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By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
During its meeting held June 27, the Rockford Town Council took action to fire previous counsel and hire new counsel.
Councilmember Cordarius Lee and Town Clerk Lesle Nelson were not present for the meeting. All other council members and Susan Rogers, assistant town clerk, were present.
Early on the agenda was simply listed “Derrick Blythe,” who has served as the town’s attorney.
Regarding counsel, Mayor Scott White stated, “We need to decide if we want to move forward and go ahead and get new counsel. We’ve had some issues getting stuff over in a timely manner. Do I have a motion to go ahead and release Mr. Blythe of his duties to the town?”
There was no discussion on the matter, and Councilmember Robert Smith made a motion “to relieve Mr. Blythe of his duties to the town.” Councilmember Kimberly Crowe seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.
While not present at the start of the meeting, Blythe came in for the meeting just after being fired by the town.
Immediately after firing Blythe, White asked Tom Young who was in the audience to come up.
“We met with Mr. Young,” White stated before turning the floor over for Young to tell attendees “a little about himself.”
Young introduced himself and spoke some about his history with practicing law. A resident of Alexander City, he has been practicing law since 1982 and previously served as circuit judge for the 5th Judicial Circuit for 18 years.
He returned to private practice and was employed by Morris Haynes and Hornsby in 2019.
Following Young’s brief introduction, White asked him if he had something for him in the folder he had with him. Young handed the folder to White, who then read the letter from Young to the town.
In that letter, Young stated that his normal hourly rate is $250 per hour. He noted that when he was asked to interview for the city attorney job he was informed that the previous attorney’s hourly rate was $150.
“I am willing to work as the city attorney at the rate of $200 per hour,” Young noted in his letter to the town, dated June 27.
There was no discussion on the matter, and White asked for a motion to hire Young as the town attorney.
The council unanimously approved hiring Young as the town’s new counsel. No start date was mentioned during the meeting; however, it appeared that Young started that evening as he later spoke up on a matter as the town’s counsel.
In other business, the council heard from Police Chief Jamie Hammond who presented the town with a list of needed equipment. Those items included two portable two-way radios, one refurbished radar unit and one Panasonic Toughbook laptop.
The council unanimously approved the total cost of $2,601.53 for the purchase of those necessary items.
Also in action items, White mentioned that the town had previously gotten a roof on the biggest portion of the old gymnasium, but said that the roof over the concession stand area is leaking. He said the town got a quote of $7,000 to put a new roof on that portion.
“We really need to go on and get this done before it ruins anything else,” White said.
Councilmember Smith asked if that was the only bid received for the project. However, White said that since it is less than $15,000 the town did not have to run it or take bids on the project.
He added that per the cost estimate they would frame it up and put metal on it, adding that it will not be a flat roof anymore.
After brief discussion the council unanimously approved proceeding with “letting Justin Roberts fix the roof” based on the cost estimate received.
Additionally, White said that the town had a “fill-in spot” on the library board and that Carol Mullendore had come forward for that position. The council unanimously approved appointing Mullendore to the library board, with no specifications given regarding her term dates or the length of her term.
In other business, the council reviewed a bid received for two road projects, both of which pertained to County Road 18. White said only one sealed bid was received, and it was from Gary Ingram Grading & Paving in Dadeville.
That bid was for $115,603 for paving County Road 18 from U.S. Highway 231 East to Spring Street and $101,717 to pave County Road 18 from Highway 231 West to Communication Drive. The total amount for paving both portions of road was bid at $223,135.
White noted that the town has $256,000 in the road and bridge fund, adding that if the town proceeded with paving both sections it “would just about deplete the road and bridge fund.”
“I just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing with the money we do have because it’s taken this town a long time to accumulate that much money,” White said, adding that the gas tax did not help the town that much. “It’s a lot of money to spend.”
Councilmember Lynn Anne Castleberry asked Justin Seagle with Gary Ingram Grading & Paving about the expected lifespan of the new roads. He said that it is normally 15-20 years before the town would have to start doing any resurfacing or anything similar.
White asked if that lifespan took into account log trucks traveling the roads, and Seagle said that it did and that the roads would hold up to log trucks.
