The city of Mobile has had the same form of government since 1985. If Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran has his way, it won’t be exactly the same much longer.
The city’s current mayor-council form of government requires consensus from a five-vote supermajority on all issues that come before the City Council, save the budget and the hiring of a council attorney.
Cochran believes the supermajority rule creates a stumbling block when it comes to effectively running the city. Specifically, Cochran believes a change in the five-vote majority would open the door to annexation.
“The goal is to create economic growth for the city and county,” Cochran said. “Annexation is the best opportunity to do that.”
The issue of annexation was defeated in November by a 4-3 vote in favor of allowing some 13,000 West Mobile residents to vote to become part of the city. The vote was along racial lines and was the culmination of weeks of debate.
“Where do you lose a vote where it’s 4-3 in favor?” Cochran asked. “Only in the city of Mobile.”
A portion of the Zoghby Act — the state law regulating the city’s current form of government — allows for the form of government to be changed through a citywide referendum, which is started with a petition of 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last municipal election. In a press conference Wednesday morning, Cochran will announc an initiative called “Grow Mobile Now,” where he is looking for roughly 5,000 citizens to sign a petition asking to amend the Zoghby Act to remove the five-vote majority. If he gets the signatures, the council would call for a referendum on the issue and the residents would vote on the change.
Alabama Code section 11-44C-91 allows for amendments to the Zoghby Act to be approached the same way. That means Cochran could achieve his goal of removing the five-vote majority without completely changing the current form of city government, or without reverting back to a city commission form of government.
While Mayor Sandy Stimpson has supported previous attempts at annexation, city spokesman George Talbot said the administration is not involved with Cochran’s group. Talbot said Stimpson decided not to engage with the group after meeting with Cochran.
“The administration is not seeking to change the form of government in the city,” Talbot said. “It’s not an initiative we’re pursuing, nor does the city want to pursue it.”
Council President Levon Manzie doesn’t support the change in government and thinks the issue will be divisive. Manzie also noted the supermajority rule was meant to protect those who share a dissenting opinion and force debate among councilors.
“I think it’s important that the supermajority and the protections inherent within the supermajority are protected at all costs,” he said. “It’s not an initiative I support at all.”
As a member of the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners, which doesn’t have a supermajority rule, Manzie remembers majority opinions being pushed through without much debate.
“A supermajority ensures that the majority from either side has to have a discussion with the minority,” he said. “I’ve served on the school board prior to the City Council. The majority ran issues down our throats.”
On the other end of the spectrum, as former chief of the Mobile Police Department (MPD), Cochran said he’s personally seen the supermajority rule lead to backroom deals being made to acquire a fifth vote on a proposal.
“It’s an ineffective form of government,” Cochran said. “I’ve seen it time and time again.”
To counter, Manzie said the council finds consensus on issues more often than not in the six years he’s been there, and even previously, dating back to 1985.
“There isn’t a long list of items and issues stalled or prevented by the supermajority,” Manzie said. “One big one that comes to mind is annexation. Since 1985, there isn’t some long list of items that have been unable to pass.”
In addition to annexation, Cochran brought up concerns over a proposal currently in front of the City Council to move in the boundaries of the three-mile police jurisdiction. Pulling back the police jurisdiction to the city’s borders and not annexing the 13,000-resident portion of West Mobile would cost Cochran’s department some $4.8 million in personnel and equipment to police the roughly 70,000 people living in the jurisdiction. Cochran has previously said he would likely end up having to recruit MPD officers and hire them as deputies to make up for the shortfall.
Cochran also argued that a failure to annex West Mobile would lead to the “destruction” of Mobile. After forming a city, Cochran said, residents of West Mobile would pull schools out of the county system.
“So goes Mobile, goes the area,” Cochran said. “We’re at a crossroads. We either grow the city now or we lose it.”
Councilman Fred Richardson said the city has made more progress in the last 35 years than at any other point in Mobile’s history because of the Zoghby Act and the current form of government.
“They want to reverse it and go back to what we used to do,” Richardson said. “Let’s go back and reverse ourselves. I would have to be out of my mind completely to agree with that.”
Richardson said Cochran was pushing the initiative for “personal reasons” to help make his department look better.
“The people in the police jurisdiction, he doesn’t want to police them,” he said. “He has a vested interest.”
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