Two police officers blocked the entrance to the municipal complex when resident Howard Porter attempted to enter a regular meeting of the Prichard City Council last week. Another resident, Quinn Austin Pugh, was forcibly removed from the same meeting after speaking longer than the time he was allotted to address the elected leadership of his city.
Both incidents highlight a growing tension between residents and city leaders amid Prichard’s continuing financial struggles in the wake of the arrest of a top administrative employee. Both men have criticized the city’s financial standing and both have raised concerns about city leaders’ handling of Prichard’s finances and daily operations.
Porter told Lagniappe he was banned from attending the council’s public meetings for a month following a “unilateral” directive from Councilwoman Severia Campbell Morris the week before. “I was told I was not allowed in a council or committee meeting for 30 days,” Porter said. “There was no vote, no motion.”
According to Porter, he was listed as a speaker on the agenda for the Feb. 8 meeting when Campbell Morris abruptly asked to move the council into an executive session. However, with only three members in attendance, Porter said Councilwoman Ossia Edwards voted against it.
“They tried to give me a letter,” Porter added. “I don’t know what it said because I would not accept it.”
Porter said he plans to file a temporary restraining order to regain access to the meetings. Campbell Morris did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.
While Prichard has weathered funding problems in the past, concerns about its financial solvency and fiscal management surged in February following the arrest of one of Mayor Jimmie Gardner’s close assistants on multiple charges of theft and abusing his public position.
Though he was previously listed as “chief of staff” on the city’s website, Gardner has referred to James A. Blackman only as his former “administrative executive assistant” since he was publicly terminated from his position and arrested in late January.
Prosecutors say “well over $100,000” could be missing from the city’s coffers because of Blackman’s alleged theft, and the situation has driven concern among some council members about how much financial information they receive from Gardner and his administration.
At a press conference he organized last week, Councilman Lorenzo Martin told reporters there was a disconnect between the mayor and council that has left them somewhat in the dark about the city’s day-to-day finances. He said it’s been “tough to get public records over the past year” from Gardner’s office, though he didn’t shift any blame from council either.
“This has happened on my watch and whatever backlash comes from speaking up, I’m not afraid of that process. There’s not many ways you can take anything from a municipality without someone knowing,” Martin said. “I challenge the mayor and council to sit down with our attorneys to get a better clarity and understanding of where we are and what we’ve done.”
Martin said the council has made a point to ask for more detailed financial documentation since it was discovered the city had gone over budget by as much as $300,000 since October.
“We did approve a resolution that would give us public-record information,” he said. “As of now, I have not gone into the office and asked for additional information, but I will.”
Martin said he would like to have access to the city’s check registry and other documents in order to help control the city’s finances.
“Our budget regulates us for the entire year,” Martin said. “If we’re not going to enforce those line items, what’s the point of having a budget?”
Like Martin, members of the press have had some trouble getting information about the state of the city’s financials as well. However, on Jan. 12, the State of Alabama put a lien on all of the property and property rights held by the city of Prichard over nearly $24,000 in unpaid taxes.
Those “withholding taxes” are typically withheld from employees’ paychecks to be sent directly to the federal or state governments. Probate records indicate the state placed a similar lien on the city’s properties last December over $1,800 of unpaid “withholding taxes.”
Though it’s unclear how or whether that will affect the city’s overall financial picture, most city leaders shown documentation of the month-old tax lien by Lagniappe seemed to be hearing about it for the first time.
Gardner said he had no advanced knowledge of the lien and turned over any information like that to Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office.
Asked about the other financial issues facing the city, the mayor said Prichard was $1.5 million in the red when he was elected but has since recovered. He added Martin is blaming him for poor fiscal management for political reasons. Gardner blamed the overages in the monthly financial reports on a computer glitch and said Martin was “incorrect.”
“The city cannot function when dealing with these distractions,” he said. “I refuse to get caught in the middle of a personality fight.”
As for access to the financial documents, Gardner said councilors already have them, through QuickBooks software.
