Since she announced her intention to not seek a new term on the Mobile City Council, outgoing Councilwoman Bess Rich has been concerned the body would become a “rubber stamp” for Mayor Sandy Stimpson, or his future successors.
That concern and others lingered in some final comments she made to Lagniappe ahead of her last week in municipal government.
Whether it’s approving a budget, appointing citizens to boards, or legislating, Rich believes the council should maintain its own voice and remain a check on the administration.
“Moving forward, it is imperative the Council maintain their autonomy,” she wrote in a statement to Lagniappe. “The separation of power is essential to good governance. “A Councilmember’s vote should be cast on its merits, after carefully studying both sides of the issue. Securing ‘trade offs’ for a vote is not in the best interest of the city.”
Rich will leave office on Nov. 1, along with Councilman Fred Richardson and Councilman John Williams. Rich will be replaced by Scott Jones, whom she endorsed. Williams will be replaced by Ben Reynolds, whom he endorsed and Richardson will be replaced by Cory Penn, who defeated Richardson’s preferred successor, former Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Herman Thomas.
Rich attempted to change the types of taxes collected in the city. Specifically, she wanted to move away from a sales tax model and move toward a property tax model. An ad-hoc committee of residents met to discuss the issue in 2018 and came up with a report highlighting the benefits of moving toward a higher property, lower sales tax, but no action was ever taken.
Current law allows for the majority of the city’s tax revenue to come through sales tax. Rich believes the current rate of 10 percent — 5 percent of which comes directly to the city — hampers development.
“Taxing food and medication seems wrong,” she wrote. “Our property taxes are extremely low and other revenue sources could be offered as a substitute to sales taxes. I do hope the Mayor and Council address this issue to ensure our revenue stream is both sustainable and fair.”
Rich also wants the future council and administration to focus on why the city continues to lose population.
“This loss will presumably continue even if annexation is successful,” she wrote. “This should be a top priority of this administration and the council.”
In his 25 years on council, Richardson had the opportunity to attend more than 1,200 meetings. The last one was Tuesday, Oct. 26. In comments to Lagniappe, Richardson said he’s not happy to be leaving, but that it’s “time to go.”
“I hope the fight for the people of District 1 continues,” he said in a phone interview. “My fight has been for the neighborhoods, and I hope it will continue.”
In those two and a half decades, Richardson said he has seen progress in his district and in the city as a whole and is proud of it.
“We’ve made major progress during my time on council,” he said. “I’m proud to say I played a role in it.”
In his time on the council, Richardson will probably be best known for the creation of the MoonPie Over Mobile event, which takes place downtown every New Year’s Eve. The event always features a musical act, fireworks display and culminates in the dropping of a giant electronic MoonPie from the top of the Trustmark Building on Royal Street.
But the outgoing District 1 councilman also takes pride in and credit for the city’s capital improvement program (CIP), which takes a portion of the revenue from a roughly 20 percent sales tax hike and distributes it evenly among the districts, to the tune of $3 million per district per year.
Richardson has always professed a lack of secure city funding for capital projects in his district until the CIP came to fruition.
“Prior to the CIP, not one nickel was given to District 1,” he said. “It has transformed neighborhoods, and it was my idea to do that.”
Richardson, who was a distant runner up to Stimpson in August’s mayoral race, also took a parting shot at the victorious incumbents oft stated campaign slogan.
“We’ve had those voices for ‘One Mobile,’” Richardson said. “What are you going to do to make ‘One Mobile’ happen.”
Richardson said he introduced an ordinance on replacing the word “race” with “ethnicity” as a means of identity from city forms, but the administration and other councilors helped to defeat it.
“The champions of ‘One Mobile’ were silent,” he said.
One of the most important acts of the City Council while Williams was at the helm of the District 4 seat was to create and, with the help of the administration, develop the CIP.
“It’s critical that we not alter the CIP as it’s currently designed,” he said. “We must maintain the CIP.”
Despite seeing many items he was in favor of fail due to lack of a fifth vote, Williams said he wants the new council to leave the supermajority rule in place. As it stands right now, the council must have a supermajority, or five of seven votes, to pass everything, except for the annual budget,the hiring of a council attorney or the appointment of judges.
“It demands a complete, holistic approach to whatever we do in Mobile,” Williams said of the supermajority. “It slows things down. It makes things certain, or as certain as they can be.”
Not being a member of the council after Monday, Williams said he’ll miss “knowing” (what is happening in the city), although he joked that councilors don’t know as much as the public probably thinks they do.
Williams said he won’t miss the political rhetoric that comes with the position.
The outgoing councilman doesn’t have any immediate plans after stepping off of council. He wants to relax “for a little bit” and work on his golf game.
“I’m going to get my handicap down to three or four,” Williams said. “I’m not going to call Mr. Reynolds. I’m not going to be a helicopter former councilman.”
Williams also plans to begin training to become a Catholic Deacon.
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