Too Much Monkey Business?

No Evil

Did three Council Members  decide on their own that Northport, Alabama, would be better off without its City Administrator? Does it matter that the former City Administrator Scott Collins rode off into the sunset to work as a City Manager in a small Tennessee town in his new Audi? After all, four of Northport’s Council Members voted to award  him with a generous severance package and health insurance.

Council Member Judy Hayes, who was the lone voice of dissent in approving the severance package,  ran a campaign ad in the Northport Gazette saying:

See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. There’s been too much “monkey business” going on in Northport! Northport should show that it’s ready for business. Perhaps the best way that it can do that is to run a business-like city government.

There has been too much controversy in Northport. Overcoming this bad image will require leadership. Unfortunately too much of what has gone on in the past involved special interests.

The abrupt resignation of our City Administrator, the firing of our new Finance Director, the sewage spill, the arrest of a citizen for going to a Council meeting and other such controversial things have painted an unflattering picture of Northport. How can Northport be attractive to new business with this cloud of controversy hanging over it? Steps must be taken to change the way things are being run.

Angel Coker reported  in an article that appeared on the front page of the April 16th, 2016, edition of the Tuscaloosa News, in the aftermath of Collins resignation, that it was all a “backroom”deal.

Mayor Bobby Herndon said that the City Council will propose that state Rep. Alan Harper, R-Northport, fill the city administrator position temporarily.

“I was not involved in any of the discussions. It was all done backroom,” Herndon said Friday.

Alan Harper is the brother of Northport City Councilman Bart Harper.

Bill Britt’s “Representative Harper in the Midst of City Controversy” in the Alabama Political Reporter maintained that the purpose of Collins’ resignation was “to create a job opening for Representative Alan Harper.”

Mayor Bobby Herndon told the Alabama Political Reporter that council members Jay Logan, Bart Harper and Rodney Sullivan met privately outside of the presence of the Council, where they decided to eliminate City Administrator, Scott Collins, and give the job to Rep. Alan Harper (R-Northport). Bart Harper is Alan Harper’s brother.

Collins confirmed to APR that the three councilmen approached him and eventually agreed to pay him a years salary plus benefits if he would resign immediately, without the advice or consent of the Mayor or other council members.

An email from Northport City Attorney, Ronald L. Davis, dated April 15, 2016, to the City’s Benefits Administrator, Carrie Cameron, deals with the payments to be made to Collins, and who gave the orders to write the checks. The email reads, “Per my instructions by three City Council members, please cut the three checks to Scott Collins we discussed this morning… For his salary for one year, April 15, 2016 to April 15, 2017, to be paid in one lump sum today.” On that same day, Cameron produced three checks totaling $131,241 to Collins signed by Council President Logan and Collins.

Alan Harper’s brother read a statement at the April 18th Council Meeting that challenged the APR account. It was reported by Stephen Dethrage in a July 19th Tuscaloosa News article “Bart Harper defends Northport City Council’s action”:

“I’m tired of reading and hearing lies about myself, my brother and other council members,” Harper said.

In response to the article, Harper read aloud his timeline of the week surrounding Collins’ April 15 resignation. He said he called Herndon on April 11, met with him on the 12th and called him on the 16th trying to explain why he and other council members believed Collins’ resignation was necessary.

Each time, Harper said, Herndon declined to discuss the matter, ultimately sending a text message that read “Bart, I see you have tried to call me. It would be better if we didn’t talk.”

“There’s three times I reached out to try to get everybody on the same page,” Harper said. “Bobby didn’t want to be involved, but this was a council decision, not a backroom deal.”

In a followup story in APR “Harper Brother’s Controversy Continues to Grow” Bill Britt published a letter signed by Interim City Administrator Charles Swann and Alan Harper.

The letter, signed by interim City Administrator, Charles Swann, states that Harper is an unpaid volunteer. But, insiders at City Hall say this is a fallback position, after a failed attempt by three council members to install Harper as City Administrator, without the full council’s consent.

Britt also wrote:

At the City Council meeting following this publication’s report, Bart Harper gave a 26-minute diatribe in which he claimed the Mayor was lying, and all the council members were aware of the decision to negotiate Collin’s departure. “The Mayor and all Council members were aware and involved in the entire process,” said Harper. Further stating, “I called Council members Logan, Simms, and Rodney Sullivan during this process. President Logan called Judy Hayes.” Harper said he couldn’t remember why he didn’t call Councilwoman Hayes.

Hayes told the Alabama Political Reporter in July that she was unaware of the move to replace Collins and that she believed actions taken by the trio Logan, Harper and Sullivan, violated the open meetings act. Mayor Herndon also denied prior knowledge of plans to remove Collins and replace him with Harper.

Harper, near the end of his rant said, “Do you think I wanted all of this? Wanted to stir up all this mess and get the Harpers in charge of the city of Northport? I’m going off the Council and as soon as I get off, I don’t want to have anything to do with politics anymore.”

Representative Alan Harper has claimed that he “told everyone at city hall some time ago that I have no interest in the CA job. Would not do it for anything. I retired from Northport and plan to keep it that way!”

The full truth about the resignation of Collins may never be known. Many people in Northport just wanted Collins out of the way. They didn’t care how it happened and just wanted to avoid any more bad publicity. In one sense they didn’t want to hear, see or speak any more evil.

A Tuscaloosa News editor once, when information on unaccounted for taxpayer money in Northport was given to him, said that he was very familiar with politics in Alabama. Claims about corruption weren’t anything new. They were rampant in small towns all across Alabama. Northport wasn’t all that exceptional.

The August 23rd Municipal Elections in Northport may be a water shed moment for truth. Many candidates for Mayor and the Council are calling for the forensic audit that Council Member Judy Hayes has repeatedly unsuccessfully called for at Council meetings.

Current Mayor Bobby Herndon has always said that Northport is the envy of other cities in Alabama because of its financial condition. In June 2013, Lydia Seabol-Avant reported in the Tuscaloosa News that “Northport’s bond rating has been increased from ‘A+’ to ‘AA-‘ with a financial outlook that has changed from ‘stable’ to ‘positive.'” At the time refinancing the city’s bond debt was discussed, but it was not until this year that the improved rating was used to justify doing so.

In 2015 Seabol Avant reported a vote on Northport’s budget had a lone dissenting voice.

The budget had majority support during Northport’s council meeting Monday with a vote of 4-1. The sole desenting vote was Councilwoman Judy Hayes, who said she could not approve a budget that the public had very little input or insight on. Unlike previous budgets, which usually are not voted on until December, the 2016 budget was discussed briefly during a work session after District 4 council candidate interviews on Sept. 10, with no other budget work session to discuss proposed expenditures.

“This (budget) process should have happened over several months,” Hayes said. “I cannot in good conscience vote on the budget tonight.”

It is widely known that Northport met its last payroll by drawing money from the Water and Sewer Fund. It might be thought that, if good budgeting practices were followed, the payroll would paid from the General Fund.

The recent refinancing of its bond debt was predicated on its Standard and Poors AA- rating. Why a city that has to resort to meeting its payroll by using Water and Sewer funds would be so highly rated could be questioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

One of the Mayoral candidates has said that Northport is $60 million in debt. The exact nature of Northport’s finances may never be ascertained unless the Municipal Election produces enough new blood in Northport’s leadership and a forensic audit is made.

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