By a vote of four to three, the Mobile City Council rejected the appointment of former Mayor Sam Jones to the board of directors at the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service May 6.
Councilman Fred Richardson, who forwarded the nomination, warned the rejection “could mark the beginning of deterioration of crude relationships on this council.”
Aside from Richardson, only Bess Rich would comment about the vote. She sided with John Williams, Joel Daves and council president Gina Gregory to defeat the appointment.
“The reasons behind my vote are similar to those I had when I voted against Barbara Drummond,” Rich said, “It was very difficult as an elected official to establish communication with Mayor Jones. He forbid councilmembers to talk directly to department heads. As a result this made my position as a council representative very difficult and at times not effective or efficient. Additionally, I am now finding out although I had often asked questions regarding our fiscal state of affairs that were present at the time Mayor Jones presented his 2014 budget that I truly feel he should have disclosed.”
Richardson nominated Jones the day after it was announced Moody’s Investors Service was reviewing the city’s 2012-2013 financial performance for a possible downgrade to its credit rating. Within the past week, it’s also been revealed that Jones oversaw a majority of the $247 million that was transferred out of the city’s capital fund over the past decade, and waived more than $3 million in rental revenues last year alone. On New Years Eve, the city revealed a $4 million deficit in the general fund budget.
While councilmen C.J. Small and Levon Manzie voted for the nomination, both where relatively quiet about it afterwards. But Richardson appears to remain undeterred.
“Nominating someone to represent my office and my district on the water board is my prerogative alone,” Richardson said. “I will take it a step further and I will put the reputation and qualifications of my nominee against any person appointed to the MAWSS board and any person serving on this board.”
Richardson said in his 18 years on the council, board appointments were never questioned and since Jones was defeated, he would block any other appointments that may come before him. It would require the help of two other council members for Richardson to carry through on his threat, however.
“I will not take it kindly if council members from another district involve themselves in whom I try to select. For anybody to believe they can interfere with board appointments and suffer absolutely no consequences, they are seriously misguided. If there is any opposition let it be known I will reciprocate at the proper time,” Richardson said, threatening to make potential appointees disappear like Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
Rich, who was a MAWSS board member for seven years before becoming a city councilwoman, reminded Richardson it was “privilege” to nominate an appointee and not a right. She called MAWSS a particularly “vital” agency, adding that while each councilperson has an appointment, those appointees don’t serve the district, they serve the entire city.
MAWSS, which serves more than 89,000 accounts, counted more than $334.4 million in assets at the end of 2013, including $91 million in operating revenues.
Based on the recommendation of the police department, the city is exploring legal options it may have to temporarily suspend the business license of any establishment that knowingly allows the sale of spice on the premises. Police Chief James Barber said in a two-week period, there has been 65 emergency room admissions and two deaths blamed on the drug. Chemical analysis has determined there is a particularly “bad batch” of the drug circulating through the region that is “10 times more potent” than historical samples.
Council attorney Jim Rossler said there would be an issue with due process, but Barber urged the council to consider it is as public safety issue and create an expedited process for review.
“This is a major health issue occurring within our community,” he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently reviewing flood damage in Mobile county to determine if the city and county meets the $1.5 million threshold to receive federal aid. Mobile County was not among the five counties that initially qualified, but could be added to the disaster declaration depending on FEMA’s evaluation.
In the meantime, the council approved emergency repairs for significant damage to local roadways. Among the damage that will be targeted is a road and pipe failure on McGregor Avenue with a cost estimate of $125,000 and a time frame of four weeks. A road and culvert failure on Girby Road is expected to cost $200,000 and take three months to repair, while a road and sidewalk failure on Museum Drive is expected to cost as much as $100,000 and be completed in six weeks.
“Homes, bridges and streets across the city suffered significant damage as a result of the storms,” Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. “We are continuing to conduct damage assessments to determine if we will qualify for federal aid. Meanwhile, we are committed to meeting the needs of our citizens as quickly as possible.”
During a council comment period, Bess Rich read a prepared statement about her concerns that a recent Planning Commission rezoning application was corrupt. Rich said the council will hear an appeal about the rezoning of property on East Drive owned by the Islamic Society of Mobile.
Apparently, after the planning commission and the city council voted against a redevelopment plan for the site last year, it became the subject of a justice department investigation. When the application was re-submitted, Rich was told by council attorney Rossler to support it, because she would not be defended by the city if she was named in a discrimination lawsuit resulting from the application being denied a second time. Rich said she subsequently learned of similar threats to other elected officials and staff members.
According to Rich, at a planning commission meeting April 17, the attorney representing the neighborhood objecting to the conditions of the development asked for time but was denied and the planning commission voted in favor of the applicant. Afterward, Rossler told Rich his initial opinion was wrong and Rich would in fact be protected by her capacity as a legislator.
“I am concerned that the integrity of the public’s right to a fair and open process may have been breached April 17,” Rich said. “I am concerned that threats were rendered that may have resulted in a chilling effect of constitutionally protected speech.”
Rich called for a delay on hearing the appeal pending an internal investigation by the district attorney or attorney general.
“I am requesting that an investigation be initiated to learn what was told to the planning staff and the planning commissioners, find out who was involved in the appeal to the justice department; what was the specific complaint and what was the outcome of any investigation by the justice department. Did this justice department complaint prevent an open and fair hearing before the Planning Commission? Finally, did any of this information or threats of a lawsuit prevent freedom of speech or bias any planning staff actions or Commissioners’ vote on the development? I feel very strongly about the circumstances surrounding this issue and that these facts must be investigated to insure fairness in our city’