Anniston leaders look to new strategies
by Laura Camper
Aug 30, 2012 | 4464 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Vaughn Stewart, elected Tuesday to be the next mayor of Anniston, speaks with a well-wisher at a downtown Anniston restaurant Wednesday. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Vaughn Stewart, elected Tuesday to be the next mayor of Anniston, speaks with a well-wisher at a downtown Anniston restaurant Wednesday. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
When Vaughn Stewart, phone to his ear, entered Peerless Grille on Wednesday, patrons at a table near the door called out congratulations to the newly-elected mayor.

Without missing a beat, he turned and greeted them and took a few minutes to talk before heading to a table.

That willingness to stop and get to know people is one reason, said Pat O’Brien, a long-time friend of Stewart and one of his more than 200 campaign workers, that he was able to pull more than 55 percent of the vote in an 11-candidate race.

“I have never been involved in politics in my 60 years, but when Vaughn decided to run he had my full support,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know a lot about politics, but I know a lot about people.”

The mayoral race looked sure to end in a runoff election. As late as Tuesday afternoon, Stewart himself said he was expecting as much. Hours later, he had surprised everyone and achieved victory.

As of Nov. 5, when he’s sworn into office, he will face some daunting challenges, but Wednesday he was still excited.

“I love the campaign, but I’m a policy man,” Stewart said. “I really like to get in with the process itself, connecting the dots, the cause and effect.”

He plans to get started prior to inauguration by meeting with other City Council members, school board members and mayors of surrounding towns to start to build the relationships he believes are essential to Anniston.

Anniston needs to unify and to clean house, Stewart said.

“I think it’s incumbent that the new council gets started in a big way in the right direction,” Stewart said.

He’s not alone. Jay Jenkins, appointed to the Ward 1 City Council seat in January, was elected to the seat Tuesday. He’s already meeting with the new council members to get to know them better, see if their goals are in sync and hopefully avoid the discord that was so common among some of the former council members, Jenkins said.

“I think most everybody was elected on that premise,” said Jenkins, co-owner of Munroe Jenkins Architects in Anniston.

However, two council seats are heading to runoff elections. Marcus Dunn, who was appointed to the Ward 4 seat in May, and Millie Harris will have to campaign again for the seat again and Sheffton Goodson and David Reddick will face off for the Ward 2 council seat.

Jenkins isn’t concerned about who might be elected to the seats.

“I hope and I expect, knowing all the councilmen, all will proceed with a professional demeanor to move on,” Jenkins said.

Seyram Selase, elected to represent the residents of Ward 3, also plans to meet with the other council members to make sure they’re all on the same page about where they think the city should go from here.

“That’s got to be the first thing, because I’ve got to show the city of Anniston as a whole that I definitely am a councilman that wants to be able to work cooperatively with the rest of the council,” Selase said.

Stewart’s rise to office is not unprecedented in his life. At age 21 in February 1977 he was elected president of the Student Government Association of the University of Alabama. As it was Tuesday, the vote then was overwhelmingly in his favor: 2,000 to 900.

He’s now approaching his first term as mayor in much the same way he did his student body presidency.

In 1977, he and the other members of the association traveled to other universities to speak with their counterparts and compare notes and pick up ideas to take back to Tuscaloosa. Stewart said he hopes to visit state agencies in Montgomery that can have an effect on Anniston’s economic health in much the same manner.

He said he intends to meet with Anniston’s congressional delegation as soon as possible.

Stewart, who served as Anniston’s municipal judge from January 1996 until he retired this year to run for mayor, said the city doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to revitalize. It can borrow blueprints from other communities that have already done it.

In addition, the city needs to bring in everyone to plan where it will go from here and then move toward that goal. Even the planning process, Stewart said, will help create camaraderie among residents.

The new councilmen all agree on the assets the city needs to develop and improve — McClellan and the Anniston City School system. They do have different ways to get there. Jenkins was one of the councilmen who voted to raise Anniston’s sales tax to 10 percent in order to provide more money for economic development, the school system and to shore up the city’s police and fire department retirement fund.

Although the councilmen have never assigned amounts to each purpose, Jenkins had said his intention was to provide more funding for the school system.

Stewart, on the other hand, said he would like to work with the Board of Education to improve the schools, but wants to see results before he would provide more funding.

“I’m going to have to see some movement from the schools first, before I commit to any more funding,” Stewart said.

Both Jenkins and Stewart commented on the need for the city to develop the Anniston Middle School property. They see it as a retail center when the bypass is completed. That, along with development at the research and industrial parks at McClellan will help propel Anniston forward, providing jobs and an increased tax base, Selase, Jenkins and Stewart said. They say they’re ready to provide the resources and cooperation to see it happen.

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