“They have the ability to look it up themselves,” he said. “We’ve offered to train them on it.”
WKRG reported Prichard outsources the handling of its finances, paying Robert Headrick Jr. CPA, LLC, $11,533 per month.
Gardner said he would like to move the city forward and focus on infrastructure projects. He touted his administration for resurfacing more streets “than in the last 20 years.”
At the Feb. 15 meeting, Severia Campbell Morris asked the council to consider a forensic audit of the city’s finances to help get it on the right track.
“Do we want to get serious about this, or do we want to chit-chat about it?” Campbell Morris asked her fellow councilors. “I’m not a thief and I don’t think the mayor is a thief. If you want to know the truth, a forensic audit is the answer.”
While Gardner said an audit was currently underway, he said he was “good” with the idea of a forensic audit.
Edwards said the council should first sit down with the budget and review it line by line. The council decided to review the budget itself before asking Gardner to recommend an audit.
City real estate purchases
Blackman currently faces up to 21 criminal charges, but while few details are known about the allegations against him, early comments from prosecutors give the impression at least some of his suspected activity involved the purchase and resale of real estate.
While he was originally arrested on 17 counts of first-degree theft, Blackman was hit with four additional charges earlier this month for using his position for “personal gain.” At the time, Rich’s office said Blackman allegedly directed the city to purchase property he then put in his own name or in the name of his wife, who records indicate is Francis Deleslie Mabien.
A recent Lagniappe review of property records involving Blackman, Gardner and the city of Prichard found a handful of real estate transactions throughout 2017, including some Blackman personally oversaw and could have possibly benefited from financially.
One involved a tract of land at 4808 Outlaw Road in Prichard. According to a deed of sale, the city of Prichard purchased that parcel from a Florida-based company for $1 in April 2017. It lists a fair market value of roughly $69,000, according to county land records.
On May 26, 2017, Blackman’s wife purchased the same property on Outlaw Road from the city for $100. However, because deeds often don’t disclose the full sale price of real estate transactions, it’s possible the property sold for more. Based on the deed for that sale, the transaction from the city to Mabien was prepared by Assistant City Clerk Kim W. Green.
Another quick land transaction involved a property purchased on Michael Donald Avenue within the Mobile city limits. It was purchased by Prichard for $100 from the Alabama Department of Revenue in April 2017 after the previous owner, Randall Daugherty, was delinquent on his state taxes.
The city then sold the same property to a man named David Miller for close to $2,000, as well as “other good and valuable considerations” just over a month later. Again, Alabama law does not require the true price of such transactions to be recorded on the deed itself.
The deed on the Michael Donald Avenue property was signed by Gardner, who it lists as the grantor on behalf of the city. It also appears to have been prepared by Blackman himself, although, based on the deed, it wasn’t recorded with the Mobile County Probate Court until several months later.
Also in 2017, the city purchased two vacant lots in the Whistler community from Texas resident Murra Frances Hill. It was valued at $39,700 but cost Prichard just $10, according to the deed of sale. As of Feb. 21, there was no indication of the city having sold either of those parcels.
During this same period, it appears Blackman also personally purchased an interest in a residential property at 3438 Stovall St. in Prichard. According to a quitclaim deed filed last August, Blackman paid $300 to Margaret Hunter for an interest in that property through a sale that appears to have been prepared by Green as well.
On the document, though, Blackman lists his address as 855 Wildwood Ave. in Mobile, which is different from the address listed during both of his recent arrests. A search of county property records indicate the Wildwood address is actually a property Gardner owned in Mobile for a number of years, though he and his wife also own properties in Prichard and Eight Mile.
While all of these land transactions are recorded in public documents, investigators have not confirmed whether any of them are tied to the criminal charges Blackman is currently facing nor whether there was anything improper about them.
Some city officials have privately questioned the authenticity of some of the names and signatures listed on them, though there have been no allegations of outright fraud against Blackman and he has not been charged criminally with any fraud-related offense.
