Suspicions about the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce's involvement in the Aug. 25 general election led a divided Decatur City Council late Tuesday night to zero out $100,000 in appropriations that the chamber had received in fiscal 2020.
Councilman Chuck Ard made a motion in support of one $50,000 appropriation to the chamber for fiscal 2021 and one for $47,500, trimmed to account for concerns about pandemic-affected revenue. Councilwoman Kristi Hill seconded both.
Council President Paige Bibbee abstained because of an ethics complaint she has filed involving the chamber and Barney Lovelace, a lawyer who has been retained by the city. Councilmen Billy Jackson and Charles Kirby both voted against the motions, so the motions failed.
The vote had much to do with the Aug. 25 election, an election that Bibbee and Kirby lost. Jackson, who was unopposed, kept his seat. Ard and Hill did not seek reelection. Bibbee lost her seat to Carlton McMasters and Kirby lost his to Hunter Pepper. Jacob Ladner will replace Ard and Kyle Pike will replace Hill. Mayor Tab Bowling faces Butch Matthews in the Oct. 6 runoff.
“I would have to say here that I’m in a position I don’t want to be in,” Kirby said at the council meeting. “We had a comment by the chamber that they were not going to get involved in elections, yet one of their main people, one of their leaders — who doesn’t live in Decatur and whose business is not in Decatur — led a lot of outside influence in these elections. Until they fix that problem, I’m forced to vote no on this.”
Kirby said Wednesday he was referring to Willie LaFavor, who was chairman of the chamber board until earlier this year. The Danville resident is an owner of Contracting Services and Fabrication Co. in Trinity. He did not return a call Wednesday.
Chamber President John Seymour on Wednesday said the loss of $100,000 from the city is not catastrophic given the chamber’s $1.2 million budget, but it will have an impact.
“That money does offer support for one of our programs, and that’s residential and business development, which we’ve actually been very successful at this year,” Seymour said. “With all the new residences going up and developments going on, I think it’s one of our better years. It kind of surprised us that they wouldn’t want to fund us anymore.”
He also noted that four new restaurants were announced in April, despite the pandemic.
“I think we lived up to our part,” he said.
Seymour said the chamber’s executive committee would make a decision as to whether to approach the incoming council to reverse the decision on the appropriations.
Kirby, who will relinquish his District 4 seat Nov. 2, elaborated on his concerns Wednesday, and along with Bibbee’s they are tied to a Jan. 15 email Lovelace sent to the lawyers in his firm.
Lovelace’s email made an unsuccessful request to its recipients that the contents remain confidential because of the firm’s representation of the city as a co-defendant with 3M Co. and others in environmental litigation involving toxic industrial chemicals that have entered the river and are leaking from several dumping sites. The current chairman of the chamber is Michelle Howell, site manager at 3M.
Lovelace’s email recounted a conversation with Seymour and LaFavor.
The email sought suggestions on candidates for the several council and school board seats that were being vacated, but also seemed to hint that he was seeking candidates to run against Kirby and Bibbee, both of whom have clashed with Lovelace over the environmental litigation.
“It has also been discussed about someone (or more) running against Paige Bibbee (District 3) and Charles Kirby (District 4),” Lovelace wrote. “If you wonder why, especially about Paige, come see me and we will discuss. … If you see someone who should be approached about running, please let me know.”
He went on to lay out a strategy that irked Kirby, Bibbee and Jackson.
“I told Willie (LaFavor) and John (Seymour) that I could not be publicly involved in this effort, but very deep behind the scenes I would help as needed,” Lovelace wrote. “John, Willie and I discussed that the effort to recruit good, electable candidates, and to help fund their campaigns and educate them about how to run a campaign, should probably be done by a group independent and separate from the Chamber.”
While the Lovelace email was not publicly leaked until July, Kirby figures it set out a strategy that ultimately contributed to Bibbee and Kirby losing.
