Just as it looked like it was within his grasp, the silver cup of the Mobile City Council presidency may have slipped from Fred Richardson’s hand once again.
For the past three weeks it appeared a junta had been cobbled together from unlikely allies that would put the District 1 councilman in the position he has craved. And on Monday the votes aligned just as Government Plaza sources had said they would — with Richardson, Levon Manzie and C.J. Small being joined by “Dr. No” Bess Rich to upend sitting president Gina Gregory.
Only it didn’t work out quite as planned, with Richardson finally nabbing the gavel after 20 years on the council. District 4 Councilman John Williams, a military man used to following rules to a T, threw a wrench into the machinery when he pointed out state law requires the president to have at least five supporters in order to take the council’s top spot. Fred had only four. Gregory, for her part, could garner only three “yea” votes, and the whole thing hit a brick wall.
The need for a supermajority had been the latest bit of scuttlebutt to seep out a few days prior to the vote. Everyone had assumed a vote as seemingly perfunctory as determining who would run the council meetings would certainly turn on a simple majority. But as is the situation with most things determined by the “Zoghby Act,” it turns out you need five votes to move the ball.
The council’s own attorney Jim Rossler agreed with Williams’ reading of the law and ended up with his head on the block. He was quickly fired on the spot once Fred’s coup had failed — ironically on a simple majority vote cast by the same four who couldn’t get Richardson into the president’s chair — and replaced by Wanda Cochran.
While the move seemed rather orchestrated, there had been no leaks about Rossler being part of the collateral damage, and it came as a surprise even to some members of the council.
So as of this writing the council sits with no president. Manzie, who was voted in as vice president unanimously, is the de facto prez until, or if ever, the impasse is broken. Richardson is still pinning hopes on Cochran reading the law differently, or perhaps taking the whole thing to circuit court. Unless he can win the legal battle or convince one of the “nay” voters to switch, he’s headed back to City Council gen pop instead of to the president’s seat.
The same fate awaits Gregory, who after four years as council president appears even further away from the presidency than Richardson. Even the two votes she received besides her own appear to have been courtesy of political expediency, as both Williams and District 5 Councilman Joel Daves would have faced the wrath of their constituents if they’d agreed to put Richardson in the chair.
Some of the unhappiness of this affair hinges on a strange legal technicality that essentially dissolves the City Council at midnight the day before they are reinstalled. This has allowed them to meet secretly without violating the open meetings law to hash out who will be president. Then they come in and vote unanimously for that person.
Richardson complained Gregory was elected on a 4-3 vote — but that was apparently behind closed doors. The official vote was 7-0. So “tradition” has really hinged on an effort to be opaque.
Assuming the reading of the Zoghby Act is correct — and its namesake and co-author Mary Zoghby says it is — and five votes are needed, it seems highly unlikely either side is going to budge when it comes to handing either Fred or Gina the gavel. If that is the case, the most obvious solution is to vote Manzie in as president, choose another veep and get back to work.
While Richardson may feel bitter about the presidency slipping through his fingers again, he really has no one to blame but himself. His wild use of taxpayer money to fund his own penchant for globetrotting has left him unpopular with those who don’t like wasteful spending. Richardson has also been a lightning rod for racial matters, which has created dislike for him among much of Mobile’s white citizenry. So even if the holdouts wanted to vote for Fred, the political backlash would be too great.
Although that didn’t stop Rich. In this failed attempt to put Richardson in place, Rich no doubt burned a tremendous amount of political goodwill with her constituents. One of her political strong points over the years has been strictly sticking to her particular set of values, which has always included fiscal responsibility and voicing the will of her district. But over the past couple of years she’s broken with that at times — supporting a fiscally outlandish soccer complex pushed by her political pal, County Commissioner Connie Hudson; urging the city to simply pay the county $500,000 in a rent dispute the city seems poised to win; and now voting to put Richardson a heartbeat away from the mayor’s office. Four years ago suggesting Rich would do any of those things would have seemed laughable, but people change, I suppose.
Once it was decided Gregory needed to go, the members of the council had to know any attempt to install another white president would be perceived as unfair to a majority of the city. By the same token, the idea of promoting the most fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants-as-long-as-the-city-pays-for-the-ticket councilor to a spot where he could pontificate weekly on whatever thought entered his head also was a no-go.
In the end, the City Council has fallen back-asswards into what now seems to be the only logical answer — give the group’s youngest member the gavel and let him have a shot at leading. Fighting over the position or, God forbid, pursuing legal avenues to further attempt to ramrod Richardson into the job would only be a distraction and a waste of time and money. Not to mention it would create more disharmony.
Regardless, it’s been a bizarre way to kick off a new term at City Hall. Hopefully it’s not a precursor of things to come.
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