Throw your textbook definitions of “transparency” out the window. Depending on who in city government you asked Tuesday, the word can mean different things.
The Mobile City Council unanimously voted to override Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s veto of an ordinance they believe will lead to more knowledge about how taxpayer money is spent in the future.
“Whatever is done in the city of Mobile by a city employee … paid for by taxpayer money, taxpayers need to know what it is,” Councilman Fred Richardson said. “What has happened to us is this mayor is initiating contracts … ”
Councilwoman Gina Gregory assured it was not an “attack” on Stimpson.
“This is something for this council and mayor and for all future councils and mayors to follow,” Gregory said.
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Stimpson called the council’s version of transparency “control.”
“The ordinance will encumber city business,” he argued.
In remarks at the meeting, other councilors explained that the intent of the ordinance was not to create a logjam.
As written, the ordinance prevents the mayor from exercising any contract “that has not first been approved by the City Council,” the only exceptions being deeds and bonds required in judicial proceedings.
The ordinance also requires the council to approve all bids, which is a departure from previous actions, city engineer Nick Amberger said. He said the engineering department will now be forced to submit each bid tab — which helps it determine which bid is lowest, as well as other factors — to the council.
“It’s asking us to bring the bid tab forward, in addition to the contract,” Amberger explained. “Every contract will have at least two weeks added.”
City staff claim the ordinance will also negatively impact the city’s supplier diversity program, which is meant to provide disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs, access to city work. Chief Procurement Officer Don Rose said the city will not have adequate staffing to help some of the DBEs gain access to work as much as it used to.
Rose said the ordinance would also impact purchase orders used to buy gas for city tanks. Those purchase orders routinely go above the $7,500 some councilors have said is the threshold for their involvement, Rose said. Rose already sends the council weekly emails with information related to the purchase orders made that week.
The ordinance would also require the council to sign off on any legal settlement greater than $5,000. In particular, the council is trying to prevent Stimpson from entering into large settlements without their knowledge, citing a nearly $400,000 payment to Waste Management Stimpson’s office made to help settle a $6 million judgement against the city’s Solid Waste Authority. The council has not officially approved that payment.
“The mayor cut a check to Waste Management,” Richardson said at the meeting. “How many other folks has he been sending a check to?”
As for the Waste Management settlement, city attorney Ricardo Woods told councilors at the meeting a failure to approve the settlement and its future payments has already resulted in three additional lawsuits.
The ordinance also forces Stimpson to execute budgeted performance contracts, which has been the subject of council ire recently. Stimpson’s office has not awarded most of the council-approved 2019 performance contract for Ladd-Peebles Stadium. A portion of that money will be spent on a fitness trail.
The ordinance would also require Stimpson to provide a list to council of his political appointees, or those employees hired outside the merit system.
Councilman John Williams compared the ordinance to his insistence four years ago that the council follow its own rules and delay votes on items being introduced on the agenda that week. At the time, he said, he heard the move would hurt city operations, but it hasn’t.
Stimpson corrected Williams, saying the week holdover on every new item has led to a one-week delay on everything that comes before council.
During the first two years of his administration, Stimpson told reporters it would take four weeks from the time a bid was received to the time a contract was executed. Once council began the first-read delay, the timeline increased to five weeks. The delay expected from execution of this new ordinance could be seven weeks, Stimpson said.
As for transparency, Stimpson said nothing about the council’s approval of the new ordinance has been transparent. In a timeline released by Stimpson’s office, the mayor indicates he reached out to Gregory and council Vice President Levon Manzie to discuss the ordinance, but two different versions of the ordinance were sent to his office when it was initially approved on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
Williams said the administration has had more than a month to discuss it with councilors and had not. Councilwoman Bess Rich said nothing was communicated to her office until Stimpson’s newsletter went out Wednesday evening asking for residents’ help to quash it.
Richardson called the newsletter a “SCUD missile.”
In other business, the city sold a building at 650 St. Anthony St. for $250,000 to Activation Maintenance. The owners of Gulf Coast Ducks will turn the property into a private auto care business. Manager Scott Tindle did not return a call seeking comment on the purchase.
Gulf Coast Ducks had previously leased a portion of the property from the city for $8,700 per year, according to the agreement. Activation Maintenance had first right of refusal if the city decided to sell the property, according to the agreement. Gulf Coast Ducks will stop offering tours this week because the company could not attain affordable insurance.
Councilman Levon Manzie plans to assign an issue involving food trucks downtown to a committee meeting in the future. The District 2 representative told his colleagues Tuesday he has heard from several restaurant owners about trucks from Baldwin County parking in front of downtown eateries and taking away business.