Under the possible threat of legal action, members of the Mobile City Council approved, with a 6-1 vote, a professional services contract to rehire Marion Steinfels as communications specialist.
The legal threat came from city attorney Ricardo Woods, who told councilors an affirmative vote for the contract in question would violate a section of the Zoghby Act and could put them at risk of impeachment.
At issue, Woods said, is the council’s public discussion of bringing Steinfels back following her dismissal by Stimpson. Woods said under the Zoghby Act, councilors were not authorized to publicly discuss rehiring someone fired by the mayor.
Councilwoman Bess Rich told Woods councilors should have been warned about the legal issues before speaking about Steinfels at the meeting following her firing.
“That’s right, but I’m not your lawyer,” Woods told her.
He said approving the contract would also be illegal. Further, Woods argued the council is barred from entering into a contract without Stimpson’s approval.
Council attorney Wanda Cochran told councilors she disagreed, but asked Woods to submit his opinion in writing and back up his argument with the proper case law examples.
“I think I know where you’re going and I think I disagree,” she said.
Instead, she argued the council is legally allowed to enter into such contracts, where Steinfels would not be considered an employee.
Following the meeting, city spokesman George Talbot told reporters Stimpson’s office would review the resolution and make a determination on whether the mayor would move to veto the item. The council needs five votes to override a veto. The resolution received six affirmative votes, with only Councilman Joel Daves voting against it.
Some councilors were willing to take the issue to court despite the warnings. Councilman John Williams said while he agrees with many sections in the law establishing the city’s current form of government, he called the Zoghby Act “ancient” and wants portions of it changed.
Councilman Fred Richardson was more straightforward about the legal threats. He said a 2016 organizational chart provided by the mayor put Steinfels’ job under the council. Thus, the mayor’s office doesn’t have a legitimate claim the Zoghby Act was violated, Richardson argued.
“The organizational chart says the person should report to the council,” he said. “I say ‘let’s go to court.’ I will be glad to testify.”
Like he did before the 2017 municipal elections, Councilman C.J. Small accused Stimpson of breaking the law under the Zoghby Act with appointments to his executive staff. Small again said the staff is supposed to reflect the community and Stimpson’s does not.
Also at issue for Stimpson was a growing contention between the two branches of municipal government. He argued Steinfels made it worse.
“There has been more contentiousness since she was hired … she was hired to beat the 10th floor,” he said, referencing the mayor’s office in Government Plaza.
Rich argued Steinfels helped unite the council on several issues and occassionally advised members to tone down their public rhetoric. She said there was not an attempt to “beat the 10th floor.”
“If that was the sense … it was a surprise to me,” Rich said. “That was not what this council wanted from its communications specialist.”
Stimpson repeatedly said he would be happy to find another solution to help with the council’s public communication. He didn’t immediately shy away when Councilwoman Gina Gregory asked if his office was willing to share a communications department.
Gregory, who worked in communications under former Mayor Mike Dow, said she couldn’t imagine doing work for both the council and the mayor’s office, especially on more controversial issues. Other councilors expressed a desire to keep the positions separate as well. Stimpson did not elaborate on his plans.
Following the affirmative vote on the issue, Woods asked for a roll call vote, but was ignored.
Public works raises
In other business, Stimpson’s office does not plan to implement 5 percent raises for public works employees the Mobile City Council added to the 2019 budget in September.
Instead, the administration will move forward with a roughly $800,000 incentive program it had pitched to councilors before the budget was approved, city spokeswoman Laura Byrne wrote in an email.
On Sept. 25, the council voted 6-0 to approve a series of cuts to the mayor’s Innovation Team, or I-Team, during the budget vote. One of those cuts, a $104,000 deduction, was added to the incentive pay already in the budget to create the raises.
Richardson, who notified residents of the mayor’s plans through a Facebook post, compared raises to public works employees to those given to firefighters and police officers last year. He said it’s “ridiculous” Stimpson would treat one group of employees so differently from another group. He called the incentive program “chicken change.”
“It’s up to the mayor to state unequivocally what he’s doing,” Richardson said.
Council Vice President Levon Manzie said he is still hopeful the raises will be implemented.
“The vast majority of employees were in favor of raises,” he said. “The incentive program benefits some, but not all.”
Williams acknowledged Stimpson isn’t legally obligated to implement the raises, but added to start the incentive program he’d need council approval.
“The fact is the mayor cannot spend money we don’t allocate,” he said. “So, there’s no money for incentives unless he comes back to us.”
Williams said he’s awaiting the city’s response and hopes to work through some of the differences.
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