Members of the Mobile City Council voted Thursday to settle a nearly year-long legal battle with Mayor Sandy Stimpson, adopt a fiscal year 2020 budget and elect new council officers.
By a 5-0 vote, councilors approved the retaining of attorney Jim Atchison to finalize a settlement between the two sides of a lawsuit brought by Stimpson in December of last year.
Councilwoman Bess Rich was absent from the vote and Councilman Fred Richardson abstained, citing a legal opinion from council attorney Wanda Cochran calling into question the legitimacy of the special called meeting.
Richardson argued that the council’s bylaws prevent the body from voting on heldover items outside of a regular Tuesday meeting.
“There’s no reason we should not abide by the law,” Richardson said. “ … We have been notified we should not go any further.”
When asked for his opinion by Councilman Joel Daves, city attorney Ricardo Woods gave councilors the green light to vote on the items. Woods didn’t deny that the bylaws said the items should be held over longer, but cited Section 28 of the Zoghby Act — the state law setting up Mobile’s form of government — as giving permission to vote on the items at any called meeting, special or otherwise.
Woods also argued that since it is his opinion that the Zoghby Act requires five votes to holdover a budget that it should legally still be on the agenda. A vote on the budget was delayed two weeks ago by a four-vote majority on advice from Cochran. She argued at the time that anything involving the budget only required a simple majority. Woods said the simple majority of those present is required only for adopting a budget.
Richardson then called Woods a “conflicted attorney” because he and his firm, Burr & Forman, had worked for Stimpson on the lawsuit against the council and now he was advising the body. Richardson called the information from Woods “tainted.” Richardson accused Woods of breaking his attorney rules of ethics by advising the council.
“You should not be playing a dual role,” Richardson said. “You can’t be both. You can’t be Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. You have to choose, brother.”
Woods told councilors he had prepared written opinions addressed to Stimpson and Chief of Staff Paul Wesch. He said he had permission to share the information and the information was germane to city business. Because of this, he said he was free to share it in his capacity as city attorney.
Councilors voted, by 5-0 margins, to elect Councilman Levon Manzie as president of the council and Councilman C.J. Small as vice president. This ends a two-year stalemate over which member would be elected president, following a 2017 organizational meeting where Richardson received four votes for president and former president Councilwoman Gina Gregory received three.
Two legal opinions from two different council attorneys found that a supermajority of five votes was needed to elect a president. The Zoghby Act stipulates that any council action, aside from hiring an attorney and voting to adopt the budget require five votes. Confirming municipal judges also takes only a simple majority, but that’s not in the Zoghby Act, Woods said.
Despite this, Richardson has argued previously that the council is not conducting business at its one-time-per-term organizational meeting and only four votes are required. He’s also argued that previous councils elected a president on four votes. While councilors previously did choose a president through an illegal, closed-door straw poll, during the official meeting the president was officially elected with five or more votes.
Councilors also approved the budget without any amendments. Manzie told reporters after the meeting there’s a likelihood that a number of amendments could be added at a later date.
A resolution allowing Richardson and Rich to hire an attorney with city funds for the purpose of continuing the lawsuit fight died due to lack of a second.
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