Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran’s idea to remove the supermajority rule from the Mobile City Council is not new. A group of residents attempted to change it more than 20 years ago, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Joe Ringhoffer, who led the effort that began in 1999, believes the rule gives one or two councilors too much power. He said it defeats the purpose of one person, one vote and would still prefer it to be relegated to the dustbin of history.
“It’s unconstitutional,” he said. “One person on the council should have a one-seventh vote. Three of the seven should not have veto power over everything.”
A five-vote supermajority is required to pass almost everything that comes before the council, with the exception of the budget and the hiring of a council attorney. In November, the requirement stalled efforts to allow 13,000 West Mobile residents to participate in an annexation referendum. The 4-3 vote in favor of the referendum fell along racial lines and failed due to a lack of a fifth vote.
Cochran, who is spearheading a nonprofit group called Grow Mobile Now, said in a press conference on March 11 annexation is the most effective way to ensure the viability of the city. From 1970 to 2017, the city has only grown 1.08 percent, Cochran argued. In the meantime, cities like Fairhope, Daphne and Huntsville have seen an explosion in residents.
“Growth for the city means about $5 million to $10 million in public safety grants,” Cochran said. “I know affordable housing is a concern right now, annexation would increase the opportunity for grants from the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development].”
Cochran hopes the group can gather enough signatures to force the Mobile City Council to call for a referendum to allow residents to vote on whether or not to change the form of government to remove the supermajority rule.
The Zoghby Act — the state law setting up Mobile’s current form of government — allows for the referendum with signatures from only 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last municipal election. Grow Mobile Now needs about 5,000 signatures to require the council to call for the referendum, Cochran said.
Ringhoffer’s group thought it had enough signatures to proceed with a referendum, but found out in Mobile County Circuit Court many would be thrown out. The argument Circuit Court Judge Herman Thomas made at the time was the signatures had to be from registered voters. The ruling resulted in the dismissing of enough names that the petition didn’t have enough to be moved forward, Ringhoffer said. The group’s attempt to argue the case to the Alabama Supreme Court was foiled when it was determined Ringhoffer didn’t have standing, he said.
Although he argued a ruling similar to the one in the previous attempt could be challenged in court, Cochran said he wanted to avoid the issue altogether by aiming for 20,000 signatures on the petition.
Ringhoffer believes Cochran will be more successful than his group because the sheriff is well known and respected in the city and county.
“I think that he can — like today — I would have never gotten a press conference,” Ringhoffer said. “I don’t think they’ll try to marginalize him.”
In a joint statement shortly after Cochran’s initial announcement, State Sen. Vivian Figures, as well as State Reps. Sam Jones, Napoleon Bracy, Barbara Drummond and Adline Clarke, called the effort an attempt to “take away the voice of minorities” in Mobile’s city government.
“We are deeply troubled that such an effort has been proposed,” the statement read. “We should be bringing our community together, not separating it along racial lines. Members of this legislative body — the Alabama Legislature — developed a law to ensure minority participation in Mobile’s city government. As current members of the Legislature, we will do all that we can to circumvent any effort to take away our progress and the voice of the Mobile community.”
The lawmakers also called for city leaders, like Mayor Sandy Stimpson and each of the seven councilors, as well as business leaders, to “thwart any effort to divide” the city.
In a joint statement, Council President Levon Manzie, as well as Councilors Fred Richardson and C.J. Small called Cochran’s proposal a “scheme” and an “all-out assault” on citizens’ rights to have their voices heard.
“We ask [Mayor] Stimpson and our colleagues, Councilwomen Bess Rich and Gina Gregory along with Councilmen Joel Daves and John Williams, to join us in opposing and immediately repudiating this brazen political ploy meant to disenfranchise our citizens and divide our city,” the statement read. “By standing together today, we will send the message that we all believe that all our citizens matter and can prevent yet another divisive episode driven by a few outsiders from stifling our hard-earned progress and growth. Now is the time to show One Mobile is more than a slogan.”
When asked about the supermajority rule, Williams called it a “solid piece of legislation.”
“It says you have to have a solid representation of your city,” he said. “This is a good law that has many repercussions. It ensures that whatever we do, a minority of the council will be heard.”
Rich also said she favors the supermajority because it “forces consensus,” but she added she didn’t want to get in the way of the voters either.
While Stimpson said he is in no way behind Cochran’s move, he stopped well short of admonishing it. Instead, he told a gaggle of reporters on March 12 he would “respect the will of the citizens” when it comes to the supermajority rule.
“I would ask to convene a meeting of all interested parties on March 24,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for all to come together. We can discuss what’s best for all.”
In a statement, Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee called the plan “outrageous” and said it would have the impact of disenfranchising voters in the city.
“It is the responsibility of the City Council to represent the needs and concerns of their constituents and that is exactly what they have done,” the statement read. “The citizens of Mobile made clear they are opposed to the city taking on new responsibilities when we have not yet met the challenges we already face. We condemn this clearly discriminatory and divisive effort in the strongest of terms.”
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