Photo | Lagniappe
Mayor Sandy Stimpson, right, said he was more disappointed with the City Council’s defunding of GulfQuest than its rejection of a plan to partially fund a new football stadium at the University of South Alabama
It may be that even a great conqueror like Genghis Khan can’t fix the current rift between Mobile’s branches of government.
In an effort to mend fences, Mayor Sandy Stimpson jokingly introduced the centuries-old ruler as his new chief of staff during the City Council meeting Nov. 20. Stimpson introduced an actor dressed as Khan to each of the councilors one by one as a promotion for an upcoming exhibit at the Gulf Coast Exploreum. The stunt was meant to ease some of the built-up tension resulting from disagreements in a previous meeting.
“Someone said Genghis Khan is coming up here and, really, we decided to introduce him as new chief of staff about 10 minutes before we walked down there,” Stimpson said. “You know, as silly as it sounds, an icebreaker like that sometimes can break the ice.”
Stimpson and councilors agree that a number of high-profile scrapes have given the public the perception elected officials don’t currently see eye-to-eye. Stimpson didn’t deny that, but said it is part of the process.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work going on throughout the city and in the various departments and even working with the city council,” he said. “Yes, there’s been some focus on this disagreement, but in the scheme of things it’s small … ”
Former council president Reggie Copeland, who served on the council for 28 years before retiring, said the current relationship between the councilors and Stimpson is the worst he can remember. He said as a citizen he is “disappointed” and puts most of the blame on councilors because of the way each is elected. He did, however, blame Stimpson for the handling of one of the more high-profile squabbles.
“You vote for Mobile first and your district second,” Copeland said. “The mayor was elected by all the people, councilors were elected by a group in one district.”
Council Vice President Levon Manzie said there are obvious issues with the relationship between Stimpson and councilors and it’s something the two sides need to work on.
“Yes, I think it’s pretty clear we have concerns we need to make a concerted effort to address,” he said. “The relationship is worth both sides being willing to meet and try to find a happy medium.”
However, it seems to be a nationwide problem, he said. As a member of the League of Cities board of directors, Manzie said he knows these sorts of disagreements aren’t uncommon.
“What’s happening here is not unique to Mobile,” he said. “Most major cities go through these struggles.”
Communication on both sides could be better, Councilwoman Bess Rich said. She suggested that both one-on-one communication and group communication could be improved.
“I think it’s essential, sitting down and talking,” she suggested.
Councilman C.J. Small agrees communication is probably the biggest issue.
“There is no communication between the [council and mayor],” he said. “You can’t have a good relationship without communication.”
Egos might be the biggest issue, Councilman John Williams admitted, with a sense each side has to “win” all the time.
“I don’t think either side is willing to give on any subject,” he said. “Therefore, no amount of refereeing is going to save this game … ”
Other councilors see simple political disagreements between two branches of government. Councilman Joel Daves said when the Founding Fathers created three branches of government, situations like these were meant to happen.
“They set it up so there is tension,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised when there’s tension.”
Former Mayor Mike Dow declined to comment at length, saying it would be “inappropriate.”
“There are processes going on,” he said. “I think the processes are going to take care of themselves.”
Most recently, councilors and the mayor were on opposite sides concerning the hiring of a spokeswoman for the council. Councilors voted 6-1 to extend a professional services contract to Marion Steinfels against objections from Stimpson’s office. Stimpson had fired her for what councilors called political reasons. Stimpson’s office declined to comment on the reasons, citing personnel matters.
City Attorney Ricardo Woods told councilors they had already violated the Zoghby Act — the state law establishing Mobile’s current form of government — by publicly asking Stimpson to rehire Steinfels, and extending the contract to her would be another violation. Violation of the act can result in removal from office.
Like Woods, Copeland believes councilors did violate the Zoghby Act. Former Mayor Sam Jones, recently elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, said the council should be allowed to hire a spokesperson.
Council Attorney Wanda Cochran said the council has the authority to execute a professional services contract and does so to hire legal representation.
Stimpson said the two sides would work out their differences on the authority issue.
“The situation between the mayor and council, the harmony of the relationship probably ebbs and flows some depending on whether — what the issue is — and how the vote turns out, and so right now there are differences of opinion on authority, but we will work through that,” Stimpson said.
