Cocaine charges can’t conquer councilman
By Stephen Dethrage
On a December evening defined by drizzle, television crews and anxious reporters crowded into an otherwise empty Tuscaloosa City Hall when nothing particularly special was on the agenda. They all came looking for a man who was not there.
They stood and sat and waited with bated breath and cameras rolling, eager for the moment when someone would address the issue that drew them to the building like coyotes to carrion. They wanted to see a broken and humiliated fool stumble through a shamed explanation of his arrest and the actions that led to it, then resign from his post as a city councilman in what seemed to be an appropriately climactic end to the drama that had suddenly surrounded the man and the council.
Instead, while all the cameras quietly captured the staccato symphony of every reporter’s clicking pen and a dull end to a dull meeting, they found Tuscaloosa city councilman Kip Tyner, who refused to give them what they came to see.
On Dec. 2, four days before the council meeting, Tyner had been arrested on charges of possession of crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia in the apartment of one of his constituents, Darren Dwayne Cooper.
Eight months prior, though, in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated his city, the councilman saw 60 percent of his district damaged or destroyed, making it the most damaged district in the nation after the storm. Tyner carried the weight of that desolation squarely on his shoulders. He bore the burdens of loss and death, of desperation, agony and need. Alberta City, his kingdom, was in pieces, and it fell to him to pick them up again, no matter how heavy they were, and make the jigsaw whole again.
The media failed to understand the man. After standing under that crushing load, Tyner was too dedicated to his district and his people to allow less than half a gram of cocaine and the resulting questions about his character to be the burdens that finally brought him to his knees.
Tyner denied that he had anything to do with the drugs he was arrested for possessing, and said his mistake was being in Cooper’s apartment, where the presence of drugs opened him up to charges of possession.
“I was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Tyner said. “I’m not addicted to anything.”
Tyner said, though, that the conflict and controversy he has faced since have been worth it, and have made him a stronger and better leader.
“The trials I’ve faced, they’re worth it more now than ever before,” Tyner said. “The feeling I get now from the people is ‘we need you more than we ever have,’ and I’m finding out I need them, too.”
Tyner drew the strength to swallow his pride and face the charges against him from the people of his district who, even before his leadership and service following the tornado, revered him. He was first elected as Alberta’s councilman in 1997, and made Tuscaloosa voting history by earning 92 percent of his district’s vote in his most recent contested race for re-election in 2005.
“After the storm, my people, they were unbelievable,” Tyner said. “I realized one thing: they were depending on me. They were depending on me greatly, and that was a burden, but, somehow, it’s also where I got my strength.”
On April 27, 2011, Alberta and its councilman faced the full force of the EF-4 tornado that ripped through Alabama and left changed places in its wake. Dozens were dead in Tuscaloosa alone, and that loss of life hurt Tyner in a way he didn’t know how to handle.
The first living person he saw after emerging from the shelter he took was an elderly black man, who wandered the streets aimlessly, wailing. Tyner followed the man at a distance, worried that in his post-traumatic shock he might hurt someone, and after a few minutes, watched the man fall to his knees, unable to keep walking under the weight of his loss.
“He fell to the ground and started crying, unbelievably,” Tyner said. “I put my arm around him and found out he had been on a couch with his two grandchildren and his wife. The tornado blew them out of the house, killed them, but left him there. I couldn’t take that, I became numb then. I think I just went into shock.
“I walked the streets that whole night and the next day. At one point, someone stopped me and told me how sorry they were that I’d lost my house. Hell, I didn’t even know my house was gone. I just saw all the death.”
Tyner recalled passing the site where a Texaco station stood before the storm which served in the immediate aftermath as a makeshift morgue. There, among the seven or eight bodies on the ground, he saw the corpses of an 80-year-old woman and her 3-year-old grandson beside each other. Nearby, two UA students lay dead.
“It was just horrible,” Tyner said. “It was a war zone.”
The storm did not pick favorites. Although Tyner and his family escaped the devastation with their lives, nothing else remained untouched by the twister’s cruel hand.
“Kip suffered a lot of loss after that storm,” said Vincent Nero, vice president of Alberta City Together. “But that never stopped the man from being out there on the ground helping people, and we’d come to expect that from him. He just overlooked what happened to himself, and helped others through their loss.”
“I’d lost everything except my life or family members,” Tyner said. “I lost my house, my office and car, my mother’s house. I had nothing and I realized what these people were going through.”
