The Mobile City Council will again delay a vote on the fiscal year 2020 budget to the end of October as it awaits a possible ruling on a portion of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s lawsuit against the council.
Councilors at the regular meeting, which began Tuesday morning, but dragged past 1 p.m., were split on whether to delay the vote, given that the city was already a week into the new fiscal year. The vote to table the budget adoption until Wednesday, Oct. 30 passed on a 4-3 vote, with Council Vice President Levon Manzie, Councilman C.J. Small, Councilman Fred Richardson and Councilwoman Bess Rich voting in the affirmative.
The vote was initially challenged by Councilman John Williams, who argued the decision to move the item from the current agenda required a supermajority of five votes. Williams, Councilman Joel Daves and Councilwoman Gina Gregory were all ready to vote on the budget Tuesday.
According to the state law that set up the city’s current form of government, known as the Zoghby Act, the council must secure a supermajority of votes to pass almost anything. The exceptions to this rule include hiring an attorney, appointing municipal judges and passing the budget.
Williams argued since they weren’t passing the budget, but only attempting to move it to another agenda, the exception doesn’t apply.
“This is about conducting business,” he said. “This is not about the budget itself.”
Council attorney Wanda Cochran said that since the delay involved the budget, the exemption should apply, meaning only four votes are needed.
During a pre-conference meeting, councilors debated the merits of the delay in passing the budget. Chief among the concerns of those interested in voting on it now was the uncertainty that an Oct. 18 hearing on a portion of the lawsuit dealing with mayor-appointed employees would result in a quick ruling.
“Just because you have a hearing scheduled doesn’t mean a judge will rule that day, or three months from now,” Daves said.
Richardson said he believes the judge is “on the ball” after granting the hearing requested by council attorneys regarding the amount of funding given for salaries to non-merit employees. Richardson said nobody on the council has the knowledge necessary to determine what the judge in the case is going to do. He seemed to question reality itself.
“We don’t know whether we’re sitting here or not … ,” he said. “We could wake up and find out this is nothing but a dream.”
Judge Michael Youngpeter has scheduled the hearing. He was the same judge who called for mediation in the case 10 months ago. That mediation, according to representatives on both sides, has not been successful.
In addition to giving Youngpeter time to rule on the lawsuit, Rich believes at least some of the budget amendments councilors have suggested would need to be scrutinized in another public hearing because they would be taking money from the city’s reserves and putting it into the operating or capital budgets.
Following the pre-conference meeting, Manzie remained tight-lipped about what budget amendments could look like. Funding for a fall music festival has been mentioned publicly, as well as $500,000 to support the proposed county soccer complex, but others remain a mystery, at least for now. Manzie suggested the public may find out more about them shortly.
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