“We all have our opinions, but when it comes down to deciding, you [have] to do it on fact. In the case of city government the facts are going to be ruled by law and there have been circuit court decisions, as well as supreme court decisions that will delineate what the outcome is going to be. In the meantime, there’s some posturing going on about who knows what case law to quote to justify their position.”
Councilman John Williams said the underlying issue related to authority should be decided by the courts.
“In this case, the administration simply has this one wrong,” Williams said. “Let’s go. I’m tired of the talk. Either shut up, or let’s roll. In this case the ‘let’s roll’ happens in a courtroom.”
Daves, a former attorney, believes Steinfels did an “excellent” job as council spokeswoman.
“The issue isn’t whether she did a good job, or whether we need that position or not,” Daves said. “The issue is whether council has the legal authority to enter into contracts without the mayor’s consent.”
Daves believes going to court would be a mistake because he’s “not convinced” the council has that authority.
“I think it’s very dangerous to go into a court of law thinking you’re going to win,” he said.
Copeland believes the council’s vote against funding for a University of South Alabama on-campus stadium was what started to fracture the relationship between the two sides. Copeland doesn’t blame the councilors for voting against the measure and instead points the finger at Stimpson.
“He got into a situation where it drug on and on and on,” Copeland said. “He could’ve withdrawn it and started smoothing everything over. That’s how Mike Dow or Sam Jones would’ve done it.”
Beginning in June, Stimpson pushed a plan that would’ve given the university a total of $10 million over 20 years. In return, USA would’ve given the city $2.5 million to help renovate and possibly downsize Ladd-Peebles Stadium. After months of discussions, the council voted the proposal down Aug. 21.
Stimpson said he was disappointed at the outcome of the vote and regrets how it happened. However, unlike Copeland, he doesn’t think the vote was the root of the current “friction.” He attributed that to the question of authority.
“I think USA has been a great partner and I think there was every reason in the world to support that,” he said. “So, yes, I take responsibility that it didn’t pass; we just did not realize it would be as controversial as it was.”
For Stimpson and the administration, the “no” vote on the USA stadium means the city will have to look at other alternatives in regard to the city-owned Ladd Stadium in the future.
“USA is going ahead, but we still have the situation looming of what ultimately happens with Ladd,” he said. “It will have to be addressed because in the next three years we will do everything we can to create a framework where the mayor and City Council have to address deferred maintenance at all of our facilities. I mean, we would be derelict in our responsibility if we do not make some decisions — some controversial decisions — to solve some problems.”
There were concerns for the council over the changes to Ladd, as well as using economic development funds for the USA stadium, Rich said. Small blamed a lack of transparency about the plan for Ladd as one of the reasons he voted against the proposal.
Instead of funding the USA stadium, councilors added funding for Ladd, while cutting city support of GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico and other administration-driven proposals. This rankled Stimpson and his office.
Councilors cut about $500,000 in funding to the maritime museum and put the money into other priorities in the fiscal year 2019 budget. The funding was about half of the museum’s budget and was meant to support “mission-critical” staff members at the museum. Councilors felt the city’s continued support of the museum needed to be discussed.
Stimpson approached councilors with what he called a compromise. Each councilor and the mayor would contribute $25,000 in discretionary money. In addition, the mayor would cut $100,000 from the Mobile Public Library in order to fund the positions. The item was never added to the agenda because there wasn’t enough interest from councilors to do it.
Stimpson said he is more disappointed by that outcome then he is the “no” vote on the stadium deal. The financial implications for the city caused by the closure of GulfQuest would be a “bomb,” he said.
“The reason I’m trying to figure out a better word to describe it is the liability we have if we do not do what is required according to the grants we’ve received for it,” he said. “To use that as a political football is just disappointing. As a city, as an administration, we have to find a way to operate GulfQuest that is in a manner in keeping with those grant guidelines.”
In phone conversations with officials at the Federal Transportation Administration, Stimpson has been told if the museum closes, the city will have to pay back more than $20 million in federal grants.