In brief discussion, Seagle said that the bid package would be good for 60 days. White said that he would like to table the matter “before committing that much money,” and the council unanimously approved tabling it to think it over.
With only a few action items on the agenda, the majority of the council’s hour-and-a-half long meeting was spent on discussion agenda items, with no action taken pertaining to those.
Resident Kris Rambo attended the meeting to address the council about a burn pile in her and her husband’s backyard and to update the town on what is going on with that pile, which she said is “nothing at the moment.”
She explained that the burn pile originated from a big storm that caused significant damage and the loss of big trees. She reviewed the history of the burn pile and it still being in their yard, adding that it is neatly stacked up.
Rambo said they own six lots on the property and that the only thing questionable is the burn pile.
“We take care of our yard and property,” she said. “We maintain our property as best as we can. We don’t have the equipment to haul off the burn pile.”
She further stated that she is leery of burning it because it is a large pile and she worries the fire will spread and cause other damage.
She said that she wanted to attend the meeting to let the council know about the situation and also because she said someone felt the need to come onto her property the previous Monday while she was in her swimming pool and took photos of her property.
“I don’t know what the agenda is there, and I don’t really care what’s going on between other people, but you don’t need to trespass on my property and take pictures of my property without my permission, especially when I’m back there in my swimming pool,” she said. “If there’s anything anybody – anybody – wants to know about the Rambo property, please knock on my door or call me. We’ll be glad to tell you whatever it is you need to know.”
She further stated that that’s where they are on the burn pile, adding that perhaps they can get some help from the town or have a monitored situation such as with the volunteer fire department to be on hand if they burn the pile.
In other discussion, the council heard from local attorney John K. Johnson regarding a notice he had received.
He thanked the council as a whole for allowing him to address them on an issue that had come up.
“On June 1, I had this notice delivered to my secretary at the office here just next door,” Johnson said. “I was told that it was delivered by the clerk, Lesle [Nelson]. Of course it was in an envelope. I will let you know that Lesle was just as cordial and polite, and we are thankful that we have somebody serving in our clerk’s capacity that can meet the public so well. She did a good job in bringing this in and leaving it with Rita. The fault is not there by any means. What I want to talk to the council about… There are several things that I want to bring to your attention about this type of notice.”
“Number one, it’s addressed to me, doesn’t have my address on it,” he said. “It’s got an address that says ‘Highway 231 house/empty lot on 231,’ not where I live. This notice appears to be an order to cut/remove, and it goes on to talk about the property being in current violation of Ordinance 545-2021. The specific violation that it states is, ‘Please cut grass at vacant house. Brush pile on lot that is empty needs to be removed.’ Well, when I opened the envelope, I saw these things. I also saw a notice that was sent to me as the owner of some property here in town. Now I figured out where the property was, and it’s a vacant lot between Shirley’s ceramic shop and what we refer to as the old Miller house that my children own down [Highway] 231 here. We got a blank unsigned notice through hand delivery.”
He went on to say, “It hit me, well number one, a specific violation, how do you remove a brush pile that’s empty? It needs to be removed. How do you remove an empty brush pile? There’s no brush pile on that property. At one time there was a complaint that there was a brush pile there that needed cleaning up, and my son-in-law, Ronnie Joiner, cleaned that brush pile up.”
“Since that time, kind of like Mrs. Rambo said, we’ve been experiencing a lot of storms,” Johnson stated. “Storms have blown down limbs everywhere around Rockford. There is currently a limb on that property. Those will be cleaned up eventually, no question about it. I’m 74 years old, lived in Rockford all my life, know every one of y’all, consider you to be friends. I don’t know Mrs. Castleberry that well, but I’m sure we’ll get to know each other.”
Johnson further stated, “The ironic thing about this is when Lesle brought this notice in on Wednesday, June 1, everything was lined up for my son-in-law to cut that lot the following day. I called him after I got this notice, and I stopped him. I said don’t put a mower on it, don’t do anything to it. I said I want to get the chance to address the council about this. What I want to be able to hopefully convey to you is that this notice is improper. It does not follow the law. No one individual; be it my friend the chief, the mayor, or any of you individual council members; can declare a nuisance. Now you can try to do that; other places send out these same kind of letters, but there’s something under the law that’s known as due process, and a council, or the commission that I work for as county attorney, has to do things according to the law. Again, I don’t care who you are, you can’t do things on your own.”
