The Phenix City municipal election has set off a firestorm of chatter, and perhaps no race has drawn more attention than the three-way campaign for the councilmember-at-large seat.
For better or worse, Councilman Jimmy Wetzel has been the face of city government the past four years, championing new projects but also stoking controversy at seemingly every turn. He's drawn two opponents in Tuesday's election, both of whom have vowed to re-establish a line of communication with the citywide constituency.
"If I'm fortunate enough to be elected next Tuesday, I won't forget why I got elected," said Chris Blackshear, a 38-year-old who works in mid-level management at TSYS. "I will never think that I'm in a position where I've made it or I'm where I want to be and now it's time for you to serve me."
Council has set a precedent "of doing what they want to do" without first checking to see if it's the will of the people, Blackshear said.
Wetzel, 66, has become something of a political Rorschach test: Supporters see him as an ambitious leader willing to make bold decisions, while critics accuse him of having hijacked city government with a blind eye to his constituents. The election is widely expected to be a referendum on his leadership.
"In my opinion, I think they all will be replaced because the people are just that unhappy with the council as a whole," said Johnny Barfield, a retired mail carrier who is friends with Wetzel but running against him.
Barfield said he decided to run because of the dissatisfaction he encountered once he began serving on the planning commission.
"I'm not going to call it crooked or anything ugly like that, but it just seemed to me like things were kind of one-sided and the citizens weren't being represented like I thought they should," Barfield said. Voters were "really unhappy" with Wetzel, he added, "not so much because of the things he did, but how he did them, his attitude. He seemed to really rub people the wrong way."
Wetzel said his primary goal when taking office was to "shake up" the establishment.
"Phenix City had kind of been in a maintenance mode for so many years, just keeping things the way they were and nothing drastic happening to change Phenix City," Wetzel said. "I believe I have been successful in shaking up the establishment, and I believe this council has made some unprecedented moves and bold decisions to try to move Phenix City into the future."
Some of those moves have included unpopular tax hikes tied to capital improvement projects that some of Wetzel's opponents see as superfluous and risky in a sluggish economy. Wetzel said no challengers in the election have outlined specific plans for change.
"They will try to undo some things that this council has done," he said. "I haven't seen any of the challengers really lay out a vision for Phenix City like this council, under my leadership, has laid out."
Blackshear said it would be too soon to commit to specific changes before knowing the makeup of the next City Council.
"I don't think this election or on the campaign trail it's been the right thing to say well here's what I'm going to do," he said. "I think we've seen too much over the last four years of people telling us what I'm going to do or what two or three people are going to do."
It is now up to the voters, Blackshear said.
"The big challenge, is do the citizens of Phenix City care enough about their community to have their voice heard next Tuesday by going to vote?"
As a former entertainer and musician, Barfield said he has the people skills to gauge public sentiment. He enjoys talking with folks, and said he'd work hard to re-institute the public's trust in city government.
Wetzel and Barfield questioned whether Blackshear would have the time to juggle being on the City Council with his full-time job. Blackshear previously served on the planning commission and was removed by council for missing meetings.
"He's spread so thin already, that I don't think Chris has the time to serve," Wetzel said. "Chris didn't have time to serve on the planning commission, so I don't see how he could possibly have time to serve on the council."
Blackshear said council never contacted him before removing him from the planning commission, an example, he said, of its unwillingness to communicate. Four years have passed and he has more than enough time now to wear both hats, he said.
"Me having a full-time job will force me to adhere to the city charter, meaning I won't have time to go down there and be in the day-to-day business of the city, which is what you have a city manager for," Blackshear said. "I won't be overstepping my bounds as an at-large member and giving the perception that I'm trying to dictate a personal agenda to these individuals."
A runoff election will be held Oct. 9 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.