The Mobile City Council enters 2018 without a duly elected leader, almost two months after the seven councilors and Mayor Sandy Stimpson were inaugurated for new four-year terms.
While the apparent impasse might suggest larger, underlying issues facing city leaders who must work together for the foreseeable future, Councilwoman Bess Rich characterized it as a minor setback.
“I don’t think we’re fighting about it,” Rich said. “We’ll work it out.”
She added that the squabble is not impacting the business of the city.
At issue is a continued debate over which of two council factions will gain control if a president is chosen.
In previous years, the council has conducted a straw poll of sorts to decide which member should serve as president. In a meeting held before its organizational meeting, the council would decide the issue before voting unanimously in public for the councilor who received a simple majority of votes.
An Alabama Press Association attorney has questioned the legality of those past meetings where a quorum of members met in private. Given the contested nature of the presidential vote this year, councilors decided not to have the meeting. The debate started when Councilman Fred Richardson received four votes for president to Councilwoman Gina Gregory’s three during the public organizational meeting.
Shortly after former council attorney Jim Rossler told councilors he believed it took five votes to elect a president to the council, he was replaced by Wanda Cochran. Richardson has previously said he feels the rules were changed just as he was about to become president.
Cochran has since affirmed that according to the Zoghby Act, the law establishing Mobile’s current form of government, it takes five votes to elect a new council president. Since neither Richardson nor Gregory received five votes, no president has been elected.
Compromise gone awry
In comments made to followers and friends on Facebook, Richardson said he considered supporting current Vice President Levon Manzie for president, but has since decided not to.
“Unfortunately for [Manzie], though, we soon learned that the votes the other group was promising Councilman Manzie were only if he could get another member to support one of them as council vice president,” Richardson wrote. “When another member was unwilling to support one of them for fear it would give the administration control over council, they withdrew their support for Councilman Manzie as president.”
In an interview with Lagniappe, Richardson said he changed his mind when a coalition of Gregory, Councilman John Williams and Councilman Joel Daves told him they’d support Manzie if one of them was elected vice president.
Richardson said that would have given Stimpson too much power over the council.
“With John, Gina, or Joel, that’s like picking Sandy Jr.,” Richardson said. “I’m not voting for anyone for president, except Fred Richardson.”
Richardson mentioned comments Stimpson made in Decmber in support of Manzie as council president.
Williams called Richardson’s Facebook post “not worth the paper it’s written on.”
“Like a lot of things and a lot of comments, it’s based on a lot of fluff,” he said. “It’s absolutely not true.”
Instead, Williams characterized the discussions as an attempt to compromise and end the dispute.
“The three of us [meaning he, Gregory and Daves] were willing to move on and let the side of four [Richardson, Manzie, Councilman C.J. Small and Councilwoman Bess Rich] have the presidency.”
Discussions broke down, Williams said, when it came time to select a council member to serve as vice president, with Manzie moving up to president. He said the debate has the feel of partisan politics, even though it’s local.
“I was willing to take the position [of vice president],” Williams said. “So, we would have balanced leadership.”
Williams said discussions stopped when the other side wouldn’t compromise.
“We weren’t willing to hand over everything,” he said.
He added he still supports Manzie for president. Daves had no comment on the issue.
In an email, Gregory said she still supports Manzie for president.
“Levon has had my support for president since before we went to Charlotte for the National League of Cities City Summit,” she wrote. “It is quite obvious that neither Fred nor I have the five votes needed to be elected president, and a compromise is needed. Since being elected VP, Levon has demonstrated that he is ready and capable to fill the president’s position.”
Stimpson also supports Manzie for president, as he told councilors during a pre-conference meeting late last year. Stimpson said Manzie has done an “incredible job” as the acting chair. He added he wished for a quick resolution to the impasse.
At the time, Richardson seemed to take exception to Stimpson’s involvement and still does. Following Stimpson’s comments Richardson cited state law.
“The Zoghby Act makes it a removable offense for a council member to tell the mayor who to hire,” Richardson said. “He should stay out of our business.”
Williams said he wishes Stimpson hadn’t gotten involved, but also argued the council doesn’t necessarily need a president.
“I don’t think [Richardson] is suited to be president,” Williams said. “I don’t think he’s suited to be the next mayor.”
Former council President Reggie Copeland said he wished councilors could settle the impasse in order to “move forward.”
“It’s not affecting business, but it leads to talk,” he said.
As a compromise, Copeland said he has suggested letting Gregory serve for two years and then let Richardson serve for two years.
Is a president needed?
In case anyone has to fill in for Stimpson, even temporarily, Williams said he’s comfortable with the governor deciding. Rich also said she doesn’t believe the lack of a president is impacting city business. While a president must appoint committees, Manzie currently has the authority to appoint ad-hoc, or temporary, committees.
“It really doesn’t matter as long as we get the job done,” Rich said. “To me, we’re doing a good job conducting the business of the city without a president.”
In most cases, a special election would determine who would succeed Stimpson if he couldn’t serve out his term.
Richardson, on the other hand, feels the presidency is a necessary position. For one, Richardson said, an elected president has to pick permanent committee assignments for a term. When needed, Manzie has convened ad-hoc committees. Richardson also believes that without a strong president, Stimpson would have too much control over the council.