Alabama City’s Elections Hit By Fight Over Chemical Lawsuits

July 28, 2020

DECATUR, Ala. — Contamination from a chemical plant in north Alabama is tainting something else — elections in the city of Decatur.

Three City Council members seeking reelection tell The Decatur Daily that Mayor Tab Bowling and a lawyer are trying to influence August elections by recruiting and funding opponents to the incumbents.

The lawyer, Barney Lovelace, represents the city in lawsuits over chemical contamination from 3M Co.’s Decatur plant. The city is being sued alongside 3M because plaintiffs allege that chemical compounds commonly known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are discharged from the city’s wastewater treatment plant and are leaching from its landfill. 3M and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management announced a deal Friday for further cleanup of PFAS, but the lawsuits continue.

Lovelace and Council President Paige Bibbee are at odds after Lovelace said she should recuse herself from discussions of the lawsuits because she’s friends with environmentalists and lawyers suing the city or 3M.

On Wednesday, Bibbee played an 82-minute recorded conversation from May in which Lovelace threatens her, saying “I will burn you down” after she offers to make public an email that Lovelace sent regarding the council elections.

The Daily obtained a copy last week of the Jan. 15 email that Lovelace sent to lawyers in his firm discussing finding City Council candidates.

Lovelace wrote that the election is “critical for the future of Decatur” and that he told two Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce officials that he “could not be publicly involved in this effort, but very deep behind the scenes I would help as needed.”

He asked that the email not be shared outside the firm “for obvious reasons _ we represent the city in the PFAS litigation and other governmental entities.”

Qualifying for the Aug. 25 election ended Tuesday. District 1 incumbent Billy Jackson is the only unopposed council candidate. Bibbee faces three opponents in District 3. District 4 incumbent Charles Kirby has one opponent.

Bibbee, Kirby and Jackson accused Bowling of inviting people to run for City Council.

They said the mayor wants to find candidates who will be more favorable toward him. Bowling has admitted his frustration with the council and its unwillingness to go along with his ideas. Bowling is running for reelection and has six opponents.

Kirby, who has a long history of being critical of Lovelace and even calling for termination of his work on behalf of the city, said he doesn’t accept Lovelace’s denial.

“It’s clear that Tab and Barney are one and the same,” Kirby said. “Tab and Barney were working to find opposition for Paige and myself, which is very questionable ethically because Barney gets paid to represent the city.”

So far, Lovelace’s firm has been paid almost $200,000 in legal fees in the PFAS cases. City Attorney Herman Marks said 3M agreed in mediation to pay the city’s legal expenses.

Lovelace denied to Bibbee in the recorded phone call and again to The Daily on Wednesday that the email said he was seeking an opponent to run against her.

Bowling denied recruiting council candidates, but he did say he met with almost every person considering running.

“I probably met with 15 people, but they came to me,” Bowling said.

Bowling said it’s a coincidence that his campaign consultant is also running the campaigns of three council candidates, including challengers to Bibbee and Kirby.

Jackson, Bibbee and Kirby refused to sign confidentiality agreements regarding the 3M lawsuits. They’ve also questioned how slow the cases are moving.

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