Alabama’s Favorite Mayors
Elections being most fundamentally a test of popularity, meet nine mayors who are at the top of the list of Alabama’s favorite city leaders.
Brewton Mayor Ted Jennings
Municipalities across the state rely on their leadership to act and react to situations. Often their leader’s actions can change the course of a city or town for better or worse. As such, it is no small feat to be re-elected to a city’s top post. The following nine mayors have been re-elected multiple times, often serving their cities or towns for decades.
Mayor of Helena since 1968
Since 1960, Sonny Penhale has served the community of Helena with an eye toward the future, but his finger always has remained on the pulse of the present.
“I love Helena, was born and raised here, and will be laid to rest here. To see her grow and prosper is my passion,” he says.
Being mayor of a bedroom community hasn’t always been easy, though, because it requires balancing the mounting needs associated with growth without sacrificing a small-town quality of life.
“My style of governing is to do what is best for the city of Helena and her residents. Although sometimes it might not be the most popular thing at the time, I am always looking out for our city and its residents,” says Penhale, whose grandfather, Charles Iverson Hinds, served as the city’s first mayor following its incorporation as a municipality in 1917.
Elected mayor in 1968, Penhale has seen Helena grow from a town of 870 residents to a city of close to 16,000.
“Under my administration, the then-one-mile radius that comprised the town limits has grown to include roughly 26 square miles.”
Of course, there’s plenty of growth left to come, he says, noting construction of both a high school and a new interstate bypass are top priorities these days.
“We’re looking to get the bypass started in the near future. That will help with the gridlock in the early-morning hours and after-work hours, and our new high school will help the community and business community grow while giving our children ownership in their educations,” Penhale says.
“The Lord has given me a good long life, long enough to watch and help Helena grow into being named one of the Top 100 places in the (nation) to live and raise children. I hope that my leadership has helped make that happen,” he says, referencing Helena’s ranking 90th on Money magazine’s “Best Places to Live” listing for 2009.
Mayor of Robertsdale since 1992
Moving Robertsdale forward is Charles Murphy’s primary role as mayor, but sometimes sitting back is more productive than charging forward blindly, he says.
“I’m really and truly trying to think of things long-term,” says Murphy, who has served as mayor continuously since his first election in 1992.
“We’ve envisioned lots of projects since I came on board that might be amazing projects, but the time hasn’t been right either because of financial constraints or not being able to justify the need.”
A new city complex has been discussed since the mid-1990s, but that project is “still at least 10 years out,” Murphy says.
Likewise, the city purchased a “progressive” amount of real estate about eight years ago to expand the wastewater treatment plant and build a new utility department system that will relocate those employees to a U.S. Highway 90 location.
Ultimately, Murphy says he’d like to revisit the existing 5-acre site and transform it into a green space and amphitheater.
The city already has expanded its recreational offerings by investing about $2.2 million in new baseball and softball facilities. He’d also like to eventually include a community pool and splash area.
“As the money’s available, we’d also like to build a new tennis complex,” he says.
Murphy, a Bossier, La.-native, made his way to Robertsdale via a telecommunications career following a stint in the U.S. Navy, says he oversaw a budget of only about $3.6 million his first year in office. Today, the city’s $14.5 million budget accommodates a population that has more than doubled from 2,400 in 1990 to 5,276 in 2010.
Murphy says the city has been applying for grant funding steadily over the past 15 years, aimed primarily at sidewalk projects. The plan to encircle Robertsdale with walkways is about 75 percent, and funding has been secured to complete the project by the close of 2011.
“Then we start building out with spokes,” says Murphy, noting he has no intentions of ending his public service anytime soon, but he must still keep an eye toward future administrations.
“When that time comes, hopefully I will have put in place some platforms that the community or whoever replaces me will be able to build on,” he says.
Mayor of Lincoln, 1972-1991, 1996-2011
For 10 years, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama LLC has driven Lincoln’s economy, but Mayor Lew Watson remembers how close the transformative project came to stalling.
“We got the call in February (1999) asking if we could find 1,500 acres for an unidentified industrial project, and, within five days, I had secured the options on the land, and five weeks later we were informed that the formal announcement would be made on May 6. To my knowledge, this is the only car plant in the state where a mayor secured the options rather than working through industrial recruiters,” Watson says.
Today, Honda has invested more than $1.4 billion in the 1,350-acre site that employs more than 4,000 people building vehicles and V-6 engines. And Lincoln has grown in tandem with the automaker’s expansions, visible with infrastructure upgrades, such as a new wastewater treatment plant with a 2.5 million gallon-per-day capacity.
“Our first plant was a small one, about 250,000 gallons per day, but without water, you’re not going to see growth,” says Watson, who was raised in Lincoln, graduated from the University of Alabama and served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Vietnam War. He has been mayor of Lincoln since 1972, except for a four-year period when he set aside public office for a private sector job.
The city’s success has been as much about quality of life, however, as it has been about revenue.
Consider, for instance, that Lincoln had no parks in 1972 but today boasts five, with two in the works.
“I work closely with my council to make governing a team work approach and give my department heads the support they need to do their jobs. For projects, I try not to make it my idea but our idea,” he says.
