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December 28, 2012

THE TIMES’ YEAR IN REVIEW (NO. 4): Colony avoids collapse in trying year

Editor’s note: The Town of Colony weathered troubling times in 2012, from a deadlock in the runoff election to select a mayor, to a near collapse of the local government. Many issues were eventually resolved to bring the town back into operation.

The town of Colony went to the brink of collapse in 2012, and then came back.

Despite reflecting deep-seated problems among the former mayor and council — personal disagreements and procedural disputes that had been festering for a long time — Colony’s near-shutdown happened quickly.

Colony’s municipal election, held in August, didn’t produce a clear winner in the mayor’s race. A runoff between two sitting council members — Patrick Ward and Donnis Leeth — for the mayor’s office was held in October to settle the matter, but that vote ended in a 74-74 tie.

That’s an extraordinary circumstance, but state law provides for a way to resolve it. All the former town council had to do was meet and hold a tiebreaking vote.

They met and voted. Then they met again. And again. The council kept scheduling special meetings and holding votes, all the way up to the day before it was slated to leave office and let a new mayor and council take over.

Each time, the six-member governing body split down the middle, with three council members favoring Leeth, and two council members — plus the mayor — favoring Ward.  The meetings became emotional. The mayor and council swapped pleas to rethink their choices; for at least one member to have a change of heart and end the stalemate. Then the council would vote, and nothing would change.

News crews from TV stations started showing up to the council meetings. In print and over the airwaves, stories reported that Colony might earn the dubious historical distinction of having to shut down; that, without leadership, the town might simply cease to exist.

Having a council that refused to break a tie made circumstances even more extraordinary, but Alabama municipal elections law again had an answer for the deadlock: the new town council, scheduled to take office on Nov. 5,  could start with a clean slate and appoint a new mayor on its own.

But whoever wrote the state law on how to appoint a mayor couldn’t anticipate the quandary Colony’s leadership faced. That’s because, in order for a council to fill a vacant seat by appointment, it has to contain a quorum of council members. In Colony’s case, that meant the town’s new council had to have at least four members.

It had three. In addition to the mayor’s seat, two council seats weren’t filled in the August municipal election. Town leaders had assumed that the two vacant council seats would be filled by appointment, once the new mayor and council took office. They hadn’t foreseen the possibility Colony’s governing body would lack a quorum; that it would be unable to self-appoint; that the three members of the new town council — Marcus Bradford, Vernon Fields and Alex Twitty — would be powerless to conduct a single scrap of town business upon taking office.

Led by Sen. Paul Bussman, the local legislative delegation got involved. With only days remaining until the town would be forced to stop functioning, Bussman began communicating with the state Attorney General’s office, as well as Gov. Robert Bentley, on the town’s behalf.

The old council left office on Nov. 4, and it looked as though Colony — first incorporated in 1981 — was out of business.

Then the town received word from Attorney General Luther Strange that the governor could legally appoint council members to fill the vacant seats. Four days into the new council administration, Bentley did just that, tapping Colony residents Crystal Wilson and Parish Fitts to fill the two open slots. By Nov. 9, the town council finally had its quorum, and — for the first time since the Aug. 28 mayoral election — Colony’s fortunes began to turn.

The new council’s first meeting marked an emotional turning point for the town. Council members were upbeat, optimistic about the future, and eager to reach common ground on appointing a mayor and tackling the lingering financial issues that had plagued Colony’s outgoing council over the past four years. They appointed one of their own — Vernon Fields — to the mayor’s seat, bypassing the possibility that old allegiances to Ward and Leeth, the two candidates stranded by perpetual tie votes, might create strife among the town’s new governing body.

Only one member of the new council, Marcus Bradford, remains from the old administration. Members of the new group are open about the learning curve they face as elected officials. There’s a lot the new council doesn’t know about how to conduct meetings or bring matters to a vote in a manner that accords with Alabama’s guidelines for municipal procedure.

But, so far, the new council has shown a determination to work together in harmony; to move forward in a spirit of cooperation whose clear absence over the past four years had rendered Colony’s government ineffectual.

“The council and I want to bring pride and respect back into our community, for our kids and for our senior citizens,” said mayor Fields after a meeting earlier this month.

Now Colony’s new government has its clean slate, and four years to earn that respect.

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.

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