Oh, how the tables have turned. One week after being subjected to an hour-long public scolding during what some called an “orchestrated” outcry over Police Chief Joe Petties’ retirement announcement, Mayor Karin Wilson’s supporters rallied to her defense Monday night, calling members of the City Council “sissies,” “bullies,” “disgraceful” and “a mob,” among other things.
“What you guys put on last week, I’ve been told not to watch,” the mayor’s husband, Kiefer Wilson, told the council. “What you guys displayed was horrible, from what I’ve heard. And I think it was orchestrated, and I think you all knew about, and I think you called your special friends in and disgruntled employees … and that’s what it was, it was a sideshow. … She’s not going to quit, she’s not going to resign, she’s your mayor and she’s going to see it through. The more you do, the tougher we get.”
Other speakers, including business owner Jay Harlan and blogger Paul Ripp, suggested sexism on behalf of the council, particularly President Jack Burrell.
“It was a fiasco and it was orchestrated,” Harlan said. “You changed the agenda … and I find it unmanly and a sissy thing to do … even if she were the worst mayor in the world and the worst person, she’s still a woman and where I come from you don’t attack women.”
Burrell called the allegations against him and the council “absolutely preposterous,” calling it part of a “constant character assassination.”
“We were here to figure out a way to hire a new chief of police when he announced his retirement,” he said. “I did not put out a call for people to show up, it’s simply not true.”
But the special called meeting last week did not end conclusively, with the council rejecting Petties’ retirement letter even though he had already filled out retirement paperwork with the state announcing he’d step aside July 1.
After Monday’s meeting, Burrell admitted there is probably nothing the council can do to intervene in the police chief’s chain of command, and confirmed the council has taken no action thus far to discuss or search for Petties’ successor.
“I think we did convince the chief to stay,” Burrell said. “It still remains to be seen whether he will stay because I simply don’t know if we can make him happy by expanding his authority. There are state statutes that give the mayor the right to be the boss of the chief — that will never change — she’ll always be the boss of all the city employees.”
Wilson’s authority has been the consternation of both the City Council and a handful of employees who were dismissed or pushed out within the first few months of her administration. The resulting turnover, as well as Wilson’s use of a police department IT contract to allegedly dig up political dirt on her opponents, has kept the parties sparring over nearly all routine business in the months since, and Councilman Robert Brown admitted as much Monday night.
“We sit up here and we can handle the criticism, we ran for this office … the public comments and the B.S. put out by certain individuals … that’s fine, I can take it,” Brown said. “But I’m not the one who sat in a meeting a year and a few months ago, a special called meeting to separate the police department and the IT department and in turn take those funds and launch an investigation, and that’s where it all started.”
Wilson implored Brown not “to talk about things you don’t understand,” and called his allegation “an absolute lie.” Wilson continued to accuse the entire council of being unwilling to meet or communicate with her “from the very beginning.”
After the meeting, Burrell said he met with Wilson as recently as last Thursday, but admitted he may ignore her requests when he feels the issues could be adequately handled by staff. As for calls to relinquish his six-year council presidency to another member of the council, Burrell said others have expressed interest, but generally feel he is “doing a great job.”
Burrell also said he’s been less restrictive about reining in public comments since he was named as the defendant in a First Amendment lawsuit brought by Ripp last December. Ripp filed the complaint after Burrell blocked him from speaking and threatened to have him arrested during a public meeting in August 2017.
With a $16,750 payment on the table, according to court records, the two parties nearly reached a settlement agreement last month. But last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge William Steele denied a motion to enforce the settlement, noting Ripp never signed off on it, and the City Council had not “collectively agreed” upon the complete terms during an executive session May 15. Meanwhile, Burrell said his defense team of attorneys, Steven Lacey and Colin Sherman, were being paid by the city’s insurer.
Ripp said he could not accept the settlement without a personal, public apology from Burrell, along with an agreement to keep the settlement open, rather than confidential. The case will likely head to trial.
Behind the scenes, former Fairhope Community Affairs Director Sherry Sullivan — one of the employees terminated by Wilson — said she stood behind Petties last week along with other former employees “at the chief’s request.” She denied orchestrating the public response to the chief’s retirement last week and brushed off rumors she herself will be running for mayor against Wilson in the next election.
“Even before I left the city I had people come to me and ask me to run for mayor and obviously I have a lot of people ask me now,” she said. “But I’m busy trying to make a name for myself with the company I’m working for, and 2020 is a long way off.”
Petties has not responded to requests for more information about his retirement or performance evaluation.