Eutaw Mayor and City Council reach political logjam

News Analysis
By John Zippert, Co-Publisher

Last night’s regular Eutaw City Council meeting was convened by Mayor Raymond Steele at 6:00 PM. The City Council added an Executive Session to a very limited agenda.
After the ten minute Executive Session, the Council reconvened but could not pass a motion to come back into regular session. The meeting was adjourned after taking no actions at 6:20 PM.
I attend the City Council meetings on a regular basis. I attended the April 9 meeting and the City Council Work Session on April 16, 2019 but did not write a story on these meetings because there was so much division and discord between the Mayor and Council that I did not want to report. I had hopes that some of these issues would be resolved in a positive manner and some compromise actions would be taken at last night’s meeting.
I am sad to report as a resident of the City of Eutaw that the meeting ended without resolution of on-going issues and without moving forward on some critical issues and concerns.
There seems to be a lack of communication between Mayor Steele and most Councilmembers that could lead to some compromise and resolution of outstanding issues. I think it is fair to say the Mayor and Council are at loggerheads or in a political logjam that they must work to resolve.
Councilwoman Latasha Johnson says, “The Mayor will not communicate with us, will not give us information about the city’s finances that we are supposed to have and expects us to go along with anything he does. If he consulted with us and discussed these things, I am sure we could come to some fair resolution and conclusions.”
Johnson and other council members have been asking for a current statement of income and expenses for the city, a budget listing how revenues will be expended, a detailed listing of bills that have been paid and are owed. “We basically have received none of these financial reports, so we do not know where we stand and how to make decisions going forward.” she said. Mayor Steele says, “ We know that the City does not have a large enough tax base to pay all bills. We pay the bills as best we can to keep the city operating. I have the responsibility to make day-to-day administrative decisions and I am trying my best to do that. The records and information that council members are requesting are available to them if they come to City Hall and request it from the City Clerk.”
In a March meeting, the Council passed a resolution to remove the Mayor as a check signatory on most city accounts, as a way to put controls on his ability to spend city funds without Council knowledge or approval. The Mayor says, “This is unfair. This prevents me from carrying out my day to day responsibilities and the Council has given no reason to remove me as a signatory.” The Mayor has not brought the official bank resolutions to the City Council, after being asked in several meetings, including the April 16 Work Session.
The Council has passed several other resolutions, including one to declare a shed vacant on the grounds of the former National Guard Armory to rent to a church non-profit for storage for its surplus furniture service; a resolution not to accept cash for payment at the City’s water department; and a resolution to revisit the cost of utilizing city facilities by community groups. The Mayor has not brought these items back for consideration and implementation by the City Council. They were not listed on last night’s agenda despite being requested at the April 16 Work Session, which was part of the reason the Councilmembers were so displeased with the Mayor.
Councilwoman Sheila Smith says, “ We have been requesting information on the revenues for the City Water Department for months. Some people are paying too much; others get minimum bills month after month. There is something wrong with the new water meters and the softwear used to read the meters and make out the bills. But the Mayor says everything is fine but does not give us the financial reports to show that revenues for the Water Department are below what is needed to operate the system and service our debts.”
Councilman Joe Lee Powell says, “ I am concerned about the way the Mayor is running the City. This is not a dictatorship. The Mayor should be consulting with us on problems and providing the information we have requested. I am particularly disturbed that repairs have not been made to the sewage system in Branch Heights. It is a health hazard that sewage is backing up into people’s homes and is in their yards and ditches. People in Branch Heights pay their water and sewage bills and deserve that these problems be addressed by the City.”
Powell indicates that he asked the Mayor to put the Branch Heights sewage problems on the agenda, at the April 16 Work Session, but this item was not listed on last night’s agenda. Powell says he is concerned that he is being asked to support matching funds for a Streetscape project to improve and enhance the Courthouse Square while the Mayor ignores problems in other parts of the City.
The Council members are also upset and concerned that the Council minutes do not accurately reflect what happened at the meetings and contain commentary and notes that support the Mayor and disregard their inputs and motions.
To this observer, Mayor Steele and the Eutaw City Council are at an impasse. They must come together and put aside some of their differences, develop a financial report and budget to operate from a mutual understanding of the city’s current conditions and future prospects; communicate honestly, compromise strategically, seek help from sympathetic external supporters and work out their problems with each other, so the City of Eutaw can move forward in the interest of all of its residents.

