Members of the Mobile City Council on Tuesday publicly and very vocally accused Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration of firing council spokeswoman Marion Steinfels for political reasons related to their cuts in the 2019 budget.
“She’s a casualty of our budget process,” Council Vice President Levon Manzie said at the conclusion of a pre-conference meeting. “She should not be the lamb sacrificed because of our stalemate.”
Steinfels, who was appointed by the mayor through a deal struck with the council, was relieved of her duties Thursday, Oct. 11. That day, she said she was blindsided by the phone call from city attorney Ricardo Woods informing her of the firing.
Councilors on Tuesday said the firing was a result of amendments they made to Stimpson’s proposed 2019 budget. Those changes included a cut of roughly $500,000 to nine staff salaries at GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico to replace funding Stimpson had cut from the library. The changes also included a cut of more than $500,000 to the mayor’s innovation team.
Further, the council removed most of a roughly $250,000 increase for the mayor’s communications staff and cut the fund used to hire outside attorneys by nearly $800,000. The council redirected the money to a variety of priorities, including the restoration of level funding for all performance contracts cut by 10 percent in Stimpson’s proposal.
Councilors implied Steinfels’ termination was retaliation for these cuts, despite the administration being warned before the moves were made. Councilman John Williams reiterated he had asked the administration on multiple occasions to help find funding in the budget to satisfy both sides. He said a total of three pleas for help over two and a half weeks were ignored.
“We said ‘please help us so we don’t cause a negative impact on anything you want to do,’” Williams said. “ … We made the cuts. There were no surprises.”
Williams said the council did not make any “abrupt” and “unjustified” terminations as a result of the budget process.
“We have some disagreements,” he said. “We have some serious disagreements, but it’s not personal.”
Councilors also discussed the body’s need for some autonomy when it comes to hiring employees. Councilman C.J. Small said members of the Birmingham City Council each have an assistant, while here they are only asking for one additional employee to work for all seven members.
“We only have one person to communicate with the citizens,” Small said. “We’re not as transparent without Marion.”
While he agreed with his colleagues that Steinfels had done excellent work in her position, Councilman Joel Daves said not only the administration deserves blame.
Daves mentioned an earlier request from the council to move roughly $2 million used for consultant fees to the capital improvement budget. Daves suggested the cuts in the proposed budget could have been in response to the council request.
“The city made some cuts,” he said. “ … The administration was criticized for those cuts and the council suggested different cuts. If I’m the administration, I’m asking ‘where does this stop?’”
Daves added the administration and council had multiple discussions about GulfQuest and the “indivisibility” of cuts there. The council then defunded positions within the administration, Daves said, which is “effectively firing the people in those positions.” Daves added that some of the councilors bemoaning Steinfels’ firing also voted to fire former council attorney Jim Rossler without warning.
Councilors said they are willing to continue to work on these issues with members of the administration, but asked that Steinfels be hired back as soon as possible.
“We want her back,” Manzie said. “We’re set to move past the stalemate we’re in. It’s not helpful to anybody.”
Other councilors discussed the importance of both branches working together.
“If we don’t work together, we’re a disaster,” Williams said. “It’s time to be real, be people and be good. It’s time to be what we say we are.”
City spokesman George Talbot said the administration is willing to work with councilors on the issues.
“The door is wide open,” he said. “We’re working with them every day on many issues already.”
Employees placed on paid administrative leave late last week following a “sick out” have still not returned to work, Talbot confirmed. A total of 21 employees from the yard trash department had hearings in front of the Mobile County Personnel Board Monday, Oct. 15, and Tuesday, Oct. 16, he said.
Wesley Young, president of a local public works employee advocacy group, told councilors Tuesday those employees were placed on leave, despite returning to work following the Oct. 9 council meeting. Young said he believes the leave was retribution for the employees’ participation in that meeting. Now, he said, employees are afraid to speak at the council meetings.
The council is currently looking at a possible investigation into public works employees’ claims of racially based mistreatment from a supervisor in the trash department. Members held an executive session Tuesday to further discuss the investigation.
After some debate, the council passed a $58,000 contract for janitorial services at the maritime museum. At issue was a 2012 contract between the city and the museum board stating the nonprofit would handle such duties as janitorial services.
Councilors initially tried to hold the contract over for a week in order to possibly amend the 2012 agreement. The holdover failed due to a lack of five votes. The council then amended the agreement to state it would be a one-time exemption of the 2012 agreement. The contract passed 6-0, with Councilwoman Bess Rich abstaining.