“Actually, we have to figure out what to do with the ferry,” he said. “The FTA, when it comes to the ferry part of it, they understand the challenge we have there, but when it comes to just keeping it open and operating it as a museum, they have zero tolerance about that.”
The commercial dock located at Cooper Riverside Park and the Wild Native and other river cruises that leave from it could be the first phase in bringing ferry service, Stimpson said.
Williams blames ego for the “mishandling” of the budget on the administration side.
“There’s no other explanation,” he said.
The District 4 representative said he asked Stimpson multiple times to help the council with its version of the budget.
“I could not have been more clear in my comments,” Williams said. “‘Give us an answer.’”
Aligning with Stimpson, Daves called cutting funds to GulfQuest “risky.”
Despite the setback in the budget and with the compromise, Stimpson still plans to find money in other departments to help fund seven mission-critical employees at the museum. They will become merit system employees hired through the Mobile County Personnel Board.
Going forward, Stimpson brought up the possibility of asking developers what they would do with the building. The idea would be to repurpose a portion of it but leave many aspects of the museum intact.
“So, when I say all options are on the table, I mean opening the door and letting someone take a look at it through a different lens than we’re looking at it,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to come up with something that can maintain the integrity as a museum, but do something else as well.”
Copeland and Jones both offered up solutions to help aid in the communication issues between the two sides.
Copeland, like Rich, suggested more face-to-face interactions, especially on the more complicated issues.
For instance, the former council president remembers meeting with Dow and Jones for breakfast or lunch to help the mayors gauge council support for an agenda item.
“You need to meet on a one-on-one basis and see if you can’t mend fences on that item,” Copeland said. “He needs to work on them.”
Jones agrees with Copeland that face-to-face meetings could help remove stumbling blocks on policy issues. But he added Stimpson should deal with issues personally and not send staff to do it.
“Communications solves a lot of those things,” Jones said.
Stimpson said he would look to more one-on-one communication in the future, but also said he would send staffers when needed.
“Going forward, I will be doing more of that because a lot of the friction is caused by a lack of understanding,” he said. “When it comes down to me spending the time with them, there are seven of them and one of me and so that’s why we’ve taken different staff, like [Senior Director of External Communications] George Talbot, or it could be [Deputy Director of Communications] Laura Byrne or [acting Chief of Staff] Paul Wesch; they’re the ones who are doing a lot of the interacting. It comes back to the numbers of one mayor and seven city councilors and their schedules, as well as mine.”
Recently Manzie and the mayor have met more frequently, especially in the last six weeks. The relationship is too important not to try to fix, Manzie said. After all, the eight people in charge of the government are working for the people.
“We’re all one body,” he said. “I don’t know of anything Stimpson has done by himself and I don’t know of anything the council has done by itself. It’s taken him and the council.”
Councilors, including Rich and Small, believe many issues can be worked out during an upcoming retreat. Still others think the issues aren’t slowing down the city at all.
While the mayor and council don’t seem to align on some of the most heavily covered issues recently, city officials believe the work of the city is still getting done on a regular basis.
“I don’t know of anything that should have passed that didn’t,” Williams said.
Williams touted the Capital Improvement Program as a project conceived via compromise between the two sides. While Stimpson was initially against extending the sales tax increase that created it, he and his staff helped implement a plan allowing it to succeed, Williams said.
“We are rebuilding a city at a clip greater than $21 million per year,” he said. “That amazes me.”
Councilwoman Gina Gregory, who worked for Dow and now serves her district, said the council and mayor actually agree on most everything. She estimated it was probably 90 percent.
“Councils and mayors are never going to agree on everything,” she said. “It’s different perspectives.”
Daves agreed that the council and Stimpson are aligned on most issues. He touted the financial stewardship that has allowed the city to pay down debt incurred during previous administrations. He also applauded both sides for recognizing the importance of capital spending.
Stimpson also cited much more specific achievements reached with the council. For instance, he mentioned the approval of ride-hailing service Uber and the recent plan to help the Mobile Housing Board with capital improvements. The board has yet to finalize that deal.
“If it works like we hope, it’ll be the first time since I’ve been mayor I’ll feel like we’re teed up for success at the housing board,” Stimpson said. “It has just been a series of missteps we have to overcome.”
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