DECATUR, Ala. – Two incumbent Decatur city council candidates, whose reelection bids were the subject of an apparent plan to recruit challengers by an outside counsel for the City of Decatur, lost their seats Tuesday.
Current Council President Paige Bibbee lost to well-funded opponent Carlton McMasters by a margin of 59 percent to 22 percent. Veteran District 4 Councilman Charles Kirby lost to 18-year-old Hunter Pepper, a recent high school graduate. Pepper’s winning margin, according to Decatur City vote totals, was 36 votes.
Pepper told WHNT News 19 Wednesday morning, “I am very happy with the results and am excited to move this city forward!”
McMasters received nearly 60 percent of the vote in a four-person race and got nearly 1,000 more votes than Bibbee, according to Decatur election figures.
McMasters’ website says he is “Vice President of J&M Signs, 3rd Generation family run Decatur business founded in 1953.” On his Facebook page, McMasters said he was “incredibly humbled and excited” by the election results. He complimented his opponents Ray Glaze and Philip Wright for running “clean campaigns” and Bibbee, “for her service to our city over the past four years.” He thanked the people who voted for him and pledged to try and earn the support and trust from those didn’t vote for him.
The two incumbents, Bibbee and Kirby, were the subject of a January email by attorney Barney Lovelace, who represents Decatur in the ongoing litigation with 3M.
The email was apparently sent to members of his law firm and describes his proposal, after discussions with leaders of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, to look for candidates to run against Bibbee and Kirby in the 2020 elections. Lovelace wrote he would help candidates they recruit, but said he told chamber officials “… that I could not be publicly involved in this effort, but very deep behind the scenes I would help as needed.”
Bibbee and Kirby have been critical of Decatur’s approach to the litigation – where it is a co-defendant with 3M in a lawsuit brought by the Tennessee Riverkeeper group – including the length of negotiations to date, whether Lovelace and his firm had sufficient environmental expertise to supervise the case and they suggested Decatur should consider switching sides in the lawsuit and sue 3M.
The West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority sued 3M over PFAS chemicals in its drinking water. The two sides eventually settled in 2019 with 3M paying the authority $35 million, money that the utility was expected to use to install an advanced drinking water filtration system.
Bibbee told WHNT News 19 Wednesday she plans to continue to work to help Decatur.
“This is my new motto, ‘If there is a fire you’re trying to douse, you can’t put it out inside the house. – Alexander Hamiliton,'” she said. And I believe that. I believe if you’re trying to fix something that is wrong internally in the City of Decatur government, it’s very hard to fix it internally. You know, too many people fighting against, the same old, same old.
3M told WHNT News 19 it is paying the legal bills for Decatur and Morgan County at the city and county’s requests as part of the ongoing lawsuit negotiations. The company also told WHNT News 19, “3M has not and will not take a position in local Decatur municipal elections.”
It is not clear what, if any effect, Lovelace’s proposal had on Tuesday’s elections. Pepper qualified to run against Kirby on the last day of candidate qualifying. He told WHNT News 19 that he didn’t have enough information to comment on how Decatur should deal with 3M going forward, but he pledged to focus on problem solving.
McMasters sits on the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce board. He told WHNT News 19 Wednesday that he chose to run for city council because he is a third-generation family small business owner. He has four children and wanted them to come back to Decatur to see the possibilities it holds.
“I want to be proud of where I live, and I want to make a positive change for the city,” he said.
McMasters also Wednesday addressed the question of how Decatur should move forward in its dealings with 3M.
“I don’t like the fact that 3M has polluted our waters,” he said. “And they have found (3M) dump sites, but I am not privy to the case, to those details, so i can’t comment on where the case is right now. The people in District 3’s number-one priority has been roads and what we can do about it.”
Pepper said his decision to run was based on wanting to help.
“I’m running because I feel that our city is not getting the attention it deserves from our council,” he told WHNT News 19 last week. “The people in this city deserve to have their issues heard and there are hardly any attempts to do reach out to them for their opinions.
“I’m running because I care about the city and the people in it for I have a heart for this city. I love it here and love the people in it and they need someone who cares. This city needs leadership that is willing to stand up for what their District wants.”
Kirby said today he won’t seek a recount despite the narrow vote margin, but he has filed a complaint with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, alleging Pepper didn’t file required campaign finance forms.
“It’s Hunter Pepper he did not file,” Kirby said. “And I can give you the particulars, August the 3rd, he filed nothing, August the 10th he filed nothing, August the 17th he filed nothing. August the 24th, he filed a waiver of report saying there was nothing to report. None of those can be true.”
Pepper responded to the claim Wednesday.
“I filed a waiver of report, which is what I was directed to do,” he told WHNT News 19.
Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce officials discussed with Lovelace in January helping recruit candidates for the races,, according to the email.
John Seymour, the chamber’s president and CEO, said the chamber’s political action committee, Prosperity PAC, chose not to endorse any candidates in this year’s Decatur municipal elections.
“Our primary goal is to make sure there are people running for office that have Decatur and Morgan County needs as a priority,” Seymour told WHNT. “We believe that to the be the case.”
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling, who had expressed frustration over city council efforts to limit his ability to approve lawsuit settlements, predicted in June that the then-five-person council had four lame ducks, an apparent reference to Bibbee and Kirby.
District 1 Councilman Billy Jackson won without opposition and two other current council members, Kristi Hill and Chuck Ard, did not seek reelection. Hill will be replaced in District 2 by Tuesday’s election winner, Kyle Pike. Pike was a member of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce board until March, when he resigned to run for the seat. Ard will be replaced by Jacob Ladner, who won the District 5 race.
Bowling appears to be headed to a runoff against former Decatur Councilman William “Butch” Matthews.