A Fairfield resident angrily stormed out of the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Eugene Verin, slamming the door behind her, after the judge said Friday that it will be next week before he makes a ruling on whether Eddie Penny is the legal mayor of Fairfield.
The Fairfield City Council removed Mayor Ed May II from office, citing a state law, when May missed City Council meetings over the course of 120 days.
Friday was the second day that about two dozen residents of the city showed up in the Bessemer Cutoff Courthouse, hoping for an answer to the question of whether Penny, the former council president, or May is the legitimate mayor.
“If you all will just hang with me for another week, I’ll do the best that I can,” the judge said. “I can almost assure everybody here that what I say won’t be the last word. (The ruling) will be appealed.”
Verin said attorneys for the City Council and those for the Fairfield Citizens Coalition were right to have argued their positions. He said he does not see Penny as a villain, and he doesn’t view May as having abdicated his duties.
“I’ve just got to do the best that I can without running the City of Fairfield,” he said.
The judge recalled a case years ago in which lawyers wanted him to appoint a receiver for the financially challenged city in western Jefferson County.
“They wanted me to forget you (citizens), forget the council and have a receiver there to make the decisions,” he said. “I told them I would not do that because the citizens voted for those council members.”
A point of contention in the case is the population of Fairfield, which has dipped below 12,000. The council argued that the drop in population changed the status of the city and required the mayor to vote with the council.
May’s lawyers said that as the head of the administrative branch of city government, he should not sit or vote with the council.
“If I had my way, I’d take control. I’d say, ‘Look, even though the population had dipped down a little bit, it might pick back up,’” Verin said. “Then where are we going to be in two years?
“If I had my way, I’d change it to where the mayor votes because it’s under 12,000, we could go ahead and redraw (council district) lines … and do that in enough time so the citizens know what’s going on,” the judge said. “But I’m not going to make that decision. I’m going to leave it up to council and mayor of Fairfield to do what they feel they need to do.”
Verin said he wasn’t elected to run Fairfield. He said he will make a decision on whether Penny is lawfully holding the office of mayor. If he is, Verin said, the council must settle on who takes his position on the council.
“If he’s holding the position lawfully, he’s in. That’s it,” Verin said. “He’s mayor and the city would have its option to appoint, within a time period, a new councilperson.”
Penny and attorney Emory Anthony declined comment as they left the courtroom. Damon T. Watson, a member of Mays’ legal team, said he had hoped a ruling would have come Thursday.
“I thought that the law was clear,” he said. “We’re taking a bit more time and if time is what’s needed to get the right (ruling), so be it. The main issue, I believe, is the survivability of Fairfield. There are voting rights issues that are involved here.”
Watson and his cohorts contend also that there’s been a change of government without giving citizens the opportunity to vote on that change. Attorneys for Penny and the council say government in Fairfield has not changed, even with the appointment of a city manager.