Analyzing Evans’ first hundred days in office

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, May 2, 2009

Two months prior to taking office in September, Mayor George Evans spoke publicly about his plans for The City of Selma to the Selma Rotary Club. At that time, he said he would take 90 days to a year to look at the city’s situation, and then make decisions about staffing. He assured members of the service club he would treat people as he wanted people to treat him.

Now, about six months after assuming office, Evans has kept his promise. He has moved deliberately through the minefields of city government — much of it without knowledge of what awaited him.

“I have tried to do that since I’ve become mayor,” Evans said in a recent interview. “I have moved slowly, but that doesn’t mean change isn’t going to come. It’s coming.”

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When he took office, Evans did not know the city’s budget was more than $200,000 in the red. He did not have a firm grasp on what city workers performed what specific duties in government. His predecessor, Mayor James Perkins Jr., had held information close to his chest, even requiring council members, such as Evans, to file requests for information from the city clerk before receiving any documents.

“I didn’t know anything when I took office. The former mayor was not open with us on the council, so we really did not know what the situation was,” Evans said. “But that did not keep us from working with it and doing the best that we could with what we have.”

Evans had served as president of the city council before he ran for and was elected to the mayor’s seat, defeating Perkins. Evans’ campaign was based on unity in the city and a transparent government.

Evans has a strategic plan that encompasses many facets of city government from day-to-day operations to community safety programs.

“So often we lose focus; our vision becomes impaired and our actions misguided,” he said. “We forget we are to build bridges for our children’s future. Instead, we argue and nobody wins.”

Portions of that plan include a fair, accountable government by establishing an accountability plan for city workers, including protocol guidelines and a work-order system.

He already has begun to restructure city government by creating a code enforcement office, which will ensure the safety of those who shop, work and live in the city.

Other plans include working with Team Selma to bring industrial growth to the city and balancing that by working with the Selma-Dallas County Economic Authority and Selma-Dallas Chamber of Commerce to support retail merchants already established in the city and encourage more retail growth. Evans said he realizes tourism is Selma’s nugget. He has worked with the Selma Planning and Development Department to continue the program of a riverfront park, the first phase of that which is about to turn dirt.

“That will be a walkway along the riverfront, but plans are for much more than that,” Evans said. “This will help our downtown area by drawing more tourists to Selma.”

More will follow, the mayor says. “We are just beginning.”

How has he performed?

Councilman the Rev. Dr. Cecil Williamson of Ward 1 has often been a critic of how city government is handled. Williamson is a veteran on the council, having served a total of 12 years. Most of the time, he is regarded as a contrarian, pushing leadership to the breaking point with questions and remarks that sometimes seem to create dissent.

Williamson presided over the first month of meetings as council president pro tem while Council President Dr. Geraldine Allen recovered from an illness. During that time, Evans began grappling with a deficit in the budget and the hard task of cutting back. That meant layoffs in city government’s ranks.

“After inheriting an empty city treasury, Mayor Evans has done a masterful job of keeping the city solvent,” Williamson said. “The local and national economies have necessitated some unpopular cuts in personnel, pay and programs, but he has been willing to make them.”

And during the series of hearings as the council and Evans worked on the budget, Williamson said Evans did not lose that sense of hope, which the city has not had in recent years.

“My suggestions to him have been that he take better care of his personal health and that he replace remaining department heads in City Hall and city government, who did not support him and are not loyal to him,” Williamson said. “All in all, I think he has done an excellent job under difficult circumstances.”

City finances were not the only issues that Evans has faced in these initial months as mayor of Selma. Industries and businesses in Selma have felt the impact of the national recession. At least one business, The Cigar Factory, closed its doors in November, shortly after Evans’ inauguration. Altadis U.S.A. owned the plant, which manufactured blunt-shaped cigars. The closure left 213 people unemployed.

Then came the furloughs at Bush Hog, International Paper and Henry Brick Co., which put workers on temporary leave to allow inventory to catch up with production. During these furloughs, Evans has maintained a strong relationship with industry leaders and workers, meeting with economic development officials to help guide the city and country through the hard times and keeping his promise to work with all.

“He’s done well,” said Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the Selma-Dallas County Economic Authority and Centre for Commerce. “I feel very positive. Everybody’s working well together.”

Vardaman said Evans has had to make some difficult decisions. “These are trying times. We’re all going through them. He’s had to learn a lot.”

Not everyone has proven a supporter of the mayor. Councilwoman Bennie Ruth Crenshaw of Ward 7 did not support Evans in the mayoral race. She had worked well with and for former Mayor Perkins. While Evans was president of the city council, he and Crenshaw, another council veteran, often went toe-to-toe during council meetings in opposition over issues. At one point, Crenshaw continued debating a point while Evans asked her to be quiet. She would not, so Evans asked for her removal from the chamber. That didn’t happen. Later, Evans asked to and successfully had rules changed to keep meetings from getting out of hand.

Even now, Crenshaw does not hesitate to criticize the mayor for what he has not yet done during these first four months in office. People wanted the city to pick up and jump into the future right away, Crenshaw said.

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions in meetings with people about why things aren’t moving,” she said.

Crenshaw pointed to the layoffs of about 20 city workers as an example of Evans’ lack of experience hurting the city.

“In surrounding areas, government cut back, but didn’t lay off people,” she said. “That was the biggest issue with them — the people in my ward. Then, they asked questions when big things didn’t happen.”

Crenshaw pointed to Selma’s omission from a list of cities in Alabama that had applied for stimulus money under the Obama Administration’s economic recovery plan. In her ward, a trash field is nearly full and ready for reclamation. Crenshaw said she had pointed out the fact several times.

“If we don’t make a move soon, we, the city, are going to be penalized,” she said. “That could have been included in the stimulus package. It was shovel ready, and that’s what they wanted — shovel ready projects.”

Crenshaw also wants to see Evans carry on projects conceived of or begun during Perkins’ administration, including seeing through construction of a waterfront park along the Alabama River parallel to Water Avenue, completion of the Interpretive Center at the corner of Broad Street and Water Avenue and restoration of the viability of the Good Samaritan Center on Broad Street.

“Overall, people are waiting on something big to happen,” she said. “I believe in giving a man a chance to do what he can. He ran on the premise that he was ready to change Selma. I’m just asking what changes are you planning?”

Despite the criticism from Crenshaw, at least one newly elected council member, Corey Bowie of Ward 8, sees value in the intentional way Evans has lead city government since November. Bowie appreciates Evans’ accessibility and openness.

“Things are not hidden. He will provide the information for you,” Bowie said. “Compared to what we had, it’s a golden blessing.”

Bowie did not serve under Perkins as a councilman, but monitored city government closely during the last four years of the former mayor’s administration. Bowie appreciates the difference Evans brings in leadership style.

“It’s more team-oriented right now,” Bowie said. “It’s not player-coach like Perkins.”