LaFavor and his company Contractor Services were financial contributors to the campaigns of Bowling and Ladner. Gary Lafavor, using the address for Contractor Services, was a contributor to Bibbee opponent McMasters.
Bowling, Pike, Ladner and McMasters all received contributions from Alabama Leadership Now, a PAC run by Heather Wilson of Leverage Public Strategies in Huntsville, according to disclosures with the Secretary of State's Office.
Based on expenditure reports, Leverage Public Strategies was a paid consultant for the campaigns of Bowling, Ladner and McMasters.
While Pike lists no payments to Leverage Public Strategies or Wilson, Wilson notarized most of his campaign disclosures.
Seymour said the chamber played no role in the election. Because of concerns expressed by some council members over the 2016 election, the chamber-affiliated Prosperity PAC also stayed out of this year’s election.
Seymour said he and LaFavor did speak with Lovelace as related in the Jan. 15 email.
“I remember the reason he wanted to talk to us was to talk about districts 2 and 5 because there was no incumbent running for election and he thought we needed to address those vacancies, to see if we could find good people to run,” Seymour said. “We agreed with that and then we talked about the other races. It was just casual conversation.
“There was no conspiracy to vote anybody out of office or get anybody to run against anybody or anything like that.”
Seymour said the chamber had no control over LaFavor’s political contributions.
“We can’t tell individuals what to do. He didn’t act on our behalf. We’ve got 850 members. Are we going to say none of y’all can get involved in any kind of local election? Those are individual decisions, and I don’t think the chamber should be held responsible for what individuals do,” he said. “We were clear we were not going to be engaged in this election, and we weren’t. I didn’t put up one yard sign or make one phone call. We’ve stayed out.”
He said Bibbee was council liaison to the chamber and never seemed to have concerns about the work it was doing.
“I don’t know about the others,” he said, referring to Jackson and Kirby. “I don’t know what their problem is.”
Kirby said he feels the chamber violated its commitment to stay out of the election.
“When the chamber told us they weren’t getting involved in the elections, and then they turned around and took no position when one of their members — an officer in the organization who doesn’t live in Decatur and whose business is not in Decatur (was involved) — then it’s clear the chamber did not tell us everything that was going on,” Kirby said. “They were not completely transparent and honest.”
'Crossed a line'
Jackson said he has always had a problem with the city appropriating money to the chamber, and believes he has always voted against it.
“The chamber’s an organization that’s supposed to basically build businesses and grow businesses in our community and help our city prosper,” Jackson said. “I’ve always seen them as taking on more of a political role. This election cycle it was even more evident that was the case. We’ve used city money to fund them and they’ve built PACs and gotten involved in politics, and I don’t think the two should intersect.”
He said he was not convinced that the halt on Prosperity PAC activity meant the chamber stayed out of the Aug. 25 general election.
“We saw the letter that Barney (Lovelace) drafted, and we saw that key members of the chamber, LaFavor and others, were involved in this process, whether they admitted they were or not,” Jackson said. “They’re supposed to work on the commerce of our city. Can an elected official help with that? Absolutely.
"But when they’re coming in and trying to dictate who those elected officials are, then I think they’ve crossed a line.”
Bibbee on Wednesday also pointed to the Lovelace email and its reference to LaFavor, both as the genesis of her pending complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission and as a sign of problems with this and past elections.
“The question is how many years has this happened,” Bibbee said. “How many years have elections been manipulated that way?”
Ard, who made the motion for the chamber to receive the appropriations and has received past endorsements from the chamber, said the council should have approved the expenditures.
“I think it was a mistake,” Ard said. “The chamber does a very good job of bringing in retail businesses. They work together with (Morgan County Economic Development Association) and have worked with the city for a long time in bringing businesses into this city. It’s a partnership, and they’ve been an essential link. I was gravely disappointed by the outcome of the vote.
“I’m hopeful that the next council will overturn it.”