Photo | Lagniappe
Mobile tattoo artist Chassity Ebbole filed a lawsuit to compel the Mobile City Council to name Fred Richardson (pictured) as president.
A Mobile County Circuit Court judge will soon decide if a lawsuit putting Mobile City Councilors at odds will be able to proceed.
After listening to arguments from both sides at a hearing Friday, Aug. 10, Judge Robert Smith is giving the parties a week to file any additional motions before ruling on whether tattoo artist Chassity Ebbole and City Councilman Fred Richardson have proper legal standing to bring a suit against the city and the rest of the City Council for failing to elect a full-time president.
Council attorney Wanda Cochran argued that Ebbole’s standing as a taxpayer and “concerned citizen” did not provide enough of a legal injury to require the court to intervene.
The debate over who should ascend to the position of president has been a matter of interest since the council’s organizational meeting at the beginning of the term in late 2017. At the meeting, Richardson received four votes and former president Gina Gregory received three. In previous terms, councilors met in a closed-door meeting to decide who would be the officers before coming to the public meeting and making the decision unanimous.
Legal questions surrounding that traditional closed-door meeting forced councilors to take the first officer vote in a public meeting in November. Councilman Levon Manzie was unanimously elected vice president.
There have been several attempts since that November meeting to strike a deal on council leadership, but all have fallen apart. Two factions on the council still disagree over who should be president and vice president.
During the interim Manzie, the vice president, has served as acting president.
Ebbole, representing herself in the suit, argued that her business, L.A. Body Art, was harmed by the council’s inaction. She amended her initial complaint to reflect this.
Cochran argued that Supreme Court precedent states that an amended complaint cannot be used to determine standing.
Because there is no current council president, Ebbole told Smith, there were no standing council committees. She said this has prevented her from speaking directly to councilors on a number of issues, including school children walking past her shop and forcing her to alter her hours.
“When I contact the public safety committee, they pass the phone and pass the phone,” she said. “I have immediate issues and the committees don’t exist.”
As the “legislative arm” of the city, Cochran said, the council does not direct the “day-to-day operations” of the city.
“That’s handled by the mayor,” she said.
Richardson argued that the committee could better communicate issues to the public.
“Committees can get information more quickly,” he said. “This is not in the citizens’ best interests.”
During last week’s pre-conference meeting, Manzie handed out standing-committee assignments, a move Ebbole said was due to the legal action. Cochran told Smith the committee issue had been resolved because the law establishing the city’s current form of government allows the acting president — in this case, Manzie — to handle committee appointments.
In Manzie’s absence, council meetings have been managed by City Clerk Lisa Lambert and Councilman John Williams. Ebbole argued that having different people chair the meetings makes the council appear “really dysfunctional.”
The parties disagree on whether the vote was legal. Cochran argued the Zoghby Act requires a five-vote supermajority to elect officers. The bill’s co-author Mary Zoghby agrees. However, Ebbole argued that Cochran was hired by a 4-3 majority and so the leadership vote should be handled the same way.
Richardson and Ebbole also told Smith the supermajority only applies to regular City Council meetings on Tuesdays and not during the organizational meeting held once per term on a Monday.
Zoghby has previously stated that a vote for president and vice president should require a five-vote majority. She has said the rule was put in place to protect minority participation.
Smith told Ebbole and Cochran that without proper “subject matter jurisdiction,” he couldn’t rule one way or the other. So, he would first need to determine if the suit was appropriate for court.
On Monday, the city filed a motion to dismiss, noting “to have standing the plaintiff must allege a real, tangible legal interest in the subject matter of the lawsuit, and must also have suffered an injury in fact to a legally protected right. Moreover, standing must exist at the commencement of the litigation because the trial court acquires no subject matter jurisdiction until standing is established.”
The city’s draft order also claims, “The complaint does not allege any facts that demonstrate an injury in fact to a legally protected right. It alleges only that [the] Plaintiff is a ‘resident and concerned citizen of Mobile’ who has been deprived of ‘effective governance’ by the Mobile City Council’s failure to elect a Council President.”
Ebbole had not filed a response by press time.