ridiculous and childish behavior? Imagine that.
So why all this heat over a water board appointment? Why should anyone care, right? Yeah being a board member pays about $1,100 a month and all of the above-mentioned people have certainly seen the amount of taxpayer money flowing into their bank accounts diminish dramatically since Silent Sam got the boot last fall.
It made a bit more sense from Drummond’s standpoint. She’s been a loyal acolyte for Jones, willing to parrot publicly any incredible story her boss was peddling that week. Right now she’s scrambling to get back on the government payroll as a member of the state House of Representatives, too. If she’s capable of doing so, that salary and the water board gig would at least put back a significant amount of the $90,000 Jones was paying her to help keep the public in the dark.
But putting Sam on the water board didn’t make quite as much sense. That MAWSS money wouldn’t seem to be enough to turn Sam’s head. He appears financially secure and going from mayor to water board member seems like a big step down politically.
When you look closer though, like the city, MAWSS is dealing with hundreds of millions of bucks. That means being on the water board makes you important to people who do work with MAWSS.
Or maybe it’s nothing more than that both ladies who were to be replaced were known to have supported Sandy Stimpson in the mayoral race. It could be that petty.
And let’s keep this in mind, whoever Fred’s eventual appointee is, he or she will almost certainly be African-American, so this isn’t about ethnicity, it’s about fighting rank cronyism and hopefully keeping what happened to the city during Jones’ disastrous time in office from happening to the water system that serves all of us. Almost daily we find out more about how Jones ran this city like Boss Hogg with a broken calculator during his eight years on the 10th floor of Government Plaza.
Over the past 10 years, which encompasses the entire Jones era and last two years of Dow, the city misdirected nearly a quarter of a billion dollars that should have gone toward repairing roads, storm drainage and sidewalks, as well as keeping up other major equipment needs. That was $247 million taken from where it was legally supposed to go and spent in any way seen fit by Jones and his crew. That’s how far behind this city is in upkeep of its infrastructure. One year Jones spent zero dollars on capital upkeep. Nothing.
There’s also the backroom habit of just writing off any type of fee for the use of city facilities and giving away city labor. Just last year that behavior cost the city $3 million. When employees wonder why they didn’t get raises, all they need to know is they were written away by the stroke of Al Stokes’ pen as fee waivers.
The city even faces a downgrading of its credit rating from Moody’s based upon the way Jones ran the city. Even the monthly reports placed on the city’s website were shams, as were all of Jones’ budgets and public statements about Mobile’s financial condition.
Whatever plot is afoot here, it’s good council members are standing up and trying to stop it, even though it means the already-out-of-control Richardson will ramp it up further. Proving that, he said if Jones were rejected he would make other council members’ nominees disappear faster than “that Malaysian Airline.”
As tasteless as it is to compare having Jones blocked to the deaths of hundreds of people in an airline disaster, this statement also reveals Richardson’s own oversized ego and his belief that he controls both Small’s and Manzie’s votes. Hopefully they have more sense than letting him be their guiding star.
Maybe Hurricane Fred is coming, but the council did the right thing keeping Jones off the water board. Just because the man is a master of the political cesspool doesn’t mean he’d do anything good for MAWSS.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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