Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

March 28, 2013

No mayoral candidate in Alto

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

ALTO — In Spanish, “Alto” means “stop” — which is kind of appropriate, since “stopping” is what this town of more than 1,200 seems to be doing right now in terms of forward motion.

The last mayor, Monty Collins, flat-out quit roughly a year ago.

Prior to that, the town's police force was briefly phased out of existence (for financial reasons) for a period of six or so months.

Then, after law enforcement was restored, a police-related fatal shooting in January polarized the community along racial lines.

There currently is no city manager.

Now, current Mayor Alto O.T. Allen has decided not to run for reelection. No other mayoral candidates have come forward to replace Allen — which leaves the town's top leadership slot completely vacant with an upcoming May election fast approaching.

The town's bylaws stipulate that a replacement mayor will have to be selected from the membership of the city council by the city council. However, by virtue of that decision, the majority of the town's citizens will have absolutely zero say on whose will become the new face of Alto.



CONTROVERSY

It's certainly no exaggeration to say this 1.7-mile wide East Texas town has been through the ringer in recent years.

The issue that attracted the most national attention in recent memory was when the Alto police force furloughed for six months a little over 14 months ago. Then-Mayor Monty Collins told the national media the now infamous line: “Everybody's talking about 'bolt your doors, buy a gun.' ' ”

When the police force was reinstated, most members were subsequently fired and replaced.

Then, on March 19, 2012, Collins resigned from office with another, oft-repeated, message — a five-word note that declared: “I quit on this date.”

Collins does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached to comment. But the friction between him and the city council was well-known and very well-publicized.

It was evident the negative attention the town had been receiving has taken its toll on everyone. So Collins walked.

As of this week, the town remains in disarray, with different people listed as the current mayor on various municipal websites. To this date, Collins' has still not been removed from the top spot at http://www.altotexas.info.

After Collins left, O.T. Allen was tapped to take his place. Allen was in the unenviable position of being mayor when the fatality shooting of suspected convenience store robber James Eric Griffin, 48, took place in January.

The shooting incident attracted major, MAJOR headlines for the tiny town — again. Press conferences. Reporter questions flying through the air.

This time, the negative publicity seared the town along racial lines. The shooting apparently triggered a fault line in Alto's African-American community, provoking allegations of police brutality, professional callousness and even racism.  (Both the officer and Griffin are black.)

A grand jury only this week cleared Alto Police Officer Brandon Michael Smith of any criminal liability in that Jan. 22 fatal shooting.

During that incident, the officer shot Griffin eight times to counter what he described as an unprovoked and startling machete attack. Officer Smith will not immediately be returning to duty, his attorney, Paul Allen Robbins of Lufkin, has said.

Robbins in particular is calling for peace in the black community, given the turmoil its members have been through with the death of Griffin and the negative effect that pathos could have on the chances of his client resuming his job in town.

“No one wants this kind of conflict in their community,” Robbins said.

Now, rather, than run for election in his own right,  Mayor Allen — who did not return requests for comment Thursday —  is departing.

This, of course, leaves a huge vacancy at the top of Alto's political food chain. The hugest. Which is not completely unheard-of here.

“I am still new here, but they told me this has happened in the past,” explained Sonja Dillard, Alto's city secretary.

Dillard said there are provisions in the town's bylaws that allow for a mayor to be appointed when no person chooses to run for the position.

“Once the new council is seated they will appoint the new mayor,” Dillard said Thursday.

Still undergoing some training of her own, Dillard didn't have a lot of time on her hands to elaborate Thursday.

But she said aside from the mayoral position, there are two city council seats open for election that are currently occupied by Steve Cox and Jerry Flowers. Cox and Flowers will defend their seats against challengers Beverly Hackney-Jones and Angelia Guereca.

Of the four, the two candidates who garner the largest amount of votes will be elected to the two seats, Dillard said.

As far as some observers are concerned, Alto residents are keeping their personal feelings about the upheavals fairly close to the vest.

But if can be construed as an indication,  Alto's Chamber of Commerce does not right now have a president to lead it nor a vice president behind that leader — and there are no current plans to replace them.

Kathi Davis, secretary of  the Alto Chamber's board of directors, said there are only three members currently on the board. But Davis said she has personally started her own initiative venture of going door-to-door to drum up needed Alto support. Davis has worked for the chamber for the past two years.

“This initiative is to get out there, and I am actually enjoying going around and visiting,” Davis said. “I am thanking them for all they do for the community. They tell me no one has ever visited them before.”