When a new Mobile City Council is installed in November, at least three familiar faces will be gone as John Williams, Bess Rich and Fred Richardson will no longer be on the dais.
All three longtime members of the body have declared this their last council term. Williams and Rich have decided not to seek reelection and Richardson decided instead to seek the city’s top executive post by running for mayor.
Despite a term of successes, disagreements and a split over who should serve as the body’s president, Williams said this council should go down as one of the best in the city’s history.
“The fact is the results speak for themselves,” he said. “Never have we been in this financial situation, never have we restored infrastructure at this rate, never has the city had the safety record that it does, never has the city ever achieved ISO-1 in the fire department. Parks are being rebuilt and restored. It’s a great time in Mobile, Alabama.”
Williams was selected to finish the unexpired term of Ben Brooks, who left to become a state senator, and he has now been on the council for almost 15 years. During that time, he said, he believes every member of the council has been honest and has truly done what they believe is in the best interest of their constituents.
“We have different viewpoints and maybe different opinions of the truth, but nobody, I don’t think, on the council out and out lies about what they’ve done or what they think,” he said. “It has been a solid, honest body, trying to do their best to represent their constituents.”
As far as what he wants to see from a future council, Williams said he would like future representatives to continue and maintain the city’s capital improvement program (CIP).
Somewhat controversial at the time it was approved, the city’s CIP began with a sales tax increase equal to 1 cent on items purchased within the city limits. The increase brings in more than $30 million per year, and of that, $21 million is split between the seven council districts and used for capital infrastructure improvements. The program provides $3 million per year per district for those improvements.
“It is critical to the success of the city overall, the proper management of that penny that everyone couldn’t quite figure out in its first five years of its life,” Williams said. “If we can do that then it opens up everything.”
Proper infrastructure leads to better economic development and a better quality of life, he said, because it means the city is successful.
“People want to live there, they want to do business there,” he said. “Let’s continue to light the place up, stripe the streets and make our parks a better place, just a better-looking place.”
Other than the CIP, Williams said the growth of the city would be the most important issue facing the council. In his mind, that growth would come through annexation.
“Regardless of the administration, John Williams has supported annexation every time without a blink and the reason is because if you do not then people will take advantage of the services of the city and never pay for them,” he said. “They’ll say we shop in the city, we shop here, we shop there. Well, sort of. You pay half tax and if you can get away with it you shop at the Walmart that’s right outside our city limits.”
The council voted down an annexation attempt in 2019 that would have allowed roughly 13,000 residents of West Mobile to decide whether to join the city. The bid lost with four of the seven votes in favor because a supermajority is required to approve anything except the annual budget or the confirmation of municipal judges.
While he recognized annexation as a major issue, Williams didn’t rule out an annexation vote while councilors are lame-duck representatives. The political motivations some felt in 2019 might change after the election, he said.
“There’s not a single issue larger than annexation and it can be accomplished before this council and this administration ends this term,” Williams said.
Despite the loss on the last annexation vote, Williams said he would not be in favor of doing away with the supermajority rule.
Williams is putting his support for his replacement behind Ben Reynolds. Fred Rettig is also running for the seat. As for mayor, Williams said he supports Stimpson’s reelection.
Like Williams, Rich was selected to fill the unexpired term of Connie Hudson in District 6. Rich had previously been the district’s representative before, serving seven years on the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System Board of Commissioners. In all, Rich’s time as a councilor and on the water board represents 26 years of public service in Mobile.
In remarks on her retirement at a recent City Council meeting, Rich said she hoped a future council wouldn’t be a “rubber stamp” board, as she felt the job required being a check on the administration, regardless of who the mayor happens to be. In an interview with Lagniappe, she didn’t back off that comment, but said she didn’t want to interfere with how a councilor conducts his or her office.
Like she always has, Rich said the needs of the city’s neighborhoods are among the top issues facing the council now and in the future.
