Phenix City Council hears from clergy after city manager's firing

Pastor Noble Williams, representing almost 20 mostly black churches in Phenix City and Russell County, asked the Phenix City Council on Monday to rescind its decision to fire City Manager Wallace Hunter.

The council terminated Hunter, who is black, on a 3-2 vote that fell along racial lines. That decision came at the May 20 meeting, and Williams told the council during its scheduled work session the termination fractured the community.

“We come with no malice, no hatred,” Williams said in a cramped conference room that had more than 50 people in it. “But we come with righteous indignation.”

The call for Hunter’s reinstatement comes as council is considering approving a nearly $200,000 severance package for the former city manager. A vote on that package, which was part of a resolution approved in 2012 by the previous council, is expected in today’s council meeting.

Williams, pastor at Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church, said the pastors had recently united under the name Community Concerned Clergy. Williams has served as the primary spokesman.

Council members Gail Head, Chris Blackshear and Jim Cannon — all white — voted to terminate Hunter immediately. Mayor Eddie Lowe and Council member Arthur Day voted against Hunter’s termination.

The only way the decision could be reversed would be for one of the three council members who voted for Hunter’s firing to make a motion to revote on the decision.

Asked after Monday’s work session if she planned to ask for reconsideration of the decision, Head said, “No, absolutely not.”

Blackshear was more guarded with his words, and Cannon refused comment.

“I will think about it,” Blackshear said. “Everybody has a right to their opinion. At this time, I have made what I feel is the best decision for all the citizens of Phenix City. I have no plans to reverse the original decision.”

Hunter has said publicly that he wants his job back. He spent 32 years with the city — first in the fire department, where he rose to the rank of chief, and then as city manager.

Head and Blackshear were asked a number of direct questions by Williams, who also spoke at a community meeting a week ago at Gaines Chapel AME Church in Phenix City. More than 750 people attended that community meeting.

“This decision fell along racial lines and we feel it was a racial decision,” said Williams, a former city council member. “You had the legal right to do it, but it was not morally right. Mr. Day was right when it was reported he said to Mrs. Head before the vote, ‘Gail, you are going to separate this city.’”

Head spent about 10 minutes justifying her decision to Williams and those assembled. She said it had nothing to do with race.

Williams asked Head why she was so adamant to fire Hunter when others were not.

“I don’t think I got some of the same respect the others did,” Head said.

She said when she returned from a meeting of Alabama municipalities, she thought the timing was right to fire Hunter.

“We needed a new vision and we needed somebody outside our city to jumpstart this,” Head said.

Head, a retired public school teacher, told Williams that she came to the council 19 months ago with her reputation intact and she intended to leave with it in place.

It was brought out that Hunter would receive a six-month severance package if he retired or resigned after 32 years with the city, but instead will get a year of salary and benefits because he was terminated.

“It was in his best interest for us to fire him,” Head told Williams.

Williams responded: “What about Mr. Hunter’s character and good name?”

“I feel we gave him every opportunity to resign,” Head responded.

Blackshear told Williams and the group that it looked like council made a decision without justification because many of the issues with Hunter were discussed in closed session.

“It is kind of like when a couple gets a divorce,” Blackshear said. “Everybody says, ‘I thought they were the perfect couple.’ That is what is happening here. A lot of this has been happening behind the scenes.”

Blackshear said the day after the termination there have been issues for months and Hunter had been asked to resign.

He said Hunter even called him 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.