It was this empathy, combined with a first name familiarity with almost all of his constituents that allowed Tyner to serve his people so well after the storm.
“Since 1997, Mr. Tyner has been the face of Alberta,” said Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox. “Kip’s style is not necessarily to be involved with the details or the politics, but to be involved with the people on the ground. His knowledge of everyone that lives on every street corner served his district well, because he was able to make sure we got resources out to every single person that needed them.
“If anyone could have a deep understanding of what the people of his district went through, it was him, because he was experiencing that same turmoil. You could not tell Kip Tyner that he didn’t know what you were going through because he absolutely did.”
It was these factors that kept Tyner in the devastated Alberta area for days after the tornado, and not downtown in meetings or in front of cameras. Instead, he worked with survivors, rescuers and the National Guard to make sure those in his district that lost their lives were found, and everyone else was given food, water and shelter.
“People thought I was dead,” he said. “They had me on the missing or killed list for two days or more, because I just couldn’t leave the area. I didn’t want to be down at those press conferences at City Hall and be on the nightly news. Photo ops, god, those were the last things on my mind. I couldn’t leave. There’s no way. I was absolutely consumed.”
In the months that followed, Tyner focused on the recovery and rebuilding his home and his district. The tornado caused millions of dollars in damage and crushed a great deal of the legacy Tyner built as a councilman, devastating Alberta Elementary School, the district’s new police precinct, streetscapes down University Boulevard and a drainage project that Tyner said took a decade to complete.
“It just seemed to follow every project that we’d done,” he said.
By December, tons of debris had been removed from the area and projects had begun across the district to rebuild. Tyner’s leadership, though, seemed to be at an end when on December 2, he was arrested while visiting one of his constituents, in whose apartment police found 0.4 grams of crack cocaine.
After posting his $18,000 bail, the camera crews that he avoided after the tornado began to actively seek him out and his mugshot appeared on every local news station. Tyner said it took a lot to return to City Hall and continue to serve Alberta, but ultimately the support of his colleagues and constituents, who sent him more than 5,000 text messages and emails pledging their support despite his arrest, pushed him to find the courage to do so.
“The support of the people has been absolutely remarkable,” Tyner said. “I’ve teared up quite a bit from people’s love and support and encouragement. It’s something that through this horrible adversity it will make me 10 times stronger than I ever thought I could be.”
“Of course we were disappointed in the choices he made leading to his arrest,” said Kelvin W. Croom, the senior pastor of College Hill Baptist Church in Alberta. “That’s a setback for us and for Kip, but the beauty is that a setback gives a man the chance for a comeback. We can look back through history at our presidents and see some bad choices made, even in our lifetimes, and yet we were always able to put that behind what they contributed to their people, what they did in office, and Kip has and will continue to provide good leadership in the Alberta area.”
Tyner decided to move past the arrest and charges against him and not let it affect his active role in the community. He went to church, ate in a public restaurant, hosted his weekly television show and shamelessly attended the meeting of the city council only four days after his arrest.
“It was not easy continuing to serve on the council, I can assure you of that,” Tyner said. “It was embarrassing. It was humiliating, knowing I was not in possession of drugs, but unfortunately that was the charge, because of being in the same household where apparently there were drugs.”
In lieu of a trial or plea, Tyner entered a year-long diversion program called C.L.E.A.N. on Dec. 30. The program, which meets several times a week, is offered to first time offenders and, on completion of the program, strikes the charges against its members from their records. C.L.E.A.N. Tyner said, involves regular drug testing, and his results have been clean in every instance.
Tyner has not missed a meeting of the program yet, and hopes to complete it this year, maybe even ahead of schedule. After that, along with the rebuilding of Alberta, he said he looked forward to becoming stronger through the adversity this arrest brought, and to running for re-election in 2013. He hopes that the same people who broke the city’s election records in 2005 and continued to support him after his arrest would allow him the opportunity to continue the rebuilding process he has worked with the city and state to begin.
“I have no reason to resign,” Tyner said. “I’m going to look at this as a great challenge and opportunity, and be very positive about it. I want to get this behind me and then move on to my full responsibilities not only in my business, but also my duties as a councilman.”
His focus, now, is as it always has been: to rebuild the district he loved, led and saw destroyed.
“Kip just needs to continue to be Kip Tyner. We’re here to support him,” Nero said. “He just has to make sure that Alberta City, that all of us, come back better and stronger than what was before.”