Phenix City Council named Finance Director Steve Smith as the interim city manager Thursday to fill the vacancy created by the firing of Wallace Hunter earlier this week.
During the called meeting, there was tension in the packed council chambers that did not escape Mayor Eddie Lowe.
“Loosen up, everybody,” said the former University of Alabama football player. “It’s just another day — just another game.”
The tension had been created by Tuesday’s 3-2 decision to fire Hunter, who is black. The vote fell along racial lines with Lowe and Councilman Arthur Day supporting Hunter, and Councilmembers Gail Head, Chris Blackshear and Jim Cannon voting for his immediate termination.
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Hunter had worked for the city for 32 years in a variety of leadership roles from fire chief to assistant city manager. He had been city manager since 2008.
Sidney Battle, a Phenix City funeral home owner, was one of about 75 people in the gallery. He called the decision to fire Hunter “upsetting.”
“They have yet to explain the reason for his termination,” Battle said. “I think they have personal agendas.”
Battle connected the firing to Monday’s decision to fire Central High School football coach Woodrow Lowe, who is the mayor’s brother.
“The coach is fired on one day and the city manager is fired on the next,” Battle said. “Coach Lowe was 33-13 and he is out. The city manager improved our bond rating and all sectors of this city seem to be moving forward.”
Battle was critical of comments by Blackshear about Hunter’s vision for the city.
“I think their vision is the 1940s and ’50s and we won’t be a party to that,” Battle said. “... Are we going to revisit a time where decisions are made by one group for the entire community?”
The 5-0 vote to hire Smith as the interim came after a 10-minute closed session to discuss someone’s “good name and character.”
Smith, 64, can only serve as interim city manager for four months, according to the charter. If he stays in the job beyond that, he would have to become the permanent city manager.
Day reiterated his support of Hunter even after Smith was named.
“This is a heart-breaking thing,” he said. “I personally did not see any need to get rid of our city manager.”
Smith, who has worked for the city since 2002, must hold together a group of department heads, many of whom had worked alongside Hunter in his various positions with the city.
The mayor addressed that in his comments to the department heads.
“I hope that we don’t lose anyone,” Lowe said. “Steve, this is a great team that has been put in place. I know there is some turmoil going on right now.”
Smith also addressed it.
“It is sad for me, especially under these circumstances,” Smith told council and the department heads. “This city is one city, and it needs to stay one city. And we need to stay one people under God.”
Smith also asked for across-the-board support during this difficult time.
“I know there is a lot of bitterness and turmoil and I cannot do this alone,” he said. “I need the support of this council. I need the support of the employees. And I need the support of the citizens of Phenix City.”