In the span of a few December days, two-fifths of the Anniston City Council has either faced jail time or at least pondered the possibility. So much for happy holidays.
Councilman Ben Little was fortunate; instead of incarceration, he was sentenced to two years of probation by a Jefferson County judge for two misdemeanor convictions of ethics violations. Councilman Jay Jenkins was arrested on ethics charges for allegedly using his office for personal gain.
You know what Anniston’s 2008-2012 council says?
Hold my beer.
Don’t even think about comparing the current council’s recent legal melancholy to the Dark Ages of Anniston’s modern-day politics. The four years of the Gene Robinson-led City Hall have no peer, four years that stunted Anniston’s growth, stalled McClellan’s redevelopment, Superglued negativity to the municipal government that presided over Gurnee Avenue, and laid a foundation for the birth of this year’s overreactive and shadowy deannexation movement.
The Robinson years were bizarro weird. Recounting the madness would take a month. For that matter, recounting the lowlights would take nearly that long. So let’s settle on this vignette.
It’s the fall of 2011, less than 12 months from the nearing city elections. The worst-kept secret in town was the concerted effort to recruit a slate of candidates that would stop Anniston’s politics from continuing to swirl down the toilet. It wasn’t about electing certain candidates; it was about not again electing those candidates.
Robinson, the longtime Noble Street hardware store owner, described himself as “the most-sued mayor in history.” Little had sued The Star for libel. (He lost.) The council held a seven-month show trial — The Great Inquisition — in a fruitless attempt to root out nonexistent corruption in City Hall and the Anniston Police Department. The hallway fight between Robinson and Councilman John Spain led to a lawsuit and a court date. Local resident Curtis Ray sued Robinson for his uncouth post-election comments. Spain sued Robinson, alleging “long-term harassment.” Spain faced legal jeopardy on charges of exceeding his lawful authority as a councilman. On behalf of its members, the Anniston Fraternal Order of Police sued Little and Spain for “harassment, intimidation, defamation, negligence, recklessness, wantonness and malice.”
And then, this.
Spain resigned from the council. Didn’t even finish out his term. But he resigned only after a group of anonymous residents — perhaps only one, truth be told — negotiated a secretive deal between the court and Spain that would see the charges against him for assault and exceeding his authority dropped and the councilman in turn leaving the council.
Here’s how The Star described it:
“The deal, according to a news release (Calhoun County District Attorney Brian) McVeigh distributed, was negotiated with the help of local residents who wished to remain anonymous.” William Rutledge, a one-time Spain attorney, admitted that the arrangement was strange. McVeigh said he had promised the residents — or resident — anonymity. Little called those residents “phantom workers.”
Remember, that was only a few months out of four years of the Robinson City Hall. How Anniston didn’t become Pompeii, I’ll never know.
That’s one heck of a vignette, I admit. But it proves my point that this current council wobbliness has nothing on its ’08-12 predecessor. Not even close.
What that doesn’t do is absolve Little and Jenkins of their roles in the current state of things. That’s not even close, either.
I never believed Little would be found guilty of a felony crime, and he wasn’t. But he shouldn’t have voted in 2017 to block a city-ordered cleanup at his Leighton Avenue home and the church he pastors.
Jenkins’ situation is oddly similar. Earlier this year he voted yes on a City Hall move to office space at Consolidated Publishing Co., which owns The Star and where his wife, Kim Jenkins, works in the advertising department. The Alabama Ethics Commission sent Jenkins’ case to prosecutors, and a grand jury charged him with using his office for personal gain — in essence, claiming that his family benefited from the city’s leasing of Consolidated Publishing office space.
Jenkins has told The Star that he respects the legal process and believes he’ll be vindicated. We’ll see in January. If Little and Jenkins had cautiously abstained from voting on issues that even remotely involved themselves or their families, Anniston wouldn’t be going through this reprise of its persistent cancer: politicians making troubling headlines, whatever they may be.
Perhaps that should be City Hall’s New Year’s resolution, to stay out of trouble in 2020.
Anniston being Anniston, though, that’s likely impossible.