Mayor Robert Smith wants the record set straight. As almost anyone with a pulse in this part of the state now knows, Smith and Councilman Kabir Karriem got into a scuffle in the foyer of City Hall on the evening of April 1. Smith says Karriem”s version of events is untrue, and he has evidence to prove it.
Smith was angry because Karriem had put on the council agenda a discussion of funding for a project that would transform the old Tombigbee River bridge into a pedestrian walkway. To get the $2 million MDOT has made available for the restoration, the city and county must come up with 20 percent of the money, $400,000.
Karriem, who has questioned the project and is widely perceived as a political adversary of Smith”s, wanted to discuss how the project will be funded. Smith, who is rightly proud of the Riverwalk and sees the bridge as more of the same, was angry when he saw the item on the council agenda. Smith phoned Karriem that evening to express his displeasure.
What exactly was said during that conversation is in dispute. Karriem alleges the mayor used harsh language before hanging up on him. Unable to get the mayor back on the phone, Karriem drove downtown, obviously intending to confront the mayor.
Words were exchanged and someone put his finger in someone”s face and a skirmish ensued. Councilman Gene Taylor was present and is thought to have witnessed most of the fight. Karriem”s brother, Ahmed, showed up while the altercation was in progress. Kabir says his brother just happened to be across the street at the post office at the time. Others say Ahmed was waiting in the car for his brother.
Karriem has portrayed Smith as the protagonist. He told this newspaper he had proof Smith started the ruckus; Karriem said he had been on the phone with another unnamed councilman for the duration of the skirmish.
This was untrue, and Smith had proof that it was.
At some point during the struggle, Karriem”s cell phone activated its most recently dialed number, which happened to be Smith”s. Smith, of course, was indisposed. The call went to voicemail, and much of the skirmish was recorded on Smith”s BlackBerry. We”ve heard the recording and can report Karriem didn”t express himself in a manner he would want his mama or, for that matter, any of his constituents to hear.
The recording sounds like a fight among half a dozen cats. Coming from Karriem, we heard, “Give me my GD watch” and “This is going to make the GD paper.” Nothing Smith said was discernible.
The fight was short and though Karriem was bloodied, no one seemed seriously hurt. At the urging of his family, Karriem went to the emergency room. Karriem pressed charges, and later, so did Smith.
At the urging of friends and supporters, the two men before Tuesday”s council meeting apologized to each other, albeit halfheartedly, and agreed to drop charges. Thursday they signed documents prepared by local attorney Wil Colom to do that.
We”re not sure either man fully realizes the harm their actions have done to perceptions of the city and to people”s opinion of them. Can they recover from this? In part, that”s up to them.
Our leaders must realize bullying and intimidation is no way to run a city. In doing so, you alienate people and in time lose your ability to govern.
One question remains: Will these two men, who vote to uphold punishment of city employees for inappropriate behavior, support similar punishment for themselves? If they care anything about their credibility, they will.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.