A lingering legal dispute between Mayor Sandy Stimpson and members of the Mobile City Council appears to be headed back to court.
In an order filed Thursday afternoon, Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Michael Youngpeter has scheduled a hearing at 10 a.m., Friday, Oct. 18, on the latest motion to resolve issues slowing fiscal year 2020 budget negotiations.
Council attorneys Wanda Cochran and Jarrod White asked Youngpeter to define the meaning of a section of the Zoghby Act — the state law establishing the city’s current form of government — pertaining to the salaries of non-merit, or mayor-appointed employees.
In the motion, council attorneys argued the $100,000 threshold should be legally interpreted as the maximum amount the council can appropriate for these employees’ salaries.
“Finally, Section 40, at issue here, authorizes the mayor to hire personnel outside the merit system, but the scope of that power is limited: ‘The mayor is hereby authorized to employ such personnel who shall serve at the pleasure of the mayor, and for such purposes an additional $100,000.00 per annum shall be made available for the salaries of such personnel from the city treasury. Said personnel shall not be subject to the provisions of the merit system,’” the filing reads. “The plain language of Section 40 unambiguously sets a sum certain — $100,000 — as the amount the City Council must budget annually for personnel serving at the mayor’s pleasure. Nothing in the statute supports an interpretation that the council may budget, or the mayor may spend, more (than) $100,000.”
The mayor’s office has previously argued that a state attorney general’s ruling allows for more than $100,000 as long as it is approved by the council.
The hearing date will complicate the council’s plans to vote on the fiscal year 2020 budget, as the board has already delayed a vote until Tuesday, Oct. 8 at the earliest, when it is set to reappear on the agenda.
Since the new budget won’t be approved by council by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, the city will operate off of the fiscal year 2019 budget.
The lawsuit, initially filed by Stimpson in December of last year, sought a legal ruling on which branch of city government had the right to contract with employees. In April, Lagniappe reported that both sides had spent more than $60,000 in taxpayer money on the suit. Nearly six months later that amount has more than doubled.
Information provided by the mayor’s office and corrected by City Clerk Lisa Carroll-Lambert, shows legal fees for both sides adding up to $138,852. These fees do not include retainers for both Council Attorney Wanda Cochran and City Attorney Ricardo Woods, but those retainers are paid whether there would be a lawsuit or not. Woods and his firm Burr & Forman are paid $55,000 per month by the city.
The firm of Cabiness, Johnston, Gardner, Dumas & O’Neal has been paid $121,312 for legal fees related to the lawsuit so far in 2019. The firm of McDowell, Knight, Roedder & Sledge has been paid $6,540. As for the mayor’s side of the ledger, Cunningham Bounds has charged $11,000, which is the result of staff fees, as the attorneys are working the case on a pro-bono, or no charge, basis.
“This private law firm took on the case on a mostly volunteer basis because of the firm’s belief that the resolution of this case is important for the future of Mobile,” city spokeswoman Jenn Zoghby wrote in a statement.
In the statement, Zoghby also laid out the mayor’s perspective on filing the suit in the first place.
“Mayor Stimpson felt he owed it to Mobilians and future mayors to clarify the ambiguity of the Zoghby Act,” she wrote. “We have worked hard to keep these legal expenses to a minimum, and we have negotiated in full faith to settle the case.”
While both sides have worked for months with a mediator to settle the issues, that has now ended unsuccessfully, Council Vice President Levon Manzie confirmed.
“We worked through a mediator, but could not come to a consensus,” he said. “We’ll engage any serious discussions of a settlement that doesn’t result in a court action.”
Records indicate the mediator, ordered by Youngpeter, cost the city $28,500.
While both sides appear open to a settlement, each said it is important to get some sort of answer on the ambiguity written into the Zoghby Act.
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