Eutaw City Council votes to allow $50,000 in bingo funds to pay bills

At its special meeting on September 27, 2017, The Eutaw City Council voted to move $50,000 from its special ’Capital Improvements Fund’, funded by monthly distributions from electronic bingo to its ‘General Fund’ to pay current bills from August and September.
Mayor Steele requested that the City Council allocate $30,000 from the Capital Improvement Fund to the General Fund to pay bills. Several council members asked if this was enough money to pay bills including for repair of city equipment like the knuckle boom truck and two back hoes which were at the repair shop. The Mayor said the $30,000, he was requesting was to help pay bills at the end of the city’s fiscal year.
Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson moved to reallocate $50,000 from the Capital Improvement Fund to the General Fund to help pay bills and get the needed equipment out of the repair shop.
The motion was approved with Councilwoman Sheila Smith voting against. “ I cannot vote for this transfer of bingo funds from capital improvement for other uses without seeing a full accounting of the uses of the bingo funds since the beginning of the year,” said Smith.
Based on numbers provided by the City Clerk on all city accounts, Councilwoman Smith said that the reported August 31, 2017 balance of $88,418.25 in the Capital Improvements account “was below the amount it should be based on monthly contributions from bingo.”
Smith asked for a full accounting of the Capital Improvements Account for 2017, showing all deposits and withdrawals. Mayor Steele said he would work with the City Clerk to provide this information.
The Mayor also distributed to the City Council proposals from Mason and Gardner CPA’s for two projects, a compilation report of income and expenses for the fiscal years ending September 30, 2015, 2016 and 2017, based on bank statements and other available data.

Eutaw City Council approves proclamation honoring E-911

Mayor Steele and Eutaw City Council members present proclamation to E911 staff and officials and new officer’s : Tommy Johnson, Jr. and Christopher Gregory

At their regular meeting on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, the Eutaw City Council paid its March bills and claims, approved Good Friday as a holiday for the staff and approved a proclamation honoring the E-911 staff for National Public Safety Communications Week.
After taking these positive steps, the City Council and the Mayor began arguing about past issues and discussions.

The issue that precipitated the arguments was a motion by Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson to advertise in the newspaper for four weeks, the contents of a bill to be introduced in the State Legislature to change the selection process for members of the Board of Directors of the Eutaw Housing Authority to give the Council a role with the Mayor in appointing these board members.The Eutaw City Council, the Mayor and the city and county housing authority boards have been in an uproar for the past several months over who was properly appointed to the Eutaw Housing Authority Board and how to proceed with the merger of the city and county housing authorities.
Mayor Raymond Steele strenuously opposed the motion to advertise changes in the Alabama statute on the selection of members to a city housing authority. He said, “You are trying to take away powers given to me by the law, I am not trying to take away your powers as the City Council.”
Latasha Johnson replied that the purpose of her amendment was, “To share your role in appointing housing authority board members not to take away your authority.” She went on to say, “ In a way we are married for four years, the Council and you the Mayor and we need to learn how to work together.”
Councilman Joe Lee Powell said he was concerned that the mayor seemed to want to have “a dictatorship over the City Council.” Powell indicated that he was still concerned that the Mayor would not accept documents that he provided showing that Veronica James was incorrectly removed from the Eutaw Housing Authority Board and should be reinstated.
Mayor Steele complained that the City Council was retaliating against him by proposing to change the legislation to share the power of appointing the Eutaw Housing Authority Board. The Council then voted 4 to 2 to approve advertisement of the bill proposed by Latosha Johnson. The Mayor and Councilman Bennie Abrams voted against the motion.
Mayor Steele raised the issue of revisiting the rules and procedures for community groups to use the National Guard Armory for meetings, social events and fundraisers. The mayor said that he would like to discuss his concerns about improving and maintaining the facility at the next City Council work-session scheduled for next Tuesday, April 18. Councilman Powell reminded him that community groups charging admission or raising funds at activities using the National Guard Armory needed to come before the City Council if they were seeking a waiver of the rental fees.
Mayor Steele said the air conditioning and heating system in the building needed to be updated and other improvements made to the building. The Council agreed that a community group that had reserved the Armory for a music concert on April 15 could proceed with their event.
Council members said that they approved payment of the bills and claims but wanted a better reporting of funds and a budget against which to approve expenditures in future meetings.
Councilwoman Sheila Smith asked about the status of enforcement of the vicious dogs ordinance. Mayor Steele said the Eutaw police were issuing summonses for people to register their animals and to see if sufficient space was available to keep the animals in the city. If the owners were not complying with the ordinance then the police were taking action to correct the problems with stray and vicious dogs.
Valerie Watkins, a resident in whose house there was a sewage back up asked when the City was going to make the repairs to her home. Mayor Steele said that he was working on the claims with the City’s insurance agent and would be able to respond soon.
In the public comment sessions, several citizens rose and spook to urge the Mayor and City Council to work more closely together.
David Spencer distributed a written letter to the Mayor and City Council members concerning his allegations of voter fraud in the October 2016 Municipal Election Runoff.

