Tensions ran high at Marion City Council’s meeting Monday night, March 20, as Mayor Dexter Hinton, City Clerk Laura Hinton, and City Council members discussed the city’s expenditure of approximately $21,000 on the replacement of two heating and air units at the Old Depot building.
In January, Rice Heating and Cooling installed two 7.5 ton Carrier heat pump systems at the building. The city received an invoice for the equipment and installation on Jan. 24. That invoice appears to have been paid without ever having received a vote of the city council.
The city sometimes rents out the Old Depot building, which is located on the east end of Washington Street, for parties and other private events.
One of those events, City Clerk Hinton explained at the council’s Feb. 21 meeting, resulted in damage to the HVAC units at the facility. She said the renters using the building for their event had left with the thermostat set to an extremely low temperature, overtaxing the system and causing it to burn out.
Hinton explained at that meeting that she had been off work during the time in question, but that the replacement of the units had been placed on the council’s agenda for their Dec. 19, 2022 meeting.
“So we put it back on the agenda to be approved for December, and I thought that it was approved in December,” she said at that meeting. “The reason why it was going to be that way, because it just didn’t make sense to fix the one side… but then have the other side push so hard to then blow the new unit out.”
That Dec. 19 meeting, however, never happened. The council did not meet again until January XXX, when they held a special called meeting to institute a temporary town-wide curfew in response to two back-to-back homicides over two days.
Laura Hinton told the council Feb. 21 that she assumed the expenditure had been a part of the package of items the council approved when they voted to pay the city’s bills at their first February meeting, “and when I went to pay bills I made sure the company got paid.”
Councilmembers did not discuss the matter at the council’s first March meeting, held on the 6th, which had an unusually short agenda and was finished quickly. Near the end of the March 20 meeting, however, Councilmember Joe Pearson brought the subject back to the table. Pearson did not mince words regarding his opinion of the situation: “We’ve got a mess.”
Though the units did not burn out until late in 2022, the council was aware both units had problems and had discussed repairs over a year ago. Pearson showed the council documents from February 2022, when Dallas Air Conditioning and Heating had submitted a proposal to the city offering to repair the two HVAC units at the Depot for $4870.47. That proposal included the replacement of a bad fan motor in the larger 15-ton unit and a new compressor for the 7.5 ton unit. Dallas alternatively proposed $7,393.00 to outright replace the 7.5 ton unit.
Because the cost of the work was estimated to be below the state’s bid threshold of $15,000.00, the council was able to solicit proposals, a less-formal process than soliciting sealed bids. The city voted at that time to budget $9,000 towards the repairs. The repairs based on those proposals, however, don’t appear to have been done at the time.
Pearson asked why the city had ended up spending $21,000 on the outright replacement of the units, contending that repairs would have been less expensive. In addition, Pearson said the contractor who ultimately did the work, Rice Heating and Cooling, replaced a 15 ton unit and a 7.5 ton unit with two 7.5 ton units, which he said will not be enough to heat and cool the building effectively. “Those units weren’t but eight and a half years old,” he said. The 15 ton unit, he said, could have been repaired rather than scrapped. Pearson has also said he believes the expenditure, because it exceeded the bid threshold, may have been illegal, and said he felt there should be consequences: “Somebody’s head needs to roll over this,” he said last Monday night.
Pearson said that an email containing Rice Heating and Cooling’s proposal was sent to the city on Dec. 9 of 2022 to Yolanda Curry, who is the office administrator of the city’s police department. “How did she get involved?” he asked.
“So, Ms. Curry got involved in this whole thing is that we were short staffed, and I’m pretty sure that you guys—the only reason that Ms. Curry did stop helping us is Councilman Arrington at the time asked that she did not come back up there. So you guys were well aware that Ms. Curry was helping out in the front office. You’ve come down here numerous times and knew that we were down to just me and Ms. Jones. And so she was helping out. She presented the proposal here that night at the meeting that you guys actually voted on up to $9,000…I’m just giving the details,” said Clerk Laura Hinton.
“The reason why this was community development—“ said Mayor Dexter Hinton, “—I made the executive decision—“
“I don’t care what kind of deal you’re talking about,” said Pearson. “We still spent way more money and we junked eight and a half year old equipment… somebody dropped the ball.” He asked why the city had taken the proposal from Rice, noting that it was submitted months after Dallas’ lower proposal.
“I’m pretty sure that that was a miscommunication, [Curry] not understanding” the bid process, said Laura Hinton. “It’s not like the unit is at someone—some of our home. It’s at the city Depot.”
“We wasted the money,” said Pearson.
“Okay, but this research that you did as a leader, could you not have done that before? To know what was the size…” said Laura Hinton.