On the horizon, Watson envisions continued growth that will boost property values for residents, as well as an expanded retail base and the availability of increased community services.
The services are needed, he says, because the city has experienced no less than a 36 percent increase in population with each U.S. Census count since 1970.
Billy Joe Driver
Mayor of Clanton since 1984
Since Billy Joe Driver took office in 1984, the city of Clanton has doubled its size physically and established itself as a prime location for both automotive suppliers and food distribution companies.
“Right now, my hope for the future is to keep Clanton growing and to see it remain financially sound. At this time, it looks bright,” says Driver, 75, who served in 2000 as the president of the Alabama League of Municipalities and in 2002 as president of the Alabama Retired State Employee Association.
What does he consider his legacy in Clanton? Driver says longevity and results.
“There has been a member of the Driver family working for the city of Clanton since 1923. Being able to serve the city for 40 years without being defeated and with 28 years as mayor at the completion of this term has been an honor,” he says.
With a self-described “hands-on” governing style, Driver says there’s been plenty to keep him busy, including completion of a new sewer plant, the installation of radio-read water meters, the addition of several automotive and food distribution industries, as well as the welcoming of a sign manufacturing and anodizing plant.
In the short term, Driver says he’s focusing primarily on nurturing the relationship forged with the Jefferson State Community College/Clanton Economic Development Center, the advent of a civic center, and continued sewer service rehabilitation.
The city’s centralized location with three exits off Interstate 65, Driver says, will continue to enhance both Clanton’s growth and quality of life.
Driver began his tenure with the city in the engineer’s office in 1953 and was elected to the City Council in 1972. The lifelong member of Temple Assembly of God also represents small cities in the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities.
Mayor Berry since 1992
Forget everything Roy Dobbs has achieved in his 78 years.
Four words embody his approach to every waking moment.
“I can do better,” says Dobbs, who unseated a 24-year incumbent in 1992 to become mayor of Berry with 70 percent of the vote.
“I didn’t realize we were totally bankrupt, that we had no equipment to work with and no records,” Dobbs says.
The self-described wheeler-dealer, who is the immediate past president of the Alabama League of Municipalities, says he issued a guarantee to the town of 1,200 and the debt collectors.
“I told them, if you give me one year, I’ll pay you what you say we owe, and I worked seven days a week for nothing, but I did it,” says Dobbs, noting he still doesn’t collect a salary for the job. “If I needed money, I wouldn’t be here.”
Today, Dobbs’ little town that could has close to $1.5 million in reserve after constructing a new city hall, medical center, civic center and expansive walking trail.
“Never settle for mediocrity. If you do, you’re only cheating yourself,” Dobbs says. And that philosophy permeates every facet of his life.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dobbs served as governor for the Alabama-Mississippi district of Optimist International. He vowed to lead the local chapter to prominence, and he delivered, elevating the district from 39th to first place.
More recently, the city completed construction of a new water plant that serves about 1,600 families across Fayette County.
“As remote as we are, it’s difficult to get water from anywhere else, but now we don’t have to,” he says. The $8 million project required a $5 million loan, but Berry made it happen.
“I don’t like to have a lot of time on my hands; I want to be in a decision-making arena,” he says, evidenced by his governing style.
“Berry has a great council and great employees, and I make sure to take care of them. I do my very best, and I expect people to do their very best.”
Mayor of Eufaula since 1992
Jay Jaxon is content to let the community he’s served for more than 20 years decide what constitutes his legacy, because there’s still plenty of work to be done in Eufaula.
“We are an historic community with a waterfront location, and we have attracted people from all over the country who choose to live here,” says Jaxon, who has served as mayor continuously since 1992, as well as an interim two-year term from 1986-88 when the then-sitting mayor died in office.
“What excites me is trying to build on that quality of life we have, and to continue moving it forward to provide economic opportunity for all who are here and all who want to come here,” he says.
In the past decade, the city of 13,500 people nestled along the Chattahoochee River and overlooking a 45,000-acre reservoir has been named one of the top retirement communities and top 100 small cities in the nation.
“Those lists just go on,” he says.
Jaxon contends surrounding himself with “people smarter than me” has helped the city weather the national recession “fairly well,” but like most communities nationwide, Eufaula needs more jobs to continue prospering.
“Our retail base has expanded, and our industrial base is looking for some expansion, so we’re confident about the future,” he says, pointing to two large-scale projects that have made such growth possible.
First, the city formed a healthcare authority in partnership with Southeast Alabama Regional Medical Center to overhaul Medical Center Barbour, which had changed for-profit hands 11 times since 1980. In the past four years, the authority has renovated the facility “from top to bottom, providing another level of care” that has helped the community regain confidence in the services available.
“We just felt like the for-profit people were coming in with promises and a coat of paint,” he says.
Meanwhile, Eufaula boasts the oldest public school system in the state, and he attributes that success to the community’s adoption of a 20-mil ad valorem tax to be sure funding is maintained.
“I co-chaired that referendum between (mayoral) titles, and that’s provided millions of dollars in additional funding for education,” Jaxon says.
