By a 5-2 Tuesday morning, the Mobile City Council voted to approve the contract of new council attorney Wanda Cochran. Cochran will be paid $150 per hour, the same rate as former council attorney Jim Rossler.
Councilman Joel Daves and Councilwoman Gina Gregory dissented. Councilman John Williams, who was chairman of an ad-hoc committee tasked with discussing the contract Monday, voted in favor of it, but shared his concerns with colleagues.All three had concerns over how Cochran’s initial hiring was handled. Rossler was initially let go at an organizational meeting earlier this month. At the time, Daves and Gregory had concerns he was fired after giving an unpopular opinion on how many votes it would take to approve a new president of the council.
Monday, Daves and Gregory said they had concerns over the way Rossler’s firing was handled.
“First of all, my opposition has nothing to do with Mrs. Cochran’s qualifications … ” Daves said. “Mr. Rossler has done an excellent job for us over the last 17 years … There was no reason to have replaced him.”
Gregory’s criticism was a bit stronger. She said Rossler was blindsided by the firing and should’ve at least been made aware of the situation.
“He was a friend and supporter to us all,” she said of Rossler. “He deserved better than what he got.”
Williams said he was “appalled” by how Rossler was treated by a majority of his colleagues and the “public embarrassment” it caused for him. Williams added the issue of hiring Cochran has already been decided and the contract only puts in place guidelines for her work.
“That’s behind us,” he said. “It’s time to move forward in a way we should have from the beginning.”
Councilman C.J. Small defended the treatment of Rossler by arguing that councilors could’ve met “behind closed doors” to discuss not only the officer vote, but the decision regarding Rossler.
However, this traditional closed door meeting would’ve been illegal if held without prior notice, according to the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
“Under the OMA, newly elected or appointed voting members do count toward the majority number required to constitute a ‘meeting,’” the 2005 law states.
The only exceptions to this rule are for prearranged meetings required by law and prearranged meetings to discuss spending money. Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason said she doesn’t believe either of those scenarios apply to a council’s organizational meeting.
If all seven members met behind closed doors, like councilors have said happened four years ago, and the public wasn’t given notice, the meeting would be illegal, Mason said.
The law does allow for executive sessions to be held in similar situations, but an executive session must be noticed and publically convened first, Mason said.
Four years ago, the council held a closed meeting to discuss voting for officers and hiring an attorney. In that meeting, Gregory was chosen as president in a 4-3 vote. The official vote at the public organizational meeting in 2013 was unanimously in favor of Gregory.
This year’s vote for council president was held in public and resulted in a 4-3 vote in favor of Councilman Fred Richardson over Gregory. Rossler and some councilors said the official vote for president requires five votes, or a supermajority. Mary Zoghby, a co-author of the law establishing Mobile’s mayor-council form of government agrees that the vote should take a supermajority.