Attorneys for the Mobile City Council have asked the court to rule on how much money Mayor Sandy Stimpson has available for the salaries of appointed employee, according to documents filed Friday.
Council attorney Wanda Cochran and outside counsel Jarrod White filed a motion asking for an expedited hearing and summary judgement on a legal interpretation of a specific portion of the Zoghby Act, which provides regulations for city employees hired outside the Mobile County Personnel Board.
Specifically, the attorneys are asking for the court to interrupt whether the state law establishing Mobile’s current form of government limits to $100,000 combined the salaries of all of the mayor’s appointments, outside of the police chief, fire chief and directors or public works, public safety and finance.
In the filing, Cochran and White argue a portion of the Zoghby Act does indeed limit the total combined salaries to $100,000.
“Finally, Section 40, at issue here, authorizes the mayor to hire personnel outside the merit system, but the scope of that power is limited: ‘The mayor is hereby authorized to employ such personnel who shall serve at the pleasure of the mayor, and for such purposes an additional $100,000.00 per annum shall be made available for the salaries of such personnel from the city treasury. Said personnel shall not be subject to the provisions of the merit system,’” the filing reads. “The plain language of Section 40 unambiguously sets a sum certain — $100,000 — as the amount the City Council must budget annually for personnel serving at the mayor’s pleasure. Nothing in the statue supports an interpretation that the council may budget, or the mayor may spend, more (than) $100,000.”
Members of Stimpson’s administration have previously pointed to an Alabama Attorney General opinion that argued the salaries can be anything as long as the council approves them.
The attorneys are asking for a hearing and summary judgement on this issue before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. That would allow the council to properly prepare the budget within the court’s interpretation of the law.
Councilors voted to delay a vote on the budget until Tuesday, Oct. 8, to allow time for this legal issue to possibly be resolved and for Councilman Joel Daves to be available. Only Councilman John Williams voted against the delay. Without an approved budget by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, the city will continue to operate under the 2019 budget.
“I do not want to hinder this lawsuit,” Councilman C.J. Small said. “There has been too much money spent on this lawsuit already. It will not stop the city from functioning.”
Councilman Fred Richardson added if the council approves the budget, the mayor’s office would use it against them in court by claiming they approved paying the Section 40 employees more than the arguably allotted $100,000.
“It’s the okey-doke,” Richardson said. “The council is going to approve the budget and he’s going to say the council agrees with us. I say ‘no,’ that’s not what we want to do.”
Richardson further criticized the mayor’s office for ignoring changes the council approved in last year’s budget, like a 5 percent raise for public-services employees and a $750,000 increase in the performance contract for Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Richardson said Stimpson had 10 days to veto the budget that passed 6-0 and he didn’t do it. The court ruling will impact future mayors and councils, Richardson said.
“This is not a kingdom … ,” he said. “We’re asking for the court to make a decision … It’s certainly more important to me than the budget.”
City Attorney Ricardo Woods told councilors he didn’t believe the issue would be resolved by Oct. 8.
“A judge will ultimately have to decide these issues,” Woods said. “I don’t think that decision will be made by a judge by Oct. 8.”
During the pre-conference meeting, Williams asked Richardson what would happen if there is no ruling by the time the budget comes back up on the agenda.
“I think that’s delaying a vote based on absolutely no facts at all,” Williams said.
Things got a bit testy when Council Vice President Levon Manzie attempted to get the meeting back in order after Williams and Richardson began arguing back and forth. Williams accused Manzie of only using the gavel when he speaks and not when “Fred was talking for 30 damn minutes,” referring to Richardson’s comments related to a separate issue earlier in the meeting.
“All I’m trying to do is get some order,” Manzie said. “I would like to get some clarity from our attorney.”
Cochran has previously offered a compromise on the issue. During a meeting of the council’s finance committee, she offered an ordinance that would allow the administration to put all of the non-merit employees in one “executive” category in an amended organizational chart. It’s unclear how that plan was received by officials in the mayor’s office.
The lawsuit, originally filed by Stimpson against the council in December of last year and a counterclaim filed by all councilors except Joel Daves, appears to still in mediation.
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