The Mobile City Council voted against allowing 13,000 residents of West Mobile a referendum on whether to join the city, following an expedited hearing at Tuesday’s Mobile City Council meeting.
The vote fell along racial lines with the four white councilors voting in favor and the three black councilors voting against the proposal that would allow 13,000 residents of West Mobile to decide on annexation. Despite a simple majority of councilors allowing the vote, the item failed due to a lack of a supermajority of five votes, which is required by the state law that sets up Mobile’s form of government.
Before making the vote, the council heard from former mayors Mike Dow and Sam Jones, who were for and against annexation, respectively, as well as three residents on each side of the issue.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said if annexation fails Mobile will suffer the same fate of other cities that have become islands and aren’t able to grow. He added it was a vote for public safety due to the city’s eligibility for more federal police-related grants if the population moves back over 200,000.
“Members of the council have said they’ve voted along with the mayor on public safety,” Stimpson said. “Depending on how this vote goes, some of you won’t be able to say that.”
In voting “no,” Councilman Fred Richardson conflated the cost for services inside the entire 70,000-population police jurisdiction with the cost associated with a small percentage of that population. Because of this conflation, Richardson argued the city couldn’t afford the additional population. The total net revenue increase by taking in the proposed areas would have been $2.2 million after the fifth year, according to estimates from the mayor’s office.
Councilors in favor of both rolling back the police jurisdiction and annexation have been fearful the two issues would be conflated.
The increased city funding brought in through annexation would give more money to other areas of the city, Councilman Joel Daves countered. He said opponents have not shown evidence to dispute Stimpson’s numbers.
Councilman C.J. Small brought up concerns over the timeline for this proposal, arguing the plan should have been brought to council before October. Small said a “yes” vote would stretch resources more thinly than they already are, referencing a long backlog of infrastructure projects in his district.
Small also argued the proposed annexation potentially bringing in more new white citizens than new black citizens was not a racial issue, but a middle class and poor issue.
“People I represent already feel like second- and third-class citizens to people out in West Mobile,” he said. “It’s not a black and white thing because I represent black people and I represent white people.”
Small also took issue with more than $60 million the city currently holds in reserve, as it is supposed to under state law, saying he would vote to allow the annexation referendum if a check for $20 million was written out to District 3 so he could address infrastructure issues.
Small and Council President Levon Manzie both also mentioned postcards that were mailed out to people in certain areas of the city that pushed annexation and urged citizens to call their councilor. They said the mailers had the result of causing a backlash and raised concerns about who was funding such efforts.
“They woke up a sleeping giant,” Manzie said.
In his decision to vote “no” on the proposal, Manzie said it came down to the wishes of the majority of the people he represents in District 2.
“I’ve listened to the concerns of the voters who reside in District 2,” he said. “I’m not here because of osmosis.”
Manzie saluted proponents of annexation and said he’s not against growth, but wants to aim to be a “greater city” and not just a “big city.”
Despite the setback, organizers of the annexation effort have not been deterred, Del Sawyer, chairman of the West Mobile Annexation Committee, said after the vote. The group has acknowledged there is some work to do to get more support on the council.
“We’re not finished,” he said. “It’s clear there are other steps we need to take.”
Sawyer said the group is not yet ready to discuss a push for incorporation.
The hearing was placed at the top of Tuesday’s council meeting to allow Manzie and Richardson to vote before having to catch a flight to San Antonio for a National League of Cities event.
The abbreviated hearing, which still took about two hours, allowed for only three speakers on each side of the issue to have five minutes. Former mayors Jones and Dow were granted a bit more time.
Jones argued he supports annexation in general but doesn’t think this effort was done the right way. He also argued that the areas annexed in 2007 haven’t changed and if they have, he offered to buy lunch to whomever could point it out.
Councilman John Williams, who represents the portion of Theodore taken in during that time, argued that the city has completely rebuilt a park since taking over.
“Where are we going?” Williams asked. “Is it Ruth’s Chris or Judy’s Place? It doesn’t matter to me.”
Referencing the councilors’ upcoming trip, Elliot Maisel, who spoke in favor of annexation, said if he is successful as chairman of the Mobile Airport Authority board, they won’t have to leave so early to make a flight.
Maisel said annexation would improve the city’s image and would be positive. Dow made a similar argument in his plea to the council to allow the vote.
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