The Mobile City Council and administration officials are at odds over a proposed rule change that would officially prohibit Mayor Sandy Stimpson from placing any item on the weekly meeting agenda that didn’t first gain support from at least one councilor.
After a lengthy discussion, the council voted to hold over the matter for three weeks to allow the council’s Rules Committee to review it and resolve any differences. The vote is now scheduled for Tuesday, March 22.
Stimpson said he was personally offended by the proposed rule change.
“For 30 years, [Mobile’s] mayor has had the right to place an item on the agenda,” Stimpson told councilors during a pre-conference meeting Tuesday. “It is a slap in the face to tell me I can’t do what every other mayor has done … ”
Chief among the concerns of administration officials is the effect the proposal would have on Stimpson’s ability to communicate with the public during an open meeting, city attorney Ricardo Woods said. While the mayor is permitted to speak at council meetings, Woods said having an item on the agenda opens it up to public scrutiny, where more information is available.
“Yes, the Zoghby Act allows the mayor to speak on any issue, but how are you able to talk about it if it’s not on the agenda?” he asked. “It’s limiting what the mayor is able to do and how he communicates to the public. What you change with this law, you change his ability to put something on the agenda and trumpet it through, push it through.”
Councilors and council attorney Jim Rossler see it differently. In writing the ordinance, Rossler said, it wouldn’t prevent Stimpson from discussing items he wants addressed during a council meeting, or communicating to the public.
“The mayor can stand up and say whatever he wants,” Rossler said. “He has about four people working in communications for him to communicate with the public.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich, who is a member of the Rules Committee, defended the ordinance, saying it was intended to increase communication and transparency, not limit it. She explained it would be much easier to ask a councilor about a particular item he or she might be sponsoring rather than bother Stimpson or his office about it.
“For me, it’s a better communication tool,” Rich said.
Council President Gina Gregory said the measure encourages support of Stimpson’s initiatives.
“If you talk to the council beforehand it’s much easier to have something pass,” she said.
For about nine months, the council and administration have had a handshake agreement through which the mayor’s office would seek co-sponsorship from a councilor before having an item placed on the agenda. Under current rules, Stimpson can place an item on the agenda without council consent.
The agreement led to what Woods called an “ugly” situation late last year when Stimpson Chief of Staff Colby Cooper was accused of intimidating and threatening the jobs of employees within the Administrative Services Department for failing to place the contract for Riverside Ice on the agenda.
City Clerk Lisa Lambert confirmed in an email message Tuesday afternoon that she and Gregory met with the mayor over incident that involved “conflicting directives” given to a city employee.
The city’s legal department conducted depositions of six people, including Stimpson, and found Cooper had done nothing wrong.
Woods used Riverside Ice as an example of an item pushed by Stimpson that wouldn’t have had support initially from any councilor. Gregory argued Riverside Ice had support early on and was eventually approved by a majority of councilors.
Woods said the proposal would also cause a legal backlog, as employees will have to seek a co-sponsor on any of Stimpson’s initiatives. He added that it also could have ramifications for the way the city handles the budget.
Councilman Fred Richardson said the proposal would not prevent Stimpson from presenting the budget to councilors.
“The Zoghby Act says when the budget ought to be presented to council,” Richardson said. “We determine when to put it on the agenda.”
In addition, Richardson said the action would prevent Stimpson from taking credit from an item that was proposed by the council. As an example, Richardson said, Stimpson recently sent out a statement that he was sponsoring sidewalk restoration.
Richardson pointed out that the money for the sidewalks came out of $21 million in capital improvement funds split among council districts. Further, he said, the funds were available through the extension of a sales tax increase Stimpson opposed.
“The mayor can say he sponsors an item when he opposed it initially,” Richardson said. “I want credit for what I’ve done.”
Councilman Joel Daves said the capital infrastructure projects were the result of a team effort between the mayor and council. The funds are available not only because of the sales tax renewal and extension, but also because of savings in the general fund proposed by the mayor.
The rule change was originally discussed at a Rules Committee meeting in June of last year. The meeting followed a vigorous discussion over an administration proposal to ban the feeding of squirrels at city parks. Woods, not Stimpson, appeared on the agenda as the sponsor on that item. The unpopular proposal led to much public scrutiny and was eventually tabled by councilors.
At the time, Councilman John Williams, Rules Committee chairman, called the incident “the straw,” indicating it was the moment he decided to bring this up to his fellow councilors.
Williams, who was not present during Tuesday’s pre-conference discussion of the proposal, said he’d heard about it and called the administration’s comments “disingenuous.”
In a statement released at 3:41 p.m. Tuesday, councilors said they vowed to continue to work with the administration. The statement also clarified some misconceptions about plan being circulated through social media. In the statement, councilors said that not only was Stimpson allowed to place ordinances and resolution on the agenda with council support, but he’s given time during each meeting to speak to the public.
“It is unfortunate that these inaccurate posts and tweets have been so widely shared, and caused so much concern in our city,” Rich wrote in the statement. “Transparency is paramount, and making sure our citizens have correct information about their city government cannot be emphasized enough.”
Williams will soon be announcing a date and time for a Rules Committee meeting on the subject, according to the statement.