The three Decatur City Council members running for reelection say Mayor Tab Bowling and attorney Barney Lovelace, who represents the city in litigation involving chemical contamination, are trying to control next month's municipal election through recruiting and funding of opposition candidates.
Lovelace and Council President Paige Bibbee also are at odds after he said she has conflicts of interest in the contamination lawsuits and should recuse herself from discussions of them.
On Wednesday, Bibbee played an 82-minute recorded conversation from May in which Lovelace threatens her, saying “I will burn you down” after she offers to make public an email that Lovelace sent to attorneys regarding the council elections.
The Daily obtained a copy last week of the Jan. 15 email that Lovelace sent to lawyers in his firm, Harris, Caddell & Shanks. The Lovelace email focuses on finding City Council candidates.
Lovelace wrote in the email that the election is "critical for the future of Decatur" and that he told two Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce officials that he "could not be publicly involved in this effort, but very deep behind the scenes I would help as needed."
He asked that the email not be shared outside the firm "for obvious reasons — we represent the City in the PFAS litigation and other governmental entities."
Two lawsuits have been filed against the city, 3M Co. and other defendants involving the discharge of PFAS, potentially toxic industrial chemicals. The lawsuits allege city-owned Decatur Utilities discharges the "forever chemicals," so named because they do not decompose in the environment, into the river through its wastewater treatment plant. A major source of the chemicals, the lawsuits allege, is leachate from the city-owned landfill, which holds 3M waste.
Qualifying for the Aug. 25 election ended Tuesday. District 1 incumbent Billy Jackson is the only unopposed council candidate. Bibbee faces three opponents in District 3. District 4 incumbent Charles Kirby has one opponent. In the two races with no incumbent entered, District 2 and District 5 have three candidates each.
Bibbee, Kirby and Jackson accused Bowling of inviting people to the Mayor’s Office on the sixth floor of City Hall to recruit them to run for City Council, which they said may run afoul of state ethics rules.
They said the mayor wants to find candidates who will be more favorable toward him than they have been during this term of office. Bowling has admitted his frustration with the council and its unwillingness to go along with his ideas. Bowling is running for reelection and has six opponents.
“The mayor has been recruiting people to run against each of us,” Jackson said. “He’s made the statement that he wants a council that he can control.”
Bibbee said she knows of one meeting Bowling held with three people, whom she would not name, to discuss the search for opposition candidates.
Bibbee said Bowling's angry statements at the June 15 council meeting showed he was working behind the scenes on the council elections. In speaking out against a measure that requires council approval of legal settlements of $25,000 or more, the mayor called Bibbee and Kirby “lame ducks” because he was sure they won’t get reelected.
“Go back and watch the YouTube video (recording the meeting). It says everything,” Bibbee said.
Jackson said Bowling “is trying to control the council,” and the Lovelace email “shows that Lovelace has control of the mayor.”
If the mayor controls the council, then Lovelace controls the city, Jackson said.
Lovelace has been representing the city in the lawsuits against it and 3M since they began in 2016. So far, his firm has been paid almost $200,000 in legal fees in the PFAS cases, according to documents provided by the city. Bibbee said she recently learned 3M is reimbursing the city for these fees.
Bibbee said she hadn't been aware 3M is indirectly paying Lovelace’s fees and the council never approved this agreement.
City Attorney Herman Marks said the company agreed in mediation to pay all of the city’s expenses as part of mediation.
The Lovelace email to members of his firm says he met with Decatur-Morgan County Chamber Executive Director John Seymour and then-chamber board Chairman Willie LaFavor to discuss the election.
Seymour said last week he remembers the discussion only focusing on the soon-to-be vacant council seats in Districts 2 and 5.
“As I recall, we were concerned that no candidates had declared yet,” Seymour said. “We didn’t discuss any of the incumbents.”
The chamber has a political action committee that endorses and gave political contributions to municipal candidates, but Seymour said it hasn’t even met yet to discuss the 2020 municipal election.
Lovelace denied to Bibbee in the recorded phone call and again to The Daily on Wednesday that the email says he is seeking an opponent to run against her. He said the email was supposed stay confidential within his law firm.
“... I told Ms. Bibbee in that email I did not suggest or advocate that anyone run against her or any other incumbent of the City Council or School Board,” Lovelace writes in an statement sent Friday to The Daily.
Bibbee called Lovelace’s January email “disappointing.” She said she does think Lovelace was insinuating that they needed to find someone to run against her when he wrote, “It has been discussed about someone (or more) running against Paige Bibbee (District 3) and Charles Kirby (District 4). If you wonder why, especially about Paige, come see me and we will discuss.”
Kirby, who has a long history of being critical of Lovelace and even calling for termination of his work on behalf of the city, said he doesn't accept Lovelace’s denial.