February Eutaw City Council meetings deal with merger of housing authorities, vicious dogs and buying new vehicles

city-councilThe Eutaw City Council met on February 14 and 28 to conduct business. The main issues dealt with were the merger of the Eutaw and Greene County Housing Authorities, implementing ordinances on vicious dogs in the city and the leasing of three new SUV’s for use by the police and mayor.
The City of Eutaw has a Housing Authority (EHA) that handles Carver Circle and other housing within the city. The Greene County Housing Authority (GCHA) was established to develop housing in the county. The GCHA administers the 200 houses in Branch Heights. Branch Heights was annexed into the city of Eutaw in the early 2000’s.
HUD which funds both authorities – EHA and GCHA – wrote to both housing authorities, starting in October of 2015, that they needed to consolidate their staffs and operations into one housing authority serving the area. The two five member boards have been meeting for several months to work out a merger planning which would keep a ten member board appointed by both the City and the County Commission.
James “Dee” Powell who is the chairperson of the Eutaw Housing Authority Board says, “Our boards have agreed upon a merger plan, that preserves a board appointed by the City and the County; agrees to preserve the employment of both directors and the staff and leaves open the possibility of building other housing in Forkland, Boligee, Union and other communities in Greene County beyond Eutaw.”
Powell says that once Mayor Raymond Steele was elected in October, “The Mayor decided that since all the public housing was in Eutaw, that he, as Mayor of Eutaw, should name all of the members of the new merged housing authority. He insisted on this even though three of the Commissioners from Districts 1, 2 and 3 take in parts of the city as well.”
Mayor Steele says that he is following the law, governing housing authorities and that the only authorities permitted are those serving cities and thus he has the power to appoint all of the board members.
At the February 14 meeting, the Eutaw City Council, at the recommendation of its Attorney, Ken Aycock, agreed to seek an Alabama State Attorney General’s opinion on the statute governing housing authorities and who had the legal rights and power to appoint the new merged housing authority board.
At the February 14th meeting, the Eutaw City Council learned that Mayor Steele had removed some of the EHA board members appointed by former Mayor Hattie Edwards in the final weeks of her term. These appointments were never brought before the Eutaw City Council because the Council did not have a quorum in its final October meeting before power shifted to the newly elected Mayor Steele and council members.
At the February 14 meeting, the Mayor said he replaced Ms. Faye Tyree and Ms. Janet Cockrell who were appointed to the EHA by Mayor Edwards. He replaced Ms. Tyree with Ms. Bertha Cockrell. When Ms. Tyree confronted Mayor Steele about her letter of termination, he said that her appointment was never made official in the minutes, so he could dismiss her because she was never officially appointed. The Mayor also suspended funding from the West Alabama Regional Commission for a part-time position that Ms. Tyree was serving in, which meant she lost her position.
Things were further confused because newly elected Councilwoman LaTasha Johnson was serving as an EHA residential board member until her election to the City Council.
Mayor Edwards tried to replace her on the board before she officially resigned.
At the February 14th meeting, Dee Powell said he requested to be put on the agenda to discuss the board merger but was not placed on the agenda. After some discussion, the Mayor and Council agreed to place him on the agenda for the February 28 meeting.
At the February 28 meeting, Dee Powell, who is the EHA Chair explained the efforts to merge the housing authorities and accused Mayor Steele of bad faith in saying that if things didn’t go the Mayor’s way then there would be no merger. Powell also questioned the Mayor’s role in changing the EHA board members without consulting the board. “We need to look out for the welfare of the tenants of these housing developments,” said Powell.
Mayor Steele said he was just trying to do things according to the law and awaiting the Attorney General’s opinion on the legality of the merger. The Mayor asked the City Council to approve the selection of Jackie Allen to replace LaTasha Johnson, as the resident member, and Bertha Hunter to replace Veronica Jones. The City Council approved these changes.

Vicious dogs ordinance

Another contentious issue came up about vicious dogs in the city. After a Thanksgiving incident where Channel Glenn’s pit bull dogs attacked two city residents and sent them to the hospital for care, the City Attorney sent Glenn a letter, which contained the City ordinance on vicious dogs. The ordinance states that “the dogs must be kept in an enclosure that is 300 feet from any public park, playground, public building or residence of another”. The letter indicates that Ms. Glenn’s dogs are in violation of this city ordinance,
In the public comment section of the City Council meeting, Ms. Glenn angrily charged that the City had “inflated” the ordinance since she received it some time ago and asked for an investigation. She also argued that people had breached her fence and that was why the dogs attacked them. When the police chief tried to counter her arguments, she stormed out of the meeting.
In other business, the Eutaw City Council approved the purchase of three sewage pumps for the lift stations at Boligee, Lower Gainesville Road and the Lagoon. The pumps will cost $5-8,000 each.
The City also approved the leasing of three new SUV’s for $2,300 a month. Two are for the Eutaw Police Department and one for the Mayor. Several Council members including Sheila Smith and LaJeffrey Carpenter were opposed to the Mayor receiving one of the new cars. The City Council also approved the sale of old vehicles after they are advertised.