As we all gather this week to thank God for our many blessings and demonstrate our gratitude by performing amazing feats of gluttony, let’s take a moment to include in those prayers the people who give their time to lead local communities.
Being an elected official on the local level is a tough job, and one that generally comes with little pay and just a sliver of the pageantry we reserve for national leaders. The truth is, serving as a city councilor or mayor probably comes with as much aggravation as it does adulation — if not more.
There is an intensity in local politics that goes beyond the usual Democrat vs. Republican battles dominating the national scene. On the local level decisions are made that affect us in a much more immediate fashion. Can your favorite chicken finger joint have a drive-thru? Should we re-time the traffic lights on Dauphin Street? What are we going to do with an empty baseball field? These are local decisions that can affect your life in a much more tangible way than those coming from D.C.
And often that’s why there is so much friction between councilors and mayors, or councilors and councilors. Factions form and people take things personally. We’ve seen it many times, although I’m not sure aggravation levels between city officials have ever been as high as they are across our area right now.
Finding a city government around here involved an internal political war isn’t a difficult assignment. That’s why we need to say a prayer that our local elected officials will take a step back and remember why they got into the “business” of serving the people in the first place.
Several cities in this area need to get back to a little harmony.
The most extreme example of the problems we’re having is in Creola, where a city councilman is accused of brandishing a pistol at one of his fellow councilors. Granted, this is just an accusation and the matter has not yet been adjudicated, but if true, that’s a just a bit too “Dirty Harry” for city government.
Daphne has had its share of dustups in the past couple of years, as has Bayou La Batre. Prichard’s political dysfunctional has not only extended into its water and sewer services, but threatens to cripple the city’s ability to keep people’s homes from burning to the ground as the mayor and council grapple over getting new fire trucks.
And of course there’s the firefight that has been raging in Fairhope for two years now. Mayor Karin Wilson and the City Council have squared off over just about everything imaginable; there have been accusations of spying, financial malfeasance, using positions for personal gain and allegations of personal threats, just to name a few. The situation has gotten so bad there was even an attempt to change the city’s form of government, which failed in the recent election.
I could probably write a whole column on each of these, but right now it makes the most sense to focus on the city of Mobile, where the relationship between the council and mayor is spiraling out of control. Nobody’s flashing a piece yet, but it’s getting bad.
People ask me constantly lately what’s going on in Mobile’s city government. They often want to know whose fault it is or who started the troubles, but I’m not really sure there was one single spark that started this inferno. I also don’t really think it matters much who started it. The more important thing is who’s going to stop it?
In my opinion we’re lucky to have people running this city who are primarily interested in doing good things for the citizens and making Mobile a better place. There are some who get sidetracked with petty or personal issues at times, but most appear to have their hearts in the right place.
The irony of all the disagreement between Mayor Stimpson and the City Council is that in most areas, Mobile is doing better than it has in decades. That’s not to say there aren’t some significant challenges, but overall we are heading in a better direction than we were seven or eight years ago. So why all the fighting?
Right now, for example, the council and mayor are gearing up for a courtroom battle over whether the City Council can rehire its communications specialist, Marion Steinfels, after Stimpson fired her in October. At the last meeting, City Attorney Ricardo Woods even raised the specter of impeachment, should the council attempt to contract with Steinfels again. But councilors voted 6-1 to do so anyway and now they may be heading to court.
All of this is so counterproductive.
We can look back at recent history and councilors are upset because they say Stimpson tried to force a $10 million deal for USA’s new football stadium down their throats without any discussion. The mayor’s office is upset the council changed a number of items in his budget, including cutting raises to his own communications staff. The next thing you know, Steinfels gets the axe.
But we can keep looking further back and observe the fact that the council also can’t cooperate with one another enough to even elect a president. Or look at a few other instances when councilors say they were left out of the loop by the mayor’s office. Or even as far back as when the council tried to keep Stimpson from even being able to add things to the weekly agenda.
In other words, this isn’t new. It’s just getting worse.
Personally I’ve never really understood why the council needs Steinfels, but if they find value in what she does, they should be allowed to have her. But there have also been a lot of complaints her position was used as a proxy to fight with the mayor’s office, and if that’s the case, then it’s really on the council to rein that in.
I would love to see the mayor and council work this matter out without wasting taxpayer money on paying lawyers to fight one another. I’d love to see council members stop being babies about the president’s position and just get it done.
We have trash to pick up and crime to fight. Roads to pave (for example, there is a sinkhole in my neighborhood that has had sawhorses around it for months — so long I started researching how many Domino’s pizzas I’d have to order to get it filled). GulfQuest is a question with no obvious solution. There’s plenty to do.
When people say, “The business of the city isn’t being affected by these disagreements,” I have to roll my eyes. How can it not be?
So when you get the big end of the wishbone on Turkey Day, ask for a little sanity and harmony for the local mayors and councils. They need it.