John Earl, 72, is a local activist and photographer who is seeking election this upcoming Tuesday.
Q: How did you find yourself in public service?
A: “I really got into it around 2011, when the tornado struck. Once you start with one thing, it just kind of leads to another.
Earl worked the polls during the school board election of 2013 and noticed an unusual amount of support from students. A 2013 article by the New York Times revealed that apparent Machine influence prompted a lawsuit between one of the candidates, Cason Kirby, and the school board. Earl runs the Franklin Stove Blog, more commonly known as the “T-Town Truth Seeker,” where a more in-depth piece on this subject can be found.
“It’s not like you have people participating just because they’re interested in a particular issue, especially in this school board election. I was a poll worker. I didn’t go into it thinking it would be anything exceptional. I just thought, ‘I’m gonna do this.’
That same year, Matt Calderone ran for the now-vacant District 4 seat.
“I did talk with [former District 4 councilman] Matt Calderone two election cycles ago. He called me. He didn’t want anyone to oppose him. At that time I had talked with my people who wanted me to run, and I decided maybe it would be a futile thing.”
Q: Why did you decide to run for this District 4 City Council position?
A: “I’m doing it because I thought I was going to do it then, and I’m not expecting any outcome, but I want to throw some issues out there.”
Q: What are some key parts of your platform?
Earl has found the consequences of underage drinking to be especially concerning.
A: “The pattern, according to the CDC, is that there are problems connecting underage drinkers to binge drinking. That’s four drinks for a girl and five for a guy [in 2 hours]. It leads to violence, risky sexual behavior, all that. I have a friend whose son works at Newk’s. After the game one weekend, some students came in there drunk and started cursing out the young girls who were working. One even threw up on the floor. It would just be nice if these people could not go into a place smashed and behave in a way that does not represent the great students at this school … I would like to see UA be more interactive with students in explaining their role in the community. They can help curtail the amount of alcohol consumed, and not feel the need to drink to excess.
Earl also commented on the need for more police officers, specifically women, who can attend to female citizens who are in situations related to sexual assault. Safety was a concern of each of the candidates. Earl identified repeat offenders as his largest concern.
Eighty percent of gun violence is done by 5-10% of offenders. We need to look more into these repeated offenders, and I think the city is working on a database that can keep track of them. There’s a whole other issue with people leaving guns in unlocked cars. Then those weapons, usually handguns, are getting stolen and used.”
Earl is a frequent attendee of the City Hall meetings and noticed that their degree of formality is not as inclusive as he would like to see.
“I would like it if the council could take a second and explain some of the resolutions that they are passing in layman’s terms. That way the citizens in attendance could understand everything that’s already explained during pre-council meeting.”
Earl paralleled his slogan of “Putting Neighborhoods First!” by expressing his efforts to settle the city’s ongoing issue with short-term rentals.
“I want to see the city let the neighbors of short-term renters know, through postcards, the rules of renting and how to report anything that doesn’t follow the codes. I’ve actually proposed this before, but the city said that criminals will then know when houses are unoccupied.”
Q: What do you think is different about District 4?
A: “I had a photography business that originated in the historic district of Tuscaloosa in 1969, and then we moved to the busier center of town. It was more rowdy, and incidents with drunk students were frequent. I’ve had experiences of my own and heard from others about what they’ve seen over the years.”
While there, Earl experienced interactions between students and the local population that reinforced his understanding about how important their collaboration in the district is.
Q: Have you noticed any particular strengths or flaws with the current council?
A: “Mayor Maddox has proposed that these big housing complexes pay a public safety fee, and I think that’s important. You need to have surveillance and provide adequate police oversight.
In general, Earl wants to see more effort put into each decision the council makes. He proposed the implementation of an “ombudsman,” which he defined as a “town problem-solver” who could direct citizens to the right resources.
“Sometimes the councilmembers do what is easiest and vote accordingly, without using all of the information that is provided to them.”
Q: What would you bring to City Council that is unique?
A: “Well, I think I’ll be a bit more active than the current council members because I won’t have anything else to do with my time but the city. I will be devoting my time to nothing else but keeping track of what is going on. I’ve been following this for many years, so there won’t be much of a learning curve.”
Q: Why do you believe that you are the best fit for this position?
A: “As I’ve said, I ran a photography business for many years. It was my business, but the customers called the shots. It taught me to be cool-headed, and I had to deal with a lot of criticism. It was a stressful environment, but I had to make it work for the people.”
Q: What is your plan if you do not get elected Tuesday?
A: “I probably wouldn’t attend as many meetings as I do now. But I would stay up-to-date with different issues like Elevate Tuscaloosa. I’d also be interested in taking a look at obtaining the finance records of the other candidates. I’m also the secretary for the Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together and would continue to have a concern over the short-term rentals.
Q: Do you have a favorite place/memory/event in Tuscaloosa?
A: “The Chukker [which closed in the early 2000s] used to be my favorite place to go. I would drink coffee or soft drinks. They had great bands there from all over the world, it was incredible. There was just wonderful jazz musicians. They tore that place down, but I really enjoyed that time period.”
Q: What are your thoughts on the Greek influence in elections?
A: “When I was a poll worker, I saw some really horrible things happen. One girl came in and was about ready to burst into tears, so she left. Then suddenly, four girls brought her back in and then made her vote. When I would sit there and take in driver’s licenses and see people from states all over the country, some would sign up, do all the paperwork and leave without the ballot. I would say ‘Hey, don’t you want the ballot to vote?’ They were so out of it that they didn’t even know that they were voting, or for who or for what.”
Q: What are your thoughts on student voter turnouts?
A: “I hope that the students that are doing it are sincere and voting for the district’s wellbeing and have a good reason for doing it. Hopefully they aren’t just doing it because they were told to, or for [Greek] points or because they’ll be penalized for not voting by people who are controlled by the Machine.”
Q: While doing our research before reaching out to you, we saw some things in the local news regarding a trespassing arrest that you had in Northport. Do you have anything you would like to address or clarify about that?
A: “All I can say is, at the advice of my attorney, I went to the [Northport] council meeting and was arrested for criminal trespass because the city administrator didn’t like me. I had been a reporter for the Northport Gazette and had ‘overreported’ stories. He wanted to buy Lake Lurleen, and I had put every little scenario he had listed [in the story], and when I asked him, ‘Are you going to raise the admission charges at the gate to get in?’ He said ‘no comment.’ He said he didn’t trust me to write down anything he says… Essentially, I was fined $100 for a misdemeanor. I had unsupervised probation. I was trying to help one of the council members who had found a situation where there was $300,000 worth of unaccounted money. I wasn’t accusing anybody of misappropriation, I was just trying to find out where the money went. I wanted to find out some information. Then I was sent a letter by the city administrator telling me not to come to the council meetings. My attorneys told me to go, and I made the mistake of following that advice and was arrested.”
Editor’s Note: This interview has been updated to clarify that Earl does not personally run the short-term rental site, gamedaynextdoor.com, which is a Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together project. Earl also operated his photography business from 1969 until 2009 in a storefront, then out of his house as an on-location photographer for several years.