After about 10 months and more than $145,000 spent in legal fees, it appears Mayor Sandy Stimpson and the majority of the Mobile City Council have reached a settlement in a lawsuit over the different branches’ power to enter into contracts.
The council could vote as early as its next meeting on retaining attorney Jim Atchison to finalize a joint stipulation of dismissal between the two sides. Atchison would be working for no charge.
Stimpson initially brought the lawsuit after councilors attempted to re-hire, through a contract, a media specialist named Marion Steinfels, who they believed Stimpson fired for political reasons during budget negotiations last year. At the time, Stimpson argued the council did not have the sole authority to enter into contracts.
A copy of the draft agreement appears to allow for Steinfels to be reinstated at her original base pay of $65,000 per year with back pay, or it gives her the option to seek a similar position through the Mobile County Personnel Board.
The mayor also agrees to provide councilors with signed copies of appointment letters for all non-merit, or Section 40, personnel.
Five of seven councilors appear ready to agree to these terms, with members such as Councilman C.J. Small believing it is a good compromise.
“My goal is to bring peace among the council and the administration,” Small said about the settlement at a pre-conference meeting. “The mayor is trying to be faithful to his word … I have to be faithful to my word.”
Council Vice President Levon Manzie admitted at the pre-conference meeting that the lawsuit has been a distraction and fighting it is not what councilors were elected to do.
“Our constituents elected us to work together … to move the city forward,” he said. “A supermajority of councilmembers have indicated to me that it’s time to move forward.”
Councilman Fred Richardson, who told Lagniappe that running for the mayor’s office is “an option,” and Councilwoman Bess Rich want to continue to fight the lawsuit. Richardson asked the council to vote to allow the city to pay an outside attorney to help them carry forward an active counterclaim against Stimpson.
Richardson compared his request to that of Councilman Joel Daves, who late last year asked and received a majority of votes to hire an outside attorney to defend him against the mayor’s lawsuit, because he didn’t agree with the direction the defense for the rest of the council was taking. Daves said it was “not an apt comparison” because he had no choice in the matter. Richardson, on the other hand, said he was “proactively” choosing to move the lawsuit forward.
“I strongly disagree,” Richardson said. “Joel on day one could have written to [Circuit Court] Judge [Michael] Youngpeter and asked for his name to be stricken from the lawsuit.”
Rich said she couldn’t understand why her colleagues would decide to settle the suit with less than a week to go before a hearing on a portion of the lawsuit had been scheduled. She said the suit was initially brought to bring clarity to issues between the two branches and an interpretation of the Zoghby Act, a state law setting up the city’s current form of government.
“We’re within a couple of days of getting clarity,” Rich said. “The decision is coming out soon.”
Rich also seemed to question the settlement itself because there were other issues in the counterclaim that the settlement does not discuss.
“In my mind it doesn’t bring any clarity to it,” she said. “This is something with all this money to be expended at this point … I want to get clarity.”
It will take four affirmative votes from councilors to approve the use and payment of outside counsel. In the case of an attorney for Rich and Richardson, both council attorney Wanda Cochran and city attorney Ricardo Woods agreed that if the four-vote threshold wasn’t reached, the councilors in question would have to pay out of their pockets for representation.
Rich then asked if discretionary funds could be used to hire an attorney. Cochran said the funds could be used if the council deems they serve a municipal purpose.
The council could vote as early as its next meeting to make Manzie the body’s official president. Small could then become the body’s vice president.
Since each of the members were re-elected in 2017, councilors have been split on which members should serve as president. Richardson received four votes for president to Councilwoman Gina Gregory’s three votes during an organizational meeting in November of that year.
Since then, the council has received two legal opinions stating that a vote for president requires a supermajority of five affirmative votes. Because of this stalemate, Manzie has been taking on many of the duties of the president without the title since that time.
Despite the legal opinions to the contrary, Richardson argued the council does not transact any city business at the organizational meeting, which takes place on a Monday and therefore a supermajority is not needed to elect the president.
“You don’t transact any city business during the Monday meeting,” he said. “On Monday, you select officers so you can transact business on Tuesday.”
Richardson has argued that previous presidents, dating back to 1985, were elected with four affirmative votes. Lagniappe has previously confirmed that the four votes Richardson is referring to occurred in illegal straw polls taken behind closed doors. During the public meetings in previous years, the council has shown a united front and voted unanimously for the councilor selected in the private meeting.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).