When the City Council and the Mayor fight, it’s the citizens that end up the ultimate losers. In December of 2018, Mayor Sandy Stimpson sued the City Council for what he believed to be violations of the governing document of the city of Mobile, known as the Zoghby Act. This past week, we found out that the City Council has countersued the Mayor listing even more violations of that same Act. The kicker to all of this is both agree that the Zoghby Act is outdated, vague and confusing and needs updating and these legal actions are just standing in the way of the Council and Mayor working together with our local legislative delegation to make those necessary updates and changes to the law.
The Mayor’s P
Stimpson argues that the council overstepped their authority when it ‘rehired’ on a performance contract the person who had been performing spokeswoman and communications duties for the council under the direction and umbrella of the mayor’s communication department. The mayor is correct that the Zoghby Act only gives the council the authority to hire two people for the city, the city clerk and their council attorney. However, the City Council holds the position that because the spokeswoman was rehired under a ‘performance contract’ the law does allow for them to do that because the act gives the city council the sole authority to ratify contracts, which the mayor must decide then if he’s going to sign or veto.
This really isn’t a dispute about the job performance of the spokeswoman, because up until her termination by the mayor, everybody generally agreed she was doing a good job in her role as communications coordinator for the council. People generally feel that this termination was in retaliation for the council changing some of the Mayor’s funding priorities in his FY 2019 city budget that he vehemently disagreed with and the fact that the council would not go along with his agreement with the University of South Alabama for city funding for the new on-campus football stadium in the time frame he wanted. Of course, the mayor’s office will argue that her termination was a result of her using the city-wide email system to send out a political statement on the half of the council. This reasoning is ubiquitous at best because there was no dissatisfaction with her job performance expressed before this point.
The Council’s Position
The council has countersued the mayor alleging that he is not disbursed funds that they specifically allocated for specific purposes in their FY 2019 budget. They also accused the Mayor of transferring money from one line item in the budget to another without the authorization of the council, which would be prohibited by the Zoghby Act if the transfer was over $7,500. Furthermore, they alleged that the Mayor has abused his authority to hire staff outside of the merit system by hiring employees that should be in the merit system and paying them more than is allowed by the act.
The first allegation stems from the fact that in their FY 2019 budget the council reduced expenditures to the Gulf Quest National Maritime Museum and an urban blight management program and gave that money, in the amounts of $500,000, to the city-owned Ladd Peebles Stadium and the Mayor has not disbursed those funds yet, Even though we are almost to the end of the fiscal year 2019. During the discussion about the city giving money to the new University of South Alabama campus football stadium, the council, and the city received feedback from the community saying that they would prefer that the stadium be refurbished instead of demolished and rebuilt. That transfer of expenditures to the stadium was in response to that outcry.
How To Change Going Forward
All of this infighting and legal arguments over the last year in the city of Mobile has not been productive. It all stems from a piece of legislation that is outdated and broken and needs to be updated. This infighting is only holding this council and mayor back from working together to make the necessary changes to the Zogby Act and move this city in a positive direction.
The first change needs to clarify the total amount of money that the mayor can spend on his administrative staff, that is not considered a part of the merit system and is solely his hires and his hires only. That amount can be any amount that the mayor and council agree that is reasonable and can get passed by the Legislature. Once that amount is set, that is all the budget the Mayor should have hire employees.
The next change needs to be is remove the stipulation that after 15 days the budget becomes official regardless if the mayor signs it or not. There is a veto provision in the Zoghby Act which the City Council can either sustain his veto or override it. If the mayor chooses to veto the budget and the council overrides it, then it becomes effective without the Mayor’s signature. This problem arose this current fiscal year when I approached the Council to ask why the mayor hasn’t signed the budget. That is when it was disclosed by the administration that changes were being made that the Council didn’t know about, which is probably why they accused the Mayor of the line item transfers in their countersuit.
Finally, the Zoghby Act needs to be amended to clarify that the staff of the City Clerk are merit-based employees that report directly to the Clerk and Council communications need to be a position that is created in that department. All the employees of the Clerk’s office can be merit system employees, but they need to be independent of the administration and know that their jobs are secure every time a dispute arises between the Mayor and city council. Otherwise, it will difficult to recruit and maintain the highly talented employees that work for the city.
Frankly, all this headache and frustration and animosity towards each other at the top of city leadership could be avoided. Thousands of dollars in legal fees could be saved, as we the taxpayers are paying for the lawyers on both sides if everyone would personal feelings aside and just work for the betterment of the city.