“From the information that I got, as the mayor of the city, I moved to make an executive order” to make the repairs, said Mayor Hinton. “I don’t know if y’all remember the cold weather that we had in December. It was freezing. And they’re calling my phone, the EMA, asking me, ‘Do y’all have a place for housing?’” Hinton said the units were replaced in order to have a place for people who needed heat during the extreme cold weather to have a place to go. “They can’t go up here in City Hall.”
“That’s fine,” said Pearson. “Why didn’t you call Dallas Air and tell them to repair those units?”
“Because they burned out,” said Mayor Hinton. “The company that was able to address the issue in the amount of time that we needed it addressed—they went down and saw additional measures, and additional issues—“
“And I came back before the council and told you that one of the units had burned out,” said Laura Hinton.
“It was a waste of money,” said Pearson.
“That’s your opinion that it was a waste of money,” said Mayor Hinton. “But the decision to move forward was my decision. Executive decision, based on emergency—we didn’t have any housing, nowhere to put people in our city in case it was freezing.”
“Mayor, I hear all of that. But the only thing that changes that is, if Councilman Pearson feels so passionate about something, he needs to make a motion to decide whatever he wants to do about whatever decision he’s trying to make. The motion’s the only thing that changes how the council acts on something. It’s no need for us to sit back and go back and forth on something,” said Laura Hinton. “Make a motion, Councilman Pearson. Get it seconded and go for a vote, and if there’s a legal ramification— if there’s a legal ramification, you make the motion. You say who’s going to pay it back. And then the city deals with the legal ramifications of it. Make the motion, Councilman Pearson.”
“Well, there’s two people that signed the check,” said Pearson. “That knew what was going on—”
“There was no signing of a check,” said Laura Hinton. “The check comes out of Community Development, there are three signatures on it.”
“The Community Development Fund is there for community development,” said Mayor Hinton. “It wasn’t no money that was moved—I know what you’re saying, that it’s—it was—the expense of the units was high, but guess what? We all use that.”
Councilmember Jeff Nail offered a motion that the council budget up to $5,000 to retain an outside law firm to look at the expenditure and determine if any law or procedure had been violated, and if so, who would be liable to pay the money back.
Pearson said he had spoken to someone at the Alabama League of Municipalities about the issue. “He said, if the city council didn’t vote on it, somebody’s got to pay that money back.”
“And, while you’re at it, the $14,000 that you haven’t voted on for the male figures who also run supervision of departments. Let’s go legal and jump on all of that, because [Marion Volunteer Fire Department Chief Eddie Horton] just spent $14,000 two weeks ago. So let’s make sure that we do this all across the table. Because I look at the finances, I know what’s happening.”
“I didn’t know about that, either,” said Pearson.
“Well, you don’t know a lot of things,” said Laura Hinton.
“You’re right. Sure don’t” said Pearson.
Mayor Hinton asked for order, but the exchange continued.
Pearson said he and the council had been kept in the dark on “a whole lot of issues.”
“It’s not done in the dark. It comes before you. But you sign those things without a problem. It’s just that when the women bring it up—“ said Laura Hinton.
“This meeting is adjourned,” said Mayor Hinton.
“There’s a motion on the floor, mayor,” said Laura Hinton.
Nail restated his motion to engage outside legal representation to assess the situation.
After some discussion, Nail withdrew that motion and asked that the City Attorney look at the situation and bring back a report to the council at their next meeting in April.
“There was a $21,000 expenditure that did not come before the city council,” said Nail. “And if there was another one that needs to be brought to our attention, please bring it to our attention. If the Volunteer Fire Department spent $14,000 of city money, I think we need to know about that too.”
“Two of the checks you signed last year,” said Laura Hinton. “One was $11,000, one was $12,000.”
Nail asked to see the expenditures she was talking about.
“I can go through the checkbook and show you,” she said.
“The city council’s supposed to know about [expenditures],” said Councilmember Willie Jackson. “The city council is over the finances.”
Mayor Hinton said that the reason he moved forward with the expenditure was because of the impending cold weather.
Pearson noted that the issue had been on the council’s Dec. 19 agenda—but that meeting did not happen because of lack of a quorum. “Did we not have any meetings in January?” He asked.
“You had a special called meeting in January after the shootings took place. We had no meeting in January because [New Year’s Day] fell on a Monday, the next [meeting] fell on Martin Luther King Day. There were no meetings and you had a special called meeting after the shootings for the curfew…I take the minutes so I know what’s happening in the city,” said Laura Hinton.
Jackson said the council should have held a called meeting to vote on the matter. “We did have an emergency meeting on Jan. 6. It could have been discussed then,” said Pearson.
“We will do that research,” said Laura Hinton, and have a report to the council at their next regular meeting.
Mayor Hinton asked for a motion to adjourn. Pearson made the motion, which was seconded by Nail. The motion carried.