by John Zippert,
Next Tuesday, October 6, 2020 there will be an important election to determine the coming four years of services, progress and direction for the City of Eutaw.
The municipal elections feature a runoff between incumbent Mayor Raymond Steele and challenger, current District 1 City Councilwoman Latasha Johnson.
In the August 25, 2020 election, Steele led the field of five candidates with 403 votes (33%) to 359 (30%) for Johnson, with the additional three candidates: Joe Lee Powell, Sandra Walker and Queena Bennett Whitehead, dividing the remaining 37% of the vote. A total of 1,219 (49.7%) of the 2,450 registered voters in the City of Eutaw turned out to vote in the primary.
The three losing candidates have endorsed Latasha Johnson in the runoff. She is also endorsed by the Greene County Chapter of the Alabama New South Alliance, College Young Democrats, the Friends of Retirees/Employees Political Action Committee and a number of other groups.
Mayor Steele, a retired military officer, dry cleaning proprietor and real estate developer, was the first African-America Mayor of Eutaw and served three terms as Mayor from 2000 to 2012. Hattie Edwards, a City Councilwoman, defeated Steele in 2012 and served until 2016, when the voters returned Steele to the position of Mayor.
The major issues separating the candidates center around the operation and direction of the city government. The Mayor often makes decisions on his own without consulting the council members.
When the Mayor made several purchases of surplus property from the State of Alabama, the Council voted to take him off the bank accounts as a signatory, so he could no longer make financial decisions on his own.
For this full four term, the City operated without a budget, and financial reports comparing actual revenues and expenses to budgetary projections. There has been no audit of city finances, including the Water Department, although an annual audit is required by USDA Rural Development which provided a $3 million grant and loan package to revamp the water system during the Edwards Administration.
Mayor Steele generally provides the Eutaw City Council with the bank balances for various accounts and a list of the bills owed. This has led to constant fighting between the Council and the Mayor over which funds to use to pay which bills rather than using a budget and an operating plan to determine what funds are used to pay which bills and which new capital expenditures, like cars, trucks and bulldozers, can be purchased.
Latasha Johnson says that she will have a budget, audits and regular financial statements to share with the Council and the residents of the city.
The management of the City Water Department has been a major point of contention. The Council had to vote to dismiss Steele as the Manager of the Water System to try and correct billing, meters and other problems. After a report from the Alabama Rural Water Association showed more than half of all water pumped by the City was not billed, resulting in a revenue loss of more than $49,000 per month, the Council voted 5 to 0, with only the Mayor objecting, to employ Water Management Associates, a consulting company to manage the system for three years to correct the problems.
When a team from the consulting company came to Eutaw on September 1, 2020 to begin work under the contract, Mayor Steele refused to allow them to come into the Water Department and threatened to arrest them for trespassing, if they did start working or took any records. Mayor Steele contends that the billing and other problems of the water system have been solved and the employment of the consultants is an unnecessary expense.
Latasha Johnson says people are coming to her everyday with inaccurate water bills and questions about their water meters so she knows the system is still not operating properly. She says she will bring in the consultants to straighten out the water system and to train local people to maintain the system. She even hinted that some of the council members may file a suit against Mayor Steele to enjoin him from preventing the consultants from starting work before his term ends in November.
Mayor Steele purchased the Carver School for the City, to be used as a community and recreation center. Latasha says the Mayor told her that he was going to purchase the school together with the County Commission to have a broader set of resources to draw on to develop the facilities. “Next thing I knew, he had taken some city bingo money and bought Carver School, without talking to the Council or working with the County Commission,” said Johnson.
“Now he doesn’t have enough money to really improve the Carver facilities. We need air conditioning in the gym; maybe we should build a swimming pool and exercise facility, but we don’t have the funds. We also don’t have a partnership with the County Commission to make the dreams for the center a reality. I will rethink this whole project, with the City Council, if I am elected Mayor,” said Johnson.
Mayor Steele deserves credit for working with the City Council and other agencies to attract the Love’s Truckstop to Exit 40 on the 59/20 Interstate. Love’s is providing increased fuel and sales tax revenues to the city but the Mayor has never made a written financial and narrative report on the budgetary impacts of this major project to the city – because he doesn’t have a budget or budget projections to relate to good news for the city.
The publishers of the Democrat are encouraging all residents of Eutaw to vote in the critical October 6th Municipal Election Runoff next week. On page 4, we have an editorial supporting Latasha Johnson for Mayor and we also have a letter from Mayor Steele answering some of the information we reported in last week’s newspaper.