As this paper is being sent to the printer, the Mobile City Council will vote on whether or not to confirm former Mayor Sam Jones as Fred Richardson’s appointment to the water board.
A couple of weeks ago, councilors John Williams, Joel Daves, Bess Rich and Gina Gregory all voted it down. This caused Fred Richardson to wear a “mourning suit,” launch into an epic rant, which included references to the Titanic and Malaysian Air Flight 370. Then Richardson, along with councilors Levon Manzie and C.J. Small blocked some other routine appointments and appropriations of the other councilors in retaliation.
The votes happened to fall along racial lines … unfortunately. So this has prompted the biggest racial discussion we have seen in quite some time, with the NAACP coming in and people on both “sides” arguing nastily on social media sites. Though this has most definitely been turned into a discussion about the level of melanin we have in our skin, the issue at the core of this had nothing to do with race.
Three of the four councilors who initially voted against Jones’ appointment had a tumultuous history with the former mayor and his administration. Not because he was black, but because he simply refused to provide them with documents they requested. We know the feeling around here. We did numerous stories about the closed-door policy the Jones administration had and how insane a process it was to obtain records that were clearly open to the public from their administration.
We ended up having to sue the city for the records we were after dealing with the Mobile Police Department’s Explorer program. We weren’t the only media in town with this problem. The Press-Register had similar problems getting public information on the police department’s moonlighting program. And so did other media outlets.
City councilors and other citizens complained they couldn’t get meetings with him either. If you weren’t on his staff, you didn’t have access to him.
This closed-door policy and lack of transparency had almost become a punchline around town, and the main reason why when Sandy Stimpson was elected he literally took the door down off the mayor’s office — as a symbol that those days were over.
I absolutely believe with every fiber of my being government should not exist without transparency. I don’t care if you are black or white, if you are not interested in clear you shouldn’t hold any office or be on ANY board. And Sam Jones demonstrated during his two terms he was not interested in being transparent.
Also, after a review of the city finances, the Stimpson administration announced there was a $4.3 million deficit and there were numerous transfers from the capital budget to cover operational costs. They also announced city employees would not be getting a raise Jones had promised while campaigning, leaving them obviously angry and frustrated. Employees weren’t the only people upset, citizens too were also angry and frustrated the city’s coffers had been so poorly managed.
Councilman Richardson took exception to this assessment, but it was spelled out pretty clearly by auditors. And judging by the crap condition of our infrastructure, there doesn’t seem to be gobs of money laying around here.
The new mayor’s office also recently informed the council there had been an ongoing internal investigation that someone in the Jones’ administration ordered employees in the IT department to wipe his computer clean before he left office. Two “whistleblowers” came forward to the new administration and informed them of this illegal request, which they complied with.
The Jones camp vehemently denied this, and they were able to determine it had in fact been “wiped,” but they weren’t able to determine what all had been lost, so they just shelved the issue.
But these were the lingering issues, coupled with just coming off a highly contentious mayoral campaign, that led the four councilors voting against Jones’ placement on the water board.
None of the aforementioned issues have anything to do with skin pigment. But they do now, because Fred Richardson has successfully made it about that. He says it’s not really about Jones, but that all councilors are just supposed to vote for each other’s appointees no matter what. “That’s just the way it has always been done.”
But I have to wonder if it was only precedent because no one has ever made such a purposefully antagonistic choice?
Councilman Richardson absolutely knew he could have chosen just about any other person in the city — black, white or purple (as he likes to say) and it wouldn’t have caused a sh*tstorm like this has. If he had, we would be working on finding ways to move the city forward right now instead of continuing to divide it. But he wanted controversy, and he got it. Bravo, councilman, bravo!
One “side” of this debate is going to “lose” or have to back down, if not today, eventually, or we aren’t going to get anything done. And that will be the real shame.
Whatever happens with this appointment, so be it. But if we are setting a new precedent that every time we disagree on something, we are just going to turn it into a racial issue, we are in real trouble.
It’s not about black or white. It’s about Mobile. It’s time to put the past behind us and move forward.
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