*This is an opinion column*
NORTHPORT, AL — There’s just no end to the dysfunction.
Only a few weeks removed from the seeming conclusion of the drama around filling the District 3 seat on the City Council, the next chapter was flung open with the forced resignation of District 4 Councilwoman Jamie Dykes from her seat on the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission Monday night.
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As Patch previously reported, sources indicated to Patch that Dykes — after announcing last week that she would resign from her Council Committee assignments — was given an ultimatum by City Attorney Ron Davis to either resign or face a public hearing where the council would likely vote to remove her from the advisory board.
It should be noted that the city attorney, while knowledgable, does not have unilateral authority to corner an elected official without acting on behalf of his superior.
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Another day, another controversy.
Dykes opted to resign as the council’s appointed P&Z member and chair of the advisory board instead of allowing for a public hearing. It’s hard to blame her, considering how ugly such a public hearing could become.
The news was suspiciously sudden in its delivery, coming several days after her resignation from the committees that saw her voice concerns over the balance of power on the committees, along with the part-time councilwoman having to take paid leave from work to attend the committee meetings, which are held before the end of the business day on the same day as the City Council’s regular meetings.
According to Alabama Code Section 11-52-3 (D), members appointed to the Planning & Zoning Commission by the mayor can not be removed by the Council. However, members appointed by the Council — such as Dykes — may be removed after a public hearing for inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. If this is the case, then the official removed from the Commission is statutorily required to receive a written statement of reasons for such removal.
For Dykes, though, this would not be the case. Instead, she was informed of the ultimatum on Monday, just hours before the Council voted to appoint District 3 Councilman Karl Wiggins to fill the seat vacated by the District 4 councilwoman and P&Z chair.
The decision appeared to be made by a small group of individuals who seem unwilling to speak publicly on the forced resignation. It was a decision not made by the voters of District 4 or even by the full Council in the public forum.
And this is where yet another set of questions present themselves:
What cause did the city’s administration have for issuing such a backdoor edict to Dykes?
Was Dykes forced to resign because she questioned the committee structure?
Why have city officials been so hesitant to publicly address the decision?
Still, numerous sources have cited Dykes’ opposition to the committee structure and her subsequent resignations from her committees as a move too embarrassing to the city to go unchecked.
Never mind that Council President Jeff Hogg, in an April 11 email exchange with City Administrator Glenda Webb obtained by Patch, voiced his own support for a departure from the committee system in favor of having work sessions.
“The committees were designed to have 2 members to not violate the open meetings act and for those chair persons to give updates of their respective committees at council meeting under ‘Reports of Special Committees of Council’ and open it up for group discussion,” Hogg said in the email. “If we don’t plan to operate that way as designed, I would say we get rid of committees and be free for all with no structure and just have council work sessions to discuss any and all topics with media present.”
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To Hogg’s credit, he has been quite accessible when needed and does speak out often regarding the importance of transparency.
Still, at least for this reporter, serious concerns abound, especially at a time when more and more major policy decisions are being pushed by individuals, all while the rest of the elected body sit in silence and quietly follow along. And while I’ll always be quick to praise Hogg for the good he does, I’ll also be the first to respectfully voice my own concerns when I feel it’s warranted.
It’s called fairness.
Think about it: Monday night, there were two public hearings over two proposed recreation projects — the adventure sports park on Rose Boulevard and the aquatic center on McFarland Boulevard.
While the water park is the sole brainchild of Hogg, the adventure sports park is much more telling when it comes to understanding how this administration does business. But on this project, too, it was Hogg who did most of the talking when addressing the room full of concerned residents.
Not once did a community member speak out in favor of either project during the public hearings Monday night and Hogg addressed concerns one-by-one, but not before expressing pride in the $45.275 million in general obligation warrants just secured by the city for its wishlist of recreation projects.
For this astronomical amount of borrowed money, Hogg was the spokesperson, and both rezoning measures received the council’s majority support without another soul on the council speaking out in support of the projects.
