The nine-month legal saga that has engulfed two branches of Mobile’s municipal government appears to have taken another turn as attorneys for the Mobile City Council filed on Friday, Aug. 16 an answer and counterclaim to Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s original lawsuit.
Despite the new legal action, councilors involved in the lawsuit have said in a statement the mediation entered into in January is ongoing.
“The Council has filed their response to the mayor’s lawsuit to better define the issues in the hopes of moving along this process,” a statement from six councilors reads. “Both parties remain in mediation and therefore we are unable to comment further. With that said, for the sake of our citizens and city, we are hopeful to reach a resolution soon.”
In their counterclaim, councilors are seeking to force Mayor Sandy Stimpson to execute all of the fiscal year 2019 budget the body passed, including the implementation of a 5-percent raise for public service workers and an increase of $750,000 in the municipal funding Ladd-Peebles Stadium receives.
Ann Davis, chairwoman of the stadium’s board said she has signed a $200,000 performance contract offered from the mayor’s office, but expects Stimpson to honor the council’s wishes and extend to the board another $750,000 needed for improvements to the stadium, including a walking trail.
The additional $750,000 for Ladd came in the form of a budget amendment passed by a 6-0 margin during the last budget cycle. The money was appropriated following a lengthy debate over the stadium’s future and came after the University of South Alabama, which currently plays football at the aging facility, announced plans to build an on-campus stadium in the coming years. The additional money came from a fund used to pay outside attorneys for legal services. The council’s move decreased the fund from $2.8 million to $2 million.
Stimpson’s office has made clear in the past it has no intention of honoring the budget document. In a previous Lagniappe story, acting Chief of Staff and Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch told councilors the money remaining in the so-called “legal liability fund” might not cover outside attorneys’ fees.
The board has already spent at least $50,000 of the initial $200,000 on installation of a new fire alarm system needed before the stadium will host its first of many high school football games on Friday, Aug. 23, Davis said.
As for the 5-percent raise for trash and garbage employees, the council amended the budget by a 6-0 vote to make the additional money part of the budget document. The vote followed months of complaints by employees over a hostile work environment. Instead of implementing the raises, Stimpson’s office moved to set up an incentive program, where employees could earn bonuses based on a number of criteria.
Wesley Young, president of a local public service workers advocacy group, confirmed employees had not yet received the 5-percent raises promised by the council and the city had instead implemented the bonus program. Officials with the mayor’s office have previously said the incentive pay could equate to more than a 5-percent raise.
Public Service workers have received at least one 2.5-percent cost-of-living adjustment since that time, along with roughly 2,000 other employees.
The attorneys for councilors Levon Manzie, Fred Richardson, Gina Gregory, John Williams, C.J. Small and Bess Rich argue in the claim the state law responsible for the city’s current mayor-council form of government gives the council the ultimate authority to adopt budgets, among other things. Councilman Joel Daves did not participate in the counterclaim.
“Under the Zoghby Act, the mayor of the city of Mobile has no power or authority to determine the content of the budget of the city as finally adopted by council,” the counterclaim reads.
The mayor is allowed to veto portions of the document he disagrees with, the filing states, but the veto cannot withstand a super-majority of five votes. In this case, the council argues, Stimpson did not veto any of the amendments, and if he had, they would’ve failed based on the 6-0 vote.
The counterclaim also seeks to remove Ricardo Woods from the position of city attorney and also as a legal adviser to Stimpson outside of the merit system.
In the counterclaim attorneys Wanda Cochran and Jarrod White argue Woods cannot serve as both the city attorney and individually as a legal adviser to Stimpson.
As evidence, Cochran and White point to a 2013 letter Stimpson sent to Woods, appointing him and his law firm, Burr & Forman, as city attorney on a $55,000 monthly retainer. They argue the letter defines the role Burr & Forman would play as city attorney, but not Woods himself.
“Your law firm will primarily be responsible for advising the mayor and his executive staff, supervising the city’s legal department and economic development in conjunction with Adams and Reese LLP,” the letter states.
The countclaim also states Woods represents himself personally as city attorney and the city’s website at one time described him as legal adviser to the mayor. The Zoghby Act allows the mayor to appoint a city attorney and the mayor can obtain additional legal counsel outside the merit system, but Cochran and White say those positions can’t be filled by the same person.
Council attorneys argue while the Zoghby Act doesn’t specifically lay out the duties of the city attorney, a city ordinance in effect before the 1985 law change does. The attorneys claim because of this ordinance and other areas of state law, the city attorney must act on behalf of “duly authorized constituents,” which in the case of the city means the council.
The mayor’s office and city spokesperson George Talbot did not return a call seeking comment on the new legal action.
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