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November 20, 2012

Council taps Vernon Fields to fill vacant mayor’s seat

COLONY — More than a month of chaos came to an end Monday, when the town council appointed a new mayor for a small municipality weary of political stagnation and procedural uncertainty.

In its second meeting since taking office last week, the council tapped one of its own members, appointing Vernon "B.B." Fields to a mayor's seat left vacant by voters and a bickering former council administration. Cullman County sheriff Mike Rainey swore Fields into office immediately following the meeting.

Fields' appointment, made before a town hall crowd of nearly 40, resolves the historic quandary the town had faced, after being forced temporarily to shut down early this month for a lack of elected representation. The council will discuss filling the vacancy created by Fields’ appointment at its first December meeting.

The deadlocked mayor's race, which began when Colony voters tied in an Oct. 9 runoff vote between candidates Patrick Ward and Donnis Leeth, stemmed from the former council's inability to carry out the state-directed task of breaking the runoff tie with a decisive council vote.

The former administration had made numerous attempts to do just that, repeatedly calling special meetings all the way down to its last day in office. But each of those attempts had ended in a 3-3 standstill.

With no mayor and two unfilled council seats, the town's governing body didn't have a quorum — and without a legal mechanism of municipal leadership, the town couldn't function. At only three members, the new council couldn't even follow state law providing for the self-appointing of a mayor.

That began to change Nov. 9, after Gov. Robert Bentley made two direct appointments to the new body. The move left only the mayor's seat unfilled, and the new council acted quickly to change that.

After retiring into a brief executive session at the start of Monday's meeting, the council emerged of one mind, unanimously appointing Fields as mayor in an understated, discussion-free vote that — for all the month's worth of emotional energy expended by residents and officials to reach this moment — passed with little fanfare.

The relief came later, when public comments flowed at the meeting's end. Members of the former council body offered their support and assistance as the new group learns the often-byzantine rules of municipal procedure. Residents wished the new mayor well.

Former mayor Morris Fitts urged the new group to attend orientation classes offered by the Alabama League of Municipalities, and offered to share what he’d learned over the past four years.

There's a lot for the young council to learn, and not much time to learn it. The council tabled action on consolidating an outstanding debt, as well as on council committee appointments and the hiring of a town attorney. The financial decisions will have to be made at the next regular meeting in order to beat bank deadlines.

Throughout the meeting, the new group took a good-natured approach to each of its members' frequent procedural mistakes, and welcomed the advice of those in the audience who've been around local government long enough to correct them.

"I've appreciated all the help and the positive attitudes, because that goes a long way," said council member and Bentley appointee Crystal Wilson.

"As for the community, please bear with us, because this is a process. If you have something that you want us to do, please feel free to come to us. Our community has been struggling. It's time for us to get together and see what we can do to make Colony not a negative place to live, but a positive place to live."

As for the new mayor, Fields simply said there's a lot of work to do.

"This town has been at a standstill for a long time now, and we've got to go forward," he said. "Now is the time for us to get moving."

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

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