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In fact, this reporter even went so far as to personally sign the petition in opposition to the adventure sports park — not because it’s a bad idea on its face.
Rather, I put my name on the side of opposition because it’s impossible not to view the project as one where the city is covering its tail after purchasing the Rose Boulevard property. For those who recall, a small group of city officials beat their chests for having the land for a water park, only to realize after the fact that the topography of the property would cost far too much to grade down to be workable for a water park.
But, as previously noted, the power structure around these massive initiatives is surprisingly small to those who haven’t been following along — and after Dykes felt left with no choice but to resign from the committees and was forced off the Planning & Zoning Commission, the nucleus of power in Northport City Hall became smaller than ever for this administration.
Indeed, look at instances like the District 3 appointment or the latest appointment by Northport to the Civil Service Board. Despite numerous candidates applying for both positions, the consideration seemed minimal, but the drama was white-hot to those opposed to the final decisions.
As a preface, District 3 Councilman Karl Wiggins is a nice man and, by all accounts, has hit the ground running in his new role. I have no doubt he will do as good a job as any of the seven individuals who applied for the seat.
But, keep in mind, sources overwhelmingly indicated that he only had the support of two council members when the interview process gridlocked and resulted in the council passing the decision to Gov. Kay Ivey — the same number as one other candidate applying to fill the seat.
Considering this, it’s hard not to view the power structure in Northport City Hall as being in the hands of a select minority. Hell, given what I’ve seen, I often wonder why we even have a city council if policy decisions are dictated to the many by the few.
For example, I was the only media member to attend the pre-council briefing ahead of Monday’s meeting — a session that only saw two council members in attendance: Wiggins and District 2’s Woodrow Washington III.
Upon examination of the printed council agenda discussed during the pre-council meeting, it was only mentioned that the council would consider appointments to fill the committee assignments vacated by Dykes.
However, during the pre-council briefing — which is not live-streamed for the public — City Attorney Ron Davis added a last-second amendment for the council to consider a similar action to fill a vacant seat on the Planning & Zoning Commission. This seemed particularly troublesome considering the lack of prior notice about such an impactful decision and the whirlwind of controversy leading to where we’ve found ourselves today.
Dykes has been reserved when asked by Tuscaloosa Patch at multiple turns for comment, opting to not make the spat a public one. Still, during the portion of Monday’s meeting reserved for updates from each council member, the few words she offered up said plenty.
“Nothing I can say publicly, so no,” Dykes said.
As mentioned time and again throughout this column, the chief concern of this reporter is that, step by step, power is being consolidated within Northport City Hall.
For students of history, think back to The First Triumvirate of Rome — a backdoor alliance of political powerbrokers Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. It was this consolidation of power and alliance of mutual interests that eventually robbed Rome of its representative republic in favor of an imperial dictatorship.
And this is what continues to bother me to no end, because the balance of power is shrinking piece by piece.
In recent years, tumult and dysfunction on the Northport City Council was always expected. But there was efficacy when it came to certain leaders — politicians like former councilman and mayor Wayne Rose.
While the mayor of Northport is, for the most part, a toothless and weak position without a vote, I’ve always loved the analogy I once heard about the late Mayor Rose: “He didn’t need any votes on the Council, because he always had five [the number of council members].”
That’s quality leadership. Still, we’ve descended headlong into a winter of discontent.
Northport moved past the widely publicized issues with its past city administrators and a new council was expected to usher in a new age of compromise and progress.
Instead, I worry more than ever than Northport is slowly becoming a municipal dictatorship — a phony democracy where most elected officials are warm-bodied window dressing for the real power behind the curtain.
Ryan Phillips is an award-winning journalist, editor and opinion columnist. He is also the founder and field editor of Tuscaloosa Patch. The views expressed in this column are his own and in no way reflective of any views held by our parent company or sponsors.
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