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October 29, 2012

Colony council delays decision to keep town operating once mayor leaves office

CULLMAN — Colony’s future as a town is coming down to the wire.

In a specially called meeting Friday, the outgoing town council stymied in one of its final attempts to agree on how its revenues and expenses should be handled once a two-month dead period in local leadership commences, when the current mayor and council leave office early next month.

The meeting — called to discuss how to “keep the town from shutting down,” as the notice on the front door stated — didn’t produce a vote on whether to task clerk Patricia Farris with paying Colony’s monthly expenses and depositing the town’s monthly revenue checks.

But it did produce a lot of discussion, a little bickering, and the scheduling of one more meeting, this Tuesday, to try again; to hammer out an agreement on what will become of Colony as it waits for the mayor’s seat, which will be vacant beginning Nov. 5., to be filled.

Two deadlocked mayoral votes, as well as two deadlocked council tiebreaking efforts, led Colony to this point. Residents voted mayoral candidates Patrick Ward and Donnis Leeth, each of whom serves on the town council, to a tie in the August municipal election, and again in the Oct. 9 runoff. Charged by law with breaking that tie, the outgoing six-member council voted — twice — to a 3-3 standstill before agreeing to leave the matter in the hands of the new council, which will take office on Nov. 5.

That decision comes with its own complications, however. There are only three council seats filled for the next administration; two more, as well as the mayor’s seat, will be vacant. That leaves the upcoming council administration without the quorum it will need to conduct business. The empty mayor’s seat will fall to Gov. Robert Bentley to fill by direct appointment, a process that requires the town go a minimum of 60 days without a mayor before council members can request the governor’s intervention.

The sticking point Friday revolved around what the clerk’s specific duties will be, if the council puts her in charge of maintaining the town’s finances while Colony awaits new leadership. The council didn’t even bring to a vote a prepared resolution that, in general terms, would have authorized the clerk to pay the bills.

Instead, the council called for details.

“This resolution needs to be redone, to have all the stuff on here we’re going to have to pay,” said Leeth. “Plus, if we do vote to keep the clerk on, we’ve got to have some guidelines set down that would be in writing that she’s got to go by.”

Ward welcomed that approach.

“We can’t just give the clerk authority to pay the bills, and not know exactly what we’re authorizing her to pay for,” he said. “I’m simply asking the mayor and clerk’s office to give us a breakdown of everything that needs to be paid, month by month, before we can make a sound decision on this.”

With only one week remaining before their terms end, the council is running out of time to put a contingency plan in place. And while council members often disagreed Friday — some bitterly — in doling out (or shirking) blame for the town’s mounting problems, each understands the gravity of the future their 31 year-old town now faces.

“This situation is very bad. That bill we owe — it’s still being looked over by the banks,” said Leeth of outstanding bank loans the town’s been struggling to pay for two years.

“Other people will want to buy this town. This whole town — the land, the buildings, everything – is worth about $2 million. And here it is, we owe about $134,000. You’ve got to think that some of those banks are going to want to pay that debt to buy the town. And if they do that — once they do that — there ain’t nothing you can do about it. You can’t get it back. We’ve got to figure a way to keep this thing paid up and keep this town for our people.”

“We put ourselves in this situation,” said Marcus Bradford, the only current council member who will serve on the newly-elected council. “When I was coming up, I saw the hard work that people did here, and it was valued in this community. Some way or another, we’ve lost that value. It’s to that point, regardless of who [the mayor] is, they’re gonna have to run this community. It’s up to us to figure something out to better our town. Whatever happens, we probably aren’t going to have the town that I grew up in.”

In order to have a town at all, the council will have to leave at least a skeleton framework in place until the new council administration is filled out; is legally vested with the power to continue town business — problems and all.

Mayor Morris Fitts, who began Friday’s meeting with a prayer, cherished the chance, as the days count down, for the council to step up and do just that.

“Thank you, Father God, for one more time — one more opportunity to get it right,” Fitts entreated.

By week’s end, this council’s opportunities will be gone.

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

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