The Mobile City Council, on Tuesday, voted to give police authority to enforce Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s “stay-at-home” and curfew orders.
The council approved three items on the agenda at its regular meeting and the last in-person gathering during the COVID-19 crisis. One ordinance to adopt the statewide stay-at-home order, one to adopt the city’s similar order and a nightly “safety curfew” from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., as well as another to empower police to enforce them through citations.
Under the curfew there are a number of exceptions including: public safety workers, health care workers, utilities workers, telecommunications workers, internet company employees and contractors, government employees and their contractors, credentialed media, those traveling home or to the city from outside it, and those experiencing homelessness.
The city, as well as the state, has implemented a stay-at-home order until April 30, which is a bit more relaxed than the curfew and allows residents to go to essential jobs, meet in groups of 10 or fewer and perform essential activities, like pick up takeout, shop for groceries and exercise.
While Stimpson announced the curfew and stay-at-home orders on Friday, April 3 and it took effect at 10 p.m. April 4, police had not been given proper authority to write tickets for those not following them until after the council’s unanimous vote.
The only real issue among councilors with the ordinance was with the fine amounts for those caught breaking curfew. Councilman Joel Daves told administration officials he thought the suggested $50 fine for a first offense and $100 fine for a second offense was low.
“It’s not a really big deal,” Daves said. “I’m just wondering.”
City attorney Ricardo Woods said the administration considered steeper fines and has an amendment ready that would set the penalties at $100 for a first offense and $200 for a second.
Woods called the decision a “balancing act” between making the penalties serious enough to force residents to take the orders seriously, but not causing a financial burden.
“There’s a balance and that’s totally up to the council,” Woods said. “It’s a balancing act between how serious do we want people to take it and not be too punitive.”
Councilman Fred Richardson said he’s not concerned about the “city making money,” but rather with “compliance.” The District 1 councilman added that he has no issue with either fine schedule.
“We are 100 percent focused on compliance,” Woods said. “This is not a revenue generator.”
At the meeting, however, Richardson asked if a first offense could be a warning, before the council voted on the stiffest penalties available.
When asked by Councilwoman Gina Gregory how often he thought police would write tickets for breaking curfew, Woods said officers would rarely do so if those breaking the order complied.
“Ninety percent of the time they can move on,” he said. “If they don’t comply, then it becomes an issue. We hope we don’t have to write any tickets.”
In some cases, Woods said officers could arrest those continuing to break curfew or those who refuse to comply.
The council hopes to meet completely virtually next week, through the teleconferencing application known as Zoom. If Tuesday’s apparent trial run was any indication, the body has some issues to work out.
Daves asked for patience from those in attendance and watching the livestream, while the city worked out technical issues with the application and the new Wi-Fi installed in the building.
“It’s going to look clunky for a while until it gets worked out,” he said. “I ask everyone to give us breathing room while we work out the kinks.”
Both the pre-conference meeting and the regular meeting were delayed briefly at points due to technical issues. At one point the new Wi-Fi went out and the in-person group couldn’t connect with Councilwoman Bess Rich and Council President Levon Manzie, who were teleconferencing in.
In another instance, neither Rich nor Manzie could hear the speakers at the meeting.
In addition to technical glitches, the council has another issue with holding virtual meetings. The order from Gov. Kay Ivey allowing for local governments to meet remotely and have members outside of an in-person quorum vote only allows for the modified rules when the local government is discussing issues related to either COVID-19, or the essential operations of government.
Councilman John Williams scrutinized this heavily at the pre-conference meeting and voted against the approval of the agenda, but lost 6-1.
Williams relented and decided not to withhold unanimous consent on items he didn’t deem essential that were on the agenda for the first time, but planned to ask department heads going forward to send to him and other councilors a description of why an item is essential.
When asked by Williams, Woods said the administration deems anything dealing with public works, public safety and operational issues to be essential and eligible for a virtual vote.
“Isn’t that everything we do?” Williams asked. “We can be a little bit liberal, but it’s not everything. The governor made it clear it’s not everything.”
Woods said the ceremonial renaming of streets and some infrastructure items would not fall under the essential banner, for example.
After the other councilors agreed with both Woods and council attorney Christopher Arledge that the items under the “essential” header could all be considered that, Williams criticized his colleagues.
“I don’t know why you all got elected,” he said. “We might as well have a bunch of lawyers up here. I just want us to do what is right. I’ve got nothing to gain from this.”
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