City tour

City officials, including City Manager Jay Johnson and Mayor Jack Draper, left and right at the front of the line, tour offices of The Anniston Star back in November. Shown behind them are desk cubicles of the newsroom.

Members of the Anniston City Council were at odds Monday over a plan to hire an architect to help move City Hall to a new temporary site.

Council members voted 3-2 to hire architect Bill Whittaker so that leased space in the Anniston Star building might be turned into a council chamber and city offices.

The hire met with opposition from Councilman Ben Little, who said the hire kept other architects from having a shot at the job — and thereby eliminated black architects from consideration.

“This is 2019, and you can’t even cast your vote to get the job,” Little said.

City officials expect demolition of Anniston’s current City Hall on Gurnee Avenue to begin as early as Sept. 1, as city and federal officials play musical chairs with downtown properties. The federal government wants the City Hall site so it can build a new federal courthouse in the heart of downtown. City officials expect to get the old federal courthouse on Noble Street in a land swap, and they could move City Hall there — though not until the new courthouse is finished.

The council has yet to select a new permanent city hall site, though. In December, the council voted to lease the top floor of the Anniston Star’s building on McClellan Boulevard to house city offices for five years. Rent would be $275,000 per year.

Converting that space, now used as the Star’s newsroom, would require renovation, city officials say. Council members say they expect to spend up to $250,000 on those renovations, which would divide the space into a council chamber and offices. Under a proposed agreement with Whittaker, the architect would get 7.7 percent of the money actually spent —  around $19,000 if the cost hits the expected maximum.

“This is an extremely small job,” said City Manager Jay Johnson.

Mayor Jack Draper said the city didn’t have time to open the work to other candidates because of the fast-approaching deadline to begin the move, with city officials have said will have to begin well before Sept 1.

“This is not a racial issue,” Draper said. “This is a time-is-of-the-essence issue.”

Little and Councilman David Reddick opposed the choice of Whittaker, whom the city already had hired for its initial assessment of the move. Reddick questioned the proposed cost of the renovation work, saying it consisted mostly of a wall to separate the council chamber from other offices.

“Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars for a wall?” he asked. Other council members said the $250,000 was a placeholder, with Whittaker himself expected to provide a cost estimate. Reddick questioned the wisdom of putting the estimate in the hands of a person who will get a percentage of the total cost of the project.

Little and Reddick called for the architectural work to be opened to bidders. Other council members said that could add a month or more to the process, possibly holding up courthouse construction.

“I’m not willing to slow this thing down,” Councilman Jay Jenkins said. “I think the single greatest thing we can do is to keep this thing moving.”

Council members were also split on another deadline — the March 1 date the Calhoun County Commission set to terminate its contract with Cheaha Regional Humane Society for running an animal shelter on the county’s behalf. The shelter isn’t under the city’s control, but Anniston does send its stray animals there.

County commissioners in November voted to cut ties with the nonprofit and create a county-run animal center. Commissioners at the time said they were moving to a “more metro concept” and made no reference to thedebates between management and employees that occasionally flared up at the animal center in 2018.

Councilwoman Millie Harris said she’d drafted a letter to the commissioners asking them to extend Cheaha Regional’s contract by three months, so the county will have more time to prepare to run a shelter.

“We’re really not sure of the direction we’re going,” Harris said.

Reddick said the contract was a county issue, not a city issue. He also asked why no one had brought the letter to him, as a member of the council’s committee on animal issues.

“This is what happens when somebody who is on the animal control committee isn’t included in the conversation,” he said.

Little said he and Reddick were excluded because they are black. Draper said the comment was “wholly unfair.”

The council voted 3-2 to send the letter, with Reddick and Little casting “no” votes.

In comments during a council work session, Little called for Johnson, the city manager, to be dismissed from his job, saying Johnson was too slow to respond to issues that emerge in Little’s ward. He cited a work order he entered asked for city workers to mow a property on Dooley Avenue.

“That lady’s been on me for a year now and we can’t get that cotton-picking thing cut,” Little said.

Draper said he felt Johnson was doing a fine job, though he said he would put the matter on a future meeting agenda if Little wished.

“We can all disagree with each other,” Draper said. “I wish we would all be more respectful.”

Little said he wanted the city to request an opinion from the Alabama attorney general and the Alabama Ethics Commission on the city’s decision to lease property from The Star.

“What would be the basis for the illegality of that?” Draper asked.

“That would be for Ethics to decide,” Little said.

In other business, the  council approved beer and retail licenses for Express Mart stores at 3400 Alexandria Road and 2328 Noble Street, as well as retail alcohol license for Grand Central Civic and Event Center at 1031 Noble Street.

Commissioners also approved an “honorary” street designation that would rename the 2100 block of  Gurnee Avenue in honor of Apostle Margaret McDill, pastor of Miracle Prayer House, which occupied that block of the street.

 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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