Gulf County, Fla. — population 15,000 — has been clear of BP’s oil so far, but it has tried to get ready. The small coastal county, according to one county commissioner, has spent hundreds of thousands to protect itself, aware that the crude hitting its neighboring counties could creep closer.
But these days, when the Gulf County Board of Commissioners votes on anything BP-related, only two members of the five-person board can participate. The other three must abstain. Two of them, on top of their duties to the county, also work for BP contractors. One has a son who is helping in the cleanup.
I chanced upon this nugget of news last week when I reported about the challenges posed by the BP reimbursement process for some local governments along the Gulf Coast. When I called the board chairman, Carmen McLemore, to ask about his county’s experience with the reimbursement process, he refused to answer.
“I’m actually working with BP and they won’t allow me to talk to reporters,” he told me.
“BP told you you can’t talk to reporters?” I asked.
“No news media. Bye!” And McLemore hung up.
When I called up his fellow commissioner Billy Traylor, who also works for a BP contractor, Traylor didn’t have the same problems talking to me. So I asked whether he feels he has a conflict of interest, given that he’s getting paid both by the county and, ultimately, by BP.
“There’s been several issues come up about BP—BP this and BP that,” Traylor said, regarding some of the county commissioners’ votes. “I’ve had to abstain from some of those issues because as a subcontractor, I cannot vote."
Some people might see it as a conflict, but he doesn’t see one. “As a matter of fact,” he told me, “it is a blessing that I’m working out here. I actually know what’s going on. If I had been a commissioner sitting on the outside—and I mean no disrespect to my fellow commissioners—I would not have a clue as to what was happening as far as beach operations, as far as what’s happening on site with local hiring."
Traylor told me he initially got paid $11.25 an hour to lay boom on the beaches, and after he was promoted to crew foreman, his pay was bumped up to $19 an hour. The county commissioners are paid around $26,000 a year for the part-time office, and most hold other jobs. Traylor, who was not already employed, said he was one of the first in the county to get hired for cleanup work, but he assured me that the contracting jobs were plentiful.
“If you want a job in Gulf County and you don’t have a job, it’s your fault because the opportunity has been given out to everyone,” he said. “We comb beaches and put boom out. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s hot, sweaty work.”
I asked Traylor what the county’s experience was with getting reimbursed from BP.
“I know of no reimbursements that have been held up,” he told me. “I was just talking to our people and our staff, and there’s nothing out there that’s outstanding.”
But when I called the other two commissioners—that is, the two who can vote on BP-related matters—I heard a vastly different story.
“We’re rapidly approaching $300,000 to $400,000, and we’ve been compensated only $45,000,” Commissioner Bill Williams told me. “I’m not only frustrated. If we were to continue at the same rate right now, we will literally be out of money and have to shut our [emergency operation center] down. The anxiety and stress level is unbelievable.”
Both his facts—the $45,000 check, the outstanding claims—and his frustrations were echoed by Commissioner Warren Yeager.
“It’s tough on a small county like what we have here,” Yeager told me. “It has been very difficult and frustrating that you can’t get to the right people who can give you answers.”
Along the Gulf Coast, these concerns aren’t uncommon. And neither are the anecdotes about the instances when BP and the government become hard to distinguish.
Mac McClelland of Mother Jones noted last month that in Louisiana, off-duty police officers are allowed to work for BP while in uniform, and some have. A ProPublica photographer, as you may have heard, was stopped by police near BP’s Texas City refinery and—for reasons no one has explained—his information was turned over to BP.
Energized by the fact that another commissioner who was also a BP subcontractor had spoken with me, I prepared to call Commissioner McLemore again, just to ask about why he can’t chat, given that BP’s Media Access Policy says anyone and everyone can talk freely to reporters. He didn’t sound happy to hear from me again.
“I’m a politician. I’m chairman of the Board of County Commissioners,” he said. “I don’t need no problems or want no problems. I just want to work and go home.”
I asked him about what kind of work he does for the BP contractor. He started to answer, then stopped.
“I gotta go, they're hollering at me,” McLemore said. He quickly hung up.
When I called McLemore back this morning to verify the BP contractor he works for, he confirmed that he worked for Eagle-SWS. When I asked him if it was SWS or BP that told him he couldn't speak with reporters, without another word, he hung up on me again. I've called and spoken with Eagle-SWS to ask about its media policy for employees, but the company has yet to get back to me with a response.