Annistonians know him well. Three council terms and political activism have often earned him spots on The Star’s front page. Ward 3 residents who he represents are accustomed to seeing the councilman in their neighborhoods. He is popular with some, polarizing to many others, unmistakable to most.
Those topics, and others, oozed freely Sunday from Star reporter Cameron Steele’s compelling profile of Ben Little, the native South Carolinian whose booming voice and argumentative nature are frequently displayed in the City Council chambers. Steele provided a story of a teenager who starred in basketball and, when in the military, was described by his Army mentor as “a born leader.”
Yet, a picture troubling for Anniston government also emerged. Little’s interplay with staff — especially City Manager Don Hoyt — can be sprinkled with intimidation, questionable requests and unprofessional
comments. Interviews and reviewed emails paint Little as an imposing character who refuses to accept “no” for an answer from those who work for the city.
Two examples Steele provided stand out.
Two years ago, Little requested that the city pave a private parking lot for a West Anniston church. It wasn’t an illegal request; an ordinance allows city work on private land if the landowner pays for it, or if it’s for the greater good.
Hoyt resisted it for six months. Little didn’t give up.
The lot was paved in June 2010. The city paid the $3,370 bill. Today, Finance Director Danny McCullars and Public Works Director Bob Dean say that shouldn’t have happened. Dean, in fact, told The Star that Little pressured Hoyt to complete the project.
“He thinks he can intimidate me, that’s all,” Hoyt said. “That’s his way. At some point, it’s just better to get over something and go on.”
Earlier this year, Little wanted a guard rail put up in front of a Ward 3 home. In emails reviewed by The Star, Hoyt told Little that money for such a guard rail wasn’t in the budget. What followed were accusations that Anniston would not spend money on predominantly black neighborhoods and that Hoyt was a city manager only “for the few.”
The guard rail went up the next day. Hoyt gave in, choosing to issue the unbudgeted work order instead of withstanding more unfounded — and unfair — accusations from the councilman. Little won on insults, not on authority.
Little told The Star: “Every city manager, once they get in there for a while, thinks they are bigger than they are.”
In this scenario, Anniston loses. Little’s philosophy is that insults are better than compromise, that accusations are better than teamwork. He sees agendas behind every decision. He sees race-tinged scandal behind every roadblock. He sees nothing wrong with leadership whose main characteristics are intimidation and protests.
Ben Little is a complex man whose story — a veteran, a pastor — could be one of admirable leadership. Instead, it’s one of a politician who seems to enjoy division more than camaraderie.