Decatur City Councilman Charles Kirby, once an outsider critical of the system, said working as part of the municipal government hasn’t changed him.
As an activist, Kirby fought against a controversial one-penny addition to the sales tax, passed in 2001, and railed against city spending. He often ended his local cable television show with the saying, “If you’re not angry, you aren’t paying attention.”
Now on the inside as the District 4 councilman, Kirby is voting on issues of city finance and public administration.
The smallest council district in the city, District 4 sits mainly between Beltline Road Southwest and the railroad tracks that run through the heart of the city. Portions of the district reach west of Beltline Road to include Decatur Mall and the surrounding business district, as well as neighborhoods near Morgan County Fairgrounds and Calvary Assembly’s facility.
Kirby’s top goals for the final year of his four-year term: Begin the process of eliminating services in the police jurisdiction; work on getting more of Morgan County’s road money used in Decatur; develop standards for routine maintenance and upkeep of city roads and rights of ways; bring more federal Housing and Urban Development funds to District 4; and find property for an industrial park.
Kirby, 62, said not much has surprised him since his appointment to the City Council in November 2011 following the resignation of Ronny Russell. Kirby was unopposed in the 2012 municipal election.
“I attended so many meetings that I understood how things were done,” Kirby said. “The thing that has changed is the economy. We don’t have the budget freedom they once had. Today, we’re struggling just to maintain basic services.”
Fellow City Councilman Billy Jackson said he thinks Kirby has “changed to fit in with the gang,” referring to the council majority of President Gary Hammon and members Chuck Ard and Roger Anders.
Jackson said Kirby was critical as an activist of any council spending or debt.
“He opposed everything — bond issues, abatements and the massive spending,” Jackson said. “But there’s no outrage now. He’s changed, like he’s comfortable with what’s going on.”
Kirby shot back at Jackson, saying, “No one has been able to deal or work with Billy in 19 years.”
Kirby said he hasn’t changed, and he remains a fiscal conservative. He remains convinced the penny tax passed on Sept. 12, 2001, has hurt the city.
“Nothing about me has changed since Billy helped Ronny campaign or since he voted against a vote recount,” said Kirby, who lost to Russell by three votes in the 2008 District 4 race.
Hammon said he hasn’t seen much change in Kirby, although he’s sure joining the council was eye-opening for the District 4 representative.
“You always go in thinking, ‘I’ll do this or I’ll do that,’ but you get in the office and realize you can’t,” Hammon said. “He’s still got his conscience, but he works within the system, and he’s smart enough to know he’s not always going to get his way.”
Ard said Kirby is “very passionate” about his services as a councilman and that he appreciates his willingness to discuss the issues.
“We don’t always agree, but Charles helps us look at things we normally might not see,” Ard said.
Kirby has seen his share of controversy in his 3½ years on the council. As liaison to Animal Services, he was in the middle of the shelter controversy that led to the firing of Director Carol Wicks.
A group of volunteers accused Kirby of lying about a conversation about the shelter, and Jackson accused him of making a closed-door deal to get rid of Wicks.
Kirby said he doesn’t regret his actions in the case and feels the animal shelter is in better shape today.
“Intake is down, there’s less euthanasia and employees are happier,” Kirby said. “We could have easily fallen into the trap that Lawrence County has.”
Ginger Speidel, a shelter volunteer who supported Wicks, said life at the shelter has improved since the controversy. She complimented Kirby for his interest in the shelter, which will celebrate its sixth birthday Aug. 29.
“The shelter is on a good path,” Speidel said. “Adoptions are up, and we’re saving a lot of animals. I feel like we’re just reaching our stride.”
Every year during budget talks, Kirby pushes for eliminating services to the city’s police jurisdiction. He made the suggestion again last week as a way to cut expenses and increase revenues to pay for the city’s capital needs.
“Roughly 20 percent of our expenses (for police, fire and planning services) are in the police jurisdiction, where we get little revenue from people who don’t pay taxes,” Kirby said.
“Would we ask Canada to provide security in the United States? No. The bottom line is we’re almost doubling our coverage for almost no return.”
Kirby said the City Council needs to include building a baseball/softball complex and buying a large tract of land for an industrial park in its long-range plans.
District 4 is the second-poorest district in the city, and Kirby said he wants to work to get federal Housing and Urban Development grants for several projects.
District 4 resident Jann Laughmiller said her neighborhood desperately needs the city’s help.
“Wimberly Drive is a nightmare,” said Laughmiller, who lives on McDonald Drive Southwest. “It’s filthy and dirty from the trash cans overflowing. There’s a problem with crime. We’ve seen nothing of Mr. Kirby or the city.”
Laughmiller said the roads “are terrible,” especially Wimberly Drive and Fairgrounds Road.
“These roads are used a lot so they don’t need to be patched,” Laughmiller said. “They need to be redone.”
Kirby said he understands the primary things people want are basic maintenance and infrastructure needs.
“Regardless of whether their feelings are right or wrong, they want their grass mowed, they want their roads fixed and they want the garbage picked up,” Kirby said.