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Anniston mayor declares inquiry vote 'failed'

Anniston budget meeting

Anniston city council members listen during a presentation of the 2018 Anniston city budget at Anniston City Hall. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Anniston City Council members Tuesday voted on a request by Councilman Ben Little to open an inquiry into allegations he’s leveled at two fellow council members.

That vote was 2-1 in favor of an inquiry, but it failed because it lacked a majority vote of all council members who were present, according to Mayor Jack Draper, who voted no; two council members abstained from voting. Little questioned Draper’s finding.

Little requested the inquiry last month to look into whether Councilman Jay Jenkins’ architecture firm’s previous work for the city violates state law, and whether it was illegal to give out money in a loan program by a separate board several years ago, some of which Councilwoman Millie Harris’ husband’s company received.

A company owned by Harris’ husband, Braxton Harris, in 2015 was awarded a $26,000 reimbursement from the Anniston Downtown Development Authority for work his company paid to renovate a downtown building at 1118 Noble St.  City officials told The Star in 2015 that the board which approved the funds is a separate entity from the City Council, that Braxton Harris’s application into the program was handled just as all applications were, and that there was no misuse of city funds.

Little said the inquiry was also to look into city funds paid to Jenkin’s architectural firm several years ago for work on “City Hall, the botanical garden and fire station.” Little’s allegations appear to be the same made several times in years past, and which Jenkins sought and received prior clearance for from the Alabama Ethics Commission.  

“The inquiry gives the council subpoena power,” Little said before the council's vote Tuesday.

Little said he hasn’t given all the evidence against Harris and Jenkins “because I can’t give it to you. I need legal guidance on that, but it is enough.”

Councilman David Reddick said, “It’s good to look into it and say, right is right or wrong is wrong, to bring it to an end … let’s get some closure … me and Ben ain’t breaking up. Me and Ben. We’ve got a love made in heaven.”

Little said that because Jenkins and Harris are “involved and a part of the inquiry” they shouldn’t vote on the matter.

“Why not bring those to the attorneys general? Why not bring those to the district attorney? They would be the better parties to investigate the matters of which you complain,” Draper told Little. “Most people here remember the last council inquiry we had here, and the reputation the city developed as a result of that inquiry.”

Little served on the council during a seven-month council inquiry in 2010 and 2011. That inquiry began in July 2010 with a unanimous council vote asking that allegations of corruption at City Hall and the Anniston Police Department be looked into.

Harris said she was not going to address “the scandalous accusations with a response, but I will abstain, even though the facts are not there.” Jenkins abstained from the vote as well.

Little said the last inquiry was “only bad for some folks … it seems as though the pattern of racial bias still exists in this city. You burn the bus and you still continue to deprive the city.”

“Come on, man!” said someone seated in the meeting’s audience, apparently speaking of Little’s statement, to which Little asked whether someone needed to be removed from council chambers.  

Little and Reddick voted to open the inquiry and Draper voted against.  

“While I’m sure a legal challenge will ensue from this, this is a two-to-one vote with five members still present. I think that you need three votes in order to have a council inquiry,” Draper said. “And so from my perspective that motion fails.”

“That motion passed,” Little said. “It’s two-to-one.”

“The motion failed. You can challenge that,” Draper told Little.

The state’s law governing council votes states that “the affirmative vote of a majority of the council members present” are required to approve a matter.

Speaking after the meeting Draper said “an abstention is different from a recusal. With an abstention the members are still here,” which he said means to pass Little’s request it would take three yes votes.

Prior to closing the regular meeting council members voted to go into an executive session at Little’s request. Little said the closed-door meeting was needed to discuss the “good name and character” of someone who is not a city employee. Council members took no action after the 25-minute executive session.

At a work session prior to the council’s regular meeting Tuesday, Little suggested moving inmates from the Calhoun County Jail into the Anniston City Jail, combining the two jails into one.

Little said he recently walked through the county jail, which he said is overcrowded.

“I think there should be a resolution from the council, not telling the judges what to do,” Little said, then added that people are sitting in county jail for long periods waiting on court hearings.

Little said the city could make money housing county inmates.

“I’m certainly in favor of exploring those possibilities,” Draper said.

Cory Salley, interim city manager, said there’s been some initial discussion of combining the jails, and that if those talks develop the matter will be brought before the council.

In other business, council members:

— Agreed to a one-time bonus to retired city employees at a cost to the city of $58,352. Retirees are to get a payment in December of $2 for each month of service or $300, whichever is greater.

— Agreed to use a grant the city received to restore the former Greyhound bus station, which is part of the Freedom Riders National Monument, to instead pay for planning, signage, historical research and other matters related to the site. The change was needed after the National Park Service took ownership of the former bus station and learned the grant could not be used as first intended.   

— Agreed to reimburse two city employees a total of $516.28 in travel expenses.

— Declared October as “Domestic Violence Awareness Month”

— Proclaimed the week of Oct. 8-14 as Fire Prevention Week.

— Agreed to abate nuisances at 2002 Leighton Ave., 0 Pyle Ave., 1330 Noble St., 1104 Parkwood Drive, 2017 Dooley Ave., 625 Pine Ave., 316 Mulberry Ave., 200 Sawyer St. and 201 South Spruce Ave.

— Accepted the resignation of Arthur Toole III from the Longleaf Botanical Gardens Board.

— Agreed to waive rental fees to Anniston High School alumni committee to hold a fundraiser at the Anniston City Meeting Center.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.