The Mobile City Council held unadvertised interviews last week, where all seven members were present to interview candidates for a new public relations position.
The new position was described in an email by council President Gina Gregory as a contractor who would handle all of the council’s “media and community relations, including social media.”
The Alabama Open Meetings Act gives few exceptions to what it defines as a meeting and, thus, what must be advertised by a governing body and open to the public. One exception includes a gathering where the governing body “does not deliberate specific matters that, at the time of the exchange, the participating members expect to come before the governmental body at a later date.”
With guidance from Attorney Jim Rossler, it appears councilors are defending the move using the exception.
“We have done a preliminary review of applications and interviews,” Gregory wrote. “There was no deliberation and no decisions have been made.”
Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason said the council could argue what occurred during the interview process wasn’t deliberation, given a “very broad interpretation” of the law.
“I would argue if they expect to make a decision at some point that it’s deliberation,” Mason said. “They’re discussing business … if they’re talking about something they expect to vote on.”
Rossler said councilors did not deliberate during the interviews, as it was just “listening to candidates.” He said further that all the interviews the council conducts are closed to the public. Rossler himself wasn’t present.
“These are job interviews, so they are not open to the public,” Gregory wrote. “The interviews for municipal judges are not and have never been open to the public.”
However, as recent interviews of municipal court judges progressed, the public was informed through statements at council meetings.
Councilman John Williams confirmed no decisions were made during the interview of “seven or eight” candidates in 15-minute intervals. Williams said each councilor was allowed to ask each candidate a series of questions during the process. During that time, Williams said councilors didn’t compare notes.
When a contract is available between the council and a candidate, it will be voted on in a public meeting, Gregory wrote.
The position was placed in the 2016 budget, Gregory wrote, and the council is looking to pay the new hire between $43,000 and $45,000 per year.
The proposed fiscal year 2016 budget includes a $24,725 increase, from $506,632 in 2015 to $523,906 in 2016, in City Council personnel and operating expenses. This doesn’t include the city clerk’s office, which saw a $36,867 decrease in personnel and operating expenses from the 2015 to 2016 fiscal years. Before approving the budget in September 2015, councilors voted to cut a WAVE transfer by more than $700,000 and used part of that cut to add $60,000 more to the City Council operating fund.
Council debates CMT appeal
By a two-to-four decision on Tuesday, the Mobile City Council voted down a motion by Councilwoman Bess Rich to reconsider the board’s denial of an appeal of a November Planning Commission decision to allow Cooper, Marine & Timberlands to store coal at its dry-cargo facility on the east side of the Mobile River.
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the area, seconded the motion and voted in favor, but Gregory, Williams, Councilman C.J. Small and Councilman Fred Richardson voted to deny the motion. Councilman Joel Daves, who currently serves on the Planning Commission, abstained from the vote.
Despite not being on the prevailing side of the Jan. 5 issue, Rich was able to call for the reconsideration, Rossler said, because it was not an ordinance or resolution and because it had been prompted by letters to the Council from residents.
Rich said a change in the definition of the facility’s capacity is new information the council should consider when making a final decision on the approval. A condition of Planning Commission approval limited the capacity of the facility’s coal storage, she said.
During the Jan. 5 council hearing, the volume of coal was discussed as being between 460,000 tons — which was disclosed on the application — and 1.3 million tons — which has historically been the most coal stored on the site.
Rich said the commission then debated the facility’s capacity during a Jan. 7 meeting and made the volume “unlimited.” Apparently, the commission put more of an emphasis, without an official vote or public discussion, on limiting the facility’s footprint. Rich said the public has a right to be involved now that the capacity has been defined.
Following a pre-conference meeting Feb. 2, Planning Commission Attorney Doug Anderson said the zoning ordinance doesn’t regulate the volume of coal at a facility, but rather, the footprint. He said if CMT increases the size of its yard or wants to designate another place on that yard to store coal, they would have to come before the commission. The amount of coal allowed on the site is unlimited.
Suzanne Schwatz, a named appellant of the CMT decision, said the public’s aversion to the facility is not about the coal stored there, but about the process. She said allowing Urban Development staff to change the facility’s capacity completely “circumvents the authority of the City Council to be the final arbiter.”
“Is that what the law says? I don’t think it does,” Schwartz said. “It’s not in the public’s interest.”
The “loosely organized” group of residents said they don’t know what their next steps could be.