Councilmembers on Phenix City city manager's firing: 'This is not over'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 21, 2014 

Phenix City Council has called a meeting for this afternoon to name an interim city manager in the wake of Tuesday night’s firing of Wallace Hunter in a 3-2 vote that broke along racial lines.

The meeting will be at 3 p.m. in council chambers on 1111 Broad St.

During the vote Tuesday night, Hunter, who is black, was supported by the black members of council — Mayor Eddie Lowe and Council member Arthur Day. The three members who voted to fire Hunter — Council members Chris Blackshear, Gail Head and Jim Cannon — are white. Head made the motion to terminate Hunter and Blackshear seconded it.

But council members said Wednesday that race played no role in the decision.

The personnel action, which was at the end of a scheduled meeting and wasn’t on the agenda, came after months of discussion.

In recent months, council has held a number of closed sessions, allowed under Alabama law, to discuss the good name and character of an individual. They have not named the individual or individuals.

Blackshear said there have been issues for months and Hunter had been asked to resign within the last two weeks.

He said Hunter even called him on April 10 saying he was ready to move on to something else.

“He said he was tired,” Blackshear said. “He asked me to orchestrate a buyout.”

Blackshear said he did not act on the request.

Hunter could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but on Tuesday night he said he had problems with Head and Blackshear following the city charter.

After the termination, Hunter, who has worked for the city for more than 30 years in a variety of leadership roles from fire chief to assistant city manager and city manger, said the last few months had been “hell.”

“I agree with what he said in the paper (Wednesday),” Blackshear said. “It has been hell. But in the end, I think Mr. Hunter got what he wanted.”

The previous council approved a new contract for Hunter in June 2012, two months before the election. The contract calls for a six-month severance package, Blackshear said.

“But if he is terminated by a majority vote of council, it pays 12 months salary and full benefits,” he said.

That figure could be about $150,000, according to Blackshear.

Lowe said he did not know what the payout would be.

Hunter has been city manager since 2008.

‘Stay and fight’

Cannon said he met with Lowe and Hunter at his home on the morning of May 14.

“He told me he had talked it over with his mother and he had done nothing wrong and he was going to stay and fight,” Cannon said. “When he left, we hugged. This is nothing personal. We tried to work it out. We need to pay the man and go on down the road. I know in my heart this was the right thing to do. Something had to give.”

Day said he had a brief conversation with Head prior to Tuesday night’s meeting. She told him what she planned to do. “I told her, ‘Gail, don’t do this tonight,’” Day said. “‘If you do this, you are going to separate this city.’”

Head said calling for the vote at the end of the meeting was not something she did lightly.

“I have been thinking and praying about this for a long time,” she said.

And she defended the decision, referencing the 2012 city election in which all four council members and the mayor were replaced.

Head said for 19 months she has “looked, listened and evaluated.”

“We did not want to come in and make immediate changes,” she said. “But we felt like that election was a mandate for change. And, last night was the right time.”

Race-based decision?

Lowe and Day were both careful when asked about the role race played in the decision.

“It is what it is,” Lowe said. “The two that supported him were black, and the three that didn’t were white. We know that is a fact. But if you are asking if this is a black and white thing, I am not going to go that far.”

Tuesday night when Day was interviewed over the phone by a local television station, he was angry. Asked if it was a race-based decision a day later, his response was more guarded.

“I will let you be the judge of that,” he said.

Day represents the predominantly black southside.

“The folks in my district are mad as hell,” he said. “This is not over. Everything was going good, and now all hell breaks loose.”

Cannon, Blackshear and Head said race played no role in the decision.

“If it were racial, we would have let Wallace go the first day we came into office,” Cannon said.

Asked if the firing will raise racial tensions in city, Blackshear was quick to respond.

“That hurts that you even have to ask that question,” he said. “I pray and hope it wouldn’t. I voted my conviction based on the information I had. I know it was the right thing to do.”

Head was direct in her defense of the decision and the reasons behind it. Under the city’s charter, council had the right to terminate Hunter, she said.

“We did what was best for the citizens,” Head said. “I can assure you that this had nothing to do with race. It had everything to do with trust, communication and vision.”

Asked what the trust issues were, Head said she could not go into specifics.

“Some of it was done in executive session,” she said. “There were several times the trust was not there. And I felt that Wallace didn’t trust me, either.”

Lowe said he did not have any issues with Hunter.

“I support the city manager,” he said. “I thought he was doing a good job. He did everything I asked him to do.” Day also strongly defended Hunter and the job he has done as city manager the last 19 months.

“What has he done?” Day asked. “Has he violated the city charter? No. Has he stolen any money? No. The only thing he has done is move this city forward.”

Cannon said for sometime it has been known he was “the swing vote” if council was to call for Hunter to be terminated.

Cannon said when he learned that Hunter had called Blackshear and asked him to talk to other council members about a possible buyout, “a red flag went up.”

“This was not racial and it was not personal,” Cannon said. “I felt like we needed to move on.”

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