Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Sarah Stewart issued an order Monday dismissing a lawsuit filed by more than 60 municipal employees against Mayor Sandy Stimpson for the cancellation of a 2.5 percent pay raise proposed by former Mayor Sam Jones and approved by the Mobile City Council during budget proceedings last year.
In a press conference Dec. 31, the day before the raise was scheduled to be implemented, Stimpson cancelled it, announcing his administration had discovered a general fund budget deficit of more than $15 million. The lawsuit followed about two weeks later, filed by the City of Mobile United Public Service Workers, Inc., seeking a temporary restraining order with an allegation the pay raise constituted “a legal benefit to which [the employees] were being wrongfully deprived.”
Stewart’s order, which was drawn up by the city’s legal team, cited the form of governance established under the Zogby Act and determined “the spending of appropriated funds is a discretionary executive power vested in the Mayor” and the plaintiffs’ cause for action could not “compel the exercise of discretionary authority in a particular manner.”
“The powers of spending, employee compensation, and budget management are executive powers granted to the Mayor,” the order found. “Moreover, the Mayor is empowered to revise appropriations during a fiscal year if he ascertains that revenues will be less than budgeted appropriations.”
The order also noted that “the Budget is not a ‘floor’ of expenditures that must be made, but rather a ‘ceiling’ which expenditures may not exceed.”
Stewart also suggested Stimpson should not have been the sole target of the complaint, as any pay raises are ultimately awarded by the Mobile County Personnel Board, which must amend its Pay Plan to reflect recommendations made by governing bodies, such as city councils or the Mobile County Commission.
“The Plaintiffs’ demand for an across-the-board pay raise is a demand for an amendment to the Pay Plan, which cannot be accomplished by the Council or even unilaterally by the Mayor,” the order read.
While the judge considered opposing motions in the case over the summer, Stimpson subsequently proposed the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, which did include a 2.5 percent across-the-board raise and a 2.5 percent merit raise. That budget was eventually approved by the City Council and those raises are scheduled to go into effect in November and March, respectively.
Representatives of the employees were not immediately available for comment, but in March, plaintiffs’ attorney Philip Leslie suggested an unfavorable ruling would not necessarily be appealed.
Meanwhile, City Attorney Ricardo Woods called the order decisive.
“I thought it lined up really well with our arguments,” he said. “The judge adopted the order exactly as we interpreted the Zoghby Act with regards to the powers of the mayor. The most intersting thing is it solidfied his authority in this arena and allows him to withstand legal and political challenges. Some railed against the Mayor saying he was out of line and that couldn’t be less true.”
Updated to include comments from City Attorney Ricardo Woods.