Here’s what passed for a quiet City Council meeting in Fairhope on Monday.
• Dean Mosher, well-known artist and historian, plugged his YouTube video asking questions about the Fairhope Airport Authority and said he was looking forward to getting the answers.
• Paul Ripp, a local blogger and longtime critic of city government, blasted the Airport Authority for hiring an attorney to investigate his activities and allegedly false claims against the board and to potentially file suit against him.
• Robert Brown, a council member, said he would not respond to questions or debates originating on social media, but citizens were welcome to call him on issues.
• Mayor Karin Wilson did not publicly raise her voice, interrupt the conduct of business or make any threats, all of which took place at last week’s Airport Authority meeting.
Since Wilson and three new council members — Brown, Jimmy Conyers and Jay Robinson — took office in November, the workings of Fairhope city government and the authority that governs the municipal airport have become increasingly controversial, not to mention noisy. Incumbent council members Jack Burrell and Kevin Boone have been in the thick of arguments with Wilson over consultant contracts, personnel issues, the timing of a moratorium on new subdivisions and whether the city or the Airport Authority should control the municipal airport.
Wilson campaigned in large part on themes of change and transparency, and when she upset longtime Mayor Tim Kant it was expected that things in Fairhope were going to be different. She faces issues such as mushrooming residential development that has put pressure on basic city services such as utilities, stormwater drainage, and planning and zoning.
The new mayor repeatedly insists she is pushing hard for change in response to what the citizens want and what is in their best interests. Council members reply that they, too, were elected to represent citizens and have their best interests at heart.
Last week, the Airport Authority became a flashpoint. By the end of a special called meeting, Wilson had been accused of costing taxpayers money by delaying a bond issue as interest rates rose, and she had been ejected from a closed executive session of authority board members. Wilson said she would replace three authority board members whose terms are up and would also try to remove chairman Joe McEnerney “for cause.”
Whose fault is it?
Wilson has previously questioned the 2007 purchase of 258 acres of land surrounding the airport in which the city retained the debt and the Airport Authority retained the land. The council rejected her attempts to get the airport put under direct control of the city. Meanwhile the authority has been working to refinance $7.5 million of the debt via a bond issue, but on Feb. 3 the attorney who was handling the bond issue resigned.
That forced the Airport Authority to hire a new attorney before it could proceed.
According to McEnerney, the original attorney and his firm wanted to maintain an ongoing working relationship with the city and felt he couldn’t close the bond issue with its chief executive opposing it. Board member Vince Boothe, via a conference call, said delays caused by the mayor had cost taxpayers some $160,000 as interest rates have risen since she took office.
Leaving the audience for the authority’s table, Wilson vehemently denied being responsible for the delay and sharply criticized the authority’s handling of the refinancing process. Wilson said she was left out of discussions she asked to be part of before she took office.
“You dropped the ball on this. Stop telling everybody that this is my fault,” she said.
Said McEnerney, “I respectfully disagree with just about everything you said, but I’m not going to debate it with you.”
Said Wilson, “I am making three new appointments March 1.”
Battling a blogger
A second issue entangling the Airport Authority is an investigation by blogger Ripp into the board’s decision to grant a hangar lease to one of its members, Ray Hix. The Alabama Ethics Commission has issued an opinion that there was no wrongdoing in the matter because Hix did not discuss or vote on the award and had no inside information.
Ripp disagrees with the Ethics Commission and has conducted voluminous research. He has filed complaints with state and federal law enforcement authorities alleging criminal activity on the part of the Airport Authority.
In response, the authority voted to hire well-known attorney Dennis Bailey to represent them in an investigation of Ripp, alleging that he is disseminating false information and encouraging “unwarranted” investigations into the authority’s activities. Bailey also handled the authority’s inquiry to the Ethics Commission about the hangar lease.
McEnerney called Bailey “the premier ethics attorney in Alabama.” Ironically, Bailey is also the attorney for the Alabama Press Association. He regularly advises people who work for the mainstream news organizations that are members of the APA and is considered an expert in Alabama media law.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we’re forced to do this,” Burrell said. McEnerney said he saw no other choice.
After that vote, the authority decided to go into a closed executive session to discuss pending litigation. The authority’s attorney, Joshua Myrick, justified the closed meeting this way:
“On Jan. 31, the Airport Authority received a threat of pending litigation by Paul Ripp. He makes a number of allegations in the email and concludes the email by saying, ‘Please consider this as a notice of pending litigation. Be advised that this requires the Airport Authority to ethically and morally extend legal fiduciary notice to any lending institution considering financing the loan in question as they certainly would become part of that litigation.’
“In light of that threat I believe that the Airport Authority does have the ability to go into executive session to discuss this notice of pending litigation.”
On the way out of the meeting room, McEnerney, Wilson and City Attorney Marion “Tut” Wynne argued about who had said what during a conference call the previous evening.
At that point, Wilson said she would replace the three board members whose terms are expiring and have McEnerney removed for cause. When it was pointed out that the City Council would have to approve new board members and could reject Wilson’s choices, she said she would keep nominating new board members until her choices were approved.
Wilson and Wynne went into the closed meeting. Twelve minutes later they were back, with Wynne saying they had been “politely invited” to leave. Their ejection led to research of Robert’s Rules of Order via mobile devices and eventually yet another debate among Wynne, his associate Marcus McDowell and Myrick over whether it was legal to have ejected the mayor.
To sum up, the bond issue hasn’t been completed. Ripp maintains the Airport Authority has engaged in wrongdoing. Both McEnerney and Burrell — who was one of two board members reviewing the hangar bids — deny Ripps’ allegations. An attorney who usually defends freedom of the press has been hired — with taxpayer dollars — to investigate and possibly sue a blogger.
Mosher’s YouTube video (search “Fairhope Airport Authority”) went up over the weekend after he said he was denied the opportunity to make a PowerPoint presentation on Airport Authority actions to the City Council. Council members did not respond to his comments Monday but the video had been viewed more than 700 times.
“I think what this is showing is that our dysfunctionality is having consequences,” McEnerney told Lagniappe. As for Wilson saying she would remove him from the board, he declined to comment. He was appointed to a six-year term last year.
Is Fairhope dysfunctional?
“Not yet,” said Burrell. “While all this has been going on, there’s no doubt that interest rates have gone up. Had this been closed a couple of months ago, it would have saved us money. And I’ll say that without passing blame on anybody.”