A lawsuit that could change the landscape of Mobile municipal government has been filed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Stimpson is seeking to stop the City Council from hiring a spokeswoman he fired in mid-October by challenging its right to unilaterally enter into contracts. A hearing on the suit has been scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, in front of Judge Michael Youngpeter.
Council spokeswoman Marion Steinfels was terminated by Stimpson shortly after councilors passed an amended fiscal year 2019 budget. Councilors believe the firing was politically motivated retribution for changes to Stimpson’s budget, but the mayor’s office refused to comment on why Steinfels was fired, citing the confidential nature of personnel issues.
Steinfels was hired in 2016 through an apparent compromise following a resolution passed by councilors. Instead of executing the contract, Stimpson appointed her to the position of communications coordinator as a non-merit employee. She was reappointed to the position in 2017.
After ignoring written objections from Stimpson, councilors voted last month to enter into a professional services contract with Steinfels, and earlier this month it was reported that Council Vice President Levon Manzie had signed the contract.
Stimpson had requested a temporary restraining order, or TRO, to prevent Steinfels from doing work for councilors until the suit is settled, but the TRO was denied. The denial of the TRO has both sides claiming early victory, despite the suit still needing to be adjudicated.
In a statement, Manzie said they were “so pleased” the judge denied the motion.
“I’m also surprised the administration has chosen to spend taxpayer dollars to prevent us from simply having the additional support and capacity of one individual,” he wrote. “The City Council is clearly within its rights. While I never thought this would actually go this far, I’m hopeful the council will prevail.”
In a similar statement, city spokesman George Talbot said the TRO ruling is what Stimpson’s office needed.
“We got the outcome we needed, which was to preserve the status quo,” he wrote. “The council’s attorney agreed not to move forward with the hiring until the court rules, rendering the TRO unnecessary.”
In the lawsuit filing, Stimpson asks the court to rule that the council cannot unilaterally hire an employee and that the contract between Steinfels and the council is “null and void.”
The suit also asks that the council be permanently prevented from attempting to hire employees unilaterally. Simply put, councilors do not have the authority to enter into contracts or hire employees without the consent of the mayor, Stimpson said in an interview about the actions.
“This will answer the question of who has the authority to enter into contracts,” Stimpson said. “We believe what they are trying to do is an illegal spending of taxpayer dollars. There’s no ambiguity in the law. This is about the separation of powers and the Zoghby Act, in our opinion, is very clear about the separation of powers.”
Historically, City Attorney Ricardo Woods argues in the suit, contracts begin within the executive branch of Mobile municipal government. After being examined by the city’s finance department, they are placed on the council agenda as mayoral recommendations.
“The 2016 contract with [Steinfels] was a notable attempted deviation from this protocol,” the suit states. “The mayor did not and would not sign that contract.”
The suit outlines the powers of the mayor’s office as put forth in the Zoghby Act. According to the act, the mayor can appoint and remove “all officers and employees of the city, except those appointed by the council.”
Further, Woods argues that the Zoghby Act limits council appointments to “filling any vacancy in the office of city clerk.” The council is also authorized to appoint members to most boards, with a few exceptions.
The council also cannot “take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative service of the city,” the suit states.
Woods argues in the suit that similar powers have been given to councils in cities not bound by the Zoghby Act. The suit cites a case out of Montgomery in 2001 where the state attorney general prohibited the council from “appointing or contracting” a person to the council-created position of “aide to the council.”
As for the council’s right to hire an attorney, Stimpson said those powers are specifically listed in the Zoghby Act, as well as other council powers.
“We don’t dispute the council’s right to legislate,” Stimpson said. “We think this is an overreach.”
Stimpson added that the issue has been interfering with running the city because both sides have been preoccupied with the question.
Aside from the legal issues, allowing the council to hire its own contractors could lead to duplication and the spending of unnecessary resources, Stimpson said. Allowing this would open the gates for more, he said.
“Every councilor wants a contract with someone to do something,” Stimpson said. “We don’t have the capacity to manage something like that.”
Stimpson also argued he is fighting to help preserve the power of the mayor’s office in order to be a “good steward” of the office.
Regarding the suit, Stimpson said time is a less important factor than getting it right and permanently settling the issue.
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