Wednesday, September 30, 2009

30 SEP 09: Rumorville

"People like to bellyache about their utility bill...." So a woman said to the Phenix City Council Tuesday. How ironic - one of my reasons for attending the meeting involved claims that a Councilor did exactly that. And that Councilor supposedly bellyached loud enough to get results....

BLOG EXCLUSIVE: Two Phenix City officials denied a series of accusations Tuesday, which implied ethics violations. They were anonymously mailed around the area in recent days, and one of the letters reached us. In fact, they also reached the offices of the accused officials - which really hurts any effort at an "ambush interview."

"Garbage" is how Phenix City Utilities Director Stephen Smith responded to one accusation directly affecting him. It claimed a Council member complained about his water and sewer service being cut off, for being nearly $2,000 in arrears. Maybe I should have asked about the trash collection, while I was at it....

The accusation was aimed toward the Phenix City Manager, because he supposedly intervened to restore water service for a Councilor. But Utilities Director Stephen Smith took it personally - telling me water cutoff rules would be enforced, even if President Obama lived in Phenix City. He's probably waiting for the city to rename Broad Street in his honor.

Phenix City Manager Wallace Hunter had a similar response to other mailed accusations, when we talked with him before a Council work session. In fact, he showed me a manila envelope filled with letters from the anonymous "13th Street Businessperson." At least Hunter keeps them. Stephen Smith says his copies are thrown in the trash - and apparently aren't even recycled.

Wallace Hunter suggested he tries to ignore the accusations of the 13th Street Businessperson. But he responded to part of the latest mailing without our even mentioning it -- explaining why Phenix City workers "have been ordered to work on a 'private' girls club." Put those last three words together in a sentence, and some people might think "Sin City" is coming back.

The Phenix City Manager told me Parks and Recreation Department employees "have been cutting grass at the Girls' Club for years. That's city property." The property is east of Lakewood Park Drive, near six baseball fields -- which I think puts it in fair territory.

Wallace Hunter also denied a suggestion that he fixed a traffic ticket for a Phenix City Councilor in the last few weeks. "I know the merit system pretty well," the City Manager said -- adding he hasn't stayed on the city payroll 25 years "by doing stupid things." For one thing, someone with the last city government would have demanded his resignation or ordered his arrest.

Wallace Hunter could only talk with us for a moment -- so we couldn't ask him about one other accusation. The 13th Street Businessperson claims the Phenix City Manager ordered all city employees to sign a memo barring them from discussing city business with the general public. If that ban is in effect, the Utilities Director may be fired sometime today.

(If any Phenix City employees can verify they were ordered to sign a "vow of silence," we invite them to e-mail us. If they have a copy of the alleged memo, that's even better. We'll keep your identity confidential - but we'll need something to prove you're not some kind of troublemaker from Smiths Station.)

Mayor Sonny Coulter told me these anonymous negative mailings are commonplace in Phenix City. Coulter says he was a target when he first ran for mayor 25 years ago. Of course, he's been in and out of office so many times that he's become a moving target.

The latest mailing from the 13th Street Businessperson admittedly frustrated me. While he/she was accurate about the Holland Creek sewage spill in June [2 Jul], this one was filled with vague accusations and NO specific names and places. At least Glenn Beck specifies which politician he considers racist....

On top of that - if this anonymous mailer is accusing officials of ethics violations, why doesn't the Russell County District Attorney's office have a copy of the mailing? Assistant Prosecutor Buster Landreau told me Tuesday he doesn't recall seeing it. Considering other mailings have "cc" listings naming Columbus Councilors, I simply don't understand.

(We asked Buster Landreau if his office was investigating the Phenix City government at this time. He told me the District Attorney's policy is not to confirm or deny either way. If Landreau has a big announcement to make, I doubt he's going to send it in a plain white envelope with no return address.)

Since we were at Phenix City Hall, we stuck around for the Council work session. It turned out your blog was the ONLY humor blog news outlet of any sort in attendance - so perhaps the Citizen of East Alabama reporters were busy at the weekly Auburn football news conference.

The work session brings us back to the quote which began all this. Two firms presented proposals for handling the annual audit of Phenix City records. The comment about bellyaching came from a firm based in Alabama. The other finalist is based in Georgia. The City Council vote to settle this could come next week -- well before the Auburn-Georgia game.

(In fact, the potential auditor from Atlanta seemed prepared for this - telling the council he could "get you a nice Auburn graduate that you can use...." Alabama alumni get overlooked again....)

