I can’t help wondering if we’re coming to the end of the power struggle between Mobile’s governing bodies, or are at the beginning of a much longer, guerilla-style war. A municipal Vietnam of sorts.
As both sides threatened, the city’s mayor and City Council are now faced off in court. Ostensibly the reason Mayor Sandy Stimpson filed suit against the council two weeks ago is to settle the particular matter of whether the councilors have the right to contract with their own public relations specialist. But whatever ruling is eventually delivered by Circuit Court Judge Michael Youngpeter could possibly have much deeper meaning to both sides of this political battle.
In simple terms, the city now needs a judge to define each side’s “turf” — to determine the boundaries of their power. But I’m not so sure a win for one side or the other is going to put an end to the struggle that has engulfed city government over these past few months. That’s because it’s a struggle that has been flaring up periodically ever since Mobile’s government was reimagined in 1985.
Through all this time there have been fights over which entity has the right to carry the ball when it comes to various actions. The mayors have generally been bolder and more determined when it comes to leading the city — which makes sense given the fact that it’s hard to get seven people from diverse backgrounds and with varying political agendas to all act in accord. But multiple configurations of the City Council have challenged mayoral authority in efforts to assert themselves as the city’s true leaders.
But heavy lies the head that wears the crown. And so it has been that the mayor’s office holds the political power and risk of leading, presenting ideas and setting agendas, while the councils have typically either gotten behind those agendas or been too fractured to stop them. Mayors have also been the ones to primarily take it on the nose for failures.
Councilors often deal with the most rubber-meets-the-road issues the city has — open ditches, potholes, fixing up parks, etc. — while mayors have the opportunity to think more creatively about the big picture. Maybe this creates jealousy at times, or maybe the two entities just grow tired of having to ask each other’s permission. Either way, friction between our mayors and councils is nothing new.
But this lawsuit is. Both sides are looking for a definitive slap down of the other from a judge who will tell them exactly what power each possesses. Whether there’s a realistic chance that’s coming, or even if it does, that the losing side will abide by the ruling is another matter.
This current fight over whether the council has the right to appoint its own public relations director leads into a larger discussion about whether the council can enter into other professional contracts as they see fit. From Stimpson’s point of view, allowing the council to contract its own PR person simply opens the door to an endless variety of contracts each council member might want for his or her district.
I can see Stimpson’s point there. It’s not hard to imagine the council expanding this “power” to make hires tailored to their particular desires or needs. One only needs to look back at how the mayor’s plan for the city to pony up $10 million for the University of South Alabama’s football stadium quickly blossomed into councilors’ trying to exchange support for tens of millions in community improvements to understand how things can get out of hand.
Another example might be what’s happened in this suit itself. Councilman Joel Daves asked for his own lawyer because he was the lone dissenter when the council voted to rehire its PR director. For a reason that wasn’t really explained, Daves felt he needed his own attorney to protect him in a lawsuit in which there no penalty is being sought, and his fellow councilors voted to hire one for him at $200 an hour.
So now the council has a group of lawyers joining the mayor’s gang of lawyers to fight over one PR person. Insert eye-roll emoji.
Looking over the Zoghby Act — the legislation passed 33 years ago to form Mobile’s current government — it’s easy to see how the law doesn’t expressly forbid the council making its own hires.
Section 11-44C-21 states: “Neither the council nor any of its members shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his removal from office, or in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative service to the city. Except for the purpose of inquiry, the members of the council shall deal with the administrative service only through the mayor. Members of the council shall not give orders to any subordinates of the mayor, either publicly or privately.”
As for the mayor’s powers, Section 11-44C-37 says it’s the mayor’s job to “Appoint and remove, when necessary for the good of the service, all officers and employees of the city except those appointed by the council.”
Those sections alone would seem to suggest “the framers” intended the mayor to run the show when it comes to city employees. In fact, 11-44C-21 even has language that would make councilors guilty of a misdemeanor if they do get involved in personnel matters. That’s a pretty strong indicator of what the act intended. But the councilors read things a different way.
It’s hard to know where this will go. Judge Youngpeter ordered the two sides to mediation before he makes any ruling, and while that might ultimately mean a conclusion to this fight over the PR person, it’s unlikely the two sides are going to simply talk out their varied interpretations of their powers.
Hopefully Youngpeter will end up making a ruling on this matter and in doing so explain why he did so in a way that will be pertinent in future dust-ups. Even if mediation is successful, if someone doesn’t finally draw a line and tell each side “this is yours,” the arguments are bound to continue.
As I repeatedly point out, some factions on the City Council are so truculent the group has now operated without a president for more than a year. That attitude bleeds over into this fight.
Stimpson believes he is fighting not only for himself but for future mayors of Mobile, so it’s unlikely he’s going to cede much ground either.
While it is disappointing to see the two branches of city government facing off in court, I’ve come to the conclusion there’s not going to be a way of moving forward without a legal fight. Whether both sides will be willing to live with the decision is going to be the real determination of its success.