When asked about the property purchases, Gardner said anything he approved as mayor would have also gone to the City Council for approval.
Concern over police
In addition to worries over the city’s finances and communication with councilors, residents also voiced concern over the recent hire of Maj. Dewayne Hill at the Prichard Police Department. As Lagniappe previously reported, the PPD hired Hill in 2017 despite multiple problems during his 20-year career with the Mobile Police Department.
The subject of several internal affairs investigations, Hill was eventually forced to retire over allegations he improperly used funds from an account tied to MPD’s Police Explorers program — allegations leading to multiple criminal charges for fraudulent misuse of a credit card, to which Hill later pleaded guilty.
At last week’s meeting, Bomani Williams said the hiring represented a “major hill to climb” for the city and its reputation. The city’s reputation presents a unique challenge for Bomani and Sheena Williams, who recently started a charity to help students in local schools.
“Prichard is the laughing stock of Mobile right now and it shouldn’t be,” Bomani said.
In addition to Hill, Prichard Police Chief Walter Knight has also been the subject of internal investigations.
In 2014, then Capt. Knight was placed on administrative duties while claims he obstructed justice were investigated. Because Prichard’s department doesn’t have an internal affairs division, the allegations were reviewed by MPD. News reports suggest Knight was accused of “trying to hide a domestic violence arrest warrant” that had been signed against a former officer in Prichard.
When reporting on Hill’s hire by Prichard last year, Lagniappe attempted to ask both the PPD and MPD about the conclusion of their investigation and whether Knight was cleared of any wrongdoing, but so far both departments have refused to discuss the matter.
While the investigation was completed, spokeswoman Charlette Solis said at the time MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste didn’t want to discuss the investigation “as a courtesy” to the PPD. It’s worth noting Battiste was formerly chief of the PPD and worked alongside Knight for years. Battiste has since denied a second request to discuss the investigation.
Porter said the city’s financials are “in terrible shape” and made it a point to bring up the fact Gardner left this week for Paris, where he will reportedly meet with leaders of Benin.
“I don’t see how they let the mayor out of the country with the fog over him,” Porter said. “The mayor is responsible for the missing money as much as anyone.”
Both Gardner and city spokeswoman Melanie Baldwin said the Paris trip was for economic development purposes. Baldwin also mentioned the trip was in part planned as a meeting between “sister cities,” although Benin is a country and not a city.
In a phone interview, Gardner said it was an opportunity to speak about a possible convention center and hotel project for Prichard.
Pugh mentioned Gardner’s trip when he criticized the city at the council’s Feb. 15 meeting for not looking out for the youth of Prichard.
“You ought to feel embarrassed,” Pugh said before mentioning the timing of Gardner’s trip. “What’s wrong with you all? You guys ought to feel ashamed.”
Pugh then called councilors “insubordinate workers” to the residents and the youth of the city.
Council President Derrick Griffin responded.
“Tone it down a notch,” he said. “We’re not going to be called names.”
After his time was up, Pugh made more comments and was escorted out of the meeting by police. From outside, Pugh’s cries of “they don’t want to know the truth” could be heard over the comments of resident Paula Blevins, who admonished councilors over interactions with citizens.
“You all need to do better,” Blevins said.
Resident Bomani Williams asked the council to stop the mayor’s trip. Resident Katie Davis asked councilors to post all financial documents where residents could review them.
“The handling of finances show you have no authority over the job you’re supposed to be doing,” Davis said.
Resident Leonard Miller put the financial onus on Gardner.
“The mayor needs to be held responsible for money stolen from his city,” Miller said. “This is the first time this has happened under any mayor in this city.”
Miller added Gardner brought Blackman into the fold.
“The ex-police chief brought in — he’s not a criminal yet,” Miller said. “He must not have checked his background.”
Miller then turned to the council and criticized them for not holding Gardner accountable for “tearing up the city.”
“God is watching Prichard, Alabama,” Miller said. “We want to see what this council is going to say to the mayor.”
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