For years, I’ve resisted the urge to declare Anniston a lost cause, and here’s why: It’s reactionary, it’s unfair, it’s a simplistic stance and it’s wrong. That’s what I’ve thought.
I’m not so sure anymore.
Politically, this has been Anniston’s Winter from Hell. It’s been brutal. Maybe spring will calm the storm. Maybe people will stop whispering about deannexation. But since November, Councilman Ben Little has been indicted on ethics charges (he’s pleaded not guilty); Little was caught on film violently yelling at Councilwoman Millie Harris during a meeting; Councilman David Reddick has accused City Manager Jay Johnson of racism; and Little and Reddick tried, and failed, to force the council to fire Johnson.
The council now is in freefall. That’s how it seems, at least. This week’s meeting was an 85-minute waste of time, dripping in frustration, anger and personal attacks. I’m not sure how Mayor Jack Draper, thrust into an unenviable role of council peacemaker, didn’t implode. Everything awful about Anniston’s current government was displayed — intractable ward politics, personal vendettas, pettiness, racial divisions, a breakdown of decorum and political immaturity.
Here’s how Draper ended the meeting:
“Mr. Johnson, I want to thank you for the job you’re doing. (Council) members have referenced emails up here, and we all get copied on those emails. I will say the emails I have read are just unprofessional, rising to the level of harassment, quite frankly. I’m sorry that you are having to endure that; it’s not part of your job description. Your job is to serve the city of Anniston and to run the city on a day-to-day basis, and I think you do that admirably.
“You’re not a racist. And I know you’re not a racist. And you know you’re not a racist. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve gotten to the point where every time we sit up here we talk about race. Every issue does not have to be couched in those terms. I just pray to God we can come together as a city, and we all need to seek His divine guidance as to how we move forward, quite frankly. But the way we’re doing it now is not the way we ought to be doing it, and I hope we can change that.”
That’s right. Anniston’s white mayor ended a meeting by proclaiming the white city manager isn’t a racist, referenced hateful emails a black councilman has sent to the white city manager, and urged Annistonians of all shades to pray for the city’s declining health.
That’s Anniston in 2019.
About those emails. I’ve seen some of them. They’re full of accusations of racism and ageism. They are the type of emails that in other cities would likely end a politician’s career — or at the very least bring him censure. But not in Anniston. We’re numb to it.
On Nov. 24, Reddick emailed Johnson. The email began: “Are you really going to sit here and lie to this council?”
Reddick accused Johnson of an unwillingness to work with him on a project. “Is it because I'm black?” Reddick asked. “I have noticed that you only tend to ignore the black elected officials in Anniston.”
Reddick attacked Johnson’s age. “Are you just sitting here long enough to save enough money to retire? If you are going to work for this city, you are going to earn your income, and that means working for this council.”
Reddick then unveiled his and Little’s effort to run Johnson out of town. “I will not be patrionized (sic) by you when I walk into your office! I am as much an elected official as Harris or (Councilman Jay) Jenkins and if you are not going to respect me as such, I will be calling for your resignation and this entire city is going to see you for what you are.”
Johnson responded a day later. “Councilman Reddick: Your email below crosses a line into unacceptable conduct on your part that must be stopped.” That was four months ago.
Then came Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think he’s the one disturbing us,” Reddick said. “I think he’s creating this divide between this council. He’s acting like Ben and me is (sic) just beating up on him like we’re just ruffians, like we’re just goons and like I’m going in his office with a chain and mallet and beating him or something.”
This fractured relationship is beyond repair. That’s clearer now than ever before, and the city is the ultimate loser. Little and Reddick’s dedication to divisive politics and unfounded claims of racial bias is Anniston’s biggest impediment, the reason why a city of promise may now be a city unable to reach it.