Former Mayor Sam Jones may have all the qualifications necessary to be an appointed commissioner on the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, but a majority of the Mobile City Council denied him that opportunity for the second time in a month May 27, citing communication problems with the previous administration, financial mismanagement and the divisive nature of his failed mayoral campaign last year.
The vote came after more than two hours of comments from both the council and the general public, which represented a balance of both sides of the argument. Council President Gina Gregory had to strike the gavel on several occasions as the council chambers alternately echoed with scorn and applause. At one point, she demanded that Bible-toting citizen Donald Johnson leave the room for being disruptive.
Earlier, Johnson read a passage from the book of Matthew stating “every city or household divided against itself will not stand” and warned the city “can no longer continue to fight the Civil War.”
For his part Councilman Fred Richardson, who nominated Jones on both occasions, said today’s vote and an identical one on May 6 represented “two Mobiles” and stripped him of both his right and his authority to nominate whoever he wanted.
“We’ve never had no one to mess with nobody else’s appointment. For 29 years we’ve been able to go down this road, until we got to Fred Richardson,” he said, citing the Zoghby Act and referring to himself in the third-person. “All Fred Richardson is saying is ‘One Mobile.’ I want to be treated like every other council member. Let District 1 alone. It’s my call. That person is going to represent my office. That person is going to represent my district. And whenever they bring their appointment to tee up against me I’ll support it. I don’t care if they have a blind dog, if you want to bring him down here and put him on I’m voting for him.”
Richardson also said the arguments about the timing of his nomination and the Jones’ financial performance were invalid. He said there were “historical issues” at play, where “people of color are called upon to go up, over and beyond what is normally required of all others.”
Richardson then summarized Jones’ lengthy qualifications, rationalizing that while Jones was no “Superman,” even if he performed the same miracles as Jesus it still “wouldn’t be enough for those who despise him.”
“One Mobile is not what you say, it’s what you do,” Richardson said, before finishing his remarks with the lyrics to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Councilman C.J. Small and Levon Manzie had Richardson’s back, with Small saying “no” votes would “erode the historic harmony” and “confirm the actions responsible for the council’s stalemate and divisions that cut to the core of the city.”
Jones’ denial earlier in the month resulted in some political payback from the trio that endorsed him, whereby on March 13 they blocked less consequential appointments to other boards and the expense of discretionary funds for a neighborhood project. The latter action caused Mayor Sandy Stimpson and his entire administration to walk out of the March 13 council meeting, which he later complained was a “charade that was inhibiting city business.”
Councilman John Williams, who hadn’t publicly elaborated on his opposition of the appointment before today, explained that he was torn between the recognition of Jones’ service and qualifications and his performance in the final years of his tenure.
“I think Sam fell short of where he could have been as Mayor,” Williams explained to the chagrin of some in the audience. “I believe it was time for a new direction, a time of bringing our city together because we talk about it now but it really never came to be what I thought it could have been. The city and MAWSS needs a more business-(like) approach to accomplish what it must accomplish. I know that Mayor Jones will continue to serve our city but at this time I do not believe it should be on the MAWSS board.”
Among those to witness the meeting were former city councilwoman Irmatean Watson and Jones’ former Chief of Staff, Al Stokes, both of whom supported the nomination.
Stokes said afterward that the denial was “kind of insulting” and the only thing the council should consider was the right of a council person to make the nomination and the qualifications of the nominee.
“I am frightened by what I see and I think our city is in crisis,” Stokes said.
Richardson would not say if he would attempt to nominate Jones a third time, while Small and Manzie were not immediately available to discuss whether they would employ a retaliatory strategy going forward to block other city business. Gregory said she hoped that wouldn’t be the case.
“It is regrettable our city has had to endure such a divide on a proposal that has already failed once and drug a former mayor’s name through the mud,” she said. “I wish I could say that this division had settled and it would just go away. But I’m afraid we’re facing more blocked votes, probably on appointments, but I don’t think any of the blocked appointments will grow to blocking important city business. We all know that we have to move forward and get things passed and do city business. With that, I hope the council continues to seek the right answers, not fix blame, own up to the responsibility of our actions and stop the divisiveness in this city and let’s move forward.”
In other business, the council denied an appeal by residents of the Ridgefield subdivision to block a plan by the Islamic Society of Mobile to construct a new mosque and school on 1.6 acres of property on East Drive off Old Shell Road. The Mobile Planning Commission approved the plans without public participation.
Councilwoman Bess Rich said she was intimidated by legal advice she received suggesting that if she interfered with the plans, the Justice Department would sue her for infringing on religious liberties. At the meeting, Rich ignored assistant City Attorney Flo Kessler’s advice to recuse herself from the vote, because she is a property owner in the neighborhood and a member of the property owners association by virtue of her deed. Rich was the only councilperson supportive of the appeal.
The Islamic Society, which will be granted a certificate of occupancy to demolish its existing buildings to construct a new facility, has pledged to meet with the neighborhood association to address lingering concerns about traffic, parking and drainage on the site.