Forward 4 All, the nonprofit that’s trying to orchestrate an unholy land grab between Anniston and Oxford, has a spokesperson. It’s Charles Turner.
He wrote the draft of a legislative bill that seeks to deannex nearly 10,000 Anniston residents — all of Ward 4 and slivers of other neighborhoods — and slide them into Oxford. He is the face of the nonprofit whose members, as he told The Star, are concerned that “as long as we’re in Anniston, we won’t get the full price when we sell our homes” because of long-festering issues with the city’s majority-black public schools and poverty rates.
Anniston’s Ward 4 is ground zero of this land grab. It needs a spokesperson — either to defend it against deannexation or shepherd it into Oxford.
It should be Millie Harris.
She is Ward 4’s City Council member. She should dominate these discussions — not Mayor Jack Draper, and certainly not Ward 3 Councilman Ben Little, who usually dominates everything. Yet, when Draper last week discussed a possible City Council resolution against Forward 4 All’s proposal — a resolution Draper assumed would receive unanimous council support — this is what Harris told her council colleagues:
“I represent all of Ward 4. This is not about me personally; I hear both sides of it. I understand your frustration, and I have personally said I’m against this. But I’m going to abstain from voting on any of this because I represent all of the people” in Ward 4.
Granted, Harris is in a terrible bind, but that’s politics; it’s equally cutthroat and rewarding; she signed up for this. She’s a Ward 4 resident with deep ties to Anniston’s over-the-mountain neighborhoods. And it’s clear she’s getting hammered by Ward 4 residents who either agree with Turner’s proposal or those like me who believe it would be a death sentence for Anniston’s fragile fire-and-police pension fund, its future economic development efforts and its reputation.
Anniston cannot withstand the visual of middle- and high-income white residents fleeing to a majority-white neighboring city and away from its majority-black schools and lower-income neighborhoods. Those optics would be debilitating.
Harris wasn’t elected to be Ward 4’s stenographer and support measures solely based on residents’ wishes. Politics isn’t polling. She was elected to represent Ward 4’s best interests, whatever they may be, even if it earns her biting criticism. She was elected to lead. And saying in a council work session that she would abstain from voting on a deannexation resolution centering on her ward because she hears “both sides of it” was unfortunate optics and unwise politics.
I was shocked, as were others.
Credit Harris, however, for abandoning that stance.
“Needless to say, this week has been a tremendously stressful time to reflect,” she told me Friday afternoon, “with my thoughts evolving from serving the wishes of all Ward 4 citizens, thus abstaining from voting, to one of concluding that the best interest of our beloved city is to oppose deannexation through joining our council in a unanimous vote for a resolution to oppose.”
Now Anniston’s City Council can act as one. Council members can hold hands in unity and say what they must — that Forward 4 All’s proposal endangers the city’s future, doesn’t empower or improve Anniston’s schools and at its heart is based largely on improving personal real-estate holdings of a secretive group of mostly white middle- and high-income Annistonians.
At the next City Council meeting, Harris should issue Forward 4 All a challenge: Meet us in Wards 2 and 3, where poverty isn’t uncommon and needs are great. Work with us to improve housing options there, to find solutions that lower unemployment. Use your apparent sway with state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to unite, not divide. Drive over the mountain to Woodstock Avenue and join us as mentors to Anniston High School students. Don’t run away. Don’t give up. Don’t laugh at the optimism many Annistonians still hold.
And I’d include this addendum:
Don’t tell Anniston’s remnants that splitting the city’s population nearly in half, and thus enhancing the city’s racial divide, is better for all in the long run — or that it’s the only logical course. Don’t tell Anniston’s remnants that legislation leading to dissolving Anniston’s schools would boost those students because they’d get to attend racially diverse Calhoun County schools. And don’t tell Anniston’s remnants that reinvigorating property values in Golden Springs through an Oxford escape will automatically breed economic developments and job opportunities for the city’s minority neighborhoods. If Wards 2 and 3 need help, go there and help us help them.
Oh, and one more: Do schedule meetings in the city’s black neighborhoods and explain how Forward 4 All really is forward for all. I didn’t ask Harris, but I bet she’d support that, too.
“I’ve never seen a more divisive issue as this one,” she said.