In what was a seemingly perfect summary of a contentious day for the Mobile City Council, Councilwoman Gina Gregory recognized Mary Zoghby during her remarks at the body’s inauguration ceremony Monday night.
“If you have any questions, she’s who you need to ask,” Gregory said of the woman who co-wrote the 1985 law establishing the current form of city government, before turning and giving a thumbs-up to her colleagues.
What had been discussed in hushed tones for several weeks played out in dramatic fashion Monday when councilors became deadlocked between Gregory and Councilman Fred Richardson to serve as the body’s president. Richardson received four votes and Gregory received three. In a controversial move, council attorney Jim Rossler determined the president would need a supermajority — or five votes — to be elected.
“Since 1985 we’ve elected the president with four votes,” Richardson claimed. “Historically — for 32 years and I’ve been on council for 20 — we’ve never called for a supermajority before.”
Richardson said he was challenging the outcome because it was a “departure from tradition.”
“I just want this on the record,” he said.
Richardson said the rules were switched against him in this year’s vote.
“Since 1987 it took four votes,” he said. “ … They’re going to come back [now] and say it’s five votes. Something is wrong.”
The council decided to buck tradition and not hold a private meeting or executive session and conduct an informal “straw poll” before the official swearing-in ceremony. It is typically in this meeting where councilors have decided on leadership positions, and afterward would vote unanimously in a public meeting.
The council decided on its officers during the private meeting four years ago. At that time Gregory received four votes to Richardson’s three. The official vote that year, held after the swearing-in ceremony, was unanimously in favor of Gregory.
A meeting in which four or more members of the council are present typically has to be properly advertised.
However, a loophole allows members of the Mobile City Council to hold a private meeting without notice every four years because there are a few hours between when each new term begins and the previous terms expire. During that period, none of them are technically officeholders.
Councilman John Williams was one of two councilors who refused to participate in the private meeting this year. He said he didn’t think it was illegal to do so, but he knew that with the interest surrounding this year’s vote, legal questions would be raised.
“You and all the people in the city would be right in questioning it,” Williams said following the public vote. “So, rather than put us through that scrutiny, I just thought it was better not done. I didn’t want to leave it to some judge to say we broke the law, because if we break the law we’re all gone.”
Zoghby, an author of the Zoghby Act creating the city’s current form of government, said in a phone interview Monday afternoon that despite the way the council handled the vote in the past, five votes are needed for almost all council actions, with the exception of the budget.
She also believes the way the vote had been handled in previous years could have been challenged in court. As for moving forward, Zoghby said the councilors will just have to work something out.
Aside from presiding over council meetings, the council president is also first in the line of succession if the mayor cannot fulfill his or her term. However, the council president only serves out the mayor’s term if the mayor is unable to do so with less than a year remaining on the term. If there is more than a year remaining, a special election is held, city spokesman George Talbot said, with the council president serving as mayor in an interim capacity.
Councilman Levon Manzie nominated Richardson for president, while Councilman Joel Daves nominated Gregory to serve a second term as the body’s leader. Manzie, Richardson, Councilman C.J. Small and Councilwoman Bess Rich each voted in favor of Richardson as president. Gregory, Williams and Daves voted in favor of Gregory.
During her inauguration speech, Rich gave her reasons why she voted for Richardson over Gregory.
She said she admired his “passion” and gave him at least partial credit for the city’s popular capital improvement program. Rich also acknowledged Richardson was among the first city officials to advocate for a city school district.
“I think he would be a good leader,” she said.
During his speech Monday evening, Richardson told those in attendance he doesn’t think he’s divisive, but rather that he has his own vision for Mobile.
“I can’t lead from behind you,” he said. “I’m not following, I’m leading.”
Richardson also gave inspirational words during his time at the podium and highlighted some of the struggles he faced growing up as a person of color in the Jim Crow South.
“I couldn’t go to any of the high schools in Conecuh County,” he said. “I had to go to a training school in 1958. I couldn’t go to The University of Alabama.”
He told the crowd to never give up.
“There are no obstacles that can stop us from being who we want to be,” he said. “Those are just stumbling blocks.”
Although they were unable to decide on a president, the council did unanimously elect Councilman Levon Manzie as vice president. Since there currently is no president, Manzie will act as chairman of the board’s meetings for the time being.
Meanwhile, in a move some thought was retaliatory for advising the need for a supermajority vote, council attorney Jim Rossler was replaced by Wanda Cochran by a simple majority 4-2 vote after Manzie’s appointment. Williams abstained from voting, while Daves and Gregory dissented.
During the meeting Rossler said the vote to hire an attorney would only need four votes, or a simple majority.
In the earlier vote to retain Rossler, Richardson and Rich were “no” votes, while Williams, Daves and Gregory were “yes” votes. Manzie and Small abstained.
Williams said he was surprised by the move to replace Rossler.
“It’s unlike this council for me to be surprised,” he said. “I hope this isn’t a precursor to how [the rest of the term] will be, because it won’t work.”
It was Rossler who advised councilors the vote for president would take a supermajority. This led Gregory to question his firing.
“We don’t shop opinions because we don’t like one,” she said. “I’ve bragged about this council on how well we’ve jelled, but if this is the way we’re going to get started it’s not a very good way to get organized.”
Daves agreed with Gregory, saying the council shouldn’t dismiss someone based on an opinion they don’t like. He added that he always found Rossler to be impartial.
When asked if she agreed with Rossler’s opinion that five votes would be needed in order to elect a council president, Cochran said she would need more time to review the issue. As for being named council attorney, Cochran said it was “quite an honor.”
“I have some big shoes to fill,” she said. “Jim Rossler is an amazing attorney.”
It is unclear what will happen with the vote for president. Cochran has been tasked by a number of councilors with finding a legal way to move forward. Councilors themselves were confident they’d find consensus.
“This new City Council is once again faced with a challenge,” Williams said following Monday’s vote. “It is not unlike anything we’ve ever done. We have always been able to discuss things.
“We will discuss this,” he added. “There will be resolution and I look forward to that happening soon.”
In remarks made during Monday’s organizational meeting, Small indicated the council could get past this.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve bumped heads,” he said. “We overcame that and we’ll overcome this.”