A testy exchange between Decatur's mayor and council members last week exposed a rift that by their accounts may affect city government the rest of this term and possibly beyond.
Council members said they were surprised by the personal nature of Mayor Tab Bowling's objections to their consideration and adoption of a requirement that legal settlements of $25,000 or more receive council approval.
“The mayor was so perturbed,” Councilman Billy Jackson said. “The thing I keep thinking about is why was he so angry? His reaction assured me that what we were doing was the right thing to do.”
Council President Paige Bibbee said she went back and watched the video of Monday's work session and meeting.
“It was kind of bully-ish of the mayor,” Bibbee said. “He definitely got personal.”
Councilman Chuck Ard said the incident in which Bowling called four of the five council members “lame ducks” was surprising.
“All I can do is speculate about why he took that approach and that doesn’t do any good, but it was an attack,” Ard said.
This City Council has rarely had a unanimous vote on any major issue this term, but Bowling’s terse comments preceded a 4-0 vote with Councilwoman Kristi Hill absent. Councilman Charles Kirby said he was surprised by the vote because Ard had objected to reducing the settlement threshold from $100,000 to $25,000.
Bowling said his comments at the meeting came from “frustration” with the council over the last three and a half years.
“I’ve worked hard with our directors, our employees and I’ve been involved with our citizens,” Bowling said. “It seems like they (council members) have just been after me more than any other mayor. I’m not an authoritarian, but they continue to try to make the (mayor’s) office weaker.”
Bibbee and Kirby agreed that Monday’s vote may have united the council, especially against the mayor, as they go into the last five months of their term.
“This may have been a watershed moment for the council,” Kirby said.
Jackson said he’s not sure he agrees. He believes it was probably the issue that unified their vote. He rarely votes with the majority and usually doesn’t talk to them, although he and Ard were seen in conversation Monday after the mayor’s comments in the work session.
Bowling suggested during the work session that none of the incumbent council members except Jackson would be back for another term, but Bibbee pointed out that she and Kirby haven’t announced whether they'll run for reelection, and Ard and Hill could change their minds before qualifying ends July 21 and run again.
“I’m not running again. I would be breaking too many promises,” Ard said. “But I was tempted after what (Bowling) said Monday.”
Hill could not be reached for comment.
Bowling, who plans to seek a second term in the Aug. 25 election, said last week he didn’t want to review the instances in which he believes the council was weakening his office. He said last month he would ask council when the next term begins to relinquish to him the hiring of department heads that a mayor is permitted to make under state law. In a longtime Decatur practice, the mayor supervises department heads after they're hired by the council.
Bowling said on Monday he has not had a relationship with most of the council members during this term, forcing him to use his directors to present ideas that he might have.
Jackson, who Bowling said Monday will be the only council member reelected, has been the one council member with a relationship with the mayor.
“I still believe that to be true,” Bowling said.
However, Jackson said their relationship soured because Bowling didn’t support him on at least two key issues last year. The District 1 councilman said he met with Community Development Supervisor Allen Stover and the mayor last summer to discuss the mistakes on the new Rough Riders Pavilion plaque.
“The mayor wanted me to take credit for the mistake because he thought the council would be more likely to approve the $6,000 correction,” Jackson said. “I refused to take responsibility for a mistake I didn’t make.”
Jackson also wasn’t happy Bowling didn’t speak out and push to get the council to approve the new plaque. He said the mayor has discretionary money to pay for the plaque so the council didn’t have to be involved.
“He should have spoken out and said we need to do this for these men who have done so much for our community and we need to do this while most of them are alive,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he wasn’t happy when Bowling showed up at the unveiling of the new plaque as if he had supported it.
Bowling said he showed his support for the Rough Riders by attending the unveiling as he does many other events in the city. He said the plaque replacement was a council decision.
“You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up,” Bowling said. “I show up because I care for all of Decatur, and my wife, Sherry, shows up, too."
'Social media mayor'
In December, Jackson said, the mayor initially told him he would support him and veto the transfer of the old Third Street Southwest fire station to the Boys & Girls Club of North Alabama but then backtracked.
“He told me his election committee advised him that it wasn’t in his best interest to veto the transfer,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the two incidents showed him that Bowling “is about himself and not for what is best for this community.”
Bowling said he believes he’s done well in communicating with residents, city directors and employees and community partners.
“I’m the social media mayor,” Bowling said.
Council members and the mayor acknowledged there’s been a communications block between them with no attempt to discuss and solve their issues. Bowling acknowledged he never told anyone on the council that he opposed the settlement ordinance, which council members ironically supported because they wanted to ensure they received communication about spending on settlements.
“I don’t communicate with the mayor and he doesn’t communicate with us,” Ard said.
Kirby said his main problem with the mayor is he doesn’t like how Bowling has changed the budget that he presents annually for council approval. He said previous mayors presented flat budgets with no anticipated increases from the previous fiscal year, with increases going into the unfunded reserves.
“Now we spend all of our money to make everyone happy and it’s not sustainable, especially if you have a disaster like COVID-19,” Kirby said.
The mayor said he depends on a professional in finances, CFO John Andrzejewski, to create the budget he presents to council.
Bowling said he and the council members are both at fault for communication breakdowns, and he would welcome a discussion.
“The fence gate swings both ways,” Bowling said. “But I would love to mend fences. I represent all of Decatur. The best advice I received about dealing with the council is you have to be magnanimous and forgetful as a mayor to be effective.”