The Georgia candidate for Phenix City's auditing work actually has a Birmingham office. A presenter said it opened in 2003. Then he added: "It's been open for six or seven years - I'm not really good with numbers...." One city council member noticed me on the side, almost doubling over at such a statement from an auditor.

But in his defense, the potential auditor from Atlanta wore the exact same kind of shoes I was wearing. From where I sat, I could tell even the sole was the same - so he must be a penny-pinching Wal-Mart shopper like me.

(And that man revealed during his presentation he used to come to Phenix City over Labor Day weekend to spend time with relatives - and "watch the Jerry Lewis telethon." Now do you see why some people wanted that Phenixian development so much?)

Stephen Smith says in addition to an auditing firm, Phenix City will need to hire an actuary to review "post-employee benefits." I didn't know the word "retirement" was considered offensive nowadays.

Mayor Sonny Coulter tried to emphasize the positive about Phenix City's finances. He told one auditing firm the city has a Standard & Poor's credit rating of A-plus -- and was told in reply that's "not very common" for cities of its size. Of course, most Phenix City residents only care about the rating of the Central High School football team.

But the mayor puzzled me when he told one auditor candidate: "Probably 65 to 75 percent of the people who live in Phenix City work in Columbus." Sonny Coulter called the Bi-Cities "one community" - although I suspect deep-down, he wants to agree with the Auburn football coach and put the whole community in Alabama.

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E-MAIL UPDATE: There was one other Phenix City question we needed to resolve Tuesday. This came to our InBox....

Also, reliable sources tell me that most of the recyclables collected at the two recycling centers in Phenix City are going to the landfill. The only items they say are being recycled are the milk jugs, newspapers and aluminum cans. Is this so? I would like to know so I can take my items elsewhere if they are just ending up in the landfill. I had previously been told that since Goodwill ended the recycling contract in Columbus in July that Phenix City's recyclables were being given to the city of Columbus. Is this correct? So which items are really being recycled by Phenix City and which items by Columbus?

Coca-Cola company opened the largest plastic recycling operation in the country in S. Carolina in April. Their goal is to recycle 100% of the plastic soft drink bottles in the U.S. So is Phenix City really taking those bottles to the landfill?

Please check this out for us Richard. Many of us spend valuable time trying to "go green" and recycle as much as possible.

Utilities-Finance Director Stephen Smith confirmed some of this. But we should note "milk jugs" and plastic soda bottles actually can be recycled together. I've never heard of any city sorting out #1 plastic and #2 plastic. I thought that sort of division was reserved for sports playoffs.

Stephen Smith told me Phenix City actually joined the city of Columbus in sending recycled items to Goodwill. With the end of the contract, Phenix City sends items to the city of Columbus now - but Smith added that will be reconsidered before long. After all, a "Greenie Award" from WLTZ is at stake.

Stephen Smith pointed the market for recyclables is subject to ups and downs. For instance, the metals market is strong right now. "Plastics have gotten much better," he added -- proving the movie "The Graduate" was right 40 years ago after all.

With every pressing question in Phenix City now resolved (for at least the next few days), let's check other Tuesday news:

+ Columbus Council held a work session of its own, on the proposed Crime Prevention Director. The discussion seems to have moved away from a single director, to a board with anywhere from seven to 11 members. The commission which studied this area for months simply likes each other too much.

+ The morning low temperature in Columbus was 53 degrees F. Isn't this a refreshing change? I moved from having trouble sleeping due to a sweaty bedroom, to having trouble sleeping due to a chilly bedroom.

+ Columbus city officials revealed the recent flooding damaged some park benches along the Riverwalk. This is the moment we've been waiting for - as "Yella Fella" rides into town with better wood, along with two iron fists to beat up ornery prison inmates with their weed-whackers.

(The Army Corps of Engineers has postponed this weekend's West Point Lake volunteer cleanup - because there's debris to clean up after the flooding. How bizarre is this?! No mother would buy this argument, when it comes to a child's bedroom.)

+ The Greater Columbus Fair opened in South Commons. The evening news showed a children's game called "Frog Fishing." Excuse me - but if you're trying to catch a frog, should it really be called fishing? I guess calling it "frogging" wouldn't work, because the children would want to jump around all night....

(WRBL's Bob Jeswald confused me a bit during the 6:00 p.m. news - when he declared the fair began "three minutes ago, Eastern time." I didn't know the Columbus Civic Center security staff was keeping Opelika residents out for the first hour.)

+ Our evening blog research led to an interesting surprise - a Myspace page for Bill Heard Chevrolet. The page is still online, even though someone last logged on to it one year ago today. And here's something even more surprising - Bill Heard somehow still has dozens of Myspace friends.

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