By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
Posted in Fairfield Mayor Edward May II’s office are the keys to success.
The list, presented to May by students at nearby Restoration Academy, is taped to a wall until he can get the document framed. During a recent interview at City Hall, the newly elected mayor went over each key—kindness, unity, gratitude, diligence, forgiveness, prayer, integrity, honesty.
“I have to keep those in mind,” said May, 38, who began his first term in November. “It really is going to take those things.”
And probably much more. No one knows that better than May, who served as Fairfield’s city attorney before he decided to run for mayor.
Fairfield faced myriad problems before and after May became city attorney. Among them:
- Walmart Supercenter closed in January 2016, leaving 264 people unemployed and losing $400,000 in sales tax, nearly 40 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue.
- City workers were not paid on time in December 2014, resulting in delays in paying for basic services like garbage collection, bus service, and insurance benefits.
- The city ran out of gasoline in January 2015, limiting police on their patrols as well as response calls.
- The previous mayor and city council were at times antagonistic, which in some instances led to lawsuits and charges of harassment.
- Some inmates were released from jail because the city could not afford to feed them.
“We are at the brink of disaster right now,” said May in a November interview. “We’re holding on, and we have to start pulling back. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re pulling back and turning in a new direction.”
Since taking office last month, May said the situation in Fairfield “was just as bad as I thought it was. The depth of it is what I’m discovering.”
“There are a lot of outstanding costs for the number of agencies we depend on daily: utilities, phone service, those types of things,” he said, citing a few examples. “These people want their money, and we have to figure out a way to give it to them.”
Glimmer of Hope
Fairfield’s motto is “An Older City Headed in a New Direction,” and May hopes these words will hold true during his time in office. Last week there appeared to be a glimmer of hope.
On Nov. 29, May announced new businesses for the vacant Flint Ridge Legacy Mall and the shuttered Walmart that could cover about 1 million square feet of commercial space.
“The project will include small businesses, as well as medium-box businesses,” May said. “These businesses will not only be part of the initiative but also part of the new foundation we are going to lay for the longevity of Fairfield.”
Jeremy Duckworth, executive director of the Fairfield Business Alliance (FBA), said new businesses mean a return of jobs to the area.
“We’re going to have a job fair within the next couple of weeks and hire people locally, and get people in the area,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Fairfield’s problems are about to disappear, though. Much more needs to be done, and that could include layoffs of city employees to help balance the budget.
May, who generally gets to the office around 10 a.m. and works late into the evening, said any change within the city must begin with the mayor and city council.
“Why? Because we are the leaders,” he said. “That’s the reason we’ve been given these roles. You have to start at the top. If we can bring it together at the top, then the citizens will fall in line. These things are common sense to me.”
Mayor May is aware of the antagonistic relationship between the previous mayor and council. Some of the hostility included a lawsuit that was filed by members of the Fairfield City Council against former Mayor Ken Coachman; it was eventually dismissed. (Coachman, who decided not to seek a third term in office this year, declined to comment for this article.)
May said he wants to avoid animus with the council.
“You have an obligation to decide what’s in the best interest of the city,” he said. “Being antagonistic is not in the best interest of the city. I’m trying to bring our city together. You have to start at the top.”
One of his first steps is to get the city council to authorize funds for audits, which are needed to gain the trust of the financial markets.
“As soon as we get the audits, we can refinance some of our bonds,” he said. “The city hasn’t been audited in the past three years.”
The elected officials have some other issues that must be addressed.
Asked whether the financially strapped city would consider bankruptcy, May said, “Not at the moment. Bankruptcy is a protection mechanism. Right now, our creditors are not beating down our door.”
Asked whether he supports the city being annexed by Birmingham, he said, “Absolutely not. I want to say, ‘Hell no!’”
“I know Fairfield can save Fairfield,” May said. “I don’t see what Birmingham has done for the west side since the ’80s, since I was a child. What makes you think they’re going to start with Fairfield?”
Finally, when asked about Miles College, the historically black college and university that is synonymous with the city, he said: “If Fairfield succeeds Miles would have to be a part of that success and vice versa. Whether we like it or not, we are joined at the hip and have every incentive to work together because we can’t go in two different directions.”
May, who is married with three children, is a graduate of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and Miles Law School. His father, Edward May Sr., was a charter member of the Miles Law School.
The younger May, who was mostly raised and attended school in Fairfield, is not new to politics. His father served as mayor of the city of Bessemer from 2002 to 2010.
In October of this year, Fairfield’s Mayor May won the election in a runoff against Johnnie Wyatt and took office with six new council members on the seven-member body: Barakas Taylor, District 1; Susan Jo Parks, District 2; Cynthia Turner McDowell, District 3; John Hackett, District 4; Herman Carnes Jr., District 5; City Council President Eddie Penny, District 7; and sole incumbent Willie Hardley Jr., District 6.
So far—and it’s still early—communication with most on the council seems strong.
“The mayor is informing the council, trying to work with us,” said Hardley, who was first elected in 1992. “He’s informing us about what’s going on, making us part of the process. That’s the way it should be. He listens. I’ve never seen a mayor like that in terms of trying to work with the council like he’s working with the council.”
Hardley said he’s been impressed with Mayor May’s insight “biblically and also legally.”
“He won’t just go along with stuff,” Hardley said. “He will look at it, weigh it, and then make a decision. He has wise counsel, and he will listen to wise counsel.”
May believes spirituality must play a role in Fairfield’s success.
“Take one step at a time. Pray and meditate every morning before you come to work,” said May, who has been a member of Bessemer’s New Bethlehem Baptist Church since 1985. “I am continuing to show good faith and work with people to the degree that I can, trying to build bridges where I can. I fight my battles on my knees. I’m on a mission to bring this city back.”
Origin of Name: Originally named Corey, after a U.S. Steel Corp. executive, it was later renamed after the city where the then-president of U.S. Steel lived, Fairfield, Conn.
Population: As of the census of 2010, there were 11,117 people, 4,229 households, and 2,738 families residing in the city
Median Household Income: $34,242
Government: Mayor and seven-member city council