BIRMINGHAM — Anniston City Councilman Ben Little didn’t believe his own property would be affected in a 2017 council vote on city-ordered property cleanups, Little’s lawyer argued in the councilman’s ethics trial Tuesday.
“Nobody said a word,” defense attorney Donald Stewart said in opening arguments at the Jefferson County courthouse. “They just sat there. And so he cast his vote.”
Little faces two felony charges stemming from his 2017 vote against city-ordered cleanup of vehicles parked at Little’s Leighton Avenue home and a blue van parked at Refuge Full Gospel Church, where Little is pastor.
Prosecutor Scott Lloyd told jurors the city regularly orders residents to clean up property that is in poor condition — and sometimes hires a contractor to clean up those properties, charging the owner for the cleanup.
Lloyd said city code enforcement officers as early as summer 2016 spotted a car and a van at Little’s home that had expired tags and had been parked in the same spot for more than 30 days. By February 2017, he said, the cars were still there. He said the city sent “courtesy letters” to Little about those vehicles and a van parked at Refuge Full Gospel that had a loose muffler and flat tires.
By May 1, the two properties had made it onto a list of properties the city wanted to clean up at the owner’s expense. Lloyd said that list was originally on a consent agenda, meaning it was set for council approval without debate. Days before a May 1 council meeting, Lloyd said, Little asked city staff to move the vote off the consent agenda and onto the regular agenda.
“This is a case about a man who made himself the judge of his own cause,” Lloyd told the jury in his opening arguments.
Stewart said Little had already fixed the problems with his cars before the vote and did not believe the vote affected his property.
“The automobiles at his house were operable,” he said. “They ran. They had current tags. You’ll see evidence to show that they were registered and insured.”
The first witness in the case, city code enforcement officer Tana Bryant, testified that city officials found the vehicles after checking up on an anonymous tip. She said that by the May 1 vote, city officials had observed that tires were filled and the muffler apparently fixed on the van at the church. She said it took more than that to rectify a “nuisance” vehicle. She said Little could have done that by showing inspectors that the cars do indeed run.
“He’s free to come to us,” she said.
Former Anniston city manager Kent Davis testified that Bryant came to him after discovering the potential code violation on Little’s property to discuss how to proceed, given that the code violations affected a council member’s property.
Davis said he told Bryant to proceed as she would with any code violation, though Davis said that as a “professional courtesy,” he arranged to meet with Mayor Jack Draper and Little to discuss the matter.
“We did sit down with Mr. Little in my office, the city manager’s office — a pretty lengthy discussion,” Davis said.
Stewart showed jurors a flow chart used by the codes enforcement division and asked how a nuisance procedure would typically work. Bryant said she would typically contact the property owner directly, typically by simply knocking on the door. Bryant also cited professional courtesy as the reason she decided to approach Davis about contacting Little.
Prosecutors called journalist Eddie Burkhalter to the stand to discuss a Jan. 29, 2019, Facebook post in which Little states “the minutes show I didn’t even vote” on the nuisance action.
It’s unclear why prosecutors called Burkhalter. The Star wrote about the Jan. 29 post when it covered the indictment that led to this week’s trial, but Burkhalter left the paper more than a year before that.
Little’s lawyers objected to introduction of the post and were overruled. On the stand, Little’s lawyers quizzed Burkhalter about whether he could know this or any other Facebook page belonged to the person it seemed to belong to.
Burkhalter said he couldn’t be sure, but that he had followed the page for years, reading comments on city business and posts about items coming up at meetings.
“I guess somebody could do a long con and spend years setting up a Facebook page,” he said.
Lloyd later offered to call up Little’s page on a tablet in the courtroom, to which Little’s lawyers objected. They were overruled, and Burkhalter used the pad to find an active page attributed to Little that included the post.
Lloyd pointed to Little in the courtroom.
“Can you tell me that he’s Ben Little and not Ben Little’s twin brother,” Lloyd asked.
Burkhalter said no.
“But that’s Ben Little?” Lloyd asked.
“Yes,” Burkhalter said.
Before opening arguments, Stewart made a motion to exclude from evidence the contents of a telephone call between Little and state ethics investigator Dustin Lansford. Stewart argued that he’d only recently become aware that prosecutors had a recording of the call. Lloyd said he too had been unaware of the recording until Monday.
Judge Clyde Jones said a transcript of the call was already in evidence, and that he had read it. He denied Stewart’s motion.
Stewart on Monday argued that Lansford should not be included as a witness because he’d interviewed Little without reading him his rights.