It’s hard to believe Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson is a quarter of the way through his first term in office. It still seems new in many ways, especially for those of us who can still keenly compare this past year to the dozen before it.
From many viewpoints I’d have to say this past year was wildly different than the 12 or 16 that preceded it. The biggest difference in my opinion would have to be there’s finally a realistic adult approach to local leadership in Government Plaza. This past year’s been a tough one of ripping bandages off a lot of gangrenous sores, with plenty still to come, but at least the citizens of Mobile finally have some sort of idea what they’re dealing with financially.
People have asked me repeatedly what the biggest difference has been that we’ve seen as journalists since Silent Sam and his cronies were crowbarred out of GP last year. In a single word — openness. I’m not here saying Stimpson’s first year was perfect, but the level of openness went from 1970s Era Soviet Union to at least New Zealand, or some other country where they don’t have any secrets. Certainly when it comes to making sure reporter types understand budgeting issues, Stimpson and his senior staffers will run the risk of boring the media with details versus the mix of prevarication and silence practiced by the previous administration.
In other areas this administration is still miles ahead of its predecessor in terms of making information available, even if it’s not always done as quickly as reporters would like it. Hopefully they’re working on that. But we have always eventually gotten what we asked for and in a form that doesn’t look like something pulled out of a Trapper Keeper after seventh period. (Sorry, Gen X reference.) That is to say we’re no longer getting hand-written records on loose-leaf notebook paper. (I kid you not!)
I’m sure some of you are grumbling, “Well, Holbert’s carrying the water for Sandy.” And maybe I’m a bit moist. Stimpson hasn’t been Jesus in a mayor’s sash, but so far I’ve seen little that has given me concern about his motives or desires in the decisions being made. He’s made a few mistakes one might expect from a political newcomer, but none I thought were made from pride or deceit.
One thing some people still haven’t quite wrapped their heads around is the massive financial trouble this city faced and still faces due to decisions made by the two previous administrations and councils to spend money on build-it-and-they-will-come projects, while at the same time letting the city’s infrastructure rot so money could be pushed towards pet projects and hungry cronies.
The Jones Administration had all but stopped spending on capital improvements, while boasting the highest number of city employees ever, even as the population has stagnated. I’m certain the job was bigger than Stimpson or anyone else expected it would be. Jones spent a massive amount of time trying to convince everyone — the council included — that everything was in fine financial shape. Even a lot of hard-core Jones/Dow supporters have had to admit there was a smoke-and-mirrors game going that would have left the Wizard of Oz needing to call his doctor after four hours.
So after one year I’d give Stimpson an A-, while also knowing year two is going to be graded on a tougher curve. The city’s problems will eventually stop being Jones’ and become Sandy’s, regardless of where they began. Such is the curse and blessing of politics — when good things happen you get the praise, when bad things happen you get the blame.
Heading into year two some big issues loom. Certainly Stimpson’s relationship with the City Council is still a bit dicey at times as they, as a group, seem more interested in spending their way to re-election than is he. But the relationship seems to have improved over the past several months, so we’ll see if it continues.
Racial issues are always simmering, especially when Councilman Fred Richardson gets an opportunity to stoke the fires, so the mayor will have to watch that moving forward. That will be particularly true as they seek to finally fill the fire chief’s position. That hot potato has lingered far too long. It appears there are few good ways to cool that spud off either.
One of the biggies looming is the delving into the Mobile Public Housing Authority. Jones appears to have used it for years as a slop trough for his cronies, even while driving past some of the most run down housing projects in the country every day. This newspaper has done enough reporting on the Housing Board and its non-profit entity Mobile Development Enterprises to make me think that’s going to be a really big ant bed to kick. Members of the administration have said as much, but it’s time for it to get kicked.
And speaking of not-for-profit organizations, I hope Hizzoner will take year two as a challenge to do what he can to break the Mobile habit of jamming just about every public program possible into a 501-C3 non-profit, effectively shielding anyone from viewing how public money is being spent. It’s the Mobile way and the number of public entities running these opaque non-profits that they never have to answer for is staggering.
Obviously the mayor’s anti-litter initiative is something desperately needed in the Paper Bag City, but there’s a lot of grousing out of the gate about how it’s being implemented and whether the wrong people are getting slammed. Hopefully there will be some fine-tuning.
So while I personally am comfortable with the overall job Stimpson is doing and the direction he’s taking the city, I’ll also take this time to reiterate that we’ll continue reporting on the administration objectively, even it if uncovers warts. One thing Stimpson has shown, especially for someone new to public office, is thick skin, and I’d assume he would want us to do our job as well as we want him to do his.
On to year two. If nothing else his team has given us cause to expect at least one or two more oddball videos along the way.