Mayor of Troy since 1983
Jimmy Lunsford’s hands-on governing style and economic development background have helped the 28-year mayor build momentum for a city with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Long-range planning, he says, has been the key to Troy’s economic stability over the past two decades, positioning the city with the infrastructure necessary to continue reaping the double-digit growth the city experienced between 2000 and 2010.
“I want to see Troy continue to see the orderly growth that we have experienced through the last several years. We strategically recruit both retail and industrial projects that compliment the planned growth of our community,” says Lunsford, who retired from the Alabama National Guard and worked with the Alabama Development Office for 10 years.
During Lunsford’s tenure, the city has cultivated a diversified industrial base that includes the production of helicopters by Sikorsky and smart missiles by Lockheed Martin Corp.; information technology giant CGI; and homegrown plastics manufacturer KW Plastics.
“We’re also currently recruiting a good fit in the food industry, so our city is positioned to feel the least effect from changes in any one type of industry,” Lunsford says, detailing a recruitment strategy that dates to his first election to the mayor’s office, in 1983.
“I meet with department heads on a regular basis to discuss progress and issues. I personally handle the economic development activities of the city, working closely with the economic development agency in both retail and industrial, and I’m a firm believer in assisting local business first and then recruiting business that is a good fit,” he says.
In turn, Troy has enjoyed a controlled growth that has driven the complete renovation and expansion of its municipal complex, the creation of a recreation center and sportsplex, improved programs for seniors, the extension of the airport runway by 6,500 feet and the completion of a state-of-the-art training structure at the airport, as well as a new economic development office and incubator area.
“The new library, seniors building, public works building and finalizing our airport excites me as we move forward with these projects,” Lunsford says.
Mayor of Brewton since 1988
The last thing Ted Jennings wanted to do as a new mayor in 1988 was alienate Brewton’s existing merchant base, but something had to change.
“We realized quickly that city and state governments rely so heavily on sales tax that you’ve got to have things people want to come buy, so we made attracting retail to this area an immediate, aggressive part of our strategy,” he says.
Jennings, who already has announced he will not seek re-election when his term expires in 2012, believes substantial investment in infrastructure improvements and that aggressive retail recruitment strategy have buoyed the city’s economy against outside forces for more than two decades. It’s certainly a trend he’d like to see continue.
“A lot of small towns were real hesitant to upset their established merchants by recruiting new blood, but we knew, if we were going to survive, that’s what we had to do,” says Jennings, who welcomed Wal-Mart to Brewton in 1990, then saw the retail giant expand in 2008 with a Supercenter.
“Today, we’ve positioned ourselves to do well in the future,” says Jennings, pointing specifically to the city’s close partnership with the Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance that strives for a regional approach to recruitment.
And while Brewton has made tremendous strides in overhauling its sewer and water lines, Jennings says there’s still a lot of work to be done to continue ensuring the quality of life the city’s residents have come to expect.
“We’re very proud of our library and of our city schools,” he says, noting a roughly $16 million middle school will debut in the fall. “It’s an absolutely gorgeous site, and it’s going to be a real positive addition to this community.”
Jennings emphasizes that none of the city’s progress would have been possible had he not surrounded himself with capable, service-minded people as committed to Brewton as he is.
“My department heads have a lot of leeway, and I know that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to accomplish so much,” he says. “I surround myself with good people, set parameters for what I think we need to do for the people of this community and then give them the opportunity to do it. It’s worked extremely well for us.”
Mayor of Childersburg 1984-1995, 2000-2011
On paper, B.J. Meeks works only part time, but the six-term mayor of Childersburg says steps to develop an industrial park have kept him working around the clock.
The city, he says, recently acquired about 2,000 acres that once housed a power plant, and one step at a time, they’re transforming it into an industrial park that could be the local economy’s saving grace.
“We need to create some jobs for our people, and industrial recruitment gives a good bit more money to turn around and find projects that fit,” Meeks says.
With a weak retail base, Meeks says city leaders have made the conscious decision to try and transform the site into an industrial hub that could easily be served by both the Coosa River and dual rail service.
To that end, he’s already overseen the installation of some sanitary sewer lines and a pumping station, and state and federal grants helped build the development’s first road and attract its first two tenants.
As grant money continued to trickle in, Meeks says another road was constructed, attracting Nippon Oil to complement a neighboring steel fabrication facility and a decorative concrete block operation.
“We just completed a $700,000 access road grant to build a new entrance into the park,” says Meeks, noting Alabama Power Co. also has helped the city clear another “couple hundred acres” that are ripe for development.
“I try to be as open as I can, and I’m a firm believer in public hearings,” says Meeks of his governing style, which began with three consecutive terms in 1984 and resumed with his current three-term tenure in 2000.
“Even if I feel strongly about an issue, I’d rather hear the complaints before we make a big decision than after. Not to mention, sometimes you can change people’s way of thinking if you give them the facts,” he says.
To that end, Meeks is most proud of the development during his tenure of a fire-medic department that provides transportation for residents in need of medical care.
“We’re 10 miles from the closest medical facility, and this is one issue in town everybody agrees on. If I ever tried to cut that, I’d have to leave the country,” he says.
Kelli Dugan is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.