Anniston Star Associate Publisher Bob Davis presented the awards at the United Way of East Alabama’s annual luncheon, held at Anniston’s First United Methodist Church.
The four groups — Women Empowered, REAL Men of Anniston, GETT Moving East Alabama and the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce — collaborated to establish candidate forums across Anniston during the municipal elections.
“They really ignited the fire of change that’s starting to take place in Anniston,” Mayor Vaughn Stewart said this week.
In his speech presenting the awards, Davis said the four groups played a pivotal role in bringing about “the Anniston Spring.” He described the event not as a season but “a condition that is marked by an openness, a civil debate and a unified desire to see our community grow and prosper.”
Anniston Star Publisher Brandt Ayers said the candidate forums led to a drastic turnaround in the city’s leadership — with only one incumbent in the council returning to office after the August elections.
“A community newspaper can be a catalyst for civic action. Our coverage of the past City Council culminating in a Sunday front-page editorial call to action began a narrative that resulted in citizens acting to improve city government,” Ayers said, referring to the August 2010 editorial titled, “Timeout, time over for the City Council.”
“We are fed up,” the editorial stated. “But it will take more than outrage to bring reasoned, civil dialogue back to City Hall; it will take a civic army. It is time for residents to come together, discuss the remedies available, choose leadership and shape outrage into a clear, sensible program of reform.”
The council’s first meeting in 2008 devolved into a shouting match. It was to be a harbinger for the next four years as heated arguments, frequent litigation and turmoil defined the City Council.
Davis said the editorial expressed frustration that many in the community felt.
“Instead of governing, growing and guiding, the Anniston Council was spending more of its time fussing, fighting and filing lawsuits,” he told the crowd.
Davis said that though it was The Star’s call to action, it was the four groups who planned, organized and publicized the forums. He said it appears the citizens of Anniston followed the example set by the four organizations.
“The tone as well as the elected leadership has changed for the better at city hall,” he said.
During the awards ceremony, Julia Segars, an honoree and chairwoman of the board for GETT Moving, asked every attendee involved with the four groups to join the representatives on the stage.
“This was a movement of concerned people that cared enough to get involved,” she said.
and Ellen Bass
Ellen Bass received the Citizen of the Year award for her work with Women Empowered.
Bass said Ridgely Smith, Cynthia Hines and Joanne Pope formed the group nearly two years ago to educate women in the community about city government.
Bass said the organization was formed “at a time when people were fed up with a lot of things.” Before the 2012 election, members of the group often attended City Council sessions, criticizing members for the tone of the meetings and the council’s lack of leadership.
Bass said Women Empowered also holds monthly meetings and typically hosts a guest who speaks about city government. She said the group now has around 75 members.
Bass and two other members of Women Empowered participated in the committee that organized the candidate forums leading up to the 2012 elections.
“We wanted to let the voters of our community have a time where they were able to hear and ask questions on what they had to offer the city of Anniston,” she said.
REAL Men of Anniston
and Victor Williams
Victor Williams received the Citizen of the Year award on behalf of REAL Men of Anniston.
Williams said the group formed in October 2011. It began as four men who would meet every Sunday to pray and talk about what could be done to improve the community.
“We decided to stop talking about it and step out on the streets and do the work,” he said.
Members of REAL Men of Anniston often volunteer their time with programs that benefit young people in Anniston.
Williams said members of REAL Men helped organize the candidate forums because they wanted candidates to have an honest dialogue with the community. When asked what he thought about the effectiveness of the forums, Williams said, “I think it was awesome, truly awesome because now the public is more aware.”
Chamber of Commerce
and Sonde Coleman
Accepting the Citizen of the Year award on behalf of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce was Sonde Coleman, a board member and member of the chamber’s Legislative Affairs Committee.
Coleman said the chamber served in a support role for the candidate forums, establishing venues and publicizing the events. She said the chamber’s participation stems from the group’s initiative to inform its members about government at all levels.
The reasoning is simple, she said: An informed public leads to more economic development.
GETT Moving East Alabama and Julia Segars
Segars, a vice president for Alabama Power’s Eastern Division, said GETT Moving, a nonprofit organization, formed in 2010 from about five people who were lamenting the state of the city’s leadership.
Before members of GETT Moving participated in the candidate forums, the organization formed focus groups and conducted a public opinion survey to discover the priorities of the community.
Segars said the survey had equal representation from each of the city’s four wards, and the researchers found that the top priorities were the same regardless of the demographics.
The No. 1 problem was city leadership, she said. Other top concerns were education, job opportunities and untapped economic potential.
Segars said she feels like the research was a tremendous service to the community.
“It started a lot of conversations,” she said.
Segars said the success of the candidates forums is obvious when one looks at the election returns.
“The magnitude of the change was surprising to me,” she said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with our leadership.”
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_star.