The Anniston City Council voted Tuesday to hire an outside lawyer, if need be, to fight a secession move by one of the Model City’s four council wards.
Council members voted 5-0 in favor of a resolution denouncing Forward 4 All, a recently formed nonprofit, for its proposal to take Ward 4 out of the city and make it part of Oxford.
“This would be absolutely devastating for our police and fire retirees,” said Mayor Jack Draper in a council meeting at the Anniston City Meeting Center.
Several residents of Ward 4, which includes Golden Springs and much of the east side of town, created Forward 4 All last month to promote a draft bill that would allow the Legislature to move the ward into Oxford — without a vote of residents in either Anniston or Oxford.
Oxford officials have said they don’t want the proposed annexation area. No lawmaker is championing the group’s annexation bill, though State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he has asked legislative staff to look into proposals brought by the group.
But the move lit a fire under Anniston’s council, for reasons both historic and urgently new. Anniston is a majority-black city where one in three people live below the poverty line, according to Census numbers. Ward 4 is majority-white and contains some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.
The city’s population has declined by a third over the past half-century; deannexation would move thousands more out of city limits instantly. And city officials say the loss of revenue would be disastrous to the police and fire retirement funds, which are independent from the state retirement system.
Advocates for deannexation have said they’re motivated largely by falling home values in the city. Councilman Jay Jenkins said the city should work to address Ward 4 residents’ concerns, but that deannexation advocates have a responsibility to stick with their neighbors.
“This act is cowardly, and nothing short of that,” Jenkins said of the deannexation proposal.
The resolution before the council Tuesday held similarly strong wording, calling the deannexation plan an “unconstitutional, existential threat” to the city.
Ward 4 resident Glen Ray, a member of Forward 4 All, claimed that many in the city — including some on the council — were more amenable to the secession move in private.
“They’re not just two-faced, they’re three-faced,” he said before the council’s vote on the resolution. “You watch. Millie won’t vote for it.”
Ward 4 Councilwoman Millie Harris did in fact vote for the resolution, saying she believed deannexation would have “unintended consequences” that would harm the city.
The only disagreement between lawmakers was about whether to take legal action against Forward 4 All. Councilman Ben Little last week proposed a lawsuit against the group. Others on the council said there was nothing in the draft proposal that they could take to court. By Tuesday, the council seemed to have settled on a plan to authorize the hiring of a special counsel if legal action is needed. The council voted 4-1 to add that to the resolution Tuesday. Only Harris was in opposition.
“I don’t think we need to hire an attorney at this point,” she said. “I believe that’s premature.”
Little said businesses would be uneasy about the prospect of a reduced city, and “should see that we are acting aggressively the way leaders should.”
“Whoever’s trying to do this, we should be ready to pulverize them,” he said.
In a residents’ comment session after the vote, Ray criticized the council for ignoring what he saw as another attempt to take people out of the city.
The Anniston Housing Authority has plans to demolish many of the city’s aging housing projects. Residents of the former Cooper Homes are now in other complexes and in rental properties, with federal assistance, pending construction of new housing. Ray said that has moved western Anniston residents out of the city, to Oxford, Eastaboga and other places. He said his own grandson was moved to Saks.
“I pulled my grandson out,” Ray told the Star. “They had him at Saks. I told him, ‘You’re not playing football for Saks.’”
Ray’s concerns had already found footing on the council. Little and Councilman David Reddick both criticized the Housing Authority plan as an effort to depopulate Anniston, particularly the town’s west side. They criticized the city for giving Community Development Block Grant funds for the Cooper Homes plan. And Little noted that many of the people who’ve been moved won’t be living in Anniston when census-takers come around next year.
“You can tarry for a year until the census is over,” he said.
Attempts to reach Sonny McMahand, the director of the Housing Authority, were unsuccessful after the meeting Tuesday. City officials said CDBG funds from the city don’t go to pay rent for displaced residents. Interim City Manager Steven Folks said city officials were in talks with the Housing Authority about its plans.
In other news, the council:
— Voted to allow a city grant writer to amend a federal grant request, asking for $250,000 for a health institute named after former surgeon general David Satcher, a former Annistonian. That money would come from a larger sum the city requested for a park dedicated to the Freedom Riders.
— Approved beer and wine licenses for NOOR LLC, doing business as Model City Market 2 at 1500 Quintard Avenue.
— Voted to spend $6,700 to demolish a substandard house a 405 A Street.
Folks, the city manager, said the move of city offices to the new temporary City Hall at the Consolidated Publishing Building was on schedule. He said he expected city offices to be closed to the public Thursday and Friday as the move is being completed.
According to signage at the front door of the building, City Hall’s street address will be 4309 McClellan Blvd.