Archibald: One Alabama town has lost its mind

Tarrant - a blue-collar suburb of Birmingham that is home to 6,000 souls, bless their patient hearts - boasts on welcome signs that it is a "City of Progress."

I don't think that word means what they think it means. Because if Tarrant is a sign of progress we're all headed for the nuthouse.

This month a 79-year-old woman, Novillee Williams, raised her hand and spoke. She called Mayor Wayman Newton corrupt. She asked why he had not been investigated. She asked why he had not been removed from office, which is, to any reasonable person, a reasonable question.

But then another woman interrupted her, and Williams did the unthinkable.

She touched the lady on the arm. Not aggressively, as video clearly shows. Not violently or angrily or with force. She touched the woman's extended arm, to move it away from her. That was it. Or so it appeared.

Until later when, based on "officer observation," as a police incident report says, Tarrant charged Williams with the crimes of harassment and disorderly conduct. The document said Williams engaged in "fighting and threatening behavior in a public place."

Clearly Tarrant has some vocabulary problems. Because if that's fighting and threatening behavior all the world is guilty. There's more violence every day at the petting zoo.

A 79-year-old critic of the mayor who spoke her mind in a public meeting was charged with crimes. It's outrageous. But it says more about the state of the town than it does about her.

It's clear Tarrant has lost its mooring. It is a place so filled with feuds and infighting - some, but not all about race - that it has run up legal bills of tens of thousands of dollars just trying to figure out who runs the place. There are fights over the police department, fights over the fire department, fights over the budget and daily operations and financial transparency. Tarrant has been so awash in dissension it can't conduct its own business, much less that of its people.

It's gotten hard to recap the madness.

This is a town where Councilman Tommy Bryant made national news in 2021, and stunned his colleagues, by using the N-word to their faces.

It is a town where a former police chief accused Mayor Newton of assault on election day. It's a town where Councilman Bryant accused the mayor of harassment, and filed charges against him. The mayor was acquitted of those charges.

It's a town where in 2022 Mayor Newton told Bryant, on video and in front of the police chief, he would do vile sexual things to that councilman's wife. It was a crass and obscene insult. And it landed.

Councilman Bryant, who is 78, proceeded to punch the 40-something mayor in the face.

I can't even repeat the words the mayor said, much less write them here. Suffice it to say that when Jefferson County District Judge Katrina Ross heard the evidence and those words this spring, she found councilman Bryant not guilty of assault, because "any 'reasonable person' would consider the words stated to the defendant regarding his wife, as 'fighting words.'"

Fighting words, as it turns out, are a legal defense. Good thing for Tarrant, or a lot of people would be doing time.

City of Progress? This is a city where the council agreed to change the form of government because it had no faith in the mayor.

It is a city that hired a city manager to run the place, and agreed to pay him six figures to do it. It still pays that money, even though the manager has no responsibilities and can't do the job because the mayor sued and it's all tied up in court.

This is a town where the mayor twice put current Police Chief Wendell Major on leave over issues of job performance. The council twice came together unanimously to reinstate him. The mayor sued to overturn that vote, but lost. Can't follow it all? No one can.

The mayor is a lawyer who files his own suits, but the bills are growing. The city has a law firm, the council has had to add lawyers, and bills are piling up. The people of Tarrant shouldn't have to pay for this mess.

Maybe there is some hope for this town. As Tommy Spina, the lawyer for 79-year-old Novillee Williams said Wednesday, at least the town's city council seems to have found some unity. If driven only by loathing of the mayor.

That, I guess, is progress. Tarrant style.

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