“It’s clear that Tab and Barney are one and the same,” Kirby said. “Tab and Barney were working to find opposition for Paige and myself, which is very questionable ethically because Barney gets paid to represent the city.”
Lovelace said he takes offense at any suggestion he acted inappropriately.
“I feel like I’ve represented the city well,” Lovelace said. “I’ve really busted my ass to represent the city as well as I can and I have had my legs cut out from under me at every turn without any communications or discussion.”
Mayor: Provided counsel
Bowling denied recruiting council candidates, but he did say he met with almost every person considering running for the City Council because they came to his office seeking counsel on a possible campaign.
“I probably met with 15 people, but they came to me,” Bowling said.
Bowling said it’s a coincidence that his campaign consultant, Heather Wilson, president of Politically Correct Consulting in Huntsville, is also running the campaigns of three council candidates, Kyle Pike of District 2, Carlton McMasters of District 3 and Jacob Ladner of District 5.
“I think it’s interesting,” Bibbee said of the consultant working with four city candidates. “I don’t have a problem with it. I would like to see who is paying her, but we’ll never know.”
In his January email, Lovelace writes about finding “good, electable candidates” and educating and helping them fund their campaigns.
Marks would not comment on the Lovelace email or the complaint that Bowling's use of his City Hall office was improper.
“These items are part of the election process,” Marks said. “That’s (accusations) for someone else to decide.”
The council and Lovelace have been at odds in the past year because Jackson, Bibbee and Kirby refused to sign confidentiality agreements regarding the 3M lawsuits. They’ve also questioned how slow the cases are moving.
In March, council members agreed they wanted to replace Lovelace and David Langston, another attorney in Harris, Caddell and Shanks, on the PFAS cases with an attorney who specializes in environmental issues.
Bibbee said Friday she doesn’t necessarily want to replace Lovelace and Langston. She said she recognizes how difficult it would be to replace attorneys who have been so involved in the case for four years.
“I do believe we need an environmental attorney or specialist who can explain these chemicals and their effects to the council and the public,” Bibbee said.
Conflicts of interest?
Lovelace accused Bibbee of having conflicts of interest that include friendships with attorney Carl Cole and Tennessee Riverkeeper former president Karen Thomas and Executive Director David Whiteside.
Riverkeeper is a plaintiff in one of the cases naming 3M and Decatur as defendants. Cole represents Gary Voketz in an unrelated lawsuit against the city.
“You should not be involved in this lawsuit,” Lovelace told Bibbee in the call, referring to the PFAS litigation.
Lovelace wrote in the statement he provided Friday that Bibbee has a close relationship with Thomas and “communicated and met" with Whiteside.
Bibbee told Lovelace in the phone call that there hasn’t been a vote to trigger her recusal, and Lovelace said, “You should not even be involved in deliberations.”
In his Friday statement, Lovelace writes, “In my conversation with Ms. Bibbee, I advised her, as one of the lawyers for the city of Decatur in the PFAS chemical litigation, that I was of the opinion she had conflicts of interest in matters relating to the PFAS litigation and she should recuse herself from any further involvement in that litigation on behalf of the city. I did not reach that opinion lightly."
Lovelace told Bibbee in the recorded call that Cole “tried to interfere with my contract with the city.”
Lovelace wrote in his Friday statement that Bibbee “regularly communicated with attorney Carl Cole about matters relating to the PFAS lawsuits filed against the city. ... Mr. Cole sent one or more texts to Ms. Bibbee in which he encouraged the City to fire our law firm and to hire him and another lawyer associated with him to represent the City in the PFAS litigation. Ms. Bibbee has those texts from Mr. Cole and knows that she shared those texts with others.”
Bibbee said she is friends with Cole, who has represented both Decatur City Schools and West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority in claims against 3M that resulted in settlements. Bibbee said she got permission from Marks to ask Cole for recommendations for an attorney who specializes in environmental issues.
Cole confirmed Friday in a text that he was asked for suggestions on an environmental attorney.
“I told the person requesting that information some names to contact if they decided to make a change,” Cole writes. “It is really that simple, and I disagree that providing those names as recommendations is any sort of ethical violation.
“I said then and have told the many people that have asked, I appreciated the sentiment, but I couldn’t be involved in representing the city, because I’m adverse to the city on multiple other legal matters.”
Bibbee asked Marks for advice on whether she has conflicts of interests as Lovelace suggested, and Marks sent her a letter dated May 22 that, in his opinion, she doesn’t have a conflict of interest. Marks confirmed Friday it was his letter.
Lovelace said he disagrees with Marks.
“With all due respect to Herman, I do not believe he was made aware of all of the facts and circumstances which led me to believe that Ms. Bibbee had conflicts of interest,” Lovelace writes.