Outgoing Semmes Mayor David Baker lost twice before he finally won, as a contract for a new city hall building was approved.
After losing his re-election bid in August, Baker continued to push for a contract for a new, $6 million city hall building that Mayor-elect Brandon Van Hook and others openly and publicly questioned because of the price tag.
Van Hook and others also questioned the appointment of Carolyn Owens to the City Council to fill the seat left vacant by outgoing Councilman Howard Smith due to illness.
When councilors discussed filling the seat in early October they ignored Councilman-elect Tony Ebright, who asked to simply be sworn in about a month early. Baker confirmed that Owens, as a member of the Semmes Women’s Club, helped design the proposed building. Ebright, Van Hook and Councilman-elect Jason Herring will take office on Monday, Nov. 2.
On Monday, Oct. 26, Baker, who is chairman of the small City Council, called a meeting to approve the contract. The 4-2 vote to waive council rules and consider the resolution on a first read failed because it had to be unanimous. The decision was met with cheers from about 30 protesters outside the small council chambers inside a bank building.
Baker and the council allowed only five speakers to discuss the resolution and each was given three minutes each. Baker set the rules early on.
“This is not a public hearing,” he said. “This is not a public meeting. It’s a business meeting.”
Van Hook was the first of the five speakers, all of whom voiced opposition to the new city hall complex. The mayor-elect called the resolution “irresponsible” because the two bids for the project came in well above the $3.5 million originally budgeted for the project.
“There needs to be an open forum to allow residents to voice their opinions, instead of behind the scenes,” Van Hook said. “Remember, it’s not the city hall building that makes the city; it’s the people.”
Jacob Fuller, an attorney, followed Van Hook and argued that even if the council approved the contract he doesn’t believe it will hold up to scrutiny.
“It’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” he said. “It has a fatal flaw.”
Herring, who defeated Councilman Pat Hillman in the August election, spoke out against the contract as well.
“It’s not going to be leaving us in a good place financially, if we spend $6 million on a city hall building,” he said. “It’s common sense. It’s $3 million over what we projected. I don’t see that as a fiscal way of doing business.”
After that first attempt, Baker called another special meeting set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, just more than 24 hours after the meeting on Monday ended and just within the parameters of state open meetings law.
No speakers were allowed at Tuesday’s roughly 5-minute meeting, over the objections of Councilman Terry Platt.
“You’re saying you’re going to do what you want to do and not what the public wants to do,” Platt told a colleague.
In the end, councilors approved the bid and contract for the work by a 4-2 vote. Only Platt and Councilman Charles Watts voted against the proposal. Platt asked to speak before the final vote.
“It just appears that our sitting mayor is setting himself up for a loser of the year award,” Platt said. “I can’t believe this lady here (pointing to Owens) as much as she’s done for this city is voting against the people.”
Baker accused Platt of personal attacks and told him he was out of order.
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