He added that the only way the Town Council can work is through proper processes and procedures, such as a proper agenda, proper motions and seconds, and so forth.
“Not a single one of you can tell the other what to do,” Johnson said. “The mayor can’t tell you what to do. He can make a suggestion of what he thinks is proper, and then y’all should discuss it. Then you should talk to your lawyer. Now you had a lawyer here earlier, and I’m proud to see Judge Young agreeing to be your attorney. The best advice I could ever give anyone is to listen to your lawyer. If he doesn’t know the answer to the question, he can research it. I don’t know if you talked to your attorney at the time about this. I don’t know if you council members talked to your attorney to get his take on this. Maybe you did; maybe you didn’t. If you did, I have the firm belief that he will be telling you, or would have told you, the same things I’m telling you. Maybe that’s why he’s not here any longer. Maybe he said something that somebody didn’t want to hear. It’s just like me over there with the commission. I’m in a job that I have to give you legal answers, legal responses. I can’t be a yes man. If I am, you don’t need that lawyer representing you. If you think that Judge Young is going to give you a yes to everything you ask him, you’re going to be mistaken. He knows the law. He practices it. If it’s not something he’s put his hand on at least last week, he’s going to take the time to research it and give you a valid answer. I’m telling you that this notice, and maybe even the ordinance that it relates to, I don’t believe is sufficient under the law to charge anyone with a nuisance.
“So what does it do when you send out this type letter to me or to other people inside the town? It harasses them. It intimidates them. Rockford used to be a very friendly town. All of us know everybody. We almost know what’s going to happen, it seems like before it happens, but we sure know about it two minutes after because word circulates,” he said.
Johnson said that the previous Monday after work he did ride around town and took photos, adding that he went by Rambo’s house and did take a picture of her pile, as well.
“I also went around to a lot of other places in town,” he said. “I’m not going to mislead you. My purpose for doing that was to view other things that we’ve got in the Town of Rockford that deserve attention, and I’m not saying that mine’s any better or any worse than a lot of others. I wasn’t going to refer to anybody’s property, but Kris has made her statement. I took a picture of the trash pile. I took several other pictures around town. The reason to do that is in looking at addressing you with an understanding that these are the reasons, or some of the reasons, that I don’t feel that this type of notice is what you need to be sending to your citizens.”
“There’s a lot of people in our town that do not have the money or the time to come in to me or Nancy or other people to ask questions about what’s legal and what’s not,” he said. “They do the best they can, but when things like this happen, one of the primary defenses if this goes through the proper channels is called acting arbitrarily and capriciously. You’ve got to be sure before you start notifying anybody, whether it be me or Joe Smith down the street, that you’ve handled it correctly. This town has to look at its own property. Thank goodness y’all are looking at the roads, because that’s one thing I was going to mention tonight. The roads in different places are in deplorable condition. You also have many locations that are as bad or worse than this old vacant lot down there. I encourage you, when we get through with this meeting, walk down here to the end of the building and look at all of the brush that’s right here on the end of the town’s lot. I encourage you to look at the bank behind the water works and look at how tall the brush and debris is on that bank. Look at the brush and debris around the old ag building that is falling in, that’s dilapidated.”
He further stated, “I know you’re going to correct it. You’re going to correct it when you get the opportunity, you get the money, you get the time, and you’re going to make things better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to do that, too, or to see that it gets done.”
Johnson added, “The problem is that some people are singling out particularly named individuals, and that won’t fly. It won’t fly legally.”
“Now you can do whatever you want to,” he stated. “I can assure you that my property will be maintained. I haven’t lived here 74 years without maintaining my property. But, folks, I don’t maintain my property on the schedule that is sent to me from the Town of Rockford. I’ll get it done, and I’ll do a good job at it. I can’t do the same every day, every week, job that many of you like to do. Some of you do an excellent job with grass cutting and things like that. You’re the Town Council. You’re supposed to look at everything total.
“I want you to know that I’m not here, like this says that, ‘You can appear in person with or without the benefit of legal counsel to appeal this matter.’ I am absolutely not here to appeal anything that is improper, that is not in line with the standards of the law that are set out for you to follow. I feel like the Town of Rockford over the years has made a good effort to get along with its citizens, and I know that to do that you don’t need to try to force somebody into doing something. I don’t believe there’s anybody in the Town of Rockford that I know of that has let things go on the length of time that it normally takes for a town or a city or a county to try to force action on them. Generally speaking, particularly with things like nuisances, that means that it has been ignored for months and months, and it has come down to the last straw – people have been talked to, they have been asked, these sorts of things. You can start off being hard nosed if you want to, but you’re going to find a resistance. You’re going to find that it costs the town a whole lot of money in the long run. You may come out on top sometimes, but you’ve got to ask yourself, is it worth it. Is it worth it to make my neighbors mad? Is it worth it to harass them? Is it worth intimidating them?”
Johnson further stated, “Everybody in this town really ought to start coming to your meetings. We’ve gotten our attendance up at the commission meetings with people asking questions, looking into issues, questioning things that maybe the commission wishes to do. We ought to all start doing the same thing with the Town of Rockford because all of us don’t agree with what you five members of the council do at all times.”
Johnson went on to also mention that there has been some discussion and “even an active movement” to establish a municipal court in Rockford. He told the council that is something he suggests they talk to their lawyer and the League of Municipalities about.
He said that operating a municipal court is “one of the hardest things you will ever get into,” adding that there are hidden costs, insurance, hidden liabilities, things they can’t do, and more. He suggested the town check into more things about it and that the council be cautious before proceeding in that endeavor.
Johnson concluded, “I appreciate your patience and understanding. Rest assured, that lot down there is going to get cleaned up, but again, we don’t clean it up based on the town’s schedule. We do things as we can, and I hope you appreciate that.”
The town’s new attorney, Tom Young, spoke up and said, “I can assure Mr. Johnson and anybody else we won’t be arbitrarily or capriciously running notices. I’m going to look at this ordinance and see what it requires. I’m going to satisfy whatever the requirement is. We’ll look at it. We’re going to find out exactly how it ought to be done so it’s done right.”
Mallory Whitley spoke up stating, “As long as everybody else gets one, because that’s not happening.”
“That is happening,” Mayor White said. “We don’t pick and choose here. Let me go ahead and say that, we don’t pick and choose. We don’t call ADEM on people. That’s not the way to operate. Now if we want to have a discussion and we’ve got a problem, and we can come to me as an adult, we can do that because I don’t want to deal with rumors. I took this to make better changes in Rockford; $415 a month don’t cut it for me. I’m here for a reason. We can all work together.”
Rambo also spoke up and said, “We’re all adults here, and I think we all want the best for Rockford. I think all of us want things to be better. As soon as we can get some help on what we’ve got going on on our property, you can rest assured we’re going to take care of it.”
“I’m for working with people, but I’m not for rumors and lies and saying I called ADEM on people,” White said. “That’s not what I do here. I have a child, a job and a wife to take care of. I don’t have time to worry about any of your other personal business.”
Circuit Judge David Law spoke up from the audience asking if Rambo received a notice, and White said that she did not get one.
“I’m not saying she should have gotten a notice,” Law said. “Her pile has been there two years. So if you’re going to send notices out, don’t say you’re not picking and choosing. She shouldn’t get a notice. I’m not for her getting a notice, but don’t sit here and say you’re not picking and choosing if you’re not sending every single person a notice, including yourself when you’ve got the same problems on property the city owns, then you are picking and choosing.”
White responded, “The biggest thing is the grass, the height of the grass by the sidewalks. I didn’t advise the chief to send those notices. It didn’t come from me. We’ll get it fixed. We’ve got counsel.”
Law stated, “But you can’t say you’re not when you are [picking and choosing].”
Rambo said that she has not gotten a notice, adding, “They didn’t need to send me one because I’ve been in contact with the mayor’s office and Town Hall.”
White emphasized, “We’ve got counsel. We’ll get it fixed.”
The next regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the Rockford Town Council will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 19.