Reversing a decision it made two weeks ago, the Phenix City Council voted Tuesday to reinstate fired City Manager Wallace Hunter.
Council voted to terminate Hunter, who is black, on May 20 on a 3-2 vote that fell along racial lines. Council member Jim Cannon, who is white, called for a reconsideration of that vote at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. Council voted 3-2 to put Hunter back in the post he has held since 2008.
Cannon, Mayor Eddie Lowe and Council member Arthur Day voted to give Hunter his job back. Council members Gail Head and Chris Blackshear voted against rehiring Hunter.
Hunter’s firing sparked concern in the black community with about 20 ministers forming an organization known as Community Concerned Clergy. A community forum attended by more than 750 people was held last week at Gaines Chapel AME Church.
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That group of ministers has sought to get Hunter reinstated and also expressed concern about Central High School football coach Woodrow Lowe, the mayor’s brother, being removed from his coaching position the day before Hunter was fired.
Hunter, who was not in council chambers when he was reinstated, said he has spent the last two weeks “praying and thinking.”
“I am humbled by this,” Hunter said.
According to the motion to reinstate Hunter, the city manager will serve in his position until September 2016. He will retire when the four-year term for the current council expires. He will also give up a severance package that was negotiated by the previous city council in 2012. If Hunter had resigned or retired he would receive six months of salary and benefits. If he was terminated, he would get one year of salary and benefits.
Before council reinstated him Tuesday, there was a resolution to pay Hunter almost $200,000 as a severance package, according to the terms of the agreement with the previous council. That was defeated on a 3-2 vote with Lowe, Cannon and Day voting not to pay the severance. Head and Blackshear voted to pay Hunter the severance.
Cannon was adamant that there were financial reasons to keep Hunter in his post.
“Who is the winner here?” Cannon said. The taxpayers of Phenix City win to the tune of $300,000.”
In addition to Hunter’s severance deal with the previous council, similar deals with Police Chief Ray Smith and City Engineer Angel Moore will be rescinded, according to the motion to rehire Hunter.
Hunter, who has worked for the city for 32 years in various positions including fire chief and city manager, said he would be back at work today.
“I plan to work with this council — all five members of it,” Hunter said. “And I respect all five members of this council.”
Lowe called for unity after the vote.
“Just remember this, you do not answer for how people treat you,” Lowe said in wake of the vote to put “You have to answer for how you treat people. Let’s move forward.”
Rev. Noble Williams, pastor of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the spokesman for the Community Concerned Clergy, was pleased with the vote. He made a plea during Monday’s work session for council to give Hunter his job back.
“I commend council for having the courage to make this decision and do the right thing,” Williams said.
Blackshear, despite his vote not to reinstate Hunter, said there were a lot of lessons learned by both sides over the last two weeks.
“At the end of the day, every one of us should work toward the best interest of Phenix City,” Blackshear said.Head said she stood by her votes, but agreed it was time to move forward.
“I have to live with Gail, and I have to vote my convictions,” she said. “The majority has ruled, and I am fine with that.”
The swing vote was Cannon, who has a personal relationship with Hunter that dates back nearly 35 years. Hunter was a manager at the Phenix City K-mart, and Cannon was a pharmacist at the store next door.
“Wallace gave up a lot in this deal,” Cannon said. “ We got to come together now.”
Cannon also stood behind Head and Blackshear, saying those who have called them racists are wrong.
“I know this lady is not a racist,” Cannon said. “And I will say the same thing about Chris Blackshear.”
The Gaines Chapel forum was sponsored by C.U.R.E.D — Citizens United for Revitalization and Economic Development. President and founder Mel Long, in a news release Tuesday afternoon vowed to reward the council members who supported Hunter and fight against Blackshear and Head. He called a June 16 meeting to discuss a plan of action.
“From this day forward we vow to fight against any and all unjust leadership in this city,” Long said the release. “We are uniform and we are unified as a community in this effort and I think the 750 people packed into Gaines Chapel a week ago proved that.
“To Chris Blackshear and Gail Head, please be advised that we intend to defeat you at the ballot box.”