Before his unexpected resignation last year, former Bayou La Batre mayor Brett Dungan inked a real estate deal in central Alabama — selling a piece of property owned by the city to a Montgomery County official for $10.
Previously, Lagniappe reported Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean purchased the property at 3453 Norman Bridge Road in Montgomery, which had been donated to the city of Bayou La Batre but never used.
Emails recently obtained by Lagniappe indicate officials in Montgomery were considering demolishing the property as early as 2014, and behind the scenes, leaders in the Bayou were looking for a way to avoid demolition costs and stop fines that had become routine at the time.
“I had offered to transfer ownership of property to the city of Montgomery in exchange for paying necessary closing and required appraisal costs, etc.,” Dungan wrote in an email from July 2014. “[Montgomery] Mayor [Todd] Strange effectively said, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’”
Dungan wrote that he’d asked Strange to see if there were any surrounding neighbors “we could donate the property to.” It’s unknown if Strange obliged Dungan’s request, but a year later Dean — who owns property adjacent to the parcel in Montgomery — was identified as a potential buyer.
Dungan’s correspondence was with then-Councilwoman Annette Johnson, who has served as mayor since Dungan’s resignation in July 2015. At the time, Johnson inquired about auctioning the property off to the highest bidder as opposed to giving it away, but Dungan said the house was “a liability, not an asset.”
At that point, there seems to have been a breakdown in communication. Johnson has said she had no further discussion about the property with Dungan until January, when she “became suspicious he may have done something with the property without council approval.”
Her suspicion was validated when it was revealed — through documents prepared by former City Attorney Bill Wasden — Dean had already purchased the property for $10 without the council’s approval. Dungan maintained he had gotten the approval to sell at that price, but last year four of five council members said that wasn’t the case.
Now, the city’s legal staff is having conversations with Dean’s attorney, Thomas T. Gallion III, about the sale they believe was not legally conducted, though recently that correspondence has turned sour.
“The property was abandoned and rat infested. It created a serious health problem to my clients’ property,” Gallion wrote to attorney Jay Ross last month. “Your arrogant statement that my letter was inaccurate is basically calling me and my clients liars.”
In his letter, Gallion did not budge, saying he wouldn’t “waste any more time” on the matter. He also demanded a retraction from Ross and went on to invite Bayou La Batre to bring a lawsuit against his clients.
“I look forward to you, on behalf of your clients, filing suit in the circuit court of Montgomery County,” Gallion wrote. “Other than that, please stop harassing and slandering the title of my client’s’ property and my clients.”
On Aug. 11, Ross told city officials he didn’t start the correspondence with Gallion with “hostile intent” and never intended to make this a “personal issue.” Though a response to Gallion’s letter is forthcoming, no formal decision has been made by the council.“The question is, what are we going to do? There’s a very strong legal argument to be made that the conveyance of this property did not have the proper legal authority of the council,” Ross said. “The counsel for the current owner may have even validated that, and we have some tangible evidence as well.”
However, Ross advised that taking Dean to court would be costly.
In cash-strapped Bayou La Batre, some aren’t eager to spend money saving a property valued at $27,000. When asked by members of the current council if Dungan could be held personally responsible for the legal fees, Ross said it wasn’t likely.
If the city does choose to move forward with legal action, though, it will be a decision that comes from a different set of leaders now that the Aug. 23 municipal election has come and gone.
Multiple council seats and the mayoral office were contested, and ultimately, voters ousted Johnson in favor of newcomer Terry Downey — a member of the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority’s board of directors.
Long-time Councilwoman Ida Mae Coleman was also unseated by her challenger, J. C. Smith. Two other sitting council members — Austin Collier and Virginia Bryant — opted not to seek reelection.
Last month, when asked about the property on Norman Bridge Road, Downey said the city should learn “when to hold them and when to fold them.”
“Going by what the attorneys say, we’re going to be spending more money than the house is worth,” Downey said. “At some point, we’re going to have to say we got beat on this.”
Johnson, who will vacate her office Nov. 1, said any decision to pursue the issue in court should be up to the citizens of Bayou la Batre, though she maintains the sale of the property was improperly handled and illegitimate.
“It was a direct transfer from the city of Bayou La Batre to Commissioner Dean, though I would imagine the commissioner couldn’t or wouldn’t make a similar transaction with property Montgomery County owns,” Johnson said.
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