“We are shrinking in population because people are living in areas that fit their needs and price range,” she said. “We need to make sure neighborhoods are sustainable. Our city is only as strong as our neighborhoods.”
While Rich did not openly endorse a candidate to take her place, she did say she’d prefer to support someone who has worked on the neighborhood level. The District 6 race has three candidates: Josh Woods, Daryl Pendleton and Scott Jones.
Like Williams, Rich is a “big proponent” of annexation and voted to approve the referendum in 2019. However, she said she was disappointed by the way the administration presented the information to try to sell it to councilors. Rich said she had asked for a breakdown of the costs associated with annexation in terms of garbage, trash and other services, but never received the information.
“It kind of surprised me we were never given that information because it was available,” she said.
Rich said she supported the 2019 annexation push because it allowed residents to vote and maintained the racial balance of the city.
Rich, like Williams, said she is hopeful there’s another chance to approve an annexation referendum.
“When you’re seeing a number of citizens asking to join the city, it’s flattering,” she said. “I’ve never seen this much desire to join the city. It means we’re doing things right.”
Rich did not endorse a candidate in the mayor’s race between Stimpson, Richardson and municipal Judge Karlos Finley. However, she did call Stimpson’s and the late Paul Wesch’s handling of the city’s finances “genius.” However, she accused Stimpson of having a blind spot when it came to neighborhood needs, especially in her district.
Like his other two colleagues, Richardson was also selected to fill an unexpired term on council in 1997. Unlike his colleagues, he hopes he has a political future past 2021 as he is seeking election as the mayor.
Seeking a new office does mean he can’t seek reelection to District 1. The longtime councilor said it would be important for new councilors to “stay in their lane.”
“They need to get familiar with the Zoghby Act,” Richardson said. “It spells out the responsibilities of the council and the mayor.”
Richardson said he hopes the council and mayor will have better communication in the coming years. He wants the council, mayor and department heads to all work together. He argued that isn’t happening now under Stimpson and the current council.
“Right now, we have a divided city,” he said. “As mayor, I will not fight the council. If the council says ‘no,’ then it’s ‘no.’”
Stimpson sued current councilors in 2018 over a push to rehire a media specialist he fired. The suit sought to answer which branch of the government could hire and fire city employees. The case was settled without a true resolution.
Part of the communication issue, Richardson said, stems from Stimpson’s practice of not fully facing the council during his comments at the meetings. When he was first elected, Stimpson spoke from a podium with his back to councilors. Later, he spoke from a podium attached to the table where the administrative staff sits. In this configuration, he has his side to the council. Richardson called it disrespectful.
“He’s not looking at us,” he said. “Council rules say you have to address [us] and address the chair. We don’t have mayor meetings; we have council meetings.”
As mayor, Richardson said he would hire a liaison to help with the flow of communication between councilors and his office.
“All of us working together is how the city can be best,” he said.
As for endorsements of District 1 candidates, Richardson said he’d leave the choice between Cory Penn, Tim Hollis, Herman Thomas and Tony-Toni Wright up to the voters.
“I think the community ought to make the decision,” he said.
Welcoming new members
Reggie Copeland, former council president, knows what it’s like to welcome new colleagues to the board that conducts the city’s business. Copeland was a member of the city’s first council after Mobile moved in that direction from the commission form of government in the mid-1980s.
With all the members fresh to the new form of government, Copeland said they attended seminars to help learn the rules and really figure out how the city would operate.
To acclimate new members, Copeland suggested the mayor take councilors out to breakfast or lunch and inform them of a list of priorities his office was eyeing for the coming term.
“You want to be sure everybody is on the same page,” Copeland said.
A good way for council leadership to allow new members to acclimate to the job is to allow them to suggest possible committee assignments. As a council, Copeland said, all of the sports-related business came across his desk.
Another big tip, Copeland said, is to try to work together. Members won’t always agree, but it’s important to seek common ground for the greater good of the city.
“We would discuss things we wanted to do,” Copeland